Interview: Darrell Thorp on engineering Beck’s Colors and recording perfection

Paul McCartney, Radiohead, Beck… Just a few of the names who have worked with nine-time Grammy Award winner Darrell Thorp. His never-ending quest for sonic perfection has established him as one of the most sought-after engineers and mixers in the USA.

Darrell Thorp
With the mixing process, Darrell is generally always trying to achieve the same goal, regardless of genre

Photography by David Goggin for Universal Audio

Many people starting their careers in the recording industry anticipate many years of toil, labouring behind the scenes before they even get close to the possibility of working with top-tier artists. However, Darrell Thorp’s first decade in production – as an intern and then an assistant engineer – tells a different story.

Following four years in the US Navy, Darrell began his musical education at Arizona’s Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences. His talent for picking the right gear for the job quickly led him to an internship at Track Record Studios, before full-time stints at Conway Studios and the legendary Ocean Way.

It was during his time at Ocean Way that Darrell met Nigel Godrich and quickly formed a working relationship and friendship. This led to him to team up with the producer on records with the likes of Paul McCartney and Radiohead, as well as establishing a long-term, highly successful association with the genre-hopping Beck.

Thorp has been operating as a freelance engineer and mixer in his own right. His work has resulted in nine Grammy Award wins, including at the most recent ceremony where he and the rest of the production team took home the Best Engineered Album prize for Beck’s latest LP, Colors.

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How did your interest in production begin?

It started when I was really young. I was a teenager and I started playing guitar. I got very intrigued by the mysterious process of how records were made; it was like some kind of voodoo thing to me. I made friends with the guy that ran the sound department at the church that I used to go to. He started showing me tricks and tips and how microphones, cables, monitors and consoles worked. That gave me the bug, big time.

How was your experience of working with Nigel Godrich?

I’m so fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Nigel as long as I did. I learned so much from him, particularly from an engineering standpoint. I really wouldn’t be the engineer that I am without his influence. He’s an amazing producer, but he’s also a darn good engineer. He takes a lot of risks. He commits and makes a decision right then and there about how something is supposed to sound and just goes for it.

Darrell Thorp

Earlier in my career, when I was assisting a lot, I noticed that a lot of engineers don’t really do that. They tend to record in a very safe way, where I think the mentality is that people can manipulate their quite flat-sounding recordings later in the mixing stage. Nigel was different. Nigel would just say: ‘I’m here, I’m ready, I’m going to record it and make it sound great and the mix is probably just going to be a rough mix because it’s basically done.’ So he’d do all the heavy lifting in that initial recording stage. All the decisions had been made sonically. I love that approach and try and work that way as much as I can.

Chaos and creation

With Nigel, you worked with some iconic artists. What did you learn, and are there challenges when working with bona fide icons?

I wouldn’t say there’s a challenge to working with those types of artists. Paul McCartney is just one of the most gracious, sweetest human beings on the planet and he’s so much fun to work with. When working with him [on 2005’s Chaos And Creation In The Backyard],
I’d just come into the studio and I’d know it was going to be a really nice, relaxed day of just enjoying the music-production process. Paul would just say: ‘Hey, let’s do a guitar part,’ or: ‘Let’s do this,’ very casually. Paul is such an insanely talented musician, so it was just really fun to watch him play multiple instruments.

With Radiohead, it’s a similar story, they’re all great guys and they are one of my favourite bands, anyway. When we recorded Hail To The Thief, it was so cool to just watch them play. They are such a damn good band. They’re such a collective core. You don’t really see that too often. They really, really gel well together musically.

Let’s talk about your own studio setup, what gear do you have in there and how do you typically use it?

I’m in this very fortunate, lucky situation where my home studio is pretty much just my mix room. In there, I have a bunch of UA Apollos which run into a Pro Tools HDX rig. I have a pair of monitors, a pair of headphones and a mouse and a keyboard and that’s it, really.

I pretty much mix in my space almost completely in-the-box. It’s much better for recalling projects and managing my time. So many clients will hire me to do a mix, I’ll do the mix and I’ll send it off. But then often, I won’t hear back for like a month. They’ll then call and say: ‘Hey, we finally got the chance to put our notes together.’ So for me, having the ability to just load up that Pro Tools session and make those changes quickly allows my workflow to be much smoother than having to plug in loads of hardware.

Darrell Thorp
Darrell with a selection of some of his favourite plug-ins

My partner has a larger room with an API mixing console, great mics and preamps. I can go in there anytime I want to and record overdubs if that’s what the client needs. Mostly, my clients either have really amazing studios already, or will hire a commercial facility like EastWest or United to track. I’m very spoiled in that aspect, I still get to work in amazing commercial facilities all the time.

Are there any specific plug-ins that you find yourself using all the time during the mixing process?

I’m a big user of Universal Audio plug-ins, I’m pretty much always reaching for the UA 1176 Classic Limiter Collection Rev A. I call it the ‘blue stripe’. I’m also always reaching for the UA Neve 1073 EQ, the problem with those two things is that they’re extremely power-hungry. So if a session is at 96k, then I can’t go too far with them before things start to slow. The DSP goes quick with those, but that’s why they sound so good.

I also love the UA SSL 4000 E Channel Strip Collection. It’s so much fun to use for two reasons: because you can just go line-in on it like normal I/O, or you can flip it into mic preamp mode and if you’re trying to mix something that’s been recorded really flat and sterile, you can turn the gain up and it really pops to life. From there, you can start EQing and compressing to your taste. It’s so cool. I just discovered that a few weeks ago and realised how much of a game-changer it was.

Up all night

Congratulations on your Grammy win for Beck’s Colors. It’s a big, up-tempo pop record – what techniques did you employ in the studio to achieve that?

Okay, so with Colors, I believe that all but two songs were produced and performed by Beck and Greg Kurstin. Aside from being a brilliant producer, Greg is also a really good engineer and gets great tones. So that’s the reason behind the record’s success, because it was co-written and co-performed by Greg and Beck together.

Darrell Thorp
Darrell Thorp with the Grammy for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical for Beck’s Colors, in Los Angeles in February 2019. Image: Getty Images

On that record, I did all the strings and I also did a lot of vocals, as well as a drum overdub and some arrangement editing with Beck. That was kind of my role in that. I wasn’t the principal recording engineer on all the stuff, so it was a little bit of a different situation for me. On Morning Phase [Beck’s previous record], I recorded everything. That was an acoustically driven album, so the approach was very, very different. Morning Phase had a sleepy, Americana vibe, whereas Colors is an in-your-face pop/dance record.

What tracks on Colors are you most happy with?

Up All Night for sure – it’s a work of genius, I think. It’s down to Beck’s melody and his lyrics and all the programming and performing that Greg did on the track. I recorded the strings, which I think are freaking rad! I remember that Beck’s dad David Campbell did the arrangement for that, so it was very good. I remember when I recorded those strings thinking it sounded utterly brilliant.

You’ve worked with Beck often over the last 10 years. Does he tend to bring in finished material, or does he use the studio creatively to compose and build tracks?

Usually, Beck will walk into the studio with some sort of idea. He’ll normally have a verse chordal idea or a chorus chordal idea, though he may or may not have a melody. If it’s a tracking thing with his band, then he’ll start feeding the chords to them and see how it starts to feel and from there, the tracks expand and start to build, then he might change some of the chords around and try new things out. That’s how he usually likes to work, he likes getting inspiration on the fly as it’s going down.

It’s cool to see the creative spark really lighting up in him. That’s one of the reasons that I try to work so hard as an engineer to record stuff. I want to make it sound as good as I can, because I feel like it makes an artist more inspired, once something has been recorded with clarity and punch and they can hear that. It just feeds more creativity.

Preparation is all

Colors aside, how do you generally prepare for a session – do you collaborate with the producer on what gear and setup you need to capture the best sound?

Yeah, I like to get on the phone with the producer and pick their brain about what we’re going for with the project. Things like whether we need big drums, roomy, dry drums, or if we’ll need a higher-pitched piccolo kind of snare-drum sound. All those general, technical questions we’ll discuss early in the process. Then I’ll ask similar questions about the guitars, what amps are we using and where in the mix will these sit. Then the same questions for bass, too.

I’ll generally get a vibe from the producer about what their vision is. From there, I’ll try and do my setup days before to establish what microphones to use, what mic-pres, what channel inputs they’re going in on. I’ll then write a plot up for the studio for the musicians. I always set the band up in a circle or a semi-circle, so that everyone can see each other really well. Usually, no matter how much I prepare for it, I’ll come into the studio and the artist will go: ‘Darrell, I’ve got an idea, let’s do this instead.’ So I’ve got to be a bit flexible in terms of controlling the environment.

With mixing, do you have like a typical approach to the process, or is that very much dependent on the number of stems or the genre, etc?

I think my approach does depend on the genre. Though I do think you’re just trying to achieve the same thing pretty much all the time, which is getting the song to be as big and punchy as possible. That’s what I’m usually going for. I’m more comfortable mixing pop, rock and indie/alternative guitar bands. I have a hard time with rock in a conventional sense. I have to work really hard with that kind of stuff. I don’t really do a lot of it. I have a few friends who’ve asked me to do hip-hop and R&B, which always leave me scratching my head a little. I hear other engineers that do a lot of that stuff and I’m so impressed, they can get these really huge-sounding kicks.

What projects would you say you’re most proud of in your career to date?

I’m obviously really proud of Colors and I’m also really proud of the Foo Fighters record we just did, Concrete And Gold. But one of the biggest things I’m happy with is the Dave Grohl Play record. That was just such a once-in-a-lifetime experience for an engineer to record something like that. Dave is just such a damn good musician and he is so much fun to work with. With Play, Dave recorded himself playing and performing seven instruments for a 23-minute piece of music straight through, without stopping. To sit there and watch someone try and capture this 23-minute piece from top to bottom was astonishing.

Studio shortage

Is there anyone out there, either artist or producer, that you’d love to work with?

One of my favourite bands of all time is the punk-rock band Refused. Working with them would be a big one for me. But honestly, I generally just enjoy working with talented artists who write and perform great music. That’s the main thing for me. I’m happy continuing to do that. I feel pretty lucky.

You’ve recently done some mentoring work, is that something you want to continue doing?

I’ve done two tutorials with pureMix so far. I want to do more, but it’s always schedule-dependent, of course. I really enjoy teaching and what’s great is when I get the chance to do live Q&As. There are some crazy questions sometimes, though, that really make me think, but it’s fun.

When I get those leftfield questions, for a brief moment, I tend to feel like a complete idiot and my mind just goes blank. I often walk away from a Q&A session with just a few little tidbits of things to look into or reconsider. So it’s a win-win for both parties.

What advice would you give to anyone looking to have a career like yours?

I feel like one of the pitfalls of the music industry right now is that there aren’t enough studios for people to cut their teeth in. I learned so much from being in that environment. When I was starting up my career, though, I couldn’t sit in my bedroom and open up a full Logic session and play around with plug-ins that are exact emulations of the analogue gear that I first learned to use about 20 years ago. So that’s really the flip side of the coin.

Darrell Thorp

There’s not enough studios to get a job at where you can lock yourself into a career path and work your way up to an assistant engineer like I did. This was also great for watching seasoned studio veterans at work and observe how they place microphones and deal with artists. That’s unfortunate.

But there’s so much tutorial and educational content out there now that it’s so easy to learn complex processes, wherever you are. You can get Logic or a Pro Tools rig and just start mixing away without having to go into a studio at all. Everything I’ve learned I’ve generally learned while I’ve been working, and I’m still learning now. It’s an ongoing process for me.

So what’s next on the agenda?

More tracking than mixing this month, which is fine. Both processes have their pros and cons. I like mixing because I can set my own schedule. I like tracking because it gets me out of the mixing zone. In terms of specifics, I don’t like to say what I’m doing unless it’s about to be released. The social media thing is so rapid and word travels very fast, so I’m happy to work with artists and keep it on the down-low until they’re ready to spread the word.


Darrell Thorp’s selected CV

Just a few of the records that Darrell has engineered and mixed during his extensive career…

Jay-Z, The Black Album (2003)
Mixer, Mixing Engineer

Outkast, Speakerboxx/The Love Below (2003)
Mixer

Radiohead, Hail To The Thief (2003)
Engineer, Backing Vocals, Choir Assistant

Paul McCartney, Chaos And Creation In The Backyard (2005)
Audio Engineer

Air, Pocket Symphony (2007)
Audio Engineer

Roger Waters, Is This The Life We Really Want? (2017)
Engineer

Foo Fighters, Concrete And Gold (2017)
Engineer, Mixer, Mastering Engineer

Beck, Colors (2017)
Engineer, Mixer

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