Chris Allen on UNKLE, Sonique and the art of great library music

Mix engineer and composer Chris Allen has applied his signature touch to some of the most iconic and instantly recognizable pieces of music over the past two decades. Here, he discusses his ability to weave seamlessly between dance, rock and pop, to creating hugely successful pieces for the likes of Sky Sports and more…

When did you first know you wanted to work in audio?

When I was about 10 or 11, I knew this is what I wanted to do. I was always into records with an unusual electronic production, whether that was Mike Oldfield or Nick Kershaw. It was about the way stuff was mixed. That sparked my interest in the business of electronic-influenced music. I was still predominantly into a lot of rock as a teenager but then acid house came along and changed everything for a whole generation. That, combined with some home computers being able to do some basic sampling. The Commodore Amiga had a sound chip that enabled someone like me to sample things and start making my own music with basic sequencers, and I didn’t need any hardware. From then on I knew I wasn’t going to be interested in doing anything else. I got into clubland and the culture and really enjoyed that side of it, and then my parents got sick of it and sent me off to Kingston to do the Gateway music course. That was a real turning point and I met people there who defined my whole career.

What was your big break?

A friend of mine got a job at Serious Artist Management, who looked after Judge Jules and Sonique and others from the London house scene at the time. I was brought in to help build a studio for them in London and got to work. I spent the first six months figuring it out and then we made a record with Sonique. Then we made another one a few months later called Feels So Good and four or five years later that became a huge global No.1. That was the moment I transitioned from a jobbing engineer in a small studio to being able to spread my wings a bit. And I wanted my own place – I didn’t want to be working in someone else’s studio. So me and a partner of mine built a studio in his house and Sonique exploded and that brought some money in, which allowed me to gradually build a working set up.

But it happened in two stages. When I was working at that studio, the record was released in the UK and did pretty well – about 23 in the charts, which wasn’t bad for a little independent label. Then three or four years later it went mad in America. At the time, around the turn of the millennium, radio was still king, and her record got picked up in Florida by a request show. So, it got played and then exploded, and within a month she had eight or nine majors wanting to sign her. She signed a big deal with Universal in the US and they said, ‘We need an album now’. So, we beavered away and knocked up an album that did really well. The song went out and didn’t make the No.1 in the US but it did in the UK - it sold well into the millions and was a hit globally.

What have been some of the other defining projects you have worked on?

Working with UNKLE (James Lavelle) changed everything for me. At the time, I’d left my previous job and built a studio at my friend’s house and started making a bit of a name for myself mixing for other people and making my own records. My perspective on it all was that I’d had this success with Sonique but I felt like I hadn’t earned it, that I’d lucked out and that didn’t sit right with me. So, I started over and was doing my own techno stuff and James came knocking and said he thought it would be interesting to bring a dance engineer in to mix a rock record. I then spent about 18 months trying to wrap my brain around live drums and strings, and this was a big record with people like

The Sky Sports News theme was the goose that laid the golden egg. Chris Allen

Josh Homme on it and loads of big artists. And it was produced by Chris Goss in the US who’s a big rock producer. All these people knew their shit, and then there was this upstart dance guy who appeared right at the end to bind it all together. It was an amazing experience, and it was a big turning point for me in the early part of my career and it led to a number of other things.

How collaborative was James Lavelle during the making of the record?

The mixing went on for over a year and a lot of tracks were constantly being worked on and developed. He was very hands on. He’s an old school producer in that he isn’t as concerned with the minutiae, but he has great ears and a great perspective on it all and he views it from that level. It’s a great perspective to have in music. The whole thing was a great experience, and it still stands up really well today. Both that and the Sonique projects were major turning points for me.

What came next?

I realized I needed to generate some income that wasn’t just jobbing engineer work. If you can get some royalties going, then life gets a bit easier. So, I started doing production music. A friend of mine got a job at Sky in the music department and they were setting up their own music library ostensibly to save themselves some money. Then they suddenly needed loads of music, so my friend rang me and asked if I wanted to do some. So, I did and made a whole bunch of stuff for their catalog, and another stroke of luck came along in that one of the tracks we made became the theme for the Sky Sports News channel, which was like the musical goose that laid the golden egg. That music was on everywhere – I’ve never made a piece of music with reach like it!

I enjoy making deep and complex music but there is a real skill in functional music, which has to create a certain feeling in a really short space of time. It’s hard to be concise and I learnt a lot from doing that, especially the little three second bumpers for ad breaks. Making a piece of music that short, that resonates, is really hard! And just because the piece is really short doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot going on in it. You end up with a tiny sting that’ll have 100 tracks – it’s really unwieldy in a sequencer! That was a great experience and allowed me to earn some good money and enabled me to change things and look at other work. I did quite a lot of library music for a while and then eventually I moved back to mixing and built a new studio in Brighton.

You’ve spoken about the Merging Technologies kit that features in your studio. What role does it play in your setup?

I have the Merging Technologies Anubis and Hapi and they are fundamental. Sonically they are invisible, which is the best compliment I can give them. I’m not wondering what they are doing. With a lot of converters, you don’t realize how much damage they can do to the sound, which you subconsciously compensate for. The Merging kit just does what it does really well and I don’t have to think about it, it just sends sound to the other boxes – sound comes out, goes to my Thermionic Culture Phoenix and comes back again and sounds exactly as I would expect. My previous system was having a massive effect on the sound of my studio and I didn’t really realize until I took it out of the room. For me the single most important thing in the studio is your converter, and whether you like it or not, it defines everything about how your music sounds.