Producer Profile: Alex Newport (At The Drive-In, Death Cab For Cutie, City and Colour)

With Newport producing and mixing, At The Drive-In recorded "In/Casino/Out" (1998) as a live studio album.

“I’ll get as involved in the arrangement process as I think is necessary. That could be anything from working on the arrangement and structure and instruments or even helping with the lyrics, if that’s necessary.

“In their particular case, I thought they sounded so good that I didn’t want to interfere too much; especially at that point in their career.

“For [In/Casino/Out] these were songs they had been playing on the road for two years, and they were ready. That album was more about the energy and innocence of it. I was very aware of not trying to overproduce it.”

His effort shows: At the Drive-In’s sophomore LP is well-realized, but never over-polished. Big, raw, roomy snares, tightly controlled cymbals, high-tuned toms, edgy guitars, and dynamic, gut-wrenching vocals are delivered with a degree of taste and balance that never detracts from their inherent muscle. First, we asked Newport about the raw and striking drum sound:

“A lot of it is how Tony [Hajjar] plays. He’s such an incredible drummer. I really wanted the band to sound like a band. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen them perform live, but anyone who ever did was completely blown away.

“Some bands you want to get away from the live sound, and create something more refined, but in this particular case, I felt like everything about the band pointed to this incredible live energy. So I was trying to do anything I could to make you feel like you were standing in front of that stage. There were a lot of room mics. Too much separation wouldn’t have worked in their case.

A similar approach was taken with the rest of the band. Newport tells of guitar players facing cranked amps to milk out every last bit of sustain and feedback from their speakers, and an animated singer blazing through final takes back-to-back.

Throughout the history of rock records it’s rare to find tight performances delivered with the degree of live intensity and unself-conscious abandon heard on these records. We were curious to find out how Newport helped facilitate those kinds of moments.

“The vocals were recorded through a handheld SM58. I wanted to remove everything that suggested a studio.  The only reason we didn’t record [vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala] live with the band was because we didn’t have another room to put him in.

“We did the songs in chunks of four or five because that’s how many would fit on a reel of tape. When it came time to do vocals I’d roll tape and have Cedric sing through the whole reel without stopping. So, a lot like a live show, he’d sing through four songs live in one go. We’d have him do that maybe twice, to give us the option to comp, and there was probably a punch or two, but if I remember, a lot of what we used was first take, live.”

DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE

From Screamo Slamming to Mixing for Grammys

“Energy doesn’t necessarily come from loud guitars or screaming,” says Newport, whose more recent work features albums both from jittery bands like the synth-heavy Polysics and Does It Offend You, Yeah as well as more elegant, open and sophisticated releases from Death Cab For Cutie and City and Colour.

Newport can trace his work with Death Cab For Cutie (pictured) all the way back to Knapsack.

“It’s not really intentional on my part,” says Newport. “I’ve always listened to a huge variety of music. With Fudge Tunnel we took as much from REM and XTC as we did from Godflesh and Black Flag. My taste changes a little bit as I get older, and music styles change all the time. I find myself sometimes deliberately moving away from the more aggressive stuff, and sometimes not. Different projects always come along I’ve enjoyed the variety.”

But what kind of chain of events leads a producer from post-hardcore screamers to indie rock crooners?

“I had mixed an album for a band called So Many Dynamos that was produced by Chris Walla, the guitarist and mixer for Death Cab. For whatever reason Chris didn’t mix that particular album, but he heard my mixes on it and said he loved them. So when [Death Cab] were working on [their own album] Narrow Stairs, they had mixed pretty much the whole thing but were having trouble with one track, and called me.

“My relationship with Chris came together because of So Many Dynamos. I’m sure So Many Dynamos called me because of At The Drive in, and I know those guys reached out to me because of Knapsack. So there’s always this interesting lineage that takes you to new territories.”

MIXING STYLE

Dynamic Duplicates at Future Shock

“I really like parallel compression on a lot of things. I’ll do a lot of mults [a patchbay point that allows an analog signal to be duplicated across multiple channels –Ed.]

I might mult out the kick drums 2 or 3 times. Same goes with the vocal, snare and bass. On that Death Cab mix [for the song “Long Division”] I had 2 or 3 kicks, and I’d slip between those channels on different parts of the song. I’m trying to create a dynamic change in tone throughout the song.

Newport explains that his parallel approach is less about finding a blend between two sounds, and more about creating a distinct tone for each section:

Newport at Aobadai Studio in Tokyo while working with Polysics

“The obvious example is the vocal where someone’s singing in the verse – you set your EQ, compression and effects, and everything sounds great. Then, the chorus hits and they start belting on the chorus and all of a sudden you’ve got a nasty 2k[Hz] buildup. You could find an EQ setting somewhere in between that’s a kind of compromise, but that’s not really acceptable. So, the better choice is to mult it to two channels and develop a sound for each section.

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