Icons: Tom Elmhirst on Mixing for Arcade Fire and Reflektor

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There are no platinum records lining the walls of Tom Elmhirst’s control room at Electric Lady Studios – but there certainly could be.

Tom Elmhirst -- on Fire at Electric Lady Studios. (all photos by Ken Bachor -- www.kenbachor.com)

Tom Elmhirst — on Fire at Electric Lady Studios. (all photos by Kenneth Bachor — http://www.kenbachor.com)

After all, Elmhirst is the Grammy award-winning mixer behind some of the most notable albums of the last decade — his discography includes Adele’s earth-shaking 21 as well as Amy Winehouse’s iconic Back to Black. And that’s not all: The Civil Wars, the Black Keys, Goldfrapp, Cee Lo Green, and Florence and the Machine are all listed there as well. His current work with the likes of Beck will also hopefully see daylight in the near future.

But the record that Elmhirst is most excited about right now is Reflektor by Arcade Fire, and it’s got nothing to do with the fact that this fascinating album is currently #1 on the Billboard charts. Rather it’s because the songs he mixed were hugely inspiring for Elmhirst – an opportunity to combine his love of dub and experimental music within one gloriously stimulating record.

An apprentice of the great British producer Trevor Horn, Elmhirst moved from England to New York City a little over a year ago. Still, his studio at Electric Lady feels remarkably lived-in for such a relatively short occupancy.

The Neve VR72 and ATC SMC50 monitors at the center of his space are surrounded not only by an appetizing array of outboard gear, but a vital collage of personal effects and eclectic furniture. Blend in the equally vibey live room on the other side of the glass – not to mention the spirit of Jimi undoubtedly smiling down – and it all qualifies Elmhirt’s as one of the more interesting studios in NYC.

Elmhirst mixed six songs on Reflektor: the title track, “We Exist,” “Afterlife,” “Here Comes the Night Time,” “It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus),” and “Joan of Arc”.

Remarkably, Tom Elmhirst’s collaboration on one of 2013’s top albums didn’t come as a result of Arcade Fire’s manager calling his manager, or anything like that. Instead it all sprang from a chance meeting on a sandy island beach – an encounter that would lead them all on a journey stretching from Jamaica to Montréal…to a very sweet spot in the heart of Greenwich Village.

When I first approached you about an interview, you said you wanted to wait until you had something new to talk about.

It’s really hard to talk about mixing or explain it sometimes. I’m not the type of person to ask, “What does that EQ do?” I just use it. For example you could look at the settings I made on the Urei and write them down – well, they don’t mean anything in isolation. Ideally, you’re just much more instinctive about it. You listen, and don’t look very much.

People sometimes get too carried away with the gear aspect of record-making, not the emotional bit of it. That’s why I still use a console. It’s a luxury having a 72-channel Neve – I can do 10 things at once, but with the mouse you can only do one thing at a time. That’s not to say you can’t make great records out of a laptop – I just did a couple of mixes with Jamie xx of The xx and he makes records on a laptop with a pair of headphones and they’re amazing.

A Neve VR72 is at the center of Elmhirst's creative workflow. (click to enlarge).

A Neve VR72 is at the center of Elmhirst’s creative workflow. (click to enlarge). (photo: Kenneth Bachor)

But he’d never really done it to this extent (gesturing around the studio). He saw this, and I think he realized the possibilities. Not everybody has had experience in a large format studio. Obviously being in small dark rooms for 20 years or so, maybe I’m a bit blasé. For me it’s the norm, but a lot of people come in and say, “What do all these buttons do?”

I’m fortunate enough to work with a lot of established artists, but I like working with new artists as well. I behave the same way with a new artist as I do with people like U2, who have been making records for 35 years.

And I’m predominantly now just mixing albums as opposed to doing radio mixes, which is often a necessary but not an entirely satisfying experience. Know what I mean?

How did you come to work with Arcade Fire on Reflektor?

I met them at Goldeneye, Chris Blackwell’s hotel in Oracabessa, Jamaica. I’ve been going out to Jamaica for years, and I woke up one morning there, sat on my deck with a cup of coffee, and out walked (Arcade Fire co-founders) Win (Butler) and Regine (Chassagne) from the next cottage. Chris had invited them down for a couple of days, just to see Jamaica and have a break.

I’ve known their manager Scott Roger a while, and he came out for a couple of days. So we just got to talking, eating, and hung out. We had a funny experience breaking into a nearby all-inclusive resort – literally breaking into it – and having a laugh doing some organized ragga dance class with the other hotel guests. It wasn’t a business thing at all, it was just social.

Then they came to NYC for a wedding, and Win just called me up and said, “Do you want to have a coffee?” I said sure, invited him to come by the studio and he asked me if I wanted to hear some music, and it unfolded from there.

Does Reflektor represent new techniques and direction for you as a mixer?

No, not necessarily. Most days I aim not to screw up. As a band, Arcade Fire are very studio savvy. They know exactly what they’re doing. They are all individually super talented, but combined they’re a unique band. They’ve built their own studio in Montréal, which is beautiful, and in Mark Lawson a longtime engineer for them, and Korey Richey – they had a good crew around them.

This was a hugely ambitious project with an 18-month recording span. When I first got involved, I went up to Montréal for a couple of weeks. In that time I did quite a lot of vocal recording with them, quite a lot of condensing of information. The multitracks were massive. By then they had spent time in Jamaica with Markus Dravs, and James Murphy had been up to Montreal for periods of time.

I don’t typically go to other artists’ studios. As a mixer, monitoring is the most important aspect of my daily life and the room I have put together at Electric Lady is as good as it gets so I want to mix here.

We got multi-tracks in various states, from ready to mix to needing a bit of work, and my assistant engineer here, Ben Baptie, spent time bouncing and doing whatever was needed to get them mix ready. What we’ve got up on the screen here right now is the multitrack for the song “Reflektor”. Doesn’t it look good?

The Pro Tools session for the album's title track, "Reflektor."

The Pro Tools session for the album’s title track, “Reflektor.” (Photo: Kenneth Bachor)

I think it looks beautiful! Why does it look good to you?

Because it’s extremely clear to me what’s going on. All the parts have been condensed/bounced down to make it as organized as possible.

I did a rough mix of Reflektor in Montréal, then came to Electric Lady for a week on my own to make a start on the three “biggies,” if you like: “Reflektor”, “Afterlife,” and “We Exist.” Those three songs were all pretty ambitious productions, and I needed a few days to get them to a place that when the band arrived we could recall them and get cracking. They are also longer than your average song – “Reflektor” is 7:30 long. To keep a mix interesting and dynamic over that many bars takes time.

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  • Will Shanks

    Excellent work Tom! Nice interview David!

  • Liam

    Great insight. Thanks!

  • Kick Dust

    loved this

  • Scott

    Great interview. Educational and inspiring. Just discovered sonic scoop. Keep up the great work, all!