By Jessie Lee Rubin
Alexander Almgren is a Brooklyn-based producer and mixer whose long list of credits includes Skylar Spence's Prom King as well as Dentyne Chewing Gum commercials and six years of KIDZ BOP. More recently, Almgren has started running his own music-mixing and production studio called “Freshly Baked Studios,” a modest but state-of-the-art setup in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Almgren has worked with a broad scope of artists ranging from Dar Williams and Skylar Spence to lesser known artists such as Young Yeller and Glass Gang. He describes himself in relation to musicians as a “bridge between the music technicality and basic vocabulary. It’s a language, and I’m a translator.” Rare Candy caught up with Almgren at his studio earlier this fall.
Rare Candy: What was your pathway into the recording business?
Alexander Almgren: I’d been a classically trained musician since I was eight. I started out playing cello and as my skills developed I joined the Harrogate Symphony Orchestra. That led to learning guitar and playing with Harrogate Youth Jazz Orchestra. At home I had a really basic set-up — a Tascam four-track tape machine, an Argos catalogue-bought mic, and an 80s Casio keyboard played incessantly. I didn’t really know anything about the Tascam, I just did volume levels and had fun. And one Christmas, I asked for Cubasis, which is a really rudimentary recording software, but it helped me get my sea legs.
I just needed some sort of an outlet when I was in high school. I was in a bunch of bands playing electric guitar and recorded stuff at home as well. Other musicians at my school sent me to this place called Cube Media in York, which is in the north of England, and we tracked three songs in two days for super cheap. After that I knew I wanted to pursue music production at a university, so I enrolled at the University of Huddersfield Pop Music. I didn’t even walk at graduation; I already had a job lined up at the Lodge Music Production House in New York, up on Houston and Varick, so I packed my bags and came to the U.S. They [Lodge Production House] wrote music for commercials and I was lucky enough to work on some spots for Dentyne Chewing Gum and Hot Wheels Cars. It was fun for a while but not really my thing. In the autumn of 2008, I met Gary Phillips, who’s now a mentor of mine — he makes all the KIDZ BOP music. I assisted him until summer of last year, but I still make tracks regularly for him. The job consists predominantly of deconstructing these Top 20 pop songs and then reconstructing an original version of the song. You listen to the original track, pick out a part, dial in the sound, learn the part, execute it and then edit if need be, replicating exactly what is going on — basically reverse engineering it — and this has been invaluable in working production. It constantly is coming in useful.
RC: Freshly Baked studios advertises themselves as a "True Analog-Digital Hybrid" studio. What does that mean on a more specific level? Which of your gear is analog and which is digital?
Almgren: I use the computer for most everything, and all the mixing tasks take place there. I use the analog equipment in the racks instead of plugins for tracking instruments going in; it gets instruments and vocals sounding very full before they hit the computer. Some saturation and tape emulator plugins are heavy on the CPU and by going this route it frees some of that up. These units are also the "special sauce" for my mix buses and are at the end of the signal chain. With these select pieces I run the low, mid and top frequency instruments through for dynamic control, tone and saturation. They’re then summed analog which helps the music sound very open but also harmonically rich. Once music leaves the computer, it stays analog until the final bounce where it is digitized again. I calibrate each unit exactly the same for each mix so my sonic imprint sounds the same on whatever song I’m working on. Like a little signature sound — the settings never change between songs/clients.
RC: Building on that response, what's your stance on analog compressors/EQ strips/limiters/reverb etc vs. digital plugins? To what extent do you find tangible value in using analog gear and to what extent do you think it's a hype/snobbery/nuance that can't be heard?
Almgren: I honestly don’t care. Plugins, outboard, it doesn’t matter. It's about how I hear it. They are all just tools and whatever works, works. And [the track] is most likely going be listened to through Apple earbuds at 128k/s anyways. It’s ultimately about the song and how it makes you feel — is it a panty-dropping club song or a more thoughtful singer-songwriter jam? Different sorts of songs require different sorts of tools. That said, I like the idea that when the sound leaves the computer and all my outputs go to this gear in the analog domain, it's something real as opposed to just 1s and 0s. It makes the music thicker, warmer, creamier. For me, recorded music needs to sound natural and musical but also at the same time in control, and my setup helps me do that. I have an ITB [inside the box] version of this setup just in case a unit is down. Both the ITB and analog versions sound really close — some of my gear I don’t have emulations for but the counterparts essentially perform similarly; I’m not a snob, I can’t always tell the difference. I can definitely tell the difference between 1176’s and my Waves plugin — my hardware is much crunchier and crispier.
I was fortunate enough in 2012 to go on a course with an extremely well-known mixer called Michael Brauer. The first time I heard him was on this song by the New Radicals called “You Only Get What You Give,” and I was blown away by it — this must have been about 1997 or 98. There was this big vocal, huge upright piano occupying all this midrange space, but also space for this big drum-set, and a bunch of guitars, and I learned out how he made the space for it. So I have a super-condensed, basic version of his setup, which of course I put my own spin on.
RC: If you were locked out of your newly-built studio, what space would you want to work in? What or who is there that draws you?
Almgren: Definitely with Brauer at Electric Lady. Have you seen all his toys? It's like a museum in there, the facilities are superb and the atmosphere is so relaxed. It’s not about gear at the end of the day, it’s about how you feel. I can’t emphasize that enough, and I don’t give a shit about this [points at racks]. These are all just tools. It’s about music, and it’s about having fun. And I think his approach is unbelievable — you can learn a lot from that guy just by listening. I’m kind of intimidated by him because he listens so precisely and just gets it. All of his gear is just arms and legs to him, and I’m trying to get to a similar place.
RC: What's a studio approach that you think is fairly worn out and deserves to be retired?
Almgren: I’m sick of hearing that Korg M1 Organ 2 sound on every track these days, and it's back with vengeance. Robin S made it famous in 1993 with “Show Me Love,” and it’s so iconic, especially for the 90s NY house scene. Jason Derulo does a straight rip of “Show Me Love” on his track “Don’t Wanna Go Home,” as well as DJ Snake and Aluna George on “You Know You Like It.” It’s a very throwback and classic sound, but we’re in this world where you can literally make any sound, and everyone always gravitates back to the M1 organ sound. Let’s bury it, look to the future.
RC: So many bands these days are using a DIY approach to mixing, taking the professional mixer out of the equation. As a producer, do you enjoy listening to today's "lo-fi" music, and do you think this is a positive or negative trend or something more nuanced and in-between?
Almgren: DIY is cool, yeah, record everything, do everything yourself. But actually do it. Tune your vocals, fix your guitar flubs. Completely cutting out the producer, you can miss the important nuances and then the track will often end up sounding flat flat. That said, I like really highly polished tracks because it’s my art, it's what I do. But why not make your art as good as it can be?
RC: You’ve talked about analog warmth. What can you do at the moment of recording or in the mixing that you think listeners will experience as “warmth?"
Almgren: It’s hard to say. If you get the mid-range going, that’s where most warmth comes from. Analog warmth, science tells us it comes from the nonlinear harmonic distortions and almost to a place where the track is gently distorting... I don’t really know. I’m just thinking about what's right for the song, that's what's most integral.
RC: What is one piece of equipment that is key to your work?
Almgren: I use Massey Tapehead plugin on almost every track; it makes playback sound as if from tape rather than digital. You can dial it in with three different flavors. It thickens up the sound, almost like preheating the oven before you put the dough in. You can thicken it up a little bit, or you can go full-on crunch for an analog, vintage sound, which is what I’m after in this world of sterile, computer-conceived tracks. The harmonics and distortion it [the plugin] provides are also key to finding that warmth.
RC: What can you as a producer see about the music scene that musicians, critics, and audience members can’t?
Almgren: I notice when a track just sounds cheap, or has no feeling in it. Or from a performance standpoint, when a track just isn't dense enough and ends up sounding weedy or thin. Every Top 10 track is thick, beefy, and that’s not just the mix, it's the sound source as well, largely the arrangement and production. The KIDZ BOP thing was huge for learning to break stuff down, and I think, sure, you have an 808 kick drum, that’s the right vibe, but there’s a whole range of information underneath that. I always notice, say, when there isn't enough air on a vocal. That just screams of cheap to me.
More on Freshly Baked Studios can be found at their website.