As enormous fans of the Aussie Psychedelic music scene for the last few years we were incredibly excited at the prospect of speaking to our latest guest on the site, Sam Ford, founder of of Tone City Recordings. Sam has produced, recorded and mixed for some of the most exciting and successful artists in Australia including Psychedelic Porn Crumpets, GUM and Pond – for whom a young Kevin Parker played drums during the recording of their album ‘Beard, Wives, Denim’. We caught up with Sam to discuss all things production, from the inception of his studio to his favourite recording techniques.
Your introduction to production.
In Phase: So, what was your route into production? Obviously, you have built Tone City now, but did you always have your own space, or did you intern / assist at any other studios as you started? Was it your first job from leaving school, or did you study a degree in sound engineering or something similar?
Sam Ford: I initially got into producing and mixing from playing in bands through the 2000’s. Recording demos for my band The Silents, which was a 60’s influenced psych rock band from Perth was my first project. As time went on, I set up my own space to record friends’ bands and eventually moved into a studio in Perth called Blackbird run by a friend of mine. I recorded there for a couple of years, POND’s FROND album was the first full length record I recorded and mixed. That led into the recording of Beard Wives Denim and the creation of Tone City.
In Phase: What inspired you to go down the production road, were you always interested in who produced records from a young age, or did you start out in a band or as a musician for example?
Sam Ford: Apart from starting out as a musician, I am and have always been fascinated with the recording and production process. I’m a massive music fan, I love the history behind albums, what gear was used, what mic-ing techniques, what makes the song and sound something I connect with.
In Phase: To any people thinking about going into production but who have not quite made the leap yet, would you suggest there is a benchmark in knowledge required before you start looking for clients / work, and how would you go about securing your first opportunities to work with artists, especially in the current climate?
Sam Ford: I think you have to be prepared to start small and grow. Just like an artist, it takes time to develop skills and a reputation. I think as long as you apply passion and patience to whatever you’re doing it’s always a good time to start.
The creation of Tone City Recording Studio.
In Phase: So, when did you decide to build your own studio? Has it been a case of gradually picking up bits and pieces of gear or was it like a full business plan and an external source of funding for example?
Sam Ford: I’ve been involved in 3 separate studios in my career so far and Tone City has been going for about 11 years. I take a ‘less is more’ approach to equipment but I pick and choose my equipment carefully. I enjoy great craftsmanship in gear, I love how much the tone of a piece of equipment can change the feel of a recording or help convey the feeling the song intended. I like how throughout the history of recording, consoles and equipment have helped define the character of a studio’s sound and the albums made there. I built my studio in 2010 and I’ve been adding to my gear and setup over the last 10 years.
In Phase: The acoustics and room environments must have been a huge project to take on, was anyone else involved and how did you know it was the right time to take this step as opposed to taking clients to other studios?
Sam Ford: I’ve always wanted my own space as it lets you work in your own unique way. Having my own workflow and space I find it easier to be creative and more efficient for me to work. I designed my studio and then re-built it after 5 years or so. I found learning on the go was a great way to understand what makes a room work and what I personally like in a room.
Production elements / techniques / approaches etc.
In Phase: A lot of people learning and starting out in engineering at the moment are sourcing a huge percentage of their knowledge from YouTube or similar platforms, is there anywhere or anyone specifically who you would recommend or have a high opinion of? What would be your approach to learning if you were just starting out now?
Sam Ford: Personally, I spent a lot of time hanging out in studios and just listening and learning. For years I hung out at Dave Parkins’ Blackbird in Perth just listening. I think the biggest thing people miss these days is the opportunity to learn from spending time in the studio. YouTube clips and things like Mix with the Masters and Puremix are great but nothing is the same as learning on deck and being a part of it in the studio.
In Phase: I noticed the website states Tone City has the facilities for writing, production, recording, mixing, and mastering. Do you ever work on multiple aspects of the same song, I hear a lot of people think it is a bad idea to produce & mix / mix & master the same track?
Sam Ford: These days, more than often I’m working as a producer, mixer and mastering projects I’m working on. There are also projects that I may only record or may only mix but as a producer I really enjoy being a part of the process all the way through.
In Phase: Bands like Pond, Tame Impala, Psychedelic Porn Crumpets and the latest Gum record are full of analogue flavour, do you think it is possible for artists recording in their bedrooms to achieve a similar colour in their sound whilst recording in their own space or whilst working mostly in the box?
Sam Ford: Yes and no… The funny thing is, all of those artists do a bunch of the recording and production at home and very rarely has it been a particularly analog process. Usually, a laptop and an interface. In my experience, the word analogue attributes feelings of warmth, tone, authenticity, etc.. but it’s really just how something feels. You can achieve the sound of analog a lot of different ways. Its just a taste thing and how you use the gear available to you. Saying that, I certainly enjoy using analog outboard equipment and great mics etc… but it’s not the only way to achieve that feeling or colour.
In Phase: Your work with Pond and Psychedelic Porn Crumpets sounds so full dense in terms of the arrangement, is layering a huge part to this?
Sam Ford: It really depends on the album, I worded on a lot of the earlier Pond records before they started doing their own production and working with KP. Frond was their first studio album, that was pretty layered and super fun to make as it was collectively our first real experience making a ‘proper’ studio album. Recording Beard Wives Denim on the other hand was mostly live, all in one room, minimal mic-ing and on budget equipment with just headphones for monitoring. PPC I’ve had in the studio before but Shyga! was the first record I worked on with them. I think by nature, the Crumpets’ records sound dense because they have such a unique and phrenetic approach to the Songwriting. It’s like 10 songs in 3 and a half minutes. Everything is on 10 haha, but that’s what makes it tick. Although there is multilayering of guitars, etc. I think the density comes from the arrangement rather than over the top layers of sound.
In Phase: What would be your best advice on how to achieve a full guitar sound? (Panning, layering etc).
Sam Ford: I think you get the fullest sound when you leave space for everything to play its role. So, I find having one or two guitars recorded right with the space for each part (sonically and arrangement wise) gives me the best result. Panning, space and a great tone is all you need. Maybe a double track if the song calls for it.
Things you have picked up from artists / professionals you have worked with.
In Phase: I think a lot of artists at the moment are probably in a similar situation to myself, where they have a small home space and a few different instruments that they record with. PPC are probably a good example of that, how hard is it to take home recordings and give them that analogue flavour Aussie Psych bands seem to have an abundance of at the moment?
Sam Ford: Its mostly finding the right balance between what the artist was originally going for and what I feel is lacking in the recording. Then how together we can tweak it, re amp it, process the audio to make it fit into a high-end production or feel like the finished/complete record they were going after. That may mean changing it a bunch or sometimes only a little.
In Phase: Has an artist ever inspired you to change an ideology or principle you previously thought was a must have?
Sam Ford: Totally. Sometimes as a producer and engineer you can get stuck on the small stuff. It’s a great refresher every now and then to see how much people can achieve plugging a guitar into a laptop. It’s certainly beneficial as a reminder to you that it’s still all about the song. The gear and everything else just helps.
In Phase: What would you recommend as the essentials for someone who was making their first foray into hardware, and what is your stance on clones of popular hardware?
Sam Ford: If I were just starting out, depending on my needs. Whether I were a musician or wanting to start a studio. I’d get a good interface, the UAD Apollo stuff is great, there’s a bunch of good options. A nice stereo pre-amp and a few different dynamic mics. Personally, I think it’s a lot easier to make a great sounding recording with a few cheap dynamics than a half decent condenser. There’s some great clones out there… I still think getting something tried and true like a good Neve, API or EMI mic pre is a great start. You’ll never sell it. Stick with dynamics and ribbon mics until you can get a decent LDC.
The effect of DIY recording on producers / engineers & studios.
In Phase: In terms of the type of work you do, how has that changed with the emergence of more bedroom producers and artists? Do you find yourself involved in projects that are already demos and at a later stage than when you first got into the industry?
Sam Ford: Yeah definitely, I think there’s lots of pros and also cons to it. I think the rise in home recording has made creativity so much easier to capture. It’s made it a lot easier for anyone with a laptop and an interface to get a record out there. On the other hand, it’s probably effected the production quality in a lot of records. I think having a producer means a lot more than just the sonics. Having a second set of ears and experienced ears helps as well. Having great demos is super helpful for me as a starting point before working with an artist and if we can keep some of that stuff that’s awesome. The only real downside to the home demo is the over attachment to the demo. ‘Demoitis’ haha it’s really hard to have an impact on a track when someone is already so attached to the very first incarnation of it, so it can be limiting in that perspective.
In Phase: More and more artists now at least partially mix and track their own recordings, do you find that a lot of these recordings require you to reverse and tidy some aspects of their mix, or do you feel it makes your job slightly easier as it’s easier to capture the vibe they are going for, or where stuff should sit in the mix etc?
Sam Ford: I would say it’s a 50/50. It can be great, if they’ve captured a vibe and it works then my job is just to bring the best out in it. Every now and then, the recording quality can hinder the end goal of the artists vision and we need to back track or re-track a little but that’s all part of the fun!