MixTips: Andrija Tokic at the Bomb Shelter

Andrija Tokic has had a pretty good year, but then you get the sense that he considers every year a pretty good year. The East Nashville engineer, owner of the Bomb Shelter, has been getting a lot of

Andrija Tokic

Andrija Tokic has had a pretty good year, but then you get the sense that he considers every year a pretty good year. The East Nashville engineer, owner of the Bomb Shelter, has been getting a lot of attention for his work on The Alabama Shakes’ Boys & Girls, but these kind of “breakthroughs” don’t generally come out of nowhere. Tokic is a quintessential analog studio rat, and he has paid his dues, amassing a houseful of vintage instruments and gear and a track record of quality recordings from the likes of Clairy Browne and The Banging Racketts, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Majestico, and Clear Plastic Masks. He works fast, and he makes use of every available space in his new standalone home-based studio. He has Pro Tools, but prefers tape; he likes his music live.

You recently moved the Bomb Shelter from your own house in East Nashville to another house. How did it go? What did you gain?

It’s always a bitch building a new facility! First off, I gained five gray hairs. Second, I guess I gained a little square footage. Third, in theory I gained a home. In reality, it’s become infested with garage-rock refugees. It’s officially been dubbed by Riley Downing as the GR Refugee Camp. Also, the windows, which are still installed between all the bedrooms, have really become a nuisance. On the studio end, I gained a more focused work environment. Building a facility, more or less from the ground up, has really shown me the importance of controlled acoustics. Though I came up in great, pro-designed rooms, I’ve yet to work in such a well-designed control room that feels this comfortable. Though I love my last control room dearly, which was a standard plaster living room, I find it way easier to get to the root of a mix issue in an accurate control room. When you’re 1 degree away from a perfect mix, a gnarly standing wave can keep you from total zen. And, of course, how can I forget, my new space came with a mangy rottweiler, who quickly cleaned up and has become the greatest guard dog East Nashville has ever seen. Ms. Lady Killer truly is a band’s best friend.

Your production approach seems to lean heavily toward working fast and getting the right sound in tracking.

I’m just trying to record things well. Why would anyone record something that doesn’t sound right? One of my late mentors, Paul Minor, taught me to record everything with my monitor faders flat and panned center. It ain’t easy but in the long run, it pays off more than any other technique that I’m aware of. If I’m not mistaken, this was standard practice once upon a time. I guess people who learned on DAWs may record things that are snapshots of sounds that have to be altered heavily in mixing. I’m a firm believer in trying to get as close to the target in the first pass as possible. I think the more processing that takes place in post, the worse off your mix is, regardless of format.

When did you discover that “bleed” is your friend? How do you apply that today?

Well, engineers figured that out generations ago. I remember the first time I felt partial to recording with mics placed near the sound I wanted to capture, rather then moving away from the sounds I didn’t want to capture. It was with a stellar big band, which had full tonal and dynamic control. They performed the songs as they were meant to be captured in one large room. I was probably 17, in D.C. at Avalon Studios. I was recording King James & the Serfs of Swing, directed by James Levy (American University music professor), who incidentally convinced me to move to Nashville on a whim. I thank my lucky stars he did, because I wound up bringing all their MCI gear with me. Shortly after arriving, I met the MCI guru and dear friend, Steve Sadler, who’s kept me and my machines running smoothly ever since.

Andrija Tokic and Ms. Lady Killer

Andrija Tokic and Ms. Lady Killer

What do you look for in a recording space?

Apparently termites…A clean kitchen and a space that fits the feel of the moment we are trying to capture.

What is your go-to vocal chain? From mic to pre to tape/DAW to effects to mix technique?

I don’t use any DAW, and I’m no creature of habit. A “go-to” is a lazy approach. I can’t assume what mic or pre or effects to use on anything. All singers are different, all songs are different. I’d say the most important thing about vocals is getting to know the singer and knowing every piece of gear you have. My only constant I’ve noticed is that all time-based effects sound better when created naturally. For example, tape delay, spring reverb, plate reverb and natural chorusing all sound better to my ear then any plug-in or digital effect. However, while recording vocals for Fly Golden Eagle’s Swagger, we wanted the cheesiest chorusing and delays that digital technology had to offer. At the end of the day, it’s about serving the song.

How would you describe your mix philosophy? Example?

Hmmmmm, philosophy…I hardly made it through highskool.™ I certainly never learned any philosophy. My approach is always to make things sound like they existed sans the help of recording tools and engineers. Whether a mix is heavily effected or completely natural, I never want to hear a studio when listening to a song. Whoa, is that philosophizing?

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