Producer Carl Bown (Bullet For My Valentine) on lessons learned during his time as an engineer, mixer and now producer
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Producer Carl Bown (Bullet For My Valentine) on lessons learned during his time as an engineer, mixer and now producer

Carl is one of the most exciting producers / mixers coming out of the UK right now.

In 2010 he was nominated for The MPG “Breakthrough Producer Of The Year” for his production on Fightstar’s “Be Human” – a critically acclaimed and highly ambitious fully orchestrated rock album. Since then he has gone on to make many highly acclaimed records both in the UK and America for bands such as Bullet For My Valentine, Trivium and While She Sleeps.

We spoke to Carl during the pre-production process for Bullet For My Valentine’s latest record to find out what got Carl interested in music production, some of the lessons learned during his time as an engineer, mixer and producer and what the future holds now he own's two fantastically equipped recording and mixing studios.

What sparked your initial interest in music production?

I’ve always been interested in music from a really young age. Growing up there was always music in the house and I loved playing instruments and singing as a kid. Eventually me and a group of friends found guitars when we were about 8 and that was it, game over and I’ve kinda been making a racket ever since!

My uncle was a singer and my granddad was his manager, he had an old reel to reel recorder for demos and I was obsessed with its “Sound on Sound function”. I guess that was the spark. Then as I grew up I was never happy with the demos we recorded at local studios so I decided to take on the job of doing them. Soon I had other local bands asking me to make their demos and I think I’ve been recording ever since.

From a ‘production perspective’ what are some of your favourite albums

That is a super tricky question!!! I’m going to go with a couple that really influenced me as a producer.

Machine Head “Burn My Eyes” - It just defined powerful heavy metal production, the right amount of perfection, great low end but with a gnarly attack on the ears.

Silverchair “Neon Ballroom” - I just adore the way the orchestral parts intertwine with the rock guitars and vocal ideas. It’s very very cleverly put together and the songwriting is incredible.

What was your first music industry job?

Making demos for bands. My Dad and I built a shed in our back garden - he had half for the lawn mower and tools and I had half to record bands! I still mix in that room, although now there are no lawn mowers!

It seems like you have had a very ‘organic’ rise through the studio production ranks, moving from engineer, to mixer to producer. Has it all come naturally to you?

Kind of… So as I said I started doing local band demos. Some of those bands went on to have a bit of success and needed albums doing. Luckily they came back to me so I’d have to put on the hat of Producer for those jobs and just kind of got on with it! That led on to doing demos for more established artists, this is where I decided it was time to put mega hours in. My theory was if I can make the demos incredible - where ever the band goes to record it “for real” afterwards it’s going to be a struggle to beat my demos. This totally paid off.

Have there been any difficult lessons learned?

Yes!

If you don’t sleep, ever - you will end up in hospital

Have two backups of everything

Always check your tuner is set to A=440, don’t assume.

Always take a DI

If you are doing something you’ve never had to do before (like put 10dB of 60 Hz on a kick) - it’s likely there is a problem

You can’t fix crappy cymbals… they ruin everything

Clearly these roles require very different qualities, both in terms of their required technical knowledge and man-management skills.  What would you say are some of the key differences?

Producing is the tricky one, once all your engineering becomes kind of autonomous it becomes easier if that makes sense. You have to be uber comfy in a room to produce - everyone has to feel comfy. That's a number 1 priority for me. The other thing is communication, when you move from Engineering to Producing you become the main point of call for communication between management, band, studio, label etc. It's very important to keep all parties informed of all things, for example if it looks like you’re going to run over on studio time - tell everyone as soon as it looks like you are falling behind. If people know they can help! 


Carl Bown during pre-production with Matt Tuck (Bullet For My Valentine)

Have you had a particular mentor during your career?  Someone who has helped your ‘transition’ between roles?

Colin Richardson. Colin is my Mr Miyagi! He took me on when I was a scruffy kid working in a shed, selflessly taught me every technique he used as openly as anyone ever could, including all the things he’d done wrong, showed me the importance of patience and how to work with artists and now he’s one of my best mates.

Did he give you any specific advice that you have carried with you since?

The first day I was working with Colin we went for a meal, he could probably tell I was a little nervous so he said “go on ask me a question about production, anything you want”. We were at a rad Vietnamese restaurant and he probably really wanted to order!  Anyways, I asked what he thought was the key to a great mix…. his answer was brilliant.

“I guess you’ve just got to be able to hear what you’re meant to hear, when you’re meant to hear it”.

It became a question I ask my self every time I do a final listen before I send a band the first reference mix of any song.

Would it be fair to assume that the artists you work with today have a better understanding of music production than say 10 years ago?  Do you feel this is a help or hindrance?

Yes, very fair. Weirdly it's a bit of both. It can be great for demos and can really help the preproduction stage but it can also result in band members finding it hard to let go and allow themselves to be pure musicians.

Talking specifically about the different roles you have had in the recording studio environment, would you be willing to share a ‘do’ and ‘don’t’ for each?

Engineer 

Do: Try and read a room constantly. If you think someone is going to need something setting up, try and get a head start before they ask for it to be done - you’ll win mega brownie points.

Don’t: Question a producer in front of the artist. Wait for a quiet time and make your suggestion then - the producer will really appreciate it and realise you are a team player. Someone did this for me once and I super appreciated it. Making a record is teamwork.

Mixer

Do: Listen to what the artist wants and make sure you A/B constantly to anything they’ve referenced  - not to copy it, more just so you don’t go off on a tangent or do anything daft!

Don’t: Use mix templates.

Producer

Do: Get involved in preproduction, if the artist is into it - it can be the most rewarding stage of a record.

Don’t: Try and force a sound onto a band/artist. Work on the idea of a sonic together. 

It must have been a dream come true to own your own studios?  Were there any difficulties in setting them up?

It certainly is! It took a long time to get everything just right - I reckon 7 years from project start to doors open, which kind of helped financially as it gave me 7 years to stockpile gear and mics etc and that really took a weight off.

What work are you most proud of?

It’s really hard to pick! That's like picking a favourite child!!!!! Sometimes I do work that does really well on an international scale, it’s seriously cool and something that I’d never imagine could happen. But it's the times I do a record for a band, and regardless of how “well” it does, I may get an email or a text from a member saying thank you and that it sounds like it did in their head before we started, but better - thats what i’m most proud of, because it means we got it totally right.

What projects are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on new material for “Bullet For My Valentine” and mixing a new album for the incredible synthwave band “Gunship”.

Finally, what piece of advice would you give someone wanting to work in music production?

Only do this if you are willing to give it everything you’ve got - because that’s what it going to take. If you love it, and it is your kungfu: keep training - keep learning new techniques and technologies. That is what its going to take. I try and learn something new everyday in the studio.

Thanks to Dan Jenkins for his assistance with this article and of course Carl Bown for taking the time to speak to us.


You can find out more about Carl at http://carlbown.com/ and his studios at http://treehouse-studio.co.uk/. 

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