Grace Banks is a London-based Studio Engineer. Grace has recently worked with Romy Madley Croft (The xx), Dream Wife, The 1975 and Robyn, and has toured as a multi-instrumentalist session musician. A few days ago, we had a fascinating chat about trying out new plug-ins and gear, and “plugging things into things”. Here is the abridged version.
Hi Grace! So, could you tell me a little bit about your work, and what your standard workflow would be in normal life?
"I’m freelance so I work at a lot of different studios, but all those studios have closed, so the majority of my usual work is not happening."
Normal life? Well most of my work is studio engineering, so that’s totally gone out of the window! I do a bit of mixing and production. Recently I engineered an album with a band called Dream Wife, which is just coming out. And just before the lockdown, I was working on a record with an artist called Jealous of the Birds. I’m freelance so I work at a lot of different studios, but all those studios have closed, so the majority of my usual work is not happening.
I don’t have much of a home studio, but I’ve got loads of gear. I tend to do the live stuff in the studio, with the band or the artist, and then if I’m producing something, I’ll often bring it home to add little sprinklings of synth and other stuff. So even though production tends to be a smaller part of my work, I’ve been really lucky with the timing, because lockdown struck just as I was at that stage with an album and an EP. And almost all of it was already recorded!
So you’ve been doing a lot of tinkering with synths, as a result of the lockdown?
"Plugging things into things into things, and seeing what comes out the other end, it’s one of the parts of making music that I enjoy the most."
Yeah! And the thing is, with studio engineers, we sort of live in the studio all the time. So over the last few years I’ve been collecting gadgets and bits of audio equipment at home that I haven’t had much chance to try out. So it’s been quite fun to just get stuck in and play with my toys, finally! I’ve got a little gadget corner. Plugging things into things into things, and seeing what comes out the other end, it’s one of the parts of making music that I enjoy the most.
I’ve got some binaural microphones that I bought about 5 years ago, and I’ve hardly taken them out of the packet. If I'm engineering - or when I'm producing but there's a budget and time pressure - you don't always have a chance to try this stuff out. But I’ve just used these binaurals on some percussion for an album, and it worked really well.
I’ve got a Roland RE-501 Chorus Echo, and some pedals, and a Novation Bass Station that receives an external signal, so you can use the filters and stuff. With a few nice pieces like that, you can really go down a rabbit hole. I get a chain going, and I just play! And that’s why we all got into music, isn’t it? With any bit of gear, there’s often a secret setting where it does something you wouldn’t expect.
So my workflow has changed a lot. I’m more focused on production, which used to be a smaller part of my work.
Is there anything you’ve found particularly helpful for making that adaptation to your workflow? Any support groups, Facebook groups, things like that?
Well, I follow a lot of audio forums anyway, so I already had those networks. I particularly like PureMix - they’ve been doing a series of livestreams, informal chats with mix engineers and stuff like that. I think it’s Monday to Friday, and I’ve been tuning in for a lot of those, it’s been really cool. I also have my own personal networks, WhatsApp groups with mates and colleagues.
Cool. And is there any software you’ve found yourself using more than usual at home, NUGEN or otherwise?
"Plug-ins are so accessible to people."
I’ve been using this time at home to test out some new stuff, and the NUGEN plug-ins are relatively new for me. I’ve been using Stereoizer and Stereoplacer a lot, in fact a mate of mine was asking about those, “How did you get that cool panning thing?”. And I’ve been using MasterCheck and VisLM before I send a project off for mastering - it’s good to be able to give feedback to clients about loudness levels. But particularly the more creative tools like Stereoizer and Stereoplacer, I’ve been finding those really fun.
Plug-ins are so accessible to people. And you can almost always trial them for 7 days or 14 days or however long.
Do you find that there’s one particular instrument or element that’s usually your go-to? If you’ve got a new plug-in, what instrument do you usually try first? I think it would be drums, for me.
I think because I really like stupid, bombastic sounding drums.
"A lot of the time I might take into consideration the complexity and the spectrum of the EQ. So with piano, you often get quite a rich tone, and the same with guitars as well, because the harmonic content is so rich."
For me, it depends. It really depends on the plug-in and what I’m expecting it to do. A lot of the time I might take into consideration the complexity and the spectrum of the EQ. So with piano, you often get quite a rich tone, and the same with guitars as well, because the harmonic content is so rich. You often get a sense of the percussiveness on the piano, as well. Drums are a good one for the same reason, you get the percussiveness and a sort of depth and richness of tone. I love recording drums! That’s my favourite thing to record.
In terms of other software I’ve been using to adapt, I’ve used Sonarworks for adapting to a new mix space. I’ve spent some time getting my head around what Sonarworks is doing to my room, and my monitors.
Another useful thing is AudioMovers. If you want to do remote mix tweaks with clients, you can stream the session, high quality. There are a few platforms for streaming like that, and AudioMovers is the only one I’ve tested so far, but it seems wicked. I’m really happy with the results. You can set it up to transmit and receive audio, so in theory you can use it for remote tracking with a client. The latency isn’t super slow, but I’ve been testing it with a colleague, because we’ve got some ideas about how to route it in order to work around the latency issue.
AudioMovers sounds pretty interesting, I’ll have to look into it more. Is there one piece of advice you’d like to give to other audio professionals working at this time?
One piece of advice is kind of tough, let me think...
You can give two, if you’d like.
"I think everyone needs a bit of a geek chat every now and then."
Well, I’ve been doing “mix-offs” with a friend. I love doing these when I’ve got a spare couple of hours, you get together with a mate, and you both mix the same track. You compare notes afterwards, to see how the other person has tackled it. It’s a fun way to skill up, but it’s also a good way to keep sane, I find, because I miss being in the studio, where you can discuss new products on the market. I think everyone needs a bit of a geek chat every now and then.
One of our rules is that you can’t spend more than two hours on your mix for a mix-off, and I think that works really well because it takes the pressure off. The point of this isn’t to do the best thing you’ve ever done, the point of it is to spend two hours mucking about with a new plug-in that you’ve never tried before, or trying some technique you’ve just found on YouTube. And in two hours you can only really focus on one or two aspects of a mix, so it’s cool to compare with what the other person has taken a deep dive into.
Yes, like which elements have they prioritised that you haven’t, and vice versa? I can see why, a short mix you’ve spent two hours on, might feel less exposed when you send it to someone for critique.
"Check in with people! When you receive one of those texts, it’s super nice."
Exactly, yeah. Actually a lot of the stems we’ve been using for these mix-offs have been from the PureMix website, which I mentioned earlier. You can download them for free. So in all this testing of new gear, I’m getting stems from PureMix, I’m calibrating my monitors with Sonarworks, I’m trying out new plug-ins. All those things are coming together, which has been really fun, and a learning experience.
The mix-offs are really good, so that would be my first piece of advice. It’s something that anyone can play with, just find a friend, and you both mix the same track. I think most people have got more free time than usual, even if it’s just the lack of a daily commute. You can do a two-hour speed mix as a sort of testing ground, and that geeky debrief afterwards is a good way to maintain your sanity. But I think the second thing, on a more personal level, is just to check in with your mates. Everyone is gonna have a bad day occasionally, and just getting a little “what’s up” text or a 10-minute phone call can make such a big difference. Check in with people! When you receive one of those texts, it’s super nice.
Definitely! Well that just about covers everything. This has been really fun and interesting, thanks so much.