Adele, Florence Welch, Iggy Pop, Josh Homme – all distinctive vocalists, and just of those recorded by engineer and producer Mark Rankin. MusicTech catches up with Mark in his bespoke LA studio to talk gear geekery, career advice and hidden vocalists…
If there’s anyone who knows how to record the perfect vocal take, it has to be Mark Rankin. As Paul Epworth’s long-time engineer, he was there capturing Adele’s 30-million-plus-selling voice for the album 21, and Florence Welch’s unique vocal delivery for two Florence + The Machine albums.
Since then, he’s been producing all sorts of acts after relocating to LA, and is now making waves in the US music scene with artists such as Queens Of The Stone Age and Iggy Pop, plus US rising stars Finish Ticket. So how did he get to this pinnacle of recording success? A lot of experience, a smidgen of luck, and the odd bootleg…
“I guess my first thing was with a sampler in a bedroom studio,” Mark recalls of his early recording interest. “We’d do bootlegs and dance 12″s, but I decided I wanted to do it professionally, so I went to college in the evenings and did a City And Guilds sound-engineering course.”
After completing the course, Mark landed a job at The Exchange mastering studio. It was here that he started to learn about bespoke recording gear as the boss of the studio, Graeme Durham, was looking to create an analogue recording setup.
“He had a spare unit in the building, so we built a studio there,” says Mark. “It was like: microphone into the back of the preamp to an EQ (if you want it), and then straight to tape! There were loads of people there into gear and they would give us bits for it.” The unique studio attracted some of The Exchange’s high-profile clients to record there, and as Mark helped set it up, he found himself installed as the engineer.
“One day, Paul Epworth came in,” Mark recalls, “and he was in a band called Lomax and they were doing a cover of a Smiths song for NME, I think, so that was the first thing I did with Paul. So that was just a fortuitous meeting, the way it goes, you know? Then he got a production job doing The Futureheads so we did that there, and from there, he started getting more work.”
That work included some incredible production jobs over the next few years, with Paul as producer and Mark as engineer, including Plan B’s The Defamation Of Strickland Banks, Cee Lo Green’s The Lady Killer, and Florence + The Machine’s first two albums, Lungs and Ceremonials. Over this period, the pair of them set up shop in Miloco Studios’ famous live room, The Pool studio, and started working in there full time. “So we did all those records over about eight years,” Mark recalls. “And I did Adele’s 21 in that time, too.”
Ah yes, Adele. 21 has, of course, shifted a few units – around 35 million of them, in fact – and hit the No. 1 spot in the charts in 30 countries. Mark was there during many of its writing sessions, where Adele would be writing songs and singing them on the go – with Rankin and Epworth ready to record her using a surprisingly basic chain, comprising a RØDE mic, plus a Universal Audio 610 mic pre, and a compressor.
“That’s what is on the record,” Mark says of one particular session when Adele was writing and singing the track Rolling In The Deep. “It was amazing, you know. That was a writing session, and she did that vocal and it stayed.”
After this successful period, Mark moved to LA to branch out as a successful producer in his own right. “I never really wanted to go that route, as I love engineering, recording and mixing as well,” he says. “Production is something you end up doing bits of and then you end up all of a sudden going ‘Okay, this is now production,’ so I don’t really know when it happened! I’ve been lucky enough to work with lots of good producers, but working with Paul for so long, I learnt so much from him.”
Mark has now been working in LA for a few years and has become a studio regular for Queens Of The Stone Age, co-producing the band’s last album with Mark Ronson. Fortunately, the experience with recording Adele during her songwriting phase left him prepared to record Queens’ formidable frontman, Josh Homme.
“Josh is constantly tweaking lyrics, right up to the last moment. It’s so intricate the way that he writes. He’ll write something and you think: ‘Yeah, that’s great,’ but for him, he has to look at it 10 different ways and see different things, which is amazing. So it’s good to keep notes, just in case. I keep notes of vocal chains and settings, so I can recall them. I write it down, or I draw a little picture of where the knobs are.”
And talking of knobs, Mark’s gear collection has certainly taken off since being in LA. His mic of choice is a Neumann U 87 “that works for everyone. I used to have a 47 and that worked for some people, but an 87 always does its thing.” He also uses a Telefunken V76 preamp that goes into an EAR 660 limiter/compressor. “That’s my basic chain,” Rankin says. “I’m not like a Neve fanatic, or anything like that. I’ll use anything as long as it sounds good. I’ll use a bit of compression, a Fairchild 660 or 1176, and maybe an LA-2 after it. With Florence, we’d do that a lot, as she was so dynamic.”
There’s no doubting that Florence, Adele, Josh and Pop are distinctive and huge vocalists, so how does Mark prepare for such high-profile sessions now? “It’s about having someone being ready, and being ready to capture it,” he says. “The worse thing is just not being ready for an artist. Number one is the environment. Standing under a flourescent light isn’t going to do anything for their vibe. Sometimes, people want to be hidden and sometimes, building a little vocal booth with a roof is best – so you have a bit of a cocoon and they can hide in there.
“I generally don’t have people facing me. I usually have them side on, so they don’t have to stare at me as they’re singing. I want them to be in their own world.”
Mark Rankin’s top tip
“Make a good cup of tea!” Mark replies when we ask him for his top career advice.
However, when we probe deeper, he does admit something maybe you don’t want to hear: “It really is luck,” before adding: “Obviously, you’ve got to know what you’re doing and there are plenty of people who do, who might have learned college. But I’ve had experience with people who have come out of college. They say: ‘I’m an engineer, and I say: ‘Great, there’s the kettle!’ That’s where you start and if you’re good at that and can be bothered to do that, then people will want to keep you around.”
And that is the real advice: start at the bottom, and be like that person people want to have in the studio…
The Mark Rankin studio
“I always love having a home studio, as you just have a place you can work and rely on,” he says of a setup packed with some incredible, bespoke gear. “The one I have here is probably the best studio I’ve ever had. It has an ASC AttackWall panel, like tube traps, it’s amazing. I’ve been looking at it for a couple of years, because it’s quite expensive. You get a speaker bottom and speaker top, and you fill the rest in with these traps. It’s the most accurate thing I have ever had – it’s insane. Me and my wife sometimes come and just listen to records in here, it’s so good. It makes you want to relisten to albums.”
“I have some PMC twotwo.6 speakers, which work pretty well in here,” he continues, “and I also have a pair of KRK 9000s, which are great. I use them while I’m tracking. I try and keep the amount of gear I have down, but I still have a lot of microphones. I have the EAR limiter I spoke about earlier. The Exchange used to use those in the cutting rooms, so it was one of the first limiters I played around with. I’ve always had that – it’s my standard.”
We turn to the topic of newer equipment, and Mark reveals a rack of gear that’s not so recognisable, but still features all his current favourites. “It’s quite exciting at the moment, with lots of new gear like this company called Overstayer,” he enthuses. “I basically had to get one of everything that the guy does. He lent it to me to do the Queens’ record and I had to keep it, because it’s insanely good. There’s a distortion unit, the Saturator NT-02A. It’s so good. I’d use that on drum ambient mics. You can be very discreet with it, or dial it in to be super-smooth and nice. Then there’s the Overstayer Model 3722 limiter, which we used a lot on the drums. It has harmonics on everything and you can dial in distortion… and there’s a side-chain filter, too. I think Alan Moulder actually bought one of these after I showed him what it did with drums. We ended up mixing and got to a point where we’d say ‘Okay, put it in,’ and when we did, we’d smile and go ‘Ah, there you go.’”
It really does appear that Mark has everything this company does, and as we move up the rack, he reveals more…
“There’s a FET model as well [3706 Limiter/Compressor] and the M-A-S [Model 8101], which is really cool for bass and is much more subtle.” Luckily, Overstayer do a kind of ‘best of’, the Model 8755D, if you just want everything in one box and, guess what, Mark has one of those, too…
“It’s the most insane thing ever,” he laughs. “It’s called a Modular Channel and kind of like a modular synth, but it has filters on it that will self-resonate. Plus, it has compression, filters and distortion. You can route things through it in different orders and there are three types of distortion on it.”
“When we did the Queens’ record with Mark Ronson producing it, I ended up co-producing it and we had two mics on a piano and they were running through this. While we were waiting for the piano to be tuned, we were messing around with it and I put the filters in and the sound just disappeared into hell! Mark was like: ‘Oh my god,’ so we ended up having the two mics constantly running. We took it out of my chain and put it into his chain in the end, and he was just recording everything all of the time through this and we would just stick that in between songs. So that’s my favourite new stuff.”
We look around the rest of the studio and it’s fair to say that Mark has some very niche bits and pieces alongside some more recognisable gear.
“I also like this JHS Colour Box preamp – I love that thing,” he says. “And next to it is the Great River Harrison 32EQ, which is great.”
Mark has not been tempted by the world of modular synths, though, even though that is full to breaking point with bespoke companies.
“I have a Korg MS-20 and that’s modular enough for me,” he says. “To me, they’re a bit of a vibe killer. You’re like: ‘Let’s get a sound,’ and then, three-and-a-half hours later, you’re still listening to ‘bip bip bip bip bip bip…’ I do love watching people who really know what they are doing on them, but I’ve been in sessions with people who say: ‘Let’s just get a kick drum sound on here,’ and it will take them two hours and you’re just like: ‘I’ve forgotten what we were doing.’”
You might be pleased to hear that not all of Mark’s recommendations are out of reach, bespoke ones. At the centre of his studio setup is Pro Tools and one of his favourite plug-ins is a $59 compressor…
“Yeah, I’m using Pro Tools 12, which is good,” he says. “I like it and it’s stable and there’s some good new stuff on there. It’s working well, which is always nice. I try not to upgrade too often, because if it just works that is all you want, you know? I use a lot of UA stuff, too. There’s also one plug-in compressor that I really like called the Joey Sturgis Gain Reduction Deluxe. It’s a really good, aggressive compressor – I’m a character guy and I love to hear stuff. If you want to work quickly, you just put that thing on.”
Mark is certainly happy he made the move to LA, and it’s one that is paying dividends…
“I guess the biggest thing was me wanting to push myself and step up a level,” he says. “In England, it might be a case of: ‘We’ll wing it and something will happen.’ Here, there’s something a bit more ‘pro’ about it, which I felt was a good push for me.”