Tchad Blake has mixed The Black Keys’ last three records – El Camino, Brothers and Blakroc. Although he hasn’t had the press of fellow Black Keys’ collaborator Danger Mouse, his perceptive ear has ensured the best possible finished sound for all these records. His mixes have tied disparate expectations and sounds together to create a better listening experience.
Tchad Blake is one of the most esteemed producer-engineers working in popular music today. His back catalogue of credits reads like a who’s who in the music industry. Hopefully, Tchad might also get an opportunity to record The Black Keys’ rather than just mixing their records one day too. As Tchad explains, he almost did so for the El Camino release.
Dan Auerbach has previously been quoted as saying Tchad Blake, with reference to his work on Brothers, is “a genius with audio, a complete wizard, because we recorded these songs in a really minimal way. There are no more than 11 or 12 tracks on one song. All the drums are on one or two tracks, which is sort of unheard of in the modern-day recording world. Tchad does a lot of mixing where I’m sure he gets, you know, 40 or 50 tracks on one song. So he was really excited about our record, he would call us up and just tell us how much fun it is to mix this stuff because it was so raw.”
The Fan Lounge previously spoke with Tchad in this 2010 interview regarding his mixing of Brothers and Blakroc. It was therefore a joy to speak with Tchad again regarding a quite different mixing job for El Camino. The interview starts below the photo.
We should start at the beginning, obviously The Black Keys asked you to mix the El Camino record, after the success of Brothers.
There was a funny metamorphosis. Originally they asked me to record with them in France. Then they asked to have Danger Mouse produce and me engineer in Nashville, then things changed a couple more times and I couldn’t change my schedule quick enough. So they recorded with Danger Mouse and his engineer Ken.
Did the band give you any specific instructions?
Not to begin with. I got through most of the mixes with some minor feedback from the band. Then I went through them all on the phone with Danger Mouse for his changes. Then I had one more go with the band for details. So, we did it in layers – I did my thing, then band, then Danger Mouse and then again with the band doing the final calls on what they wanted. That’s very different from Brothers.
What sort of things were they changing?
Things like too much low end on a bass drum, the guitars panned a little too wide, bring things to the centre a little more. Maybe too much effect on something. Many vocal arrangement things because there’s a lot of background vocals on this one.
When it came to mixing, did they send you the album as a whole on a flash drive like last time?
No, they sent it to me in bits and pieces. I was mixing and they were still recording. I think I got three or four songs at a time sent to me on different DVDs. It was a little different in that regard.
I read that they recorded El Camino over 40 studio days, while Brothers they did in a relatively short amount of time. And with you mixing as songs were finished changes the process considerably.
From what I can gather, they finished a segment of recording that was mostly done, and they decided to redo some songs, there are always problem tunes you keep re-writing lyrics or adding stuff; so it was another layered process, not getting everything finished at once. It was taking a little longer this time and at some point it overlapped with me starting to mix.
You mention layering in a context there. Certainly listening to El Camino vs Brothers there seems to be a lot more orchestration, instrumentation, and layering of tracks. That’s quite distinctive. Would you agree? Is that what you received?
As an album I’d say El Camino has more focus. Brothers had a huge amount of abandon to it, which is a crazy energy thing. How you approach writing, playing, recording and mixing. There’s a feel to that which I really love. That said, there’s plenty of other ways to approach things. One is to be more considered. I can’t say one’s better than the other, just different. I think El Camino is a really good contrast to Brothers, in that it’s a more considered record with the song writing more focused. It’s got more of a thread through it all. Brothers has a broader range of different musical styles whereas this one is contained a little bit more. There’s still a lot of variety, it’s just not as wide.
I recall for Brothers you were given, say, eight tracks to mix as part of each song. Were you given a lot more tracks to mix as part of each song on El Camino?
This was a different approach mostly. [On Brothers] I was asked to take what they had recorded, which they liked already, and augment it, change it, take it to a whole different place. For me that’s a very liberating, fun kind of instruction. [El Camino] came to me much closer to what they wanted the finished record to be so it was more of a balance job. There really wasn’t anything to change too much. They wanted a few things expanded, more dynamic. Also, all drums were recorded on separate tracks, that wasn’t the case on Brothers. This was done much more like a traditional studio record.
The fact that Danger Mouse was there from start to finish in the one studio obviously had an impact on that. He was a co-writer and co-producer, he’s coordinating the process. Would you agree?
He came with his engineering team to continue work with the band. I think that’s a really good thing, to have a close relationship with everybody. Working with the band multiple times helps to get a flow going quickly, which sometimes, you can’t when you have all first timers in the room. Seems like a very comfortable situation. They all knew what they wanted to go for, they were all on the same page.
On some of the tracks there are multiple guitar parts or sounds, which is some they’ve done before, but perhaps not to this extent. I would have thought this was an important consideration in how you mixed the record?
It was a case of using doubles and that type of thing for dynamics. Getting the energy to come up a little bit, without too much of a change. Sometimes you do that because you don’t want to add a new sound, you just want to have the sound that’s there to energize a bit or be bigger. Doubles are often used like that. I also created some doubles cutting things up, moving them around with vocals and guitars.
Compared to their other albums, it’s been remarked that the guitars sound like they have been mixed down. We saw that happening on Brothers. What’s your take on this?
What’s great about these guys is they started with absolutely crazy, fearless abandon in their playing writing and recording. Recording with one or two microphones in the basement of an old factory and jamming them out. Drums, guitar and voice – and that’s it. You could say the guitar was prominent or the drums. There’s not much more of a choice you can make there. As they’ve progressed, they seem to be getting more instrumentation, more melody, more instruments playing melody, more instrumental hooks. On this record, many songs start with an instrumental hook, and have that echo as a solo. It’s a really good vehicle for remembering the hook. So there’s a progression here that’s really great. They’re not stuck with making one record.
When we spoke last time you were mentioning some of the plug-ins you were using. Were there any new ones this time around?
Not much, again, the Decapitator is on there quite a bit. The Devil Lock was new this time around. It’s a SoundToys plug-in that was styled after a compressor I’ve been using since the 80s called the Level Loc made by Shure. SoundToys copied one they had and it’s a very cool plug-in. Sans Amp and the ReFuse Lowender is on this record although we weren’t going for that real low end that we were on some of Brothers. I dusted off from the barn my Hughes SRS box. It’s a stereo widener I use on effects like room sounds and reverbs which I didn’t use last time. Another new plug-in I used a bit was the Kramer MPX. I used that on some of the drums. It’s a tape saturator and also has a cool tape delay feature. So, all in the box save the SRS.