Engineer Mark Rankin on Adele's Vocal Setup and Recording Great Drum Tracks

Photo by Andreas Neumann

"When it comes to production, I have a motto that I stole from an A&R guy: 'take your best song and make it your worst.'"

Mark Rankin is talking about a Grammy and MPG award–winning career that has so far taken him from engineering Adele sessions in London to co–producing Queens of the Stone Age in Los Angeles.

The English–born studio guru — now based full–time in LA — had his first studio experiences at The Exchange before moving to a mastering facility in London that aspired to get into vintage recording.

"The boss, Graeme Durham, was into analogue and old 1950s gear," Rankin recalls. "So we built a pretty hardcore studio with a Studer tape machine and loads of nice old RCA and Telefunken preamps and ribbon mics.

From Humble Beginnings to Worldwide Hit Records

"One guy gave us loads of these old, big, silver BBC contact pots, so we built a mixer out of them. Graham hated any new stuff, so we went to an antique store, bought a walnut wardrobe, took the door off, and that was the front of the mixing desk. It just had a pan pot and a level pot, but it was 16 channels."

The recording studio became a big attraction with Rankin installed as the in–house engineer and his first session was with none other than Basement Jaxx. It was at the studio that Mark also met the then up–and–coming producer Paul Epworth. The two hit it off and eventually began a working relationship that would last for eight years, with Mark engineering some huge records.

"It just kind of escalated," he recalls. "The first thing we did was The Futureheads [2004’s The Futureheads], and it just kept going. We then did Bloc Party [2005's Silent Alarm], and I later hooked up with him again at Miloco Studios to do a Kate Nash record [2007's Made Of Bricks]. That was the first full album we did together that went to number one, and after that, it just snowballed.

"Paul was getting loads of work in, and we had a great groove going. I learned a lot from him. He's a great engineer, too, and I just did my thing from where I came from, and we just kind of worked really well together. It was like one hand knows what the other hand is going to do next."

Some of the successful projects were Plan B's The Defamation of Strickland Banks, CeeLo Green's The Lady Killer, and Florence and the Machine's first two albums, Lungs and Ceremonials.

But it was Adele's album, 21, that made the most impact. It hit number one in over 30 countries, notched up worldwide sales of 35 million, and made Adele a true international superstar.

"Paul did a writing session with Adele in this little studio in Eastcote, London," Mark recalls of the album. "There was a little room in there with a drum kit in the corner, an upright piano, and a work surface with computers. Adele came in with an idea for a song. I didn't do the first day, and Paul and her fleshed out this song. I came in the next day and basically ‘Rolling in the Deep’ was started."

The song — a hit everywhere with combined sales of over 15 million and over a billion views on YouTube — has become one of Adele's many signature songs. Mark explains that some of her vocals for the album were recorded in just a couple of takes and that the recording setup was actually pretty simple.

"We used a Rode mic, and at that point, Paul still had a pretty basic chain," he explains. "He had a Universal Audio 610 with a compressor, and it was a Rode microphone into that, and that is what is on the record. It was amazing, you know.

"I found the ‘Rolling in the Deep’ session on one of my drives when I got loads of stuff sent over here from England, and it's so good. I looked through it, and it's so nice to see because we committed so much stuff. The reverb you hear on there is my Roland Chorus Echo that we added and just printed it down."

Capturing a Perfect Vocal

Having recorded so many top vocalists — Adele, Florence Welch, Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme, and more — Rankin reveals what is involved in capturing the perfect vocal take.

The main thing is having the vocalist comfortable and wanting to tell you their secrets or story. You can have a crappy mic and still get a hit vocal take out of someone if they are ready to give that to you — it is the biggest thing."

"The main thing is having the vocalist comfortable and wanting to tell you their secrets or story," he says. "You can have a crappy mic and still get a hit vocal take out of someone if they are ready to give that to you — it is the biggest thing.

"But I do have an old Neumann U87 that works for everyone. I usually set the singer up about six inches from the mic, usually with a panel or two behind them. I'm not that fussed about anything in front. To me, it's about what is coming into the mic, and that’s from the back of the singer. It's also about mood, so don't sing during the day; it's an evening thing."

"I have a nice recording chain, too," Mark continues. "It doesn't always work for everyone, but I use a Telefunken V76 into an EAR 660 limiter/compressor. You have to have the track sound amazing on the headphones as well. If the track sounds amazing, they’re going to perform, so a good headphone mix is so important.

"Usually, I'll give them the backing track, and I'll supply the level. Sometimes they want to control it, but you have to be careful because if the headphones are too loud, it might make them sing a bit flat."

Getting a Great Drum Take

Mark is also in–demand for his expertise when it comes to recording drums and has some very detailed advice here, too.

"I have a couple of setups," he reveals. "I have a basic mono overhead and a kick drum mic. You can work wonders with just that. That is my starting point.

"From there, I have a really nice old RCA ribbon mic at the drummer's shoulder looking down to the kick and snare, and that gives you instant character — like an old soul record. If you get too much hi–hat on one side, you put it on the other and get a bit more kick and snare. It gives you great punch and balance, kind of mid–range but not harsh. It's really nice.

"There has to be a character mic of some sort in there," he continues. "I love recording a kick and an overhead — that's great — but obviously, that’s not always enough. I might use ambient mics — usually halfway out in the room and fairly wide — and I usually compress those. Sometimes, I face them away to get a bit of slap. I did that a lot with the Queens. You get a kind of nice slap, ambient thing in there, and if you distort that a bit, they really come alive.

"I guess I go for quite aggressive drum sounds a lot, and I use a fair bit of distortion. Recently, I've been into contact mics. They are traditionally like a pickup you stick on a violin, but I like putting them on the kick and snare to get an almost unnatural, boxy sound. But I love that bit of overdrive. It's really cool, you get a bit of weirdness in there."

Mark Rankin’s Favourite Microphones and A Word to Upcoming Engineers

"The old Neumann U87 is my go–to microphone, and that stays on the stand and doesn't move. I also have a couple of nice old Coles 4038s, which I've had for years, and a really nice Altec 639B mic. It's great, not hard–sounding at all, and I used to use it a lot for bass. I also have an RCA MI-6203 ribbon mic — a great drum kit mic."

Just grab every opportunity you get with both hands. Everything that comes your way. Be nice to everyone, and make a good cup of tea."

About relocating to LA, Mark told me, "The family came over, and we fell in love with the lifestyles. It’s so good for the kids, plus the studios in LA are great." He now works with more and more US bands, including rising stars Finish Ticket. But he still has an English slant when offering advice for up–and–coming engineers and producers.

"Just grab every opportunity you get with both hands," he says. "Everything that comes your way. Be nice to everyone, and make a good cup of tea."

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