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"I just wanted to keep exploring" - Interview with chief engineer Nick Mac

Oct 16, 2020 10 min read

LEWITT Content Team
Enthusiasts at work

Today we are talking with Nick Mac. Nick Mac is the chief engineer of Electric Feel Studios.

Nick Mac started his career as a touring guitarist and made his way into recording and mixing artists in his native Southern California.

Nick's engineering credits are quite extense, and they include Post Malone, YG, Macklemore, Ariel Pink, Machine Gun Kelly, Tyla Yaweh, Travis Barker, Young Blood, and more. Nick's strengths in audio production include recording live instruments, mixing vocal production, and Melodyne vocal editing.

More recently, Nick Mac played with Post Malone during his quarantine tribute to Nirvana.

Introduction

LEWITT:  Nick, why did you choose to get into engineering?

Nick Mac: That's a great question. Thanks for that lovely intro there, too. Yeah, it just became a necessity for me. I was playing, like you said, in touring bands and things of that sort. At the time, there was nobody in the band to do pre-production or demos or anything, so just was like, well, I guess I'll do it. It just piqued my interest.

The demos came out pretty good, and it got everybody excited. It helped us find a recording process, and I just got obsessed.

Then I started to want to be the one to do the final recordings, and it just became an obsession just as much as I love playing guitar, even more actually. I just got hooked in that way.

LEWITT: Usually it's the bass player who becomes the sound man, and then becomes the engineer...

Nick Mac: I've heard various stories in that way, too. It is different in that aspect, for sure, but as a guitar player, it's this slight ego, I guess, of being able to record yourself and hear yourself, and all that stuff too, so it's kind of fun.

The first recording.

LEWITT: Well, do you remember your first recording?

Nick Mac:All right. Well, I used a sound recorder on a PC with a little Logitech microphone. It was USB, and it was probably somewhere in the time of 2002 or something like that, maybe 2001, but it was bad. It was really bad. It was really bad.

LEWITT: What pushed you to go on to the next level from that?

Nick Mac: I just like challenges, for some reason. The thing was, definitely recording in the house, obviously family members and stuff, just noise and distractions and all that, but I just loved the fact that I could record something and tweak it and play with it, and make it sound a certain way, or do this, or do that to it.

I just wanted to keep doing that. I just wanted to keep exploring with that, so just became obsessed with it.

Laying the foundation.

LEWITT: How does your workflow differ from when you first started to when you got a little more experienced, to how it is today?

Nick Mac:It's a confidence thing, too. It's a foundation thing. For a number of years, I just went off DIY, and did things how I just intuitively thought they should be done.

Then I reached a point where I needed to get some sort of ... I felt, at least, I needed some foundation for what I was doing, learning.

I went to a school to get a certificate in audio engineering, like a baseline so I had a foundation to go from.

I think just after learning the basic principles of the industry and how to do things, and how to record things, modern recording techniques and old ones as well, you just have a foundation to gain confidence, move forward and try different things. It just evolves in that sense, or at least it did for me, just building off of that.

LEWITT: Sometimes it's in a recording school, and sometimes it's in the recording studio, in the recording studio school of hard knocks.

Nick Mac: Absolutely.

Evolving the workflow and the big "aha" moments...

LEWITT: You had some big aha moments then. Were there any big ones at the school versus the studio?

Nick Mac: Yeah, oh yeah. I couldn't agree more with that. We're in a field where education, whether you know it or not, you're doing it every day. It's those aha moments. You can have a lot in the field when you get there, and a lot in school. One of them in school for me was, it's not that different than what I was already doing. It was like, oh, so that's how the pros do it too?

It gave me a lot of confidence. Oh, that's how you might get snare drum or guitar, or whatever. I started doing those things intuitively, so I was like, oh, this is great. The aha was like, phew, I don't have to unlearn a bunch of stuff.

The big, big aha in school was signal flow for me, how a signal goes from one point to the other.

That's one of the most crucial things ever in a studio environment, or in a guitar rig, or anything that you're doing. Where you are and where you want to go is the most important thing to me, so that was one.

Then the other one in the school of hard knocks, as you said, in the studio, was a gain staging thing for me, how to gain stage things, how to use meters, how to read meters, how to just see where you are in that environment, whatever. If you're in the digital domain or if you're in analog, all that is so important, gain staging. That was probably the biggest aha for me.

LEWITT: Why is this distorting? I don't understand. Okay, gain stage.

Nick Mac: Yeah, literally. Yeah. The plugins too, I would read manuals on those things. If they're analog plugins, model plugins, the analog units are set to receive a certain level of signals. You need to see where they're optimal operating range is, and you've got to plug in accurately modeled to that.

Gain staging is everything, to me at least.

LEWITT: So, what kind of gear are you using at Electric Feel? What's your workflow there?

Nick Mac: A lot of days I'll be using an Apollo, just because I travel a lot, but when I do get to sit inside of a studio, sometimes I do use a Focusrite pre, the ISA430. I love that thing. I've used it for years, really enjoy that one.

LEWITT: You've got the nice little handle on it, too.

Nick Mac: Yeah, that's the one. I have the strip. I love that thing, too. Yeah, usually on the front end of a C800, a lot of people like to be in front of that sometimes, but more often I've been using some LEWITT stuff, which I'm sure we'll get to later. People like that combination, the Focusrite, the Apollo, and then sometimes the API. For me, no matter what I'm doing, the gain staging is everything to me.

LEWITT: What's the difference between working with an upcoming artist and your A-list artists like Post Malone?

Nick Mac: The workflow for me isn't necessarily different. I come up with a system that checks and balances for myself as far as the technical side of things. I do the same for every session, how I'm receiving the audio, the levels that I'm looking at, gain staging again, and then certain effects I'll obviously choose different for different artists or songs, or whatever.

The thing that varies the most is, sometimes, their confidence, or their application of their talent and skill that they have. Sometimes if they are a younger artist, naturally, excuse me, they don't have that maybe studio savvy experience yet. Maybe they're learning, maybe they're just getting into the etiquette of things, or how to apply themselves in a session just musically, or how to collaborate with people in a room. Sometimes the people who've been doing it longer naturally just have those things nailed, and it's a little more fluid.

That's sometimes the major difference. It's not even a technical thing; it's a personality thing, or an experience thing.

LEWITT: Do you view your gear as a tool, or do you have an emotional relationship with some of the pieces?

Nick Mac: I definitely have an emotional connection to my gear. They are tools. Some I feel more fondly of than others, but there are certain pieces that I've used on things that I'm really glad that I did. It's like, oh, that's cool. I used it on that song, or I'll use this on that song, or whatever.

I still take recall sheets and everything, kind of old school.

It's kind of funny. Some of the assistants make fun of me for it, but anytime we use an analog piece of gear, I always write it down, and write the date so I can remember what I did that day, how I did it. It's just kind of nice, so yeah, I'm very sentimental about things.

The vibe of a session.

LEWITT: What do you do to get a good vibe for a session?

Nick Mac: Oh man, there's so many different things, and especially at Electric Feel, we have, I feel, it's signature, everything from the lighting to how the staff set the room. Danielle brought Palo Santo and candles. That's one of the things that's extremely essential, too. I feel like the session vibe at Electric Feel is getting that kind of incense and lighting right. That's crucial, but also just trying to be in a good mood if I can, smile at people, and just see what the artist wants to do.

Let them lead and dictate the way things go and let them feel like that's their space. That's kind of my vibe.

LEWITT: You've worked at multiple studios throughout your career. What's special about Electric Feel? 

Nick Mac: That studio is just so special because so many different records have been done there, so many great producers on our roster work there.

You feel it when you walk into the building.

It's not the biggest studio in the world, but it is a place where a lot of hits have been made, and there's just an energy to it. You can't really put your finger on it, but it just feels ... I went there yesterday for the first time in a couple of weeks of traveling, and it felt like home. I can't really even put it into words, really. It just feels like a place where you want to be, at least I do.

Producer or engineer?

LEWITT: Some artists like it when an engineer will come up with interesting ideas, which almost acts like a producer, in some ways. Some don't, …

Nick Mac: I would put myself in both camps, honestly. There’re times to do one thing, and there's times to do another. One example I can think of, the other day I was working with Post, and sometimes I try to really let him drive the bus, because I know he knows what he wants, and I don't want to get in the way of that thing, but we had a moment where we were just hanging out, and started arranging a few things, doing a few things. He was like, "Oh, cool. I like that. That's fine. Cool, I like that."

Another one would be Tyla Yaweh. I get really involved with him. If I'm working with Tyla, I'm going to try to vocal produce as much as possible, because that's the relationship that we have. He's looking to me to do that for him, but other artists, sometimes there's a producer in the room that's going to take the reins on that.

I live between both those worlds. I try to read the room and assess what is necessary for me on that day and in that moment.

I really like to be as involved as I can be. It's fun.

A Les Paul plugged into an amp and you just crank, there is nothing like it.

LEWITT: So we also know you're a guitar player. What's your favorite guitar and why, if you have a favorite?

Nick Mac: Oh, I have favorites. I have a couple of favorites.

I have a Fender custom. It's a 2004, and it was made by my best friend's dad who works at Fender.

He's a master builder, and now works up in the company in management. It's a black Tiki fret guitar, and I call it Kiki the Tiki guitar. It's kind of cool. It's pretty ugly, actually, but it just plays so well, and it sounds so good. It's just like no other guitar I've ever played. I just recently got the green variant of that too, and they only made 35 of the green ones, so I have one of those.

LEWITT: Wow.

Nick Mac: I probably shouldn't be playing that because it's a collector's item. 

But that Les Paul, that's definitely, I think, one of my most important pieces as well, because playing that show with my friends, that was so fun doing the tribute, and being able to play that guitar. That has a whole energy to it. When you have a Les Paul plugged into an amp and you just crank, there's nothing like that. I think those three guitars are my favorites, for sure.

LEWITT: Two totally different vibes, too. 

Nick Mac: it's a gold top. It's a classic. It's a re-issue. Obviously, it's not a vintage one, but the thing that I like about it is it's not chambered, because for a while, they were chambering them. I really like a heavy guitar. I don't have a problem with that. I think it feels like an old vintage car, but I imagine that's ... I've driven a few before.

When you just turn the engine over and it just feels heavy, it just feels sturdy, that's what I like in a Les Paul.

I love hardware. I'm guilty of that. I really love it.

LEWITT: Now, as an engineer and sometimes producer too, what's your go-to vocal chain?

Nick Mac: If I'm in the box, I'll start there. Sometimes, like I said, I use the Apollo, so I'll just start there, use the Apollo, go in. I've got meters that I pay very close attention to. Sometimes I do a channel strip type plugin. The IK, the white channel is really great. It reminds me of the SSLK, and then the black 76 is wonderful, too. Those are two things that I'll use to pretty up the sound, brighten it up if I need to do some filtering, do some squeezing and leveling.

LEWITT: That's from the TRX mastering suite?

Nick Mac: Yes, I've been using that for years. I've been using SSL stuff for years from them, so yeah. I'll have some sort of optical compression going on, and then I'll send it out to a mixed bus. I try to set up my sessions like working on a desk.

If I'm using hardware, I'll usually use a 1073, and an 1176, slow attack, fast release, just to knock the transients down a four to one ratio, and then just go into the box, and then do similar to what I just said, a little bit of SSL style, eqing, some more FET compression with some optical on a bus to hold it together.

LEWITT: Do you prefer the hardware or the software?

Nick Mac: I like the flexibility of having software, so you can go anywhere and do whatever you need to do on the go. My job has been so dependent on that, but there's absolutely something to be said for ... If I can work on hardware, absolutely. There's no reason why you shouldn't. It's real. It's really doing it.

I remember when I was first starting.

Are plugins as good as hardware? It's almost like that doesn't even matter anymore. It's about, first of all, for me, am I getting the job done? Is everyone happy? Is the artist happy? Is the song getting done?

But to really directly answer the question, if I can work on hardware, absolutely. I love nothing more than to pull up faders on a console, get a blend that makes me really happy to do things on. I love that. To reach out and grab any queue and just make it work, I love that. That's one of my favorite things to do. It just isn't the most time or cost effective, sometimes. The situation is dictated by the session. But yeah, I love hardware. I'm guilty of that. I really love it.

What makes a great microphone?

LEWITT: Now, when it comes to microphones, what makes a great microphone for you?

Nick Mac: For me, I feel I'm really sensitive to high-end. I don't like microphones that are necessarily just going to do this big boost thing. I really like it smooth. I also like to hear detail. I like to hear a nice low end, a rich, low end. Something that really represents the source, honestly, is also something that's important to me too, because you can do so much manipulating. You can do whatever you want in the backend, or if you've got it on a mike pre with an eq, you can do whatever you want. But the microphone, I like to have it be relatively honest to what's happening, and definitely not hyped too much in the high end.

LEWITT: What was your first impression when you tried the LEWITT microphones?

Nick Mac: I was so excited. Genuinely, I've been looking at the LCT 840 for so long. I tried that one, and I was relieved, honestly. There was sibilance that I didn't have anymore, which was one of the biggest issues that I've had with microphones, for instance, like a C800. People like to stand in front of it. We don't really know what it is or know what it does. It's a great mic in its own right, but as an engineer, that's not my first choice. It just isn't. I prefer something, like I said, that's not going to flatter too much in the high end. I can take care of that. Some artists' voices don't need that. It doesn't actually represent them well, so something smoother, 840. I love that thing. It's great.

Everyone comments on the glowing tube, "That's so cool," and it just looks cool. "What is that thing? It sounds so cool. What's the chain? What's this, that and the other?"

People get excited about it. The thing that I've discovered is it makes the artist feel good. We're in the business of making an artist feel good, so it helps me do my job, is what it does.

LEWITT: What do you like about the LCT 640 TS?

Nick Mac: I love that thing, because I just put over the guitar cab, and it was one of the easiest, fastest setups I've ever done. It was outside. It was for a live performance, and I was recording it, obviously. Put that thing up. There was not the fizzle that I would usually get from a dynamic. It wasn't also ... sometimes with other condensers, especially outside, you'll get a bunch of ... It just isn't exactly the go-to to maybe use a condenser outside, but that thing sounded great. I've used it on acoustic guitars. I've used it on vocals. It sounds really great. It's a really nice microphone.

Every time it's been really a pleasure to use.

LEWITT: Can you tell us some of the artists you've recorded with LEWITT?

Nick Mac: Yeah, absolutely. Like I said, speaking about yesterday, I did a thing with Iann Dior and 24kGoldn. It was a live performance, I think. I used the Lewitt on a guitar cab. It sounded awesome. Used the 840 on Goldn, also Tyla Yaweh used it on. Joseph Black I've used it on. Those are the few artists I've tried it on, and every time it's been really a pleasure to use.

LEWITT: That's on main vocals, correct?

Nick Mac: Lead vocals. It's just been a pleasure, honestly. Like I said, I looked at that microphone for a long time, and I just was so excited to finally get my hands on it. Everything that I had hoped for it to be, it was. I love how sturdy it feels. I like how it just feels like a really quality instrument and tool, and I love the results I've been able to get with it. I'm really thankful to have it in the arsenal, honestly. It would be, if not the first, one of the first microphones I would grab for, for sure. A lot of my friends would say the same thing, too.

I have a couple of friends I always bounce things off of. I mentioned I was using it, and they're like, "Oh, I love that mic."

The big ticket for the year.

LEWITT: Do you have any other interesting upcoming projects that you'd like to talk about?

Nick Mac: Oh, man. I've just gotten into recording a lot of live performances for artists. That's something new that's been happening. With the whole quarantine thing that's happening, people are doing performances from locations, and then they're broadcasting later. That's something that I've been jumping into, which is really cool.

Obviously, the Post Malone record, my part in it, whatever it is that day, that's the big ticket for the year. That's one of the bigger projects I've been working on. I'm going to be jumping into some more stuff, probably with Tyla Yaweh soon. I love working with him, and also doing a lot of studio tech stuff too, like teching out rooms and things like that, all those kinds of things. I've got a lot of projects. I've got a lot of work to do, mixing with chorus. I'm busy on all fronts.

LEWITT: You're very lucky you have the ability to keep working, and making great records, that are really received well.

Nick Mac: Thank you. Yeah, I couldn't agree more. I just want to comment on that, too. I know a lot of people have had a hard time this year, and I'm nothing but grateful and thankful for all the people that I'm able to work with and the team, my management, everything. I'm just happy to be here, just thankful. It's a blessing, and I appreciate you, Randy. Thanks for everything, man.


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