As the ‘technical brain’ of Switzerland-based Powerplay Studios (read our full studio review), Reto Muggli is responsible for being the go-to man on almost all of the studio’s sessions, which in the last few years has included artists ranging from Prince to Wu-Tang Clan.
Reto began his career at Powerplay in 1988 and in 2004 branched out into the world of live sound by working on shows at a club in Zurich. In 2007 he moved to LA and worked on tracks for Frank Ocean, Matt Goss, Coolio, Claire Fisher, and Ya Boy. A year later he was back at Powerplay, taking over studios A, C, and D, with a partner. In 2013, along with now studio manager Christian Müller, they began to restore the studio to its former glory.
Now, with the studio back in full swing, Reto gives us insight into his process and techniques…
You’ve had quite the range of artists through the doors at Powerplay in the last few years, where do you start when you’re working with an artist?
First of all, I try to make the artist feel like they’re at home in the studio. This is half of the business. Then we talk a lot about the sound and feeling and try to figure out their/our common goal, asking where could the journey end? I never push an artist or give them a feeling of hurry. If something doesn’t work, we’ll skip it for tomorrow. The artist defines the speed of the session – I just help to keep the time frame (the budget) in mind.
What’s the first step when you’re setting up your vocal chain?
I start by placing about six different mics that I think might fit the artist’s style. Then we test the mics with the same chorus part making sure to maintain the same energy before doing a blind test.
After a decision has been made for one or sometimes two mics, I’ll get the artist to also sing some verses while we try some compressors – outboard ones, no plug-ins. The ones we like, we choose. I always use a pure channel, however, without EQ or any effects for sure.
Do you have an ideal gear set-up for recording vocals?
My personal favourite set-up would have to be a U47 feti through the Studer preamps in our customised SSL board (on channels 1–39), and a Tube Tech compressor CL1A direct to either tape or Pro Tools.
You’ve worked with a number of rap artists from Wu-Tang Clan to most recently, Xzibit and B Real, what are some of the technical considerations when recording a rapper?
Normally I’ll start with a U47 feti because we don’t have any time to play around with the setup (it has to work right away for sure!). Such sessions are always busy because of the crowd they bring in so it is important to have a relaxed and smooth environment going on in the session. The artists normally don’t like to talk about technical issues – they just want to flow.
For gear, I use just the SSL internal compressor to have control about the peaks. Sometimes they want to have a bit of delay and reverb – mostly slap-delay – and I prefer to use the EMT140 plate (the real ones not the plug-in version).
How is that different to when you’re working with a more traditional singer?
First, you have to move the mic stand quite a lot – up and down – because of the different rappers. Writing and recording often takes place at the same time so there is a longer writing period and then the recording is done quite fast. Melody- and harmony-wise a rapper has a lot more freedom than a traditional singer so as the engineer you have to listen deeper into timing and flow (because the melody is so personal and not related to chords and tuning like with a traditional singer).
Let’s talk about your session with the Wu-Tang Clan, what project were they working on?
We were doing pre-production for the 20th Anniversary album during their tour in Europe. They always came in around 8pm and left the studio at 10am.
What was the vocal chain set-up? Did it vary from member to member? Were there any challenges or special technical skills you had to rely on during the sessions?
It was pretty much the same set-up as I described above. When you are dealing with six to eight rappers in the same session you have to be safe with the set-up – no technical problems are welcome at all.
When I mix I prefer to mix down to 0.5in tape to get some ‘bum’ in the low end and to have a real compact sound instead of using just the master compressor.
What was the atmosphere like during the sessions?
When we started the session RZA said to me ‘Please, stop working so fast!’ After that we all settled down and had some relaxed hours together. Wu-Tang is one of my favourite crews and I was so pleased to work with them.
Lastly, do you have any studio techniques that are unique or personal to you?
I think I’m not the only one, but I love to use the old Dolby 361 as an effect on snare or HH, which gives a nice colour in the high frequencies. I also use Space Echo on every song.
Drum recording is my passion and I definitely use more then eight tracks. I could go up to 32, which has been my limit so far (I’ll try to break it next time). If the song calls for stereo mic’ing I love to do so as well. Acoustic guitar is always mic’ed with a Neumann SM69, 90º stereo, 40cm from the body.