You would expect to find Grammys in the homes of rock stars and superstar producers. Not so much in the back house of a construction site.
This is where Los Angeles-based mix engineer Richard Furch has his spacious studio, mixHaus. Just inside the entrance is an array of his 22 Grammy nominations and six wins. Jay-Z’s name jumps out, as does Usher, Outkast, Tyrese, India Arie and Chaka Khan. The name that stands out the most is Prince, a nomination for Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance for the song “Dreamer.” Furch does not take any of his accomplishments for granted.
Raised in Berlin, Germany, Furch attended SAE Institute Berlin, graduating with an audio engineer diploma, what he refers to as “a driver’s license for a studio. You know everything, but it’s not like you were on a racetrack. You know your way around a studio, but you don’t have any real-life experience.”
A classically trained pianist and jazz keyboardist, Furch shipped himself off to Berklee College of Music in Boston; armed with his engineering diploma, he was awarded a scholarship and started as a fifth-semester student there.
“You should decide very clearly and early on what you are doing in music,” Furch says. “Are you being a service person or an artist? If you’re the latter, maybe you shouldn’t go to music school. But I’m a service person, and as that, I have to be in a place where I can be exposed to people needing my services. That’s not going to happen in my bedroom studio. I can directly connect my Berklee experience with my first job at Sound on Sound Studios.”
Furch ended up at Sound on Sound in Manhattan through a fellow Berklee graduate’s recommendation. He was at the right spot when it was time to record Jay-Z, as the engineer on hand was mixing the record and didn’t want to fry his ears in the recording process, so the job went to Furch. With Outkast, he was the engineer that was in the room.
Says Furch of these happenstances: “You have to put yourself in the most expensive studio in the style that you would like to work in.”
Even though Furch had some “right time, right place” types of experiences, the fact is he did an excellent job on those records, which led to his other credits very intentionally. With that kind of start, it’s not surprising that Furch’s career has primarily gone in an R&B and hip hop trajectory, even if his personal tastes are far more wide-reaching. No matter the genre, it is with vocals that Furch feels like his skills are utilized best and where he makes the most difference.
“Before I start on vocals, I have my assistant re-engineer the record, a lot of de-essing, de-breathing,” explains Furch. “I get a lot of vocals that are under-compressed, which in a time where so many sounds are very compressed, doesn’t make sense. I spend a lot of time tweaking compression using serial and parallel compression. I have a lot of analog stuff: TubeTech CL1B for a velvety, satiny, higher-end sound that leans out a little bit; the Retro Sta-Level mixes it heavier for a bigger sound; the Inward Connections VacRac TSL3 is more neutral; and the Universal Audio 1176 AE I audition on every song.”
In order to manage the vocals easier, the different parts are split: verses, choruses, pre-choruses, bridges. Furch EQs and compresses each of them slightly differently, with the verse vocals louder than those of the chorus, as today’s styles dictate. After he is done with the basic sound of the lead vocal, he spends an hour to an hour and a half fine-tuning it, including automating the EQs inside the syllables.
“I can hear the parts when the singer moves their head off the mic,” says Furch. “You lose a lot of your high end because the polar pattern is probably cardioid, which is directional toward the high end. You could use dynamic EQ or a multiband compressor to deal with that. In my case, I EQ more high end into it by hand, into every note that needs it and wherever I feel the vocal should be all the way in the front. It’s pop music—it needs to stay all the way forward and in your face.
“The tools are so much faster and more convenient now,” he continues, “but the listening doesn’t get any faster. And the decision-making doesn’t get faster because you have faster computers.”
mixHaus is a hybrid digital/analog studio impeccably tuned with a Carl Tatz PhantomFocus System centered around an Avid C24 console that acts as a controller. He runs Pro Tools HDX and HD12.7, and he has analog pieces going back to the ‘80s—Lexicon 480L, three PCM70s, Yamaha SPX90, Eventide 2016—which he prefers for their lack of clutter and hugging the sound rather than opaquely covering it. His outboard equipment gives Furch colors to work with that are specific to him. He might remove the reverb from the recording and simply replace it with one of his own, but the way he sets up his mixes, it’s a quick switch back to the original if that’s preferred.
“My system will put together the record exactly like the rough mix,” says Furch. “I use a lot of the Trim Read function in Pro Tools, which means all my faders stay at 0, but underneath that, all the fader balances are exactly what the client had beforehand. When I start manipulating that, I can see visually how far I am from the original. It’s a quality assurance thing. I’m basically creating stems from the multitrack. I can trace my steps while still staying in the creative mind.”
He continues, “Everybody is getting good at using the tools, plus the tools are getting better, which means what is presented to me as a rough mix, most of the time, is very much the intention of the record already. My is job not to change that totally, but to take what’s good about it and go from ‘this is your record now’ [holding his hands close together in a ball] to ‘this is your record now’ [holding his hands apart from each other].”