Meet Magoo, one of Australia’s top music producers and mixing engineers – a two-time ARIA award winning one, to boot. His work has helped shape the landscape of modern Australian music, with an impressive catalog of clients including Midnight Oil, Regurgitator, Art Vs Science, The Jungle Giants, Go Violets, Jeremy Neale, and more. Magoo has been spending less time of late in the world of production, but luckily we managed to catch him during an atypical week. Read on below for a journey through his world.
Over to you, Magoo…
Essentially, all I do is help an artist record a song. What that is changes a lot. Usually it involves sitting in rehearsals, discussing the songs, suggesting changes and creating a plan for how we will record the song. In the studio, you may decide which drum kit you use, how to tune it for each song and how many microphones to put on it. You may change instruments and amplifiers for each song, and even for different parts within the one song. You can also record the vocals in many different ways. The producer makes all of these decisions. Sometimes, my job is just a matter of setting up the mics and pressing record. I guess it’s knowing how to approach each project.
These days I find myself moving into the world of academia at QUT, teaching the next lot of young hopefuls tricks of the trade. This takes up about 2 days each week. The other 3 days, I’m usually mixing stuff that’s been recorded by someone else. Mixing is my favourite part of the process, so I’m happy where things are. I am, however, about to commit more time to QUT, where I am researching the place of the recording studio as part of a PHD.
I chose this week because it is the closest to what I used to do all the time: make records and produce songs.
Sunday, March 29
I don’t usually work on a Sunday as it is ‘Family Time’, but when a band travels great distances, you have to make a few consolations.
Today was pre-production for a band from Tasmania called Chase City. I recorded 3 songs for them at Applewood about a year ago. Now that Applewood has gone, we’re off to 301 Byron Bay tomorrow. Now’s the time to get these songs right before the clock starts ticking. The band flew in Brisbane and drove to 301 on Saturday. They drove up to Brisbane from Byron for this rehearsal.
We’re at Red Star in Albion. Luckily, Tony gave us the nice room, and the band sets up. We run through the three songs we are recording and discuss how we might record the songs. We make a few changes, but for the most part, the songs are all there.
Regardless, it’s a good time to catch up with the band and have a chat. When I get to 301 tomorrow, we can get into it straight away, making the best use of our time, and I still got home in time to make a roast for dinner.
Time = 2 hour rehearsal
Previously listening to demos and making notes and replying to emails = 4 hours
Monday, March 30
Up at 6:30 and off to the gym. The toughest part of this work is looking after your relationships and your body. As age slowly does it’s thing, I’ve realised I need to go to the gym, even if it means I’m going to lose an hour’s sleep.
Home to pack the car as the band have requested a bit of my gear, as it’s not easy flying with guitar amps. It’s times like these I miss having my own studio, with everything setup and ready to go. A quick breakfast, a kiss on the cheek to the family and I’m off for the drive to Byron.
I make good time and arrive for what is really my first recording session at 301 Byron. I did mix a few songs for Van Lustbader there more than 10 years ago, but we didn’t record anything. I’m looking forward to this. It’s not everyday you get to use all this beautiful vintage equipment, but again, I do miss having all my stuff around. As the day rolls on you find ways around the forgotten power supply and keyboard you wish you brought.
We (myself and Dan the assistant) spent 2 hours setting up mics and instruments, had lunch and then started getting sounds. Our initial setup was pretty good and we didn’t need to move too many things. We managed to get 2 beds recorded (drums and bass) and then it’s off to fight someone for a bed and dinner. It’s been a busy day! When you find yourself replying to emails in your bed, you realise you love your job. Well, you better, or I guess you wouldn’t do it.
Time = 11 hours
Driving = 2 hours
Emails = 1 hour
Tuesday, March 31
Today we recorded the last of the beds for the 3 songs we’re tracking. It’s a synth pop song with a bit of an 80’s feel. I decided to track the cymbals separately to the kick, snare and toms. It worked out well, and the song has a unique character now.
We then had to pull down the live recording setup and prepare for overdubs. This took over an hour. One of the perks of being in a larger studio is an assistant. Luckily most of this chore is ably handled by Dan, giving me a little bit of a mental break.
As often happens these days, 2 of the members have to fly home tomorrow, so we had to finish off all the keys and lead guitar. We got it all done, but it did make it a 12-hour day. The next 2 days should be a little more relaxed, and it will give us a bit of time to try out some vocal harmonies.
Dinner and off to bed to reply to emails.
Time = 12 hours
Emails = 1 hour
Wednesday, April 1
As predicted, today is more relaxed. We did spend a bit of time on Tarik’s (the singer/guitar player in the band) rhythm guitar, but it does sound good. Then we did the lead vocal with the lovely Neumann U47 here. It is a bit of a standard mic to use for vocals, but not one I get to use too often. After about 2 hours, that’s done and we move onto some harmonies. Always the hardest part, we mange to find some good ones. A little bit of percussion and song is almost done. Certainly time to move on. We did a small guitar part in a song loosely titled ‘Synth Pop Song’, then it’s on to pizza, bed and emails.
Time = 8 hours
No emailing today, I’m buggered.
Thursday, April 2
Today is our last day for this session. Although we only have 2 vocals and some percussion to record, it’s going to be a full day. Recording a main vocal can take 2 hours. I like to do lots of takes. Sometimes the song will be split up into parts, for instance we will record the just the verse vocals and then do the chorus in a separate pass. Is great for breath control, but it does take longer. Then, it’s a matter of going through all the takes and making a composite take of all the best bits. Fortunately the singer is very strong, but it still takes its time. Probably the most time consuming part is the harmonies. I think I’m pretty good at picking a good harmony, but suggesting how to get there, I’m not very good at. Something I always try to get better at, but I think as long as I don’t have very good music theory; I’m always going to struggle. Never the less we get to the end of the day at about 9pm.
The day is also broken up by a session Steel drum player named ‘Alvin’. We laid down a few parts on one song, and it sounded great. I’ve never recorded steel drums before. After 25 years, it’s not everyday you get to mic up something you’ve never recorded.
It’s then time to packup and head home.
Time = 11 hours
Driving = 2 hours.
I do love working in a large format studio. It’s been quiet awhile since I’ve had the opportunity. It was all I did for 10 years, and I grew sick of the places and preferred working in home studios. I must say it’s good to be back.
Being away from the family; always the hardest part. When I picked this week, 6 months ago, I though there wouldn’t be much going on at school, but it seemed like I missed everything – from cross country races to Easter hat parades and even the parent/teacher meetings. Oh well, the rock will go on.
Words of Wisdom
Tailor your approach and gear choice individually to each project. Learn as much as you can about what you do, and trust strokes of inspiration. Love your work and work hard, but learn to create a balance with the other areas of your life.