Interview: David Wrench

Fresh from his keynote speech at the Innovation in Music event in Cambridge, Matt Fellows caught up with producer and sound engineer David Wrench to discover why his unique style is attracting so much praise…

You have a wide and multi-faceted career as both a recording engineer and musician. What initially made you go down the mixing path?

Some of it was just how it panned out really. I started doing some mixes with Caribou and that track Odessa really took off, and I started getting offered a lot of mixing work on the back of that. I also had a baby around that time and I wanted to not be working production hours. It seemed to go well, it was a good decision to make.

Do you think mixing has changed over the course of your career?

Yeah, massively. I started out working when it was on tape, so it’s completely different now to how it was 18 or 19 years ago. When I first started out it was four or five people at a desk each with their parts to learn, no automation and you’d sort of do a live mix, and it was a performance, whereas now there’s so much control; the Pro Tools revolution has happened, it’s completely changed it. 

Do you prefer it that way?

I like both. I like new technology and I like trying out new things. I think there was a period where, because you could, everything got really processed and tightened up and overly clean, because it was new and exciting at the time. But then I think people realised that records still need a bit of grit and a bit of character to them, and that sort of crept back in and now that’s perfectly achievable with a Pro Tools workflow.

You’re particularly known for three highly acclaimed records from Caribou, FKA twigs and Jungle. How did you approach these?

I just tried to work with what was there, and tried to find a working method that was right for each record; not impose myself on it, but also get a sound that was right for each record. 

Is it challenging not to ‘impose yourself’ on your work?

Yeah, it is. Unless they’ve asked specifically ‘just do your own thing’ on it. Even then, it’s about trying to find something unique on that record. I’d get bored if I was just making records that had ‘my sound’ on them. I don’t have a sound. I have things that I like and I probably have frequencies that I like in mixes and frequencies I don’t, and I have certain things that I would gravitate towards. I also try to do mixes that don’t have those things in sometimes; I don’t want to be just in one style. 

You have been described as having ‘the rare ability to bring discipline to experimental projects without losing their leftfield qualities’. Do you think this is accurate?

Yeah. I like music that challenges me, but I like it to be listenable. I will listen to stuff that’s quite avant-garde and quite hard-going and I like it, but I also realise in a practical world it has to get on the radio, and it has to sound good on headphones, in a car, on a club system. I seem to work a lot with self-producers and I think for a lot of them it’s getting someone technical in who they can talk to in an artistic fashion; it’s the art of it that’s still important but I’ll try to make sure it’s delivered in a technically correct fashion as well, and that their vision will come across on the majority of systems that it’s played on. 

Could you tell us a little about your method of working?

Well it changes from record to record. I try to initially get a really quick balance using only volume, and I’ll run through everything and organise it in a way that I’m used to. Maybe only do EQ if it’s absolutely necessary. I’ll always have their rough monitor mix on a separate pair of faders so I can A/B, and I do that right throughout the mix process to make sure I’m not making it worse or that I’m not losing something that was really good about it. I’ll then go through and EQ everything and then find spaces for stuff, and then it’s into finessing, cleaning everything up, checking for clicks and crossfades – the boring bit! 

Do you have any favourite pieces of gear that you rely on?

For mixing, monitors are the most important thing; if you don’t know what you’re hearing then it doesn’t matter what you’re doing. That’s the essential thing to get right, so I use Neumann KH 310s a lot. Adam A7Xs I use, and a tiny pure stereo, and then some beyerdynamic DT-880 headphones. 

Where do you see your profession heading in the next few years?

I think it’s becoming more and more crucial, because so many more artists that are getting signed are self-producing and they’ve maybe come through recording courses or they have the technology. They need someone with some expertise at the end to be able to piece it together in the mix. It’s years of expertise, that’s what you’re getting someone like that for.

What’s next for you? Have you got any big projects lined up that you could tell us about?

There’s a few things about to come out. There’s an album by a really interesting artist called La Priest. He recorded a lot of it on an 8-track tape and lots of old analogue synths and early digital synths. There’s a really good songwriter/producer, she goes by the name of Empress Of. I’m working on mixing music for a live performance of ballet – the music is by Jamie XX – and that’s in the Manchester International Festival. That’s in 6.1 surround, so it’s quite a challenge, especially as the Pro Tools panning templates don’t match where the speakers are, so I’m trying to find ways of working around that. I’m mixing it in 7.1 but ignoring the centre speaker; that’s the only way it’ll match up in terms of panning. It’s a bit tricky.