Tim Palmer: “The song is your boss.”

January 8, 2018 | Producers & Artists

The British sound engineer and music producer Tim Palmer is known for his collaboration with such greats as David Bowie, U2, Pearl Jam and Jason Mraz. With his ’62 Studios in Austin, Texas he has set up a studio that gives him the flexibility he needs – and sonible plug-ins play a central role in his workflow. Here’s the interview.

Tim, where did you learn your craft? How did you get into your profession?

Tim: I was fortunate to get my first job at a studio called Utopia, right in the center of London. It was back in the glory days of recording, when artists of the caliber of Mark Knopfler or Sting would just book in and were happy to use the engineer that was assigned to the session. I was very fortunate to be able to be an apprentice in a recording studio, rather than doing a course in a recording school.

I got to learn from some of the great producers and engineers of the time, and when I say learn I mean learn by watching and contributing to sessions – wether it be making tea or positioning microphones.

What is your best work in your opinion, sonically?

I guess, like most producers and mixers, I always find fault in my work and don’t really enjoy listening to my mixes until quite a while later! But I think my work on Tears For Fears ‘Elemental’ turned out really well. There were just 4 of us, working in Roland Orzabal’s studio on the album. It took us around 6 months to make, but it was fun, creative and came out sounding pretty great!

I am proud of being a small part in the making of David Bowie’s Tin Machine project. I feel it took David Bowie’s music back from the over produced 80’s, into a more raw, human, experimental direction. I like the sound of ‘New York’ on the U2 album ‘All that you can’t leave behind’ and I still enjoy listening to the mixes we did on Porcupine Tree’s ‘In Absentia’.

What other album (or piece of music) do you admire the most in terms of production technique?

I love many albums for many different reasons. The sonic quality doesn’t always have to mean perfection, what’s more important is making the songs work in the right way, emotionally. I love the sound of ‘New Rose’ by The Damned, but at the same time I also love ‘Blue’ by Joni Mitchell or ‘Enjoy the Silence’ by Depeche Mode. I guess I feel as an engineer and a producer I see the song as my boss, it tells me where to go and when to stop.

“The song is my boss. I feel as an engineer and a producer, it tells me where to go and when to stop.”

What does your core setup look like?

I put together a mix facility called ’62 Studios’ that started in Hollywood, but currently is based in Austin, Texas. I needed to have a flexible set up that could accommodate the new technologies and smaller budgets of recent years. I needed control of my hours so that I could work as long as needed to get things right. The costs of working in conventional studios did not give me enough flexibility.

I wanted to embrace the old and the new. I have ‘Tonelux’ summing amps that let me keep a traditional analogue signal path, but I control with 16 ‘Artist Mix’ faders in the digital world. ’62 Studios is approximately 750 square feet, with 20-foot ceilings, custom-built acoustical treatments and a picture window that lets in natural light.

My workflow is centered around Pro Tools and the racks of Tonelux modules plus ‘GML’ Eq and other outboard. My monitors of choice are Genelec 1031a, but I have Neuman smaller speakers too, I also route the output of my rig to a SONOS system so that I can listen to my mixes ‘live’ from the sessions all throughout my home.

Any studio and mixing philosophies?

Listen first! Don’t go straight into mixing without deciding how you can serve the song best. Do what is necessary to get to the right emotional space, even if it means something sounding “wrong” or “lo-fi”. The best cure for a bad mix is a great song. You’re the boss, and you have to be the master of your equipment. No one’s forcing you to ‘Beat Detective’ the drums. No one’s forcing you to over-tune the vocals. Don’t blame the technology afterwards.

“Listen first! Do what is necessary to get to the right emotional space.”

What are the biggest challenges for producers and mixing engineers today?

One of the biggest challenges for a mixer today is to be capable to do so much more than basic mixing. You often need to fix, add, replay and arrange the song before you even get to mix. In the old days an artist would probably have spent a good amount of time crafting a project, good studios, good engineers, and plenty of time spent. Those days seem to be disappearing and sessions often need a lot of tender love and care before you can finally mix them.

Another problem for younger engineers is that these days you basically have to own your gear and have a room to work from. Making smart choices – of knowing what is truly needed and what works well – is vital.

Tell us a secret production tip of yours!

One production tip is to never lose track of the song, without a great piece of music to work on, what we do is basically in vain. Also there is no point to “owning all the gear and have no idea”. Really get to know how to use your equipment efficiently and creatively. You will save yourself a lot of time that could be spent being creative!

„Really get to know how to use your equipment efficiently and creatively. You will save yourself a lot of time that could be spent being creative!“

Where does sonible come in in your daily workflow? Why do you prefer them?

Often these days, being a mixer is like being a Dr to a sick song. And in my Dr’s bag I have some great plug-ins to help me. At the moment I am really enjoying the sonible collection of EQ and processors because now I can get deeper into the manipulation of the sounds and avoid having to replay or fix certain issues.

“entropy:EQ+ can control the transient content really simply. It also lets you concentrate on single drums from a bounced kit.”

entropy:EQ+ can control the transient content of a sound really simply. Many times I need to lose some of the harsh clipped front end of a sound and this plug-in does that with ease. Conversely I can increase the attack by putting back in more of the transient aspect with the same plug-in. entropy:EQ+ also lets you concentrate on single drums from a bounced kit.

If I am sent a sound has been recorded in a strange room, or a reverb has already been committed to a part, with the proximity:EQ+ I can fine tune out a single strange resonance and still retain the overall character of the sound. The same plug-in also can bring forward the close proximity of the recording by backing down the natural room/reverb. Playing with the plug-in can also create some cool, almost backwards sounding FX. The 8 band EQ on these plus-ins is a welcome bonus.

Thank you for your time and insights!

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