This week’s Sunday Spotlight features Daniel Sherratt, who not only works for DV, but spends all his spare time producing music for film, TV and jingles for his company Moon Food Media, as well as searching out new and unusual sounds with….well, just about anything that comes to hand.
DV: How did you get into music, do you come from a musical family?
DS: When I was very young I used to make drums out of biscuit tins and ice cream tubs, and was generally fascinated with sound. My dad had been a chorister and so we were all encouraged to sing, although that didn’t really interest me as I hated my voice and was more tactile and fashioned things into percussion or, failing that, hit or tapped anything in sight. My main musical induction came from a peripatetic music teacher who visited the school one day looking for people to take up brass instruments, which meant missing a lesson and so of course that got me snagged! I was told I looked like a trombonist and so studied it for nearly 15 years. I went to music school on Saturdays and through that went on numerous European tours with concert bands and orchestras as well as some ad hoc session dates on musicals. On the side I also convinced my parent to buy me a drum kit and a guitar in some sort of vain effort to become a one man band. They never said no to anything musical and fully encouraged it.
DV: When did you get into music production?
DS: For my A-levels. The music tech course looked more appealing than a standard music course as I was already a bit further on from that due to my studying music outside of school, and although it possibly meant an easy grade I wanted to record my rock band! Although that was the late 90’s the department was still using a multitrack tape machine alongside an Akai digital recorder, so we learned the ‘hard’ way on an old Soundcraft board into a Fostex E16 and then mixed down to cassette – with way too much reverb. I left it all behind to study film production at university, but met a girl with a fantastic voice and so I wanted to record her. Never having used a computer to record, I bought a microphone and some cheap consumer recording software but the soundcard was the onboard variety on a cheap PC and was noisier than the signal coming down the microphone. In the process of finding out what was wrong, I learned about soundcards and began to build a small setup to record on campus singer/songwriters and bad movie soundtracks. I spent all my student loan on gear, and soon became more engrossed in that than my actual studies but still managed to scrape by with a respectable grade. I got a job as an assistant at a local studio where my real education began, and quickly began pulling in my own clients and eventually working on commercial releases. I love the sound of specific eras of music and so to this day I’m obsessed with collecting esoteric gear and using the older methods of recording with minimal mics, tracks and effects.
DV: What’s your main area of interest musically?
DS: It changes all the time but I’m mainly rooted in classical, jazz, folk, funk and what can only be cheesily described as ‘old school’, mainly east coast hip hop. Just glancing at my iPod reveals an eclectic mix of Ahmad Jamal, Patrice Rushen, Bob James, Steely Dan, Eric Whitacre, Jeru the Damaja, Maurice Ravel… anything goes as long as it’s got soul and preferably well produced. As you can imagine, these diverse tastes have a huge influence on my production and engineering. The main thing I take away from it all is creativity and the inventive creative processes which is easily identifiable in the music I listen to and so that’s what attracts me. Unusual instrumentation would be my hallmark compositional tool and that is a deliberate decision as I like unusual textures when I can’t figure out what instrument has been used, and generally steer clear of samples. I’m also massively into the artists I work with, when I get to do that sort of thing. I’m fortunate to have worked with a roster of incredible musicians who are all proud of the albums we’ve made. I love it when I can just put a mic up and they’ll do the rest.
DV: Which instruments do you play?
DS: Bass, drums, guitar and trombone in order of frequency of use. I mainly prefer the bass these days, I have a lovely Japanese Fender Precision which is such a great instrument in terms of sound and playability – the amount of offers I’ve had to buy it from me! In some of my productions I use a lot of drum loops that I’ve recorded, and for those purposes I have a couple of drum kits – my studio kit which is a Sonor S-class maple/birch and a 60’s Premiere Olympic for fun stuff and fitting into tight spaces. I’m furnishing these kits with some new Paiste Giant Beat 14” hats and a 70’s Ludwig Acrolite snare. My guitars are an Epiphone Sheraton and a standard Squire Stratocaster which I play through an Epiphone Valve Junior and I build all my own guitar pedals. For anyone that might be interested the trombone is a Conn 7H Bb/F Tenor, and my oldest friend.
DV: Tell us about Moon Food Media?
DS: Moon Food Media is a company that was setup by me and Ben Crone-Barber, an incredible sound designer, literally to facilitate all the ad hoc work we’d been garnering from various places. Primarily we do sound design and composition for various forms of media, from councils and educational services to indie film companies and jingle production. We’ve not been running for very long but we’ve managed to stay really busy just by word of mouth at this stage! We’ve diversified into other areas, such as mastering the new Wayter album and I get a few bits now and then digitising various obsolete formats including cassette and ¼” tape and giving them a quick audio bath to take out any nastiness that may be on the original. We’re also very interested in the handheld devices boom and all the opportunities this will bring to gaming and audio.
DV: How involved do you get with writing and producing your own material?
DS: I try to stay original and not take myself too seriously. I’ve kind of forgotten how to write music unless it’s for a brief! I pretty much make everything from scratch, if I like a particular drum loop then I’ll re-create it. I’ll start with the rhythm of the track and the tempo, just to get the right feel and groove. Sometimes I’ll have a strong melody going round my head that I’ll jot down as a little sketch and then something might come along that it would be perfect for, and so I will develop it from the existing material. Realistically, these days I’m just producing for a couple of artists as an engineer and mixer, that sometimes need some brass arrangements – and that suits me just fine.
DV: How are your engineering and production skills?
DS: I used to love plastering effects over everything just for the sake of using them, but now I’ve taken a more naturalistic approach with recording and production. I like to take my time at the source getting my drums in tune and the atmosphere right so 80% of the work is done in front of the microphone. If I use any effects I’ll usually print them with the take, as it usually elicits a different kind of performance with the artist. I’m not afraid to record with compression either, just enough to keep things level and add some tone to the signal. I’ve whittled my equipment down to some very good sounding preamps, mics and choice outboard. I’ve got a custom built 70’s broadcast console that has these ridiculous limiters built into it, it sounds so good sometimes I’ll even cut live to two track so your chops really need to be up to scratch! I use it for location stuff as well as it’s an eight into two and pretty portable.
DV: What kind of clients do you work with; do you get involved with corporate commissions?
DS: We deal with a really diverse client base at the moment as we are almost completely word of mouth. Once we had done a couple of bits and pieces, the ball started rolling and so then a friend of a friend of a friend wants some bangs and whizzes for his flash intro page or whatever. On the corporate side of things I’ve done sound production on a number of projects for councils where they’ll deliver their edited promo and then we’ll add the music and sound design or Foley and ship them back the completed project. It’s really so diverse at this stage, but I’m not complaining!
DV: What do you record on?
DS: Mostly we use Magix Samplitude as it’s got a lot of cool editing features and a unique hybrid audio engine that allows better integration with external processors through my RME Fireface 800, and I’ve been with it for years. At this stage, I’m not really sure it matters that much when it comes to choosing a DAW as they all allow you to get your ideas down and printed to CD, you just need to know how to work with digital. Samplitude isn’t as fast or as creative as something like Ableton Live which we use an awful lot for idents and jingles with a fast turnaround. Ableton also has some pretty unique effects processors that can add some dimension to a track, and there’s some really cool features that allow the programme to really shine through in an arguably saturated market. You can treat it like a massive modular synthesizer with integrated video and it becomes a sound designers dream; and at this stage I’m only really just scratching the surface but we’ll definitely be using it more and more. We’re also thinking about getting a ProTools setup too as there may be some occasions where we need to be compatible with other studios. Outside of the DAW we use a Zoom H4N for field recording and sound collecting, and they are absolutely amazing for the money.
DV: What instruments do you mainly work with, live or virtual?
DS: Both. Vocals, guitar, brass, drums, bass… anything really. With virtual instruments I love the Arturia stuff, and especially the CS80V. I’ve never used a real one to compare, so you have to take it for what it is which is a fantastic sounding and very powerful synthesizer. Native Instruments Komplete also gets a lot of love here, especially Reaktor for the granular synthesis as well as huge library of third party creations I couldn’t dream of making myself! There are so many wonderful virtual instruments these days, but I still love to work with real acoustic instruments and even better is blending the two.
DV: Is there anything unusual in your collection?
DS: Tons! From bizarre Italian keyboards to broken 60’s ribbon mics… my favourite thing in the world right now is the Ampex 601 tape machine. I don’t really use it for recording onto the tape (although it makes an excellent slap back echo) but has an absolutely huge sounding valve mic pre in it that breaks up like nothing else. Also, I don’t use soft samplers that much as I still use outboard Akai S series samplers – my favourites being the S3000 and the S950. Most of the time I use them to sample old drum machines and then keep them all stored on floppy! They’re all synced up to my computer though… I have a lot of old tape machines that have various uses, but mainly to transfer tapes across at various speeds.
DV: What’s your favourite vocal microphone?
DS: It really depends on the vocalist. I used to think my Electrovoice RE20 was the most versatile microphone on earth as it sounds amazing on about 99.9% of vocalists I’ve worked with, but the 0.1% exception happens to be the singer I work with the most who sounds great on the AKG C 414. The Neumann U87 - new or old- is a strong contender along with the Sennheiser MD441. Sometimes I’ll use two types of microphone within the same song – for example a project I’m working on requires really soft vocals in the verse and heavier vocals in the chorus. In the verse I used the Rode K2 which has a lovely velvety lower mid range and in the chorus he sang full tilt into an Electrovoice 635a which is an omni-dynamic and a bit gritty while picking up some of the room sound as well. So you never know! For VO or podcasting, the Shure SM7B has a familiar, dry tone that’s often perfect.
DV: Do you prefer outboard effects or plug-ins?
DS: Neither in all honesty. Plug-ins are fantastic now. The Soundtoys stuff has genuinely replaced a couple of bits of outboard I was using because they not only sound brilliant but actually better in some cases, not to mention much more practical. I also dig the Elysia plug-ins for master limiting as they are the most transparent I’ve heard to date. And as I mentioned, we also have the Komplete bundle which is chock full of all kinds of goodies for sound design, and we’ll regularly use Reaktor, Absynth and the Scarbee Vintage keys library. With outboard, special mention goes to the DBX 160A which is my go to bass or mono drum compressor. I have an old Roland RE501 chorus echo which is a wonderfully inspiring tool which gives you a delay like nothing else… I don’t know if I’ve done anything in the last two years that it doesn’t appear on. Sometimes I just run things through it without any of the effects engaged to get some of the input saturation. The downside of course is the maintenance as the Roland has blown its rectifier twice this year, and isn’t cheap to fix. Plug-ins sound close enough now to be considered a proper investment, in my opinion.
DV: Which mastering software do you favour?
DS: Magix Sequoia without a doubt. From the object based editing to final CD assembly it’s just absolutely great. When we master we also use analogue summing through a Thermionic Fat Bustard and various other pieces of outboard, and the integration is seamless within Sequoia. I used to use Adobe Audition which is actually my preferred editor for chopping and cleaning, it’s really easy to use too.
DV: What piece of gear couldn’t you bear to part with?
DS: Oh jeez. Either the Akai S950 or my Roland RE 501 chorus echo.