Interview: Tchad Blake On Mixing The Black Keys’ El Camino Album

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.

Tchad Blake

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.

Interview: Tchad Blake On Mixing The Black Keys’ Blakroc and Brothers Albums

Tchad Blake was asked to mix the Blakroc and Brothers albums by The Black Keys. He is a renowned producer and mixer of music and has worked on everything from Crowded House, Pearl Jam to Gomez over the last 25+ years.

Tchad has a clear perspective of what he likes, he goes with his feelings. He’s happy to embrace modern technology to mix with. That’s not unusual but it is an interesting counter-point since both the albums, Brothers in particular, was (for the most part) specifically recorded on analogue equipment with Mark Neill.

Working on these projects made Tchad offer this summation:

For me in this day and age, I don’t hear soul very much in music. I don’t mean the name for ‘soul’ music, old RnB and soul stuff, I just mean soul in music where you listen to it and it gets into your chromosones and your guts groove. [Brothers] is something that gets you in a real physical level and this is why I wanted to be in the music business when I started – for this type of thing. It shouldn’t be torn apart, you put the record on and have a bloody good time. It makes you feel good.

The feeling is obviously mutual. It was significant that The Black Keys should have made a point on their Brothers press release to have acknowledged Tchad Blake’s contribution to both the Blakroc and Brothers albums:

We are big fans of Tchad Blake. The way he approaches mixing is the same way we approach making music. Respecting the past while being in the present. The mixes he did for us on Blakroc impressed us so much we knew he had to mix Brothers.

The Black Keys Fan Lounge recently had a chat to Tchad about his relationship with the band, the challenges of mixing these albums, insights into his mixing techniques and equipment, and his attitude toward recorded music generally. The interview begins below the photo…

Photo courtesy of Buck Blake: Tchad Blake outside his home studio in England

It’s a pretty big compliment that The Black Keys paid you with the quote on their press release.

[laughs] They’ve given me a good wrap.

How did you impress them on the Blakroc album?

Well, I just did my thing really. That was a bit of a tough one. They got a hold of me and they needed the mixes within a week and I was on another project, a Peter Gabriel orchestral project, so I only had one day to do five songs. Normally it takes a day to do a couple of mixes, sometimes it takes a day per mix for some songs. With these guys I could probably do two or three songs in a day, but these were bigger sessions so I had to do the five songs in about 16 hours. I got it done [laughs]. I think it came out pretty good. The thing about Dan and Pat, the ting about what’s similar, I really love the sense of abandon in making music – meaning you sort of let things go as you go. Just have a good time doing what you’re doing and you don’t really look over your shoulder too much, you just forge ahead and keep going, if it sounds good go with it. They’re incredible at that. I think that’s what gives them so much soul in their music – it’s just that approach. For me that’s when music is at its best.

I’m also wondering whether the fact that the Blakroc album was recorded at Studio G which is known for its analogue flavour and Brothers was recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio with its traditional set up, you were able to bridge the old and the new. You’ve come from a traditional recording background and embraced the new as well it seems. Is that what Pat is also referencing in the quote?

It’s all about what’s convenient, and what’s fun to make the music. There’s good sounding analogue and bad sounding analogue. The same is true in digital. They’re two different animals. It doesn’t matter how you make the music if the music’s good. I don’t care which one I use. The reason I’m using digital is because it’s convenient. It’s the way people like to work now, and the budgets and all that, digital makes way more sense. All I want to work on is the music and not be worrying about anything else. If I owned a studio with all analogue gear and I had unlimited funds to have it maintained properly and somebody there to do all the stuff that’s not music-related, sure, I might have that, that would be cool. At the same time the way people want to work, go back and do things over, it’s easier in digital to start where you left off. I think the convenience is a huge thing. The difference in sound is such a small percentage of what really makes the music. Sure there’s a difference, a big difference in sound, but I like them both. I couldn’t tell you which I like better.

So with the Blakroc tracks they just sent you a hard drive?

Yeah, that’s part of the convenience factor. They can send me a hard drive, a flash drive, in the mail. [The Black Keys’] songs are usually only eight or ten tracks. They can send that over the internet, I can get that on my digi-delivery and then mix it. So the whole thing can be done in a day – they can send it to me, I can mix it, and send it back.

I think what they are talking about respecting the past but being in the present, is that I don’t have a problem with combing eras or genres or whatever. I like contrast. What i loved about the way these guys worked is that when they recorded their drums they did so on maybe one or two tracks. So there’s really not a whole lot you can do mix-wise, if its just a mono track of drums, unless I wanna get in and start cutting stuff up. You know, with studio trickery, cutting bits out of the mono track and adding them back in, maybe adding a sample in there from one of my bass drums, just to get some subs to make it more hip-hop record – I love that. I’m not a purist.

I don’t believe in recording a band and making them sound live. I like it when a band plays live, just because of the feel of the music. If you wanna hear live, go to the live show. Recording in a studio is a record, it’s different, and it should be different. Why would you want your record to sound the same as when you played live?  I think maybe that’s what they are talking about. I like using the tools in the studio to enhance and make things sound like they are not live, like they are in the studio. That’s fun.

This raises an interesting point. There’s an ongoing debate amongst many fans who got into the band when they had a more raw, fuzzed-out, sound and now the albums have developed into a more developed recorded sound. What’s your take on this? Were there any clear directions from the band regarding this?

We were both pretty much on the same page, I think. I did some mixes, the first songs I did, and I listened to them over a few days. I then talked to the guys and I said ‘There’s something I’m not happy about’. The mixes aren’t getting me up. They responded by saying the mixes are OK but they wanted to stretch. They wanted ‘Everlasting Light’ to be more glam and have that T-Rex or early-Bowie delay on the drums – that’s a stereo, really short delay to make it really click. So they were really wanting to push things on this record. Dan’s singing falsetto on ‘Everlasting Light’ – I think that’s great.

How would you like to be somebody who eats beans on toast every day for the rest of your life? Give artists a break. If you make your first two or three records and they’re raw live records which are great, you’ve got those. Listen to those if you wanna hear that all the time. As an artist, they’re going to wanna up the bar a little bit and do something different. I don’t think bands change enough anymore. I think they should change more like this. This is what I remember when I was growing up with music. Everytime a record came out the artist kind of re-invented themself. And the public actually dug it. They were waiting, ‘Wow, what are they going to do next? What’s Jimi Hendrix’s next record going to be like? They’ve all been so wierd so far’. Labels and radio are the ones who don’t want bands to change, the public is into it. If you give it to them and let them hear it, they’re gunna go ‘cool’.

On an album like Blakroc, you mentioned it was mixed so fast, in layman’s terms, what are you trying to with the mix on a record like that?

[The Black Keys] specifically wanted it to have more low-end than they had on the recordings. They wanted bass drums to sound more subbie. They wanted more of a tip of the hat to a hip hop sound, than a rock sound. That’s what we tried to do. I also like wide-stereo, I like things panned pretty hard, left and right, using the two speakers to good advantage. There wasn’t a lot of time to think about it. They gave me a few comments. On both records actually, they just said, ‘Just have a great time, whatever you think you should do, just do it’. It was pretty cool.  I haven’t been able to do a project like that in a long time. That’s how we used to do all our projects. It’s gotten a lot more conservative out there for most bands. But not for these two.

Dan and Pat are, of course, not only musicians but producers and recorders of music in their own right, they have their own studios. It’s interesting at this stage of their career they are  so open to letting others have an increasing influence on their music whether it be using additional producers or mixers.

They’ve made a lot of records and I can understand exactly that. They’ve probably reached a point where they’re real happy with what they do technically, but maybe they want the final thing to be a step beyond that. There are certain things if you want to get a lot of low-end clarity, but you don’t want it too clear, you want things to be messed up but exist in the hi-fi world – it’s not always an easy thing. Sometimes it just happens and it’s cool. More times than not you’ve got to choose the things that are low-fi and that are hi-fi and the things that work for excitement and size. You want to get level on the record – labels like level [laughs]. I do too.

They are probably happy to do it [let others produce/mix] because it gives them more time to concentrate on the recording and their music. They can concentrate on arrangements an being more experimental. the over dubs on this record [Brothers] are some great stuff. There’s harpischord and there’s vibes, all sorts of different types of guitars – there’s so many different types of sounds. I think they’ve felt a little bit more freedom.

With Blakroc and Brothers, from what I understand of the recording process, there was a desire to captured what occurred in some specific rooms at a specific time. With your mix, are you trying to draw out certain elements, correct some, or accentuate other aspects of that recording environment?

No, you’d be messing with the soul of the band if you were to try and correct stuff. There’s some music and some artists that require that because of what their goal is with their music, and they want that and they ask for it. I never thought of that for this group. For me it was hearing what they recorded and I wanted to make it bigger. If you listen to the original recordings [for Brothers], they’re really cool, but they sound like older records. My feeling is there are so many great old records, if you go and listen to some old RnB records. I don’t think it’s a valid thing to copy that, it’s great to have a tip of the hat, but then try and make it your own. It could be as simple as having your record sound like like an old RnB record but add a big subbie bass drum like a hip hop record. Just that one thing could be enough for me to go you’ve got two worlds here that are real high contrast because you wouldn’t necessarily get that on an RnB record. I like that. This for me is what this record was about. Really trying to make it more expansive in some ways.

Can you talk about some of those techniques then, specifically on ‘Brothers’?

‘Everlasting Light’ is a good example because they wanted the glam thing. Having the drums put through a wide delay so its an exaggeration of what you might hear on a T Rex record. Some of the bass drum tracks I could actually add some samples from drums that I’ve recorded over the years. Some cool bass drums that I like. Some of the things I used the most are the things that filtered the low-end of the bass drums because I’ve got some pretty low subs. Its an old Remo kick drum that I used to use with my old partner Mitchell [Froom]. We used to use it on all these old records that we did. You take off the mid-range of that drum and its got this beautiful low sub, it sounds almost like an 808 drum machine bass drum or an old 606 Roland drum machine. I used a lot of that on these tracks just to add to the bass drum that they had.

Some songs have reverb, which I don’t usually use. It’s spring reverb. There’s some some songs with this cool, almost reggae thing, or an RnB thing, which just sounded right with some of the voices and the reverb.

I don’t think about this stuff. I try to mix like they play. You come in, you hear something, you go, ‘let’s jam it out’. What happens, happens. You kind of work on it after that. It’s not something that you analyse as you are doing it. You hit a button, that’s good, move on, hit a button, ok, go back to the first button and adjust that and after an hour you’ve got something to listen to and go OK I like this direction.

‘Brothers’ corresponded with me getting a new plug-in [for Pro Tools] called ‘The Decapitator’. It was in beta version so it was kinda tricky to use because it was changing all the time. It was a really inspiring plug-in. It’s a kind of saturated plug-in, its meant to mimic the electronics of these different machines, these old analogue machines. I can’t tell you if it does those things or not – I just hear something and if I like it I use it. This just sounded so good.  For years I’ve been using a Tech 21 “Sans Amp”, one of the main things I use for changing the sound of things. It add low-end, or you can filter the low-end out, you can flip the phase to get an octave below on a bass drum. So between filtering, EQ, distortion, and flipping phase, there’s so much you can do with the Sans Amp. Whether it’s with the plug-in or the pedal, both are great. I’ve been using that for 20 years now. ‘The Decapitator’ is the first thing that’s come along that’s inspired me as much as the Sans Amp has inspired me. It hasn’t made me give up the Sans Amp, I still use that a lot, but I can now have two tools which is great. I can get two completely different sounds and they compliment each other brilliantly. The guys [Dan and Pat] were like ‘Can we get more more!’. It’s probably on every song. It became almost my EQ of choice.

For some trying to listen in to the record, can you pick the effects created by ‘The Decapitator’ out?

There’s going to some going to be songs you can pick it out. It’s hard to discern what’s what. Say, on the drums they supplied me with there may be some distortion because they record like that. Their drums might have some real scrappy or low-end distorton on it, but I’ll wanna alter that a little bit to get a bit of a wider sound, or bigger sound top to bottom, with ‘The Decapitator’ you can do that and really extend the low-end and fizz up the high-end even more so. I couldn’t tell you which component that is on a song like ‘Howling For You’ but it’s on there. A lot of the big low-end you might hear on some of  the drums is enhanced by ‘The Decapitator’.

And what about the guitar sounds?

Maybe my job on this album was to bring the drums out more. The guitar sounds great, as well as the vocal. They record some of the vocals distorted, some aren’t – that’s them.

I think there’s only a few things I’ve distorted more than they sent me. Just to get more of a contrasty to a solo guitar that was on there. there might have been a few things but I don’t remember things like that. Bass guitars I think I might have gotten those a bit bigger and distorted in places. There’s some songs they sent me which were incredibly distorted already, I didn’t do anything. It was different on every song – there’s no real template for any of this.

How many versions or mixes did you do before Dan and Pat were happy? It seems like a long time between recording [August 2009] and it was mixed and finished for release.

It took about 15 actual days to mix [Brothers]. We did 19 mixes, 19 songs, or something. Maybe it was more than that. They re-did a couple of songs, completely changed them. I started a little bit timid with them and they said ‘No, do what you want, take it out’. We got to a point where I found out it was OK for me to really push the boundaries with things. At that point I think we knew what we all wanted and we were all on the same page which made it easier. They had also decided to record more songs. So we started before Christmas [2009] and then I didn’t get new stuff until half-way through January I think.