Interview With Audio Engineer and Producer Patrick Brown

Patrick Brown

I recently had the opportunity to interview Different Fur Studios’ Patrick Brown. 

Patrick Brown is the owner of the iconic Different Fur Studios, located in the Mission district in San Francisco. He worked as the engineer for the new Toro y Moi album and he took the time to discuss his approach to producing, as well as his methods of engineering Toro y Moi.

Tell the readers something about your background and how you became to be where you are today.

I’ve been working on recording/producing music in one form or another since I moved to San francisco from New York in 1998 and bought a used Yamaha 4 track and a Yamaha qy-70 sequencer, but professionally i started here at Different Fur Studios www.differentfur.com in 2004 and worked my way up from intern to engineer. Eventually working any and every session I could 7 days a week and sleeping on the couch, coupled with my work engineering and co-producing the Morning Benders (now known as POP ETC) my work with iTunes Originals, and music blog/curators Yourstru.ly, I moved up. As far as Toro y Moi is concerned,  a friend organized a Yourstru.ly session http://youtu.be/ghkImMpabao with them that I engineered and that’s how I became connected with Chaz the first time.

You focus a lot on the feel in the room. How do you go about creating a great performance from your artists?

I’m pretty relaxed in the studio. I mean, I spend 12 hours every day in the studio so it’s comfortable for me, but one thing engineers often forget is that the studio is a foreign world to most people. It’s a spaceship, and musicians can feel like they are in an observation tank. The first thing you want is for a performer to feel comfortable. Once you get them there you can make them feel less comfortable when the need arises, since sometimes to get a great performance the artist needs to be uncomfortable or angry or unsettled. Knowing when that is is a judgment call based on in studio experience and familiarity. Otherwise the biggest thing is for everyone to know that you’re there for the same reasons they are, and that you are all working together. Setting the mood is important, it seems superfluous but we installed these color changing LED lights in the live room and they can have a pretty great effect on the mood. People are so influenced by their surroundings, it’s important to pay attention to the environment people are working in.

Do you have any tips on turning a bad vibe around?

Food is a big one, people forget to eat in the studio and food is a major factor in mood… but mostly I just try to take breaks when we hit a wall. You always have to be careful about the food breaks because it makes everyone sleepy, so usually just getting everyone out of the room for a minute or having a smoke or refilling on coffee/water/snacks. If there is a specific person who is an issue, or two people having issues with each other, the best thing is to find a way to separate them. Mentally first, but often literally as well. If I see too much arguing I might get in between two people and just interject my opinion and either force a decision or at least shut down the troublemaker (subtly of course;)) Of course the best way to shut down any argument is to find a way to agree so it’s not always about confrontation so much as resolution. Once again, being able to read your environment and how people are feeling is a huge factor in engineering / producing in the studio. So much of our job is psychological.

What kind of gear are you working with today at Different Fur Studios?

I love my SSL 4000 E/G. Besides that we’re running PT HD / Studer A827. Barefoot MM27s, Yamaha NS-10s Westlake TM-1s and Auratones. We don’t use tons of outboard EQ besides the GML 8200, but we have a bunch of outboard compression / pre-amps / efx. Empirical Labs, Universal Audio, Retro Instruments, Avalon, Eventide, Aurora Audio, Shadow Hills…. all the good stuff. We’re currently installing a second room with an SSL matrix and some more barefoots etc. for smaller mixing projects.

I hear that you really encourage a community of passionate people working at your studio. How does that reflect onto the work you do there?

We’re all friends. These are our people and we like to support those who support us. We’re a one room facility (as I said, we’re working on building a second right now) in San Francisco, and in 2012 we managed to work with 200 artists… it’s really amazing that 200+ people made the decision to collaborate with us on their art, and we don’t take it lightly. I started at Different Fur as an intern, and now I’m in charge of training interns so there’s an element of teaching involved in my job as studio owner and head engineer… I think that also falls over into the way I interact with musicians. My goal is to help people succeed, I want the work I do with musicians to propel them to wherever it is they want to go, and the same goes for the interns/engineers who work for/with me, so I am constantly giving advice and trying to figure out what people need in order for them to keep building and excel at their craft. On the other hand, i love it when i can learn something from someone. I’ve learned the most and had the most fun in my life through collaboration .

Tell us a little bit about recording “So Many Details.” How did you achieve that spacious but grungy synth arrangement?

Chaz is an amazing musician. I have to start with that statement because if I’m not the producer so much of my job depends on how good the arrangements are when I get them. Much of the process for “Anything In Return” was the same in that I spent most of the time stacking things with effects and processing the sounds that were already there with compression / distortion / eq. Trying to make electronic sounds thicker and more organic and also creating space at the same time are really opposites. We wanted “So many details” to be lush and rich but with snappy modern drums so we did a lot of drum compressing with the Distressors and the SSL, usually scooping out some mud and resonance with a Renaissance EQ and adding some snap and bass with the GML. I chose to stack different types of effects on different sections of the arrangement so that nothing gets too bogged down in one sound and none of the effects are overtly obvious. everything I put in was to reinforce the sounds that Chaz already had and make them pop out in their respective frequency ranges. There really is a lot going on in those mixes that I don’t think is apparent at first glance. Some of the instruments have upwards of 5 different time based or harmonic effects each printed with them and stacked on top of each other but all just enough not to make a mess out of everything.

How much of the arrangement is recorded and how much is computer generated?

I would say 75% of everything was sequenced in Reason by Chaz before coming in to the studio but everything was heavily processed by us in mixing. We recorded live drums on one song, all of the vocals, some new synth parts with the ms2000, and a bunch of upright piano. We used 4 mics on the upright and used the phase on them to give it more space in the mix.

How do you go about recording so many different instruments and fitting them all together?

I like to use combos of distortion / chorus / reverb and eq to give each instrument it’s own lane to poke through. For example, I might take the low stuff and filter each low instrument at a different frequency so they each have a place to sit, and then distort the main bassline, then add some sub to the lowest bassline and chorus the piano bassline and balance all of that together. (many of the tracks had multiple bass synths and multiple lead synths) then I’ll repeat the same process for the mid frequency stuff like vocals and synths, and again for the high leads cymbals etc. that way in each frequency range there are subdivisions of tones…… then I’ll do the same thing with time based effects to accentuate each instrument a bit more. A little reverb here, and a little delay there, some harmonizer, some chorus, etc.

How did you get the lead vocal sound on “So Many Details”?

Our vocal chain was Shure SM7b – Avalon AD2022 – GML 8200 – Retro Instruments Sta-Level (modded with a fairchild tube). Typically we waited until most of the mix was complete before tracking vocals, that way we could make sure the instruments were all sitting well, especially the drums and bass. Then we did a bunch of stacking, usually around 4 stacks of each vocal. Chaz works quick and makes solid decisions on the fly, which is honestly my favorite way to work. typically once everything was tracked in we would start processing the vocals and fitting them into the mix, adding effects and scooping out mud to get everything consistent. I like to stick with the Rvox and an REQ6 to tighten vocals up at the end of the chain.

What’s next on the horizon for you as an engineer/producer?

Well I just finished up Producing and Co-Writing the first full-length record for The Frail http://www.facebook.com/TheFrailSF due out in Feb, and I’m about to start engineering a new record for GRMLN (label mates with Toro y Moi) over X-mas: http://www.facebook.com/pages/GRMLN/101201576638548

I Co-produced this new Starred EP for Pendu Sound that was released this month:

And I’ve started a new production project with my friend Rob Pera called WOOF http://soundcloud.com/woofbeats of which we plan on releasing an album in January

Thanks to Patrick for taking the time to sit down and answer these questions in such detail.

  • Awesome interview. Much food for thought.