Fab Dupont - How To Develop Your Vision And The Psychology Behind Making Records
Fab Dupont is a Grammy Award-winning producer and he has worked with artists such as David Crosby, Mark Ronson, Snarky Puppy and many more. Many of you might know Fab through his incredible site PureMix.net where he, and many of their incredible mentors, teaches recording, mixing, mastering (and even cooking!).
In this interview, Fab talks about how he started out, early struggles with moving to New York, why gear doesn't matter and how to develop your "vision" which is vital when making records. Fab also opened up about why his rise in the music industry was a bit slower and how he deals with the "quiet times" and much much more.
I really think you can apply some stuff that Fab talks about in this interview, such as the psychology of making a record and the role of the producer, the importance of great monitoring and referencing systems, spending time developing your craft and much more great stuff.
When you started out you were writing your own music and sending it to labels, but they preferred your productions rather than the music, so they hired you to make other artists on their label sound like your records. How did you make those early records, since you didn’t study engineer right? How did you know your way around a studio back then? Was it mainly, as you’ve said, through reading manuals?
Before I studied songwriting I was already making records. I had a band and we used secondhand gear to make demos and there’s always one dude in the band who is willing to read the manual, which was me. Besides, the technical part has always come pretty natural to me. When we had made our recordings we used to compare them to the records we liked but we couldn’t make it sound the same, however, I kept trying until I could.
Also, I started a jazz label when I was 16. I rented a mobile studio and I used to produce records for my piano teacher. Back then I didn’t know how to use a compressor so I didn’t use it and those records still sound good, probably because of that reason. I recorded everything to two-track and I pushed the faders until I was happy with how it sounded. I used minimum processing because I didn’t know what processing was, but I did know what a record should sound like.
Is it true that the record you made with your piano teacher, Emmanuel Bex, is still selling?
Yes, it’s called Emmanuel Bex - Enfance. I reconnected with him a couple of years ago and he told me it’s still selling. He has done about 30 records since then. He is amazing and it was a fun record to make.
How old were you when you made that record?
I was 17 years old.
You moved to New York from Boston and started to network with artists/engineers and mixing records for free et cetera. How was that initial period of your career before it took off? What did you struggle with the most and how did you overcome it?
I got really lucky because when I moved to New York I moved into this very building, where I met people who were total badasses. It was early 2000 and New York was really active. Gordon Raphael who did The Strokes – Is This It (Listen here on Spotify), was in our building and after him, it was The Rapture followed by Mark Ronson. However, at the time, there was a lot of talent but not a lot of work so you had to be the best of the best to get by. I was lucky to do good enough work to get hired again. Initially, I did a lot of songs for free or for $100, but after a while, I learned that I had to raise my rates otherwise I wouldn’t be taken seriously. For example, if you compare a $500 to a $100 mix, even though it’s the same mix, the $500 mix will always sound better to everyone.
Also, the challenge, in the beginning, was to build my network because I didn’t do drugs, didn’t smoke, don’t do small talk really well and I don’t really do the hang. So, when all the guys were going to the park or clubs to get high and waiting for something to happen I just stayed downstairs in the dungeon making records. The effect of this was that my rise was a bit slower because I didn’t meet as many people as I should have. That was challenge nr. 1, to learn that it doesn’t matter how good you are unless you have the network. The second thing was that gear is irrelevant. What actually matters is your monitoring and referencing system. At the time I didn’t know that because I was working in a vacuum and I lost a couple of important gigs because my room was not good enough.
However, all that changed when Focal came into the picture. Once I got my first SM8’s everything changed because all of a sudden I got a completely different perspective on how things sounded and that’s when I started to beat people. They made me realise that I had a certain tone, which at the time was just one tone, which was fine, but through this more ruthless and accurate listening system, I learned that I had to be able to do various things.
If I had gotten the awareness three years before I would have grown much quicker because some of the people who went through our community are now doing extremely well, for example, Mark Ronson. However, I did a lot of stuff for Mark but he didn’t take me with him because on a couple of mixes I got beaten by Tom Elmhirst and by Russell Elevado. He would do work with all of us, and he loved what I did but their stuff had better bottom-end because my referencing was not up to par. I just wanted to make the fattest, most badass record ever. I didn’t understand the channel, it has to have a purpose, it’s going to be compared with those tracks, it has to sound that way. The more seasoned guys at the time, like Tom, Russell or Brauer, who had been doing that for 10-15 years longer than I knew that.
What was the first thing you changed when you did find out that it was the low-end that was the problem?
On the next pop record I got to work on, I started referencing other peoples work, which I had never done before. Although, I always knew what I wanted to hear and I still do. I would listen to something and right away I knew what it should sound like, but now I understand better, I know where you come from, what you listen to and what your references are.
For example, Mark brought me a track made by the band Air but I didn’t ask him what the purpose behind it was or who the main artist was, was it Mark or was it Air? It’s not about being a chameleon but it’s about knowing what moves the artist you are working for. I just mixed it the way I wanted and Mark loved it but I got beaten by another guy who understood who he was working for, which I didn’t because, again, I just wanted to make the fattest and most badass record but that wasn’t what they were looking for.
Do you now do more homework about the artist you are working for?
Mixing records is a service industry, it’s like being a hairdresser. You got to give the client the haircut they want but it has to be better than they imagined, it has to be badass. You can’t give them a haircut that you want. However, within the realm of what they see themselves as there is a wide range of things you can do to express yourself and to help them grow. So I’m not going to crush the David Crosby record I’m currently working on and put loads of compression on it, it’s not what David is looking for. However, I’m doing things that make him go, “Are you sure?” to which I say, “Yes, I’m sure”, and he ends up loving it so you got to hit the sweet spot.
Everyone gets better at this over time, but to be able to play in that realm you have to have a minimum level of understanding and perspective which is what I gained in the mid-2000’s. Also, there’s a team aspect of making a record and I now have a better understanding of the emotions involved in making records. There are some things that are clear and obvious to me but complicated and mysterious to other people. It’s teamwork.
Did you have to have an extra job on the side whilst building your career to be able to pay rent and living costs?
I always had many interests. For example, before I moved to New York I would write music and edit videos for multimedia companies. I was also interested in how people communicate with each other, for example, in marketing and advertising. I always found that fascinating, especially since I moved to the States.
This gave me a certain set of awareness and skills which led me to write a marketing copy for Media 100 or Avid at the time as well as Adobe for the big trade show NAB. I would also write the music for these presentations. However, part of the reason to move to New York was to move it up a level so all I’ve done here has been music, either mixing, producing records or making music for commercials, infomercials and corporate stuff.
You said you weren’t that interested in being out networking with people, but what approach did you find worked best when you were building relationships with people in the industry?
The only way I knew how to, which was to be a pit bull in the quality of work I did. For example, I remember my friend who I was doing a mix for, he called me and it was Thanksgiving, he wasn’t sure about the bass drum, the kazoo or whatever it was in the track. I said whatever, doesn’t matter that it’s Thanksgiving, come down tomorrow and we will fix it. I didn’t care about the pay, and I still don’t care about the pay, the product just has to be as good as it possibly can be. That's how I built my network because I don’t let go until its perfect. What also helped me is that I‘m able to work in various styles of music, so if someone comes to me and wants a hip-hop vibe in a pop track I can do that. I don’t only focus on one style, like hip-hop, which some guys specialise in and do super well, but they couldn’t do the Crosby record. Then there is also a dude who can do the acoustic stuff really well but couldn’t do a hip-hop record. Therefore, me being able to work in many different styles of music grew my network.
My network was also built on word of mouth, where people were saying, “This guy will make sure your stuff sounds good, even if he has to die in the process”.
Did you ever find it hard to let go of a project if it wasn’t perfect then?
It’s never perfect. You never finish a record. You abandon it when it becomes truly too much. I feel that I have a good sense of when to let go. If you ask my girlfriends over the years, they would say that I don’t but if you ask the artist that I work with they would say that I have a good sense of when good is good enough.
How important is it to have a vision when making records and how can you as a beginner develop it?
It’s everything. Compressors, EQ’s, consoles or converters don’t matter. None of that shit matters. What matters is the vision. You can have a vision with just a guitar and vocal, or it could be with 128 tracks in Pro Tools, that is, If each and every one of those 128 tracks matters and are there for a very good reason.
How do you develop vision? You study, you emulate and innovate. You got to seize the art that moves you, own it, make it a part of yourself. Know everything about it and create art that generates the same feeling based on what you have learnt from your study. That’s the copycat phase. Then you have the part which filters most people out, that is, to transcend the copycat phase. Although, you can make a career out of being a copycat, as you can see on a daily basis by listening to the radio, going to the movies or museums.
The part that makes you exceptional and that’s the part that many don’t reach is to transcend the emulation part, that is, the innovate phase. For example, for someone who wants to make records, the first things you have to do is listen and learn as much music as possible. That’s the input (study). You have to have a huge input and that’s why I everyday sit down and listen to something new, either if it’s music that people are giving to me or if it’s something I find on YouTube or in my record collection. I do this every day, without fail. I take notes and make playlists of the stuff that I like, or that is moving, insane or badass. I’m lucky that I have put in enough hours that I’m beyond the emulation part. I’m in the process of going to a different level.
When did you stop caring about gear, was there a specific moment or was it over time?
It happens over time. I started to care less and less. However, if I put a vocalist in front of a microphone and I can’t get the sound I want, I care. That’s a pain in the butt. But you build solutions for that problem. For example, the vocalist wants a U47, because it’s big, it’s grey and it says Neumann on it. Sometimes they asked for the Newmann, which I love, “I want the Newmann”, to which I say, “We have that.” But it’s too bright because it’s voiced to go through a console, a tape machine and back through a console. It’s not voiced to go through an HD i/o or an Apollo.
So, we listen to it and 99% of the time I ask if we can try another mic, so we will try an Eden or an Atlantis (both made by Lauten Audio) and after I have played them back one of them, that’s what we usually go for.
With the David Crosby record, I decided to use all ribbons except on the vocals, which are all Eden. The reason for this was that I wanted to create a contrast between the vocals and the instrument and to have the vocals float on top of the instrument by default.
It’s in these situations I care about gear, but I like a precise, fast setup and then all music. Which is what we did with Crosby and it took us 6 hours to set up then we recorded for 17 days after that.
Do you have any specific routines you like to follow before you are about to have a recording or mixing session to be able to put in your best work?
I don’t do routine really well but I try to sleep before an important session. I show up, have coffee with the artist and make sure that the crew that’s working on the session is comfortable and that everyone is happy. I make sure that the lighting is good, that it smells nice, that the temperature is good and that there is nothing technical in the way.
You don’t have a prepared plan beforehand, as in, which microphones or preamps you want to use?
Those things are important if you want to save time. However, let's say you are doing a drum session, in theory, every drummer is different, every drum kit is different and so is every track. The ideal way would be to listen to the drums in the context of the song, in the room, then decide which microphones you will use. In reality, that’s a 3-hour process, but that's not how life works, life works were within 30 minutes of the drummer showing up you should get sounds. They way I do it if I have an assistant, is that I will tell them what there will most likely be and to get ready for that. Since we know what works pretty well in our studio we have a base setup to start with, from there we will listen to it in the context of the track to see if it works. If it doesn’t work we will usually first change snare drum or toms, and if that doesn’t work we change microphones until it sounds well within the track. Furthermore, by using what we know works well in our studio lets us save time and keep the vibe and energy of the performers up. Also, I found bands are more receptive to changing stuff around if you can get to music quickly.
I heard you say “The job is not to know where to put the microphone in front of the bass drum. The real job is to know what to do when the drummer just broke up with his girlfriend”, which sums up the engineering or producer role more than anything. Could you expand on this and the psychology of making a record?
The reason why people are musicians, including drummers, is because they would not be good at being, for example, lawyers. There is an emotional content to what we do and while some have proper management of their emotions, most don't. It’s difficult to manage all these emotions and there are a very few bands that make it as a band. They fight because they all have their individual emotional makeups which all tend to collide. The guys who manage to marry that tend to have a long career and do well. So, when you are in the room the last thing you want to do is to add another set of ego, another set of emotional disturbance or another set of problems. To understand the human dynamic within a band is the most important thing for producers. For example, Gordon Raphael, who I mentioned previously, wasn’t the most technical person but he was clearly good at bringing these people together (The Strokes) and extract the best out of them. He didn’t know how to replace an ADA converter nor connect one but he couldn’t care less about that stuff. His job at the time was to make sure they showed up, be happy to be there, write good lyrics, sing their best and not kill each other.
Imagine if you are tracking a band live with 4 musicians and the drummer, bass player and keyboard player are badass but the guitar player is less of a badass. And they want to do full takes. The guitar player fucks up here and there, and there’s bleed in the other microphones of that, after a few takes who is going to look at whom and who is going to make comments? What if the drummer had too many coffees and says, “Yo, Brian, get your shit together.” That’s the death of the session and a guarantee they will never do a full take. As a producer, you have to step in and find a solution for that. You can’t make the guitarist play better, he’s been trying for 10 years to play better, you are not going to change that in 10 minutes. And the drummer has been drinking that much coffee his whole life, you are now going to tell him to stop? How do you solve that problem? Well, that’s the job. How do you tell the guitarist so sit this one out and that he can overdub his parts without him losing face? And the other guys, being frat boys, making fun of him for the rest of the day. It’s tuff. You don’t learn that at Full Sail or SAE, you learn that by being in sessions.
In this particular situation, which happened a few years ago, I hit the talkback button after a few takes and told them, “Hey guys, I hate this guitar sound, it’s awful. This is the wrong amp, but we don’t have time to look for another amp, so why don’t we just DI this guitar and I give you an amp simulator in the headphones? Then we don’t have to have this terrible guitar SOUND ruining the takes.” Everybody agreed that was a good idea and the guitar player said, “Yea, I hate this amp, I can get it with this amp”. I took the blame, gave him the amp simulator but with a sound that was way worse than the original sound. After that, we did a few takes which were dope and the next day I spent editing the guitar together and re-amp it. Problem solved.
The “quiet times” is something everyone seems to experience in this industry from time to time. Have you experienced this and how do you deal with that situation when it arises?
I haven’t in a while but there have been moments. Sometimes it’s circumstantial where you have something scheduled but it gets cancelled. The way I used to deal with it and I actually discussed this with Michael League (of Snarky Puppy) yesterday. Downtime in paid work Is an opportunity to better yourself, for example, if a session cancels on me I would be delighted because I can spend that time to learn new plugins, rewire my room, write a couple of songs, call my friends, do my taxes and do personal growth. Also, to be able to spend your time on personal growth you have to make sure that your monthly bill is ultra manageable. The danger is when you start to make more money and you let your expenses increase. I always had this strict minimum spending policy, I like to keep things simple, be free and be able to say no to stuff I don’t want to do. It’s been a long, long time since I had to say yes to a record I didn’t want to do. I say no if I don’t like the music.
It’s also an opportunity to tie up loose ends and finishing stuff off, for example, mix some records that have been floating around that I haven’t been able to finish. It also gives me quality time with my Teenage Engineering OP-1. I strongly recommend that everybody puts themselves in that situation, meaning if you have to live in your mother's basement to be able to spend time for personal growth you should do that. Keep the bills so low, that you have the freedom to take time off for a few weeks to go on vacation.
When I started out, a gentleman in France, who I rented the mobile studio from, told me that if you stop learning you die, and that you can always refine your understanding of the art form. Music is so vast, complicated, intricate and it’s so intangible that there is not enough of a lifetime to even scratch the surface. If you want to be a well-rounded music producer/engineer it’s very likely you will not reach the end and if you do you have probably not dug deep enough. I crave the downtime so I can further explore this.
Thank you, Fab for taking your time and providing such valuable information to the community.
Let me know what you guys think in the comments below, are there any ideas you will take away and apply to your own work?