Greg Wells is a two time Grammy nominated producer and songwriter based in Los Angeles. He has worked with major artists such as Mika, Katy Perry, Timbaland, OneRepublic and Pink. CD's featuring Greg's songs have sold over 60 million units worldwide.
When you start a new project, whether it be MIKA or The All American Rejects, where do you begin?
The first conversation, which often can be long and ongoing, is regarding song collection. A great song virtually solves all the problems - it makes the mix sound better, makes the producer look like they know what they're doing, makes the drummer sound better... Just makes everything better. And a song that's OK, but not amazing, is always a struggle. Most of the time everybody gets blamed for it except the actual quality of the script or the song itself. You always hear "oh, we did it at the wrong studio", "we used the wrong producer or guitar player" and often none of that is really the problem. If you're on your second week of a song trying to crack something it's probably because there's something wrong with the song itself.
TSAR-1 has become our go-to reverb for everything.
For instance with MIKA, or the rock band I'm working with now The All American Rejects, both bands are fantastic songwriters, they're really highly inspired and crafted storytellers and all the songs are really, really good but I get to help pick the great ones.
Are you a dictator in that regard or do the band get some saying?
I figured out if you can tell the truth without offending anybody it's usually the best way. And if I don't think the song is great then you shouldn't spend money to hire me as a producer. There were one or two instances in the beginning of my production career that I worked on a song I liked but didn't really love. In the end it made me look like a bad producer because they never sounded amazing. If I don't love it I will never be able to get it to a place where people would ever think "wow, listen to that!".
How much of MIKAs work were you involved with. Did you do any writing or was it more producing and mixing?
He does all the writing. I'm his band, I'm playing almost all the instruments on those records and I produced and mixed. So I was very hands-on, but he's unquestionably the storyteller and the songwriter.
The PE 1C EQ is on every kick drum, it's on vocals, it's all over the place.
With a band like All American Rejects you obviously didn't play as many instruments as you did with MIKA?
Exactly. MIKA is a good piano player but it's really just the two of us making those records most of the time. I'm his right hand in making them sound like he envisions it.
After the conversation about song selection and so on with the bands, what happens next?
It's usually that terrifying moment of "oh, my god, what do we do first!". The band probably starts thinking "oh my god, why did we hire this producer?". And it's not until we have 2-3 songs almost ready that everyone can relax and give a sigh of relief.
You said you were a multi-instrumentalist, do you only use real instruments or do you use virtual instruments as well?
I do. I've been using computers since I was 18 and I'm 42 now. I started on Digital Performer and Notator and eventually got into Pro Tools. I do a lot of programming. To me because there's no real division between real instruments, sequencers or samplers, it's just there to make it sound right. I was a teenager in the 80's so I was very influenced by techno and new wave.
For a lot of people these days it seems like recording and mixing have blended together so when they start recording, they're already mixing because it's so much in the box. Is that something you do too or is it more record, then mix?
That's a good question! I definitely do all of it as soon as we start because I feel it helps me more to feel what the finished record is probably going to sound like. The hardest thing to do in the studio is to remain objective and hear the music as someone who's never heard the piece is going to hear it for the first time. The minute you hear a song more than five times I don't know how fresh it's going to be. And by the time you hear it fifty times during the fourth hour of the day I don't know how fresh you're going to be. So whatever I can do to keep it sound like it's probably going to sound at the end of the day helps me a lot. Even if the final mix might take a different turn it shows me what the playing field is going to be and I also think it leads to better decisions during the recording process.
The FET Compressor is perfect to use on lead vocal.
Do you feel you commit to these first ideas then or do you change a lot over time?
Usually it's something that kind of comes quicker rather than longer, like an initial burst of inspiration but I'm always open to start over from scratch and experiment. I feel that many of the best things that happen in the studio have come from experimentation if you allow yourself the luxury of doing it. The record label won't exactly say "yes, please sit and fiddle around for three days with a Memory Man delay" but sometimes that's the thing that can really put something over the top. Most of the things might end up being useless but there might be that one thing that you never would have discovered if you hadn't spent eight hours doing it. I don't know if I'm answering your question...
Probably in some way! All American Rejects and MIKA appear to be very different productions and I assume you work with them very differently. How would you explain those differences?
It starts with the differences between the artists themselves - MIKA is a self-contained guy, the Rejects are a band very used to democracy. With MIKA and me we usually see eye to eye but when we don't it's OK and I'll let him chase something or he'll let me chase something and we just try to stay as reasonable and objective as possible. With the Rejects it's a slower process because it's four of them and they all got to agree with everything and then I come in. Most of the time democracy and creativity don't really go hand in hand so I'm always trying to find the way forward where everyone feels they had their say. But at the end of the day the record is king, if someone gets upset it's not personal, we have to do what's best for the record. That difference right there leads to all kinds of different decisions.
With MIKA I am the band but the Rejects are a band. I might play some keys but not like with MIKA. With the Rejects the demos might sound like a record themselves. Other than that it's really the same set of concerns - how do we serve the song the best? Do we have the right mic? Is your throat in condition to sing right now? My job is like a movie maker and I have to be sensitive to everything that particular day.
What happens when you start to record? When you start building the songs...
I like to chase what feels like the most important part to build the song around so in the case of MIKA I want to get a scratch vocal down as fast as possible. Again it comes down to accompanying. I think a mistake a lot of people make is they wait way to long to put the vocal in the track. You can chase all these guitar parts but you're not really accompanying the most important part of the track, which is the voice, and I like to hear the voice as quickly as possible, even if we don't end up using it. That way we will build the track around it rather than trying to fit the vocal on top of the track that we've built. With everyone I work with I try to get the scratch vocal down as fast as possible. So I might get a guitar part down to a click track, maybe some kind of drums, just something for the singer to sing to!
The Trident A-Range and FET Compressor sounds very, very analog to me.
When I have the scratch vocal I will usually chase drums first and then harmonic support like synths, piano, guitar or whatever it is, then bass. Then there will be enough for the singer to sing to and we'll start chasing the lead vocals and replace the scratch vocal. Although sometimes the scratch vocal is great and we'll end up using parts of it so I always use the same mic, preamp and compressor for it that I would cut the lead vocal on. Then we just continue the journey.
You do mixing as well...
I wanted Spike Stent to mix the first one and sent him the rough mixes. He said "Greg, these mixes are so good you should just mix the record". So inadvertantly he turned me into a mixer. Sometimes I don't want to mix and I want someone else to come in and take it into a different place. Again, back to objectivity.
My setup here is - I have an elaborate mix bus setup - I mix in Pro Tools but it goes through a Tonelux console and it sounds better than any other analog console I've ever worked with. Then I have all kinds of the stuff I will use on the mix bus. I have two Pultec EQ's, I have the Anamod tape simulator - I sold my Studer because it sounds so good! I also have the Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor, SPL Vitalizer and other individual compressors I will use on the track.
My favorite kind of gear is the kind that you don't even realize that you're listening to the gear, the music just feels better and sounds better. The Softube Tube-Tech PE 1C "Pultec" Equalizer, immediately did this for me. I actually have it set up as my default EQ for every track. I'm a big fan of Pultec that the Tube-Tech is based on and I just feel that whoever came up with the code really did a killer job! It's on every kick drum, it's on vocals, it's all over the place.
Then I discovered some other plug-ins that Softube make. TSAR-1 Reverb has become our go-to reverb for everything. The FET Compressor has such vibe to it. Also the Trident A-Range is so great. I like stuff that you intuitively can figure out how to use and whenever you move it up sounds good.
What would you use the Trident A-Range EQ and the FET Compressor on?
Drums, guitars, vibey piano sounds. It sounds very, very analog to me. I grew up with tape, consoles and analog compressor. These plug-ins sound like that. You can't really describe a plug-in as being vibey - but they are!
Could you share a typical vocal chain?
I'll give it to you from start to finish. I have found my two favorite vocal mic's that are both made by Telefunken USA, custom made. A Telefunken 250 which is really great on female vocals and the other is the U47, slightly more old school mic. They all go into a Neve 1073 preamp and then it goes into an 1176 compressor that I've had since the mid 90's, a blue labeled silverface. Sometimes I'll put API EQ in after the Neve, before the compressor. Maybe just around 100Hz, a little top at 12 or 15 kHz. That's how we record vocals most of the time.
The record label won't exactly say 'yes, please sit and fiddle around for three days with a Memory Man delay'
For mixing I have some plug-ins that I like to go to and also a hardware chain that I like to go to. The Retro 176 goes on most lead vocals. I also have an Empirical Labs LilFreq which also have the best deesser I've ever heard. I will usually precede all that with some kind of EQ and compression, it depends on the song. The FET Compressor is perfect to use on lead vocal. The Tube-Tech PE 1C "Pultec" Equalizer will also be on the lead vocal most of the time. I also use Slate Digital Virtual Console Collection on the lead vocal and on the mix bus. That's usually it.