Toward the end of the punk rock era, producer and mixer Ian Shaw launched his career with a 4-track recorder in his grandmother’s south London attic. He soon graduated to a 16-track studio and spent the next 17 years working with artists such as Neneh Cherry and Living in a Box. Ultimately he segued into work with Bikini Kill and quickly became the go-to producer for a number of riot grrrl bands. Last year he relocated from London to Key West, FL, where he launched Warmfuzz Studios.
Shaw is noted for capturing particularly strong vocals, which he achieves through a number of hardware and manual tuning techniques. “I’m lucky that I’ve got almost perfect pitch,” he explains. “I can tell when stuff is just fractionally out of tune. I adjust vocals with the standard Pro Tools’ pitch bender, attacking them syllable-by-syllable. The advantage is that there are none of the artifacts that you find with Auto-Tune or Melodyne. The secret with tuning vocals is to not go too far. Sometimes things aren’t tunable and believable. Most of the great records that we’ve grown up with have loads of tuning issues.
“Recording-wise, I usually go with the same setup,” he continues. “I’ve got some ‘70s Neve mic amps that I almost always use. I’ve also got an ancient MXR Dual Limiter compressor. It’s very smooth; you don’t hear it working viciously. That’s been my go-to compressor for 30 years. Neumann mics are my standard for vocals.”
To date, the biggest challenge he’s faced was when he produced a project for Island Records in the late ‘90s. The band wasn’t getting along and there were additional pressures from the label and management. “The singer was an old friend and it was a big-budget record,” Shaw recalls. “When the band arrived in the studio, it was clear that they hated each other; the singer wanted to go in a different direction from the others. Recording became a logistical challenge: the singer wouldn’t be in the studio at the same time as the guitarist. It was a non-stop scenario for three months.
“Things didn’t work out well with that record,” he continues. “I believe that if you’re not happy when you’re recording, somehow that’ll translate into the product. As soon as we finished, the A&R rep that had signed the band left the company. Then the label released what I considered to be the wrong singles. Eventually they got dropped. That seemed inevitable, in a way.”
Shaw finds that the industry challenges of today are very different from the challenges of yesterday. “Unsigned clients ask what they should do with the record they’re making,” he explains. “Fifteen years ago everyone’s goal seemed to be a major label deal, a big indie deal or they were making records for a label to which they were already signed. These days there’s no certain path for an artist. ... The industry needs a bunch of well-funded great new indies to take some chances and find a few new things.”
Currently Shaw is balancing work between his English clients and getting new projects underway in Key West. He’s working with blues artist Matt Backer and British socialist R&B band Thee Faction. He’s also doing more live recording, most recently with American band Rob Ernest & The Real Malloys.
By Rob Putnam