Englishman Leo Abrahams is a prolific guitarist, producer and mixer. His work with some of the most influential sonic masters such as the likes of Brian Eno has made Abrahams an in demand producer and guitarist of the highest caliber. Abrahams’ adheres to a hectic schedule of production, session work and touring commitments – currently he is touring with brit-popsters Pulp. In Ultimate Guitar’s popular "Producers And Engineers" series, Joe Matera spoke to Abrahams about his studio work, production approach and how mixing has evolved in this digital age.
UG: Being a sought after session guitarist, when it comes to production work how important has the session guitar side of things been to your production approach?
Leo Abrahams: It depends really because if I am working with a solo artist then I will end up playing a lot of guitar on the recording so it is very helpful there because I end up bringing in my sound as a player. And that’s why I’d get hired anyway. But also I really enjoy not being asked to play at times when asked to produce a band as that is more hands on and sometimes you can get a bit bored of your own voice and sound. I like to mix it up a bit and so I suppose that is where it helps, especially when I am engineering and recording guitars, as I have a huge collection of pedals, a mic collection and lots of guitars. So if you’re the only guitarist in the band and you also are producing, you end up with a bit of mixture of artist’s sounds and my ideas and I really enjoy working that way.
Was there a starting point where your production career began or did it slowly morph into its role via your session work?
There wasn’t an actual starting point, as I was always working on my own stuff and working with a lot of singer/songwriters in my twenties while at the same time being a session guitarist. But if I had to pinpoint a starting point of sorts, my first sort of proper production gig was actually working with Brian Eno and David Byrne on their collaboration Everything That Happens Will Happen Today which I ended up doing additional production on and which sort of helped bring that record together. It was an amazing start really.
Recording wise do you work primarily in the digital domain or a combination of analog and digital?
I prefer to use mostly analog in the front end as much as possible and then record it onto computer. But sometimes I will put drums on to tape or fly things to tape specifically, but generally I record completely via digital but will use a lot of analog outboard.
Is there a specific reason for utilizing this approach?
"What I really like is the contrast in the song between something sounding nice and crisp and something sounding very fuzzy."
Well, digital is really convenient especially when it comes to mixing. I like digital when it sounds digital, like a lot of the effects I use on the guitar are kind of deliberate. It is not an analog sound source, and so I like that sort of artificiality. I am not an analog purist when it comes to mixing because the way you can mix in the digital domain today is really fantastic, but having said that, there is something that happens when you have a great old mixing desk with lots of vintage front end valve gear that you just don’t get any other way. What I really like though is the contrast in the song between something sounding nice and crisp and something sounding very fuzzy.
What did Brian Eno impart on you production wise that has held you in good stead in your own production approach?
Apart from the fact that Brian’s musical personality is really seeing things from a cultural point of view and very deeply…[sic]…whereas you can feel that influence everywhere now, what I really learned from him was how to put people into a good mood and how to make people relax in the studio and how to create an atmosphere where you’re basically experimenting having fun and it is free and open. He is an absolute master at that. I think that his contribution in that regard is every bit as important as his sonic contribution. I can only hope to try to emulate half of that but it really impressed me as to how good he is at putting musicians at ease and getting interesting and unexpected results out of them.
You have worked with both English and American artists, so is there a difference in approach production wise when working with either type of artists?
I don’t think so as the really nice thing about music is that once you’re in the room together, everything becomes very equal. Of course if you go to New York or LA or London - and I am not talking about music but more in a culture sense - there is tangible difference in those places. And that does transfer to every facet of life from supermarkets to recording studios. But it is a level playing field when it comes to recording and it is really the same way everywhere you go.
When it comes to capturing guitar tones what is your approach first in regards to acoustic guitars?
With acoustic guitars, you really have to put on a set of headphones and wander around the studio or room and just experiment to where the mic sounds the best. It is as simple as that. Over time you will get to know your favorite mics that you would try first, but you would have to be ready to change you mind if something isn’t working. So I don’t really have a go to mic in that regards. But I do like to use contact mics on acoustics, sometimes inside the body and sometimes on the headstock and I will often use those mixed in with a more conventional mic like an 87.
And what about when it comes to electric guitar tones what do you use?
Electric guitar wise, I like to use the Royer 121 in combination with a 57. I was working with Tchad Blake the engineer recently, and who is my hero really, and he can make a 57 sound amazing, as he just knows just where to put it. He goes into the room, and he listens and hears how he wants it and he puts it there.
Many people claim that the proliferation of home studios and the easy access to recording technology is the cause of why many of the great recording studios are closing down…
"I prefer to use mostly analog in the front end as much as possible and then record it onto computer."
Yeah it is a real shame to see great rooms close down because a great sounding room contributes way more to the ultimate sound on the recording than what monitor you have at home or what microphones you have at home. It [home recording] really has changed the role of the mixer too I think because a lot of the time now, a band will record a record very cheaply for a major label and then the label will spend wasted money on getting someone to mix it. And the job of the mixer has become corrective rather than maximizing what is there. A lot of mix engineers say that is how they get their projects today, where it is recorded at home and it is all chaos and so the mix engineer will be expected to replace drum sounds with their own drum samples and fix problems where as mixing used to be a little more about the completion of the production.
Have you any advice to offer in regards to achieving better home recordings?
To make sure that your room sounds good. If you are going to spend a bit of money, it is better spent on treating your room and getting some sound treatment there because if you don’t know what you’re listening to is accurate, then you’re really shooting in the dark. And you need to think about what sort of character and sound you want out of your equipment and that can be from experimenting with any combination of choices, from microphones to guitars.
Finally what projects have you been working on or will be in future?
I am about to go and produce a really fantastic band called Frightened Rabbit who are on Atlantic. They’re making their third record, but it is their first record for a major label and they have a great following already so that is really exciting. I have just finished producing Paolo Nutini and hopefully that record will be out soon and that was one of the records I worked on with Tchad Blake and it sounded great. And I also have my own EP coming out in a few months which was recorded at home and which was mixed by a guy in New York called Patrick Philips who works with David Byrne a lot. And aside from that, I have been touring with Pulp and we’re playing some festivals this summer.
Interview by Joe Matera
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