Backstage Secrets with Mark Needham

This article shares insights from a Backstage Secrets workshop with legendary producer Mark Needham, and Ben O'Neill, covering Recording Techniques, Mixing Tips, and Music Industry Advice.

Seminar "Modern Sound Producer"

The first day of the Backstage Secrets seminar was a preface or warm-up before the full week (of work). In the beginning, there was a meeting with Mark, who has worked with many famous artists during the last 40 years of his career: Fleetwood Mac, Blondie, Elton John, Pink, My Chemical Romance and many more. It is also helpful to mention, Mark has worked with Imagine Dragons ("It's Time"), The Killers ("Mr. Brightside") & Chris Isaak ('Wicked Game') since the beginning of their careers, and collaborated on these tracks (listed above) that contributed to the past and current success of these three artists.

Mark started by discussing music related topics, such as: searching for new, talented artists, his attempts to sign artists to major labels, successful and disastrous projects, and working with hardware. Most of his discussions contained many useful pieces of advice.

The first part of his discussion was mainly devoted to the interaction between the producer and a band, and their future promotion. Most of the stories were about The Killers and Imagine Dragons.

For example, the song Mr. Brightside by The Killers was produced with a minimal amount of professional tools, however, it was compensated with a great deal of enthusiasm by the band. The song wasn't appealing to radio stations and major labels for a long time. There was a long list of companies who refused the (Killers) record. Nevertheless, Mark, his partners and the band were not going to change their sound, which produced the needed drive and message. In the end, they gave up on major labels and released the song on a smaller label (Lizard King in the UK). And after some time Mr. Brightside hit the charts big time (and was signed to a major label: Island Records).

A similar story happened with Imagine Dragons, who wasn't signed to a major label for about 3 years after the record was done. But when the right record label was found (Interscope Records), the band became very popular within 3 months, charting on over 20 different music charts simultaneously.

Music Industry Musings

  • Search for young and talented musicians, and work with them. Emphasize their individuality and distinguishing features.

  • Unknown artists are more loyal to your musical experiments (that you must do) with sound, arrangement and so on.

  • Any computer (even an inexpensive one) is ok to begin working with. Endless practice and strong will are more important than the quality of your hardware.

  • Don't be afraid to promote and defend your ideas. Perhaps, they'll play a major role to attract the audience's attention to the final material.

  • Pay very close attention to any and all legal issues that arise during your work with any artist(s), and take care of any disputes immediately. Your current and future earnings in particular may depend on your actions from a legal standpoint. For example, if the music becomes popular; there is a chance that your contribution to the sound will not be recognized. Only legal documentation will make sure you are compensated accurately for your work. Please note, a contract is a standard approach to safeguard your (present & future) earnings.

On "Software vs. Hardware" and "Analog vs. Digital"

Mark had been using a console, tape, hardware equalizers and compressors, etc. for about 30 years. However in 2003, he switched to a digital environment, and now he works fully "in-the-box" (with only a few exceptions).

Here are some key points that contributed to the decision (to go digital):

- A computer lets you be a lot more flexible and quick. For example, usually Mark can run up to 15 projects a day, and 3-4 of them will be fully completed by the end of the day. With this level of flexibility, in total, he can complete up to 400-500 songs a year! It is impossible to work on this many projects in a day, in an analog environment. To switch between projects in the digital world, you have "Save" and "Open" commands to speed the process along, whereas analog makes you re-adjust the whole setup, that can take hours. Moreover, it's very hard to repeat the exact settings from a previous session, this process is easier in a digital environment.

- There are a limited amount of tracks in analog, there are an unlimited amount of tracks in digital. Keep in mind the good and bad implications of this.

- Mistakes are much more expensive in analog.

- Any additional edits, in arrangement or anything else, are done easily in-the-box, even when the project was completed in the past.

- Plugin-emulations sound a bit different from the original equipment, however they do sound good and Mark suggests you should consider using them. Besides, he (and we believe many others in the music industry today) isn't aiming to imitate the analog sound.

- Sound is not formed by software or hardware, it is influenced by one's personal life story or by the worldwide events like discoveries, wars, sex-revolutions and so forth. Sound lies in the artists' expression.

Bass Recording and Processing Master-Class

The first master-class with Mark took place at one of the best studios in Russia – Vintage Studio, which sports an SSL 6000, Neve preamps, classic compressors and equalizers, vintage tube mics and a Pro Tools system.

The teaching team consisted of Mark, his assistant Ben O'Neill and Hadrien Feraud ( as a bass-player.

Mark, Ben and Hadrien demonstrated different approaches for how to record a bass track using different songs as the backdrop, and to discussed the choice of equipment, explained the signal chain from mic to computer, and demonstrated proper mic positioning.

The first song used was "Mr. Brightside". The original bass line was removed and a new one was recorded in studio to replace it. The team chose the amp and the cabinet that sounded best for the part, and Ben showed the students the right way to place the two mics: a Neumann U 47 Fet, and a Yamaha NS10 dynamic playing the role of a mic. Utilizing this set up, the console received three bass signals: from the Neumann, NS10 and a DI-box, as well as the two room-mics.

During the recording process the participants tried different guitars, with and without a pick, used different preamps and compressors settings. Mark showed the chain of plugins he frequently uses: virtual amps, SSL, eqs, delays and reverbs.

The tracking was done in several takes. If you don't have a specific system to control takes, it is very easy to make a mistake. Thus, during the tracking process, Mark always takes notes on a piece of paper; it contains a streamlined representation of the arrangement with a number of bars and their length. While listening to the take, Mark follows the song on his paper and draws different symbols to describe every part of the take. The symbols are like references to things such as "bad", "lacks punch", "very cool" and so on. There is an entire alphabet of such symbols that Mark developed through 40 years of studio work. When the recording session ends, Mark is then able to collect the best parts of every take and combine them into one track, based on his notes, without listening to everything one more time. This process saves a great amount of time in the studio.

Mixing Master-Class

The anthem of the mixing day became the song "It's Time" by Imagine Dragons, the song chosen to illustrate Mark and Ben's process.

Before a song falls into Mark's hands it needs to go through a preparation phase by Ben. He is responsible for communication with clients, all technical problem-solving, ensuing files are in a proper format, sound replacement, vocal tuning, and more.

Ben's work consists of the following stages:

  • ProTools project creation, placing all the tracks in a particular order, naming and coloring tracks (in to groups). The order is very strict: Acoustic drums, electronic drums, percussion, fx, acoustic bass, electronic bass, acoustic instruments, electronic instruments, vocal. Each of these groups has its own internal order. Such organization makes it easy to navigate inside any project, especially a bigger one, so that the user can find what is needed quickly.

  • Adding kick and snare samples to the existing ones. According to Mark's experience people often send multitracks with these elements lacking punch and energy. So a good way to bring them to life is to mix some additional samples in. Ben uses sound replacement with Slate Digital's Trigger, which works, in his opinion, more accurately in comparison to others. When the replacement is done, it is important to check on the phasing between the original sounds and the replaced ones, and if there are any phase conflicts – the must be fixed and shifted manually. It's interesting that Mark and Ben use the same samples (2-3 kicks and snares) all the time – they got familiar with their sound, and can easily predict how they'll work in a mix.

  • Vocal tuning with Celemony Melodyne.

  • Adding a reference track in order to understand the expected sound.

Once this is done by Ben, the project is now ready to be mixed by Mark. This process takes approximately 20-30 minutes, although prep for more complicated projects may take up to 2 hours.

When Mark gets a project from Ben, first of all, he adjusts the overall instruments' volumes leaving plenty of headroom. For example, the kick's fader may be set at about -18 dB. To show the audience the way Mark usually works on a song, he opened a project of "It's Time", and started to mix it step-by-step with detailed explanations of every step taken.

Choice of plugins

Here are the plugins Mark used on the different tracks in the session:

  • Kick (both original and additional sample): Waves RBass (add some bottom), Waves E-Channel (eq-ing and compression) and UAD Fatso. Also the signal is sent to a parallel compression and distortion bus.

  • Snare (both original and additional sample): eq and dynamic settings in E-Channel.

  • Overheads were compressed very hard, eq boosted 400 Hz, and some top end.

  • Hi Hats: tape-emulator by UAD or Waves with compression as well.

  • Tom mics got a lot of cymbals sound. To manage the sound, a multiband compressor was used, with only the high band compressed.

  • Claps and noise at the very beginning of the song totaled 16 tracks. Mark used Waves RBass to add some rumble, and to lengthen the low sounds.

  • The bass was recorded line in for this song, so there was a single track. Then, a copy of it was created that would be processed differently and used in parallel. The original track was responsible for low end. To enhance it, a UAD Pultec Pro EQ was used. Mark has utilized this process throughout his career, and it has worked for him very well over the years. Though it was performed on the original hardware Pultec, it still works well on its plug-in emulations. Knob "Low Frequency" was on 60 Hz, then 3 dB boosting and 3 dB attenuating at the same time. It seemed strange, but this gave a certain effect: 60 Hz had some boost and there were some drops in the sub and middle range that, as a result, gave sound coloration. You won't get this effect just boosting 60 Hz. The UAD plug-ins sound so close to the hardware, that Mark opted to use them rather than the originals which were available. The parallel track was responsible for the mid and hi range. It was processed with a virtual amp and distortion. This parallel processing helped enhance the low end, while achieving clarity using the 2nd track.

  • The acoustic guitar track was over compressed while it was recorded. So, to give it more life, Mark added some harmonics with a UAD TwinTube.

  • The mandolin sound was a combination of the real acoustic instrument, and a virtual sitar. The mandolin stayed dry, as the sitar track had enough natural reverb.

  • Electro guitar was equalized slightly and compressed with E-Channel.

  • Keys were layered with 3 different instruments and processed through Altiverb.

  • Synths consisted of 5 tracks. The lead sound had Waves Doubler on it, others had a portion of compression, eq and space.

  • Vocals were pre-processed by Mark on a stereo-bus. The chain was comprised of: very soft compression (0.5-1 dB), a harder one with fast release, stereo-imager, eq for boosting low frequencies, eq for boosting 1-6 kHz, tape-recorder emulator and limiter. Then a signal split into two other channels: first with a maximizer boosting 6 dB, second with a maximizer without any boosting. +6 is used just to give a rough idea of how a song might sound after mastering. Before the export, the +6 track would be disabled and a signal would run through the +0 maximizer track. The final stereo-mix would be sent to mastering with 0 dB peaks.

  • After being edited by Ben, vocal tracks went through a DeEsser, compressor and equalizer. Also the song contains gang-vocals, all the voices were recorded separately on different microphones, using room mics as well.

  • Pre-mastering. At this point Mark records master-fader automation. At the beginning of the song, the fader was set on -1.5 dB, when the chorus came, fader was put up to 0 dB, then a decay during a verse, and so on. This was done to make the chorus feel bigger compared to other parts of the song.

Mark's mixing approach can be described as 'old school', though he uses modern equipment. Almost every track has Waves E-Channel on. Mark seldom uses parametric eqs, he prefers instead 3- or 5- band eqs-emulations of the well-known hardware versions. He got used to the sound of certain plug-ins and knows in advance which of the eqs is better for lows, and which is for highs. The same is applied for compressors as well - all of them have their weak and strong points.

Having a lot of mixing experience, Mark fully trusts his ears and doesn't use any visual analyzers. Also, Mark always goes with what is relevant currently (on the music charts and or on the radio), he follows the latest trends and gives those trends a try during his work. Every 3-5 years he completely changes his plug-ins set, and thus his workflow changes as well. This always gives him a new experience and fresh sound.

Song Recording with 'Pravada' Band

The master-class started in 'Vintage' Studio listening to the band's demo. In five days, the demo was going to turn into a completed song. At first, it was just vocal + guitar, all done with a recorder. In the process of listening, Mark made some notes on the piece of paper. After that, he discussed his ideas concerning future work with the band (or 'the future work of the band'?): whether the song is to be more aggressive and punchy or something soft, Coldplay-style. Also, there were a few questions about the structure of the song. To figure everything out, Pravada decided to play several variants (several variations of the song?) so that the best way would be obvious in the played examples. (description of process is a little confusing..

According to the band, their song list consisted mostly of dark and melodic mood songs. There were only a few cheerful songsand one of them was to be worked on during the master-class. Mark knew many one-hit-wonder stories, .especially when the 'hit' didn't match the artist's catalog and followed him to the end of his career. Based on this experience, as it applied to 'Pravada', the recorded track was expected to reflect the band's style, even if it turned into something punchier in comparison to other material by the band.

After the trial recording, some drum and percussion loops were added to draw a canvas for future work. Mark preferred to record the whole band simultaneously – this influenced the playing a lot because the musicians had full contact with each other. Later, some parts would need to be re-recorded, but the whole song would have a team spirit.

Backstage Secrets students moved into the recoding studio where Ben spoke about microphones' placement, connections and other technical aspects. The analog console, which took in all the signal, had the same track order as the ProTools mixer. Ben showed a paper with a list of tracks and mics to be used and suggested the students take part in their placement..

The script was as follows:

  1. Kick: Neumann U 47 Fet went inside.

  2. Kick: NS10 woofer outside to pick-up the low end.

  3. Snare: Shure SM 57 from above. Dynamic mic with a narrow direction is a good choice – this will help to avoid cymbals penetration into the channel.

  4. Snare: Shure SM 57 from the bottom. It is helpful to remember to swap the phase of this channel.

  5. Overhead: Telefunken Ela M 251E.

  6. Overhead: Telefunken Ela M 251E. Overheads were placed not XY, but one against the other under a small angle.

  7. Ride: AKG C 414 B-ULS with some low-cut right on the mic.

  8. Hi-Hat: Schoeps CMC 6-U was placed not horizontally, but with a small angle from top.

  9. Tom: Sennheiser MD 421

  10. Tom: Sennheiser MD 421

  11. Room L: Coles 4038 Ribbon

  12. Room R: Coles 4038 Ribbon

  13. Room C: Neumann U 47. The room mics' position was rough; it changed during the days in order to find the best sound.

  14. Bass: DI-Box.

  15. Bass Cabinet: Heil PR40.

  16. Electro guitar 1 Cabinet: Heil PR30.

  17. Electro guitar 2 Cabinet: AKG D 112.

  18. Vocal: Shure SM 58 for rough recording. Later it would be changed.

  19. Neumann U 87 placed in the corridor behind the tone room to take in some additional reflections.

When all the microphones were placed, Mark performed a review of the room to explain the choice of mics and their position.

Everything was ready for some trials in sound and arrangement, moving from pre-production stage into the main recording stage.

Before recording, Mark and Ben made some changes in mics' placing. Revisions were suggested to rooms and overheads. In Mark's opinion, the tone in the room was quite dull or, to be exact, he said it was "absolutely dead." Overheads were put closer, but were directed opposite to each other with a small angle. Rooms were moved far from the drums and directed at the glass surface to pick up as much reflections as possible. All the guitar cabinets were isolated in different rooms to avoid signal overcrossing.

Before recording, all the participants gathered in control room to plan the work and decide the arrangement structure. Then Mark suggested: it's better to listen vs. sit and speak about the possible result. The main task of the first day was to record drums.

Tracking was done take after take, 5 times without a break. Mark said it was important to let the guys warm-up and relax – it took several takes, and each one was better than the previous. During tracking, Mark always made his notes. After 5 takes, the band came into the control room to take a break, and to listen to the results. Then another 3 takes were done and Mark collected the best parts from all takes.

The next step was drum sound replacement/adding. Ben showed his work in detail: connections, plug-in settings, phase shifting, possible problems and their solutions. As a result, acoustic drums were added, a kick, 2xSnares and tom samples – the overall sound became much more powerful. Also, Mark found interesting percussion loops for the song to fill a part; this would also develop in the course in the track.

As room mics were placed far from the drums, there was a perceptible delay between dry and room signal. Manual moving of the audio clip to the start of the bar easily corrected this.

When drums were ready, we listened to them with the bass. It was recorded quite well and didn't require much editing. In fact, they left a couple punch-ins and bass for the mixing stage.

Next was the acoustic guitar. Before recording Mark gave a lesson on his approach to guitar tracking. Normally, he uses two Sanken CU41's (condenser, cardioid). One of them is directed a bit lower and moved couple inches left from the sound hole; the other is directed to the base of the neck. 'Vintage' Studio didn't have this microphone, so another one was chosen – the AKG C12VR. Mark used only one microphone of this type - to pick up the sound without body (acoustic guitar played a more percussive role, rather than tonal). The signal went through a UAD 1176 compressor. The guitar was recorded as double and then was stereo-enhanced with a UAD K-Stereo plug-in - the best one in Mark's opinion - because it doesn't create a phase-y effect.

When they were done with the acoustic guitar, they went on to record the electric guitar parts. They decided to make the rhythm guitar part sound more aggressive in the chorus, and for the solo, they added feedback to the bridge.

The keyboard part was planned for another day, but they did some preliminary sketching for it on this day, so that the full picture of the song could be seen more clearly. For this part, they added the reverb Valhalla Shimmer – it fit perfectly for creation of long tails, and adding a little bit of chorus effect.

One of the most interesting parts of the day was the gang-vocal recording. All master-class participants were involved: musicians, students, organizers, and studio staff. 10-12 people moved to the tone room with the Neumann 47 to sing a part of the chorus. About 5 takes were done. The result sounded big and massive and also gave all involved a dose of positive emotions.

Most of the arrangement was done. It was time for the lead vocal. A great tube microphone, the AKG C12VR, was placed at the center of the big tone room. It went to the SSL's pre-amp and was compressed a little bit with an 1176. Ben prepared 8 tracks in a ProTools project – one for each take, and then single song parts were recorded one by one: verses, pre-choruses, choruses, back-vocal.

Mark then performed a sort of show in the control room after all the takes. As you may remember, Mark always takes notes on paper to describe almost every bar during listening. So he has documentation of all the takes and is able to collect the best parts from each one. How would you do this task? Take pieces into a single track inside a DAW? Perhaps, you would chop all the clips, take the necessary parts, delete all the others and join everything with crossfades. This approach is imposed by logic, and the desire to do the job as fast and accurate as possible. However, great producers do not look for an easy way, and are not too tied to perform mouse clicks! Though Mark has fully switched to the digital environment his fingers still remember an analog console.

All 8 tracks went from ProTools to the console's channels (8 as well), and the console's output went to a single ProTool's channel. All the faders were at the bottom. ProTools' playback and the input signal recording (from the console) started simultaneously. Then Mark pushed every fader up or down to mix the best parts of vocal takes according to his notes. For example, 1-2 bars played channel #3, during 2-4 bars channel #3 was down and channel #7 was up and so on. As a result, ProTools received a single audio clip – a vocal part. However, it was not that simple, as it might seem: all the movement had to be sharp, some crossfades were just inside a phrase and if Mark wasn't that accurate some words could disappear, moreover it was very easy to mess up the tracks using this process. That task required a great amount of experience, it appeared similar to 8-channel DJing. If Mark made a mistake, the process began from start. He practiced all movements for about 5 minutes before every verse or chorus recording. Another 5 minutes was spent for each part while 'djing,' until an ideal result was created.

This action shocked everybody in the studio. We crowded around the console to imprint in our memory the slight of hand and this unusual method of task completion that was just witnessed. Mark did it not to entertain us, this was his real approach to these types of studio situations. "I've been doing it this way for more than 30 years. I just got used to it," he admitted. In total, there were 40 vocal tracks (out of 100 in the whole project).

The mixing process was similar to the previous one with the Imagine Dragons' song in terms of actions, order and tools used.

The following text is illustrated with the pictures of plug-ins used in the project - Mark captured all their settings.

  • The ProTools template already had the team's usual commutation and plug-ins on some channels: a return-track had UAD Ocean Way Studios on as a virtual room.

    Additional tracks for drums parallel compression:

    1. soft compression with Fabfilter Pro-C with medium attack, fast release, GR was about 3 dB;

    2. hard compression with UAD Manley, Waves API 2500 with medium attack and release followed by a distortion SoundToys Decapitator;.

    3. harder compression with Waves L3, saturator SoftTubeOneKnob and Plugin Alliance Vitalizer.

  • Kick consisted of 3 tracks: inner mic, outer mic and additional sample. The group was processed with a Waves SSL E-Channel: compression with slow attack and fast release; eq had to be adjusted to find the balance between the low end and a mid-hi click. Then Mark used his studio trick with a Pulteceq described above (boosting and attenuating the same low frequency), additional brilliance added with a Softube RS127 Rack, some more processing with a UAD Fatso and final eq-ing with a Waves V-EQ. It is helpful to note here, Mark's plug-in chain contains different eqs and compressors. Each of them has its own color, and is used in low portions. In sum they work great together.

  • Snare group (mics+samples) had 500 Hz with a Waves API 560 and some slight eq and dynamics (slow attack and fast release) adjustments on the Waves E-Channel. A UAD Transient Designer intensified the attack and lengthened the snare's tail; Maag eq added some additional high-mids, then the signal went to the Decapitator for soft distortion.

  • Overheads were equalized on the E-Channel and compressed with fast attack.

  • Rides adjustments were similar to the overheads' adjustments.

  • Hi-hats were saturated and compressed with the help of a tape-emulator UAD Studer A800: some input boosting, 120 Hz low cut, and 15 IPS tape speed. Additional compression on the Waves E-Channel and attack emphasizing with an Eventide Omnipressor.

  • Toms' tails were reduced a bit with gate, also had some low and hi boosting and some transient processing.

  • Room L+R had multiband compression to pull down cymbals, the E-Channel reduced some low-mids, and gained lows and highs. And compression with an 1176 and Omnipressor.

  • Room C had low and high boost and hard compression with fast attack and medium release.

  • Corridor mic had cymbals compression with multiband and the 1176.

  • Percussion loops went through a Transient Designer, distortion, filter and compressor.

  • Bass originally consisted of two tracks: DI-box and mic. Then the DI-box track was duplicated and the two were set differently. The first one was responsible for the low part; Mark processed it with a virtual amp by Amplitude, preset Focus B-15 (Ampeg B-15 emulation). E-Channel was boosted to 60-65 Hz and 300 Hz. Fatso compressor's side chain was set above 240 Hz with a medium attack and fast release. The last action was a 30 Hz cut, and a 100 and 800 Hz boosting on V-EQ. The second DI-box track was responsible for the mid-hi range. The plug-in chain was the same, but set differently: the button 'LowBoost' was disabled on the amp, it had input gain and an additional virtual room mic. The E-Channel boosted the mid and hi range, Fatso worked much harder and the V-EQ added more mid frequencies. These two DI-box tracks were added to the mic/cabinet track.

  • Acoustic guitars: lows were pulled up, while mids and highs got some boost on the E-Channel.Then the UAD 1176 with medium attack, fast release and GR, about 3 dB.

  • Electric guitars were split on tracks for verses and choruses in order to not require automation, but to simply process the two parts differently. Both had E-Channel eq-ing and compression with a fast attack and release, UAD Neve 1081 eq-ing (400 and 1800 Hz boost), low end boosting with Maag, TwinTube for additional harmonics and a small portion of spring reverberation.

  • Solo guitar was compressed with E-Channel, had some boost on 470 and 1800 Hz on the Neve 1081 and low boost with Maag. EchoBoy added delay: left 1/8 bar and right 1/8 D bar . Several participants of the master-class commented that the guitar sounded very similar to U2's The Edge's guitar.

  • There were not many key parts; the main plug-in was the Valhalla Shimmer for a long sweet tail.

  • Main vocal: Fabfilter Pro-DS compressed 2-3 dB on 6-12 kHz, the 1176 compressed 5-6 dB with attack '4' and release '7', then an additional de-esser by UAD, the 'Pultec trick' on 100 Hz - that made the vocal sound closer. The UAD LA-2A reduced a couple dB more. SoundToys added a bit of distortion, followed by a traditional Maag low boost. The last element in the chain was an Altiverb (L480 preset). 'P' and 'B' sounds would be reduced manually with fades or volume automation.

  • Backing vocal was processed differently for verses and choruses with Valhalla VintageVerb. For gang vocals, another reverb was used.

  • One of the final steps was stereo bus processing. The plug-ins chain was the same as in the Imagine Dragon mixing example described above.

  • The last phase was two maximizer-buses: +0 and +6 dB boosting. +6 was needed to imagine the possible sound after mastering. The song would be rendered with -0.02 dB peaks.

In conclusion, after the class was finished, the final mix would be done in Mark's US studio, and Pravada will receive the final cut in the mail in a few days.


Text by Anton Anru, edited by Jordan Perlson

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