Interview: Dan Swanö of Unisound Studios (Part One)

Part two of this interview will be published tomorrow… Enjoy part one!

While writing this interview, I find myself listening to Pan Thy Monium’s all time classic EP Dawn of Dreams from 1992 and how this still stands the test of time over twenty five years is incredible. They are and always will be one of my favourite bands due to the innovative sound that has yet to replicated. They were true masters of their art and a band that I have missed incredibly since they split up after their last release in 1996.

One key factor in this band is none other than Swedish legend Dan Swanö, who apart from being a multi-instrumentalist and being in a multitude of bands, has been busy mixing and mastering bands releases since the beginning of time at his Unisound recording studio. Every progressive, extreme or death metal fan will no doubt have in their collection an album where Dan has contributed his magic touch either behind the scenes or direct involvement in the band’s music. It was an honour that Dan agreed to this interview and definitely one of the highlights of my Moshville Times career to interview him.

You will find that Dan is a music fan, always willing to give advice to young and upcoming bands as well as being a really approachable guy. I wanted to find out more about the recording side of things in the music business and the first person I wanted to contact was Dan Swanö. I also couldn’t help myself in asking Dan a few questions about the bands that he is involved in but to be honest, I could have asked him a book of questions such is his involvement in the scene that I love. This is a good one!

[Jimmy: When Ricky told me he was contacting Dan, I had to chuck one or two questions in as well. Mainly about Nightingale and the masterpiece that is Crimson. As Ricky says, this is a good one.]

What would you say is the definitive Dan Swanö and Unisound sound?

I like it when everything is heard at all times. That the mix is so transparent that you can follow each instrument at all times. It can be quite the challenge, especially when some drum/cymbal stuff isn’t properly recorded. But I always try as hard as I can, anyway, sometimes at the cost of my sanity!

What is your ultimate goal when finishing off a product before you are satisfied with it?

That the client is 100% satisfied with my work. I see myself as a sonic handy-man. Unisound = Your Sound. I spent a lot of time in the 90s giving bands a sound that they may not have wanted, but because there were no A/B methods or even a chance to hear the stuff at home before it was “too late” – I now make sure that the bands get what they want, even though it means swallowing your pride and “clone” mixes from Skogsberg, Tägtgren, Sneap, Bogren, Madsen, Burns (both of them!) I learn a lot from these types of mixes and once there is a chance for me to have a bit more “say” in what it should sound like, I mix and match between tricks I learned from analysing the stuff from the guys above, and my own ideas.

Being a multi-instrumentalist and having also been a member of so many bands, did becoming a studio engineer feel like the next logical progression in your musical career?

It became clear to me at a really early age that I am more interested in bringing my composition all the way home, to its final recorded state, than to let it hang in limbo between rehearsal/live/rehearsal/live. There’s too many songs from my early years (With Ghost/Icarus mostly) that never got recorded at all, and as an archivist that haunts me to this very day. So many of my projects were just meant to be a “one-off recording thing”. Some bands like Edge of Sanity recorded their first demo without ever having rehearsed. The songs were written/recorded/forgotten…repeat. So yeah, I was always heading for that engineering thing rather than being a “song writer/live performer”, I was more into the “songwriter/studio musician/producer/mixer” thing pretty early on.

Without giving any secrets away, what equipment do you have within your studio?

Nothing spectacular. I use a Frost ACM Window 10 i7 PC with an RME AIO sound card. 2 x UAD-2 QUAD cards and around 60 UAD plug-ins. I monitor my Yamaha NS10M Studio (With custom made black/white Zaor stands!) + a Genelec F One sub (not On all the time.. just for checking what’s going on down there) through a TC Electronics BMC-2 and a CPA-50 Drawmer Power amp. I like to listen at a fairly low volume (a lá Bob Clearmountain and Chris Lord-Alge) Other stuff is AKG K171Studio MK 1 headphones driven by a (slightly modified by SPL for an even lower noise-floor!) SPL Phonitor Mini. These cans bite back at just the right places, just like the NS10’s do, but I use the AKG’s at a “loud to very loud level” to make sure it’s smooth even then. I also have some passive Yamaha speakers that came with a portable Hi-Fi thing that have a nice scoop to them, and no crossover. I put them next to each other for a bit of that “Bluetooth amp” vibe. A good reality check-thing. I switch between various monitor levels and sources in my AIO card using an AKAI LPD8 thing.

For tracking my own stuff I use an Universal Audio 6176 preamp/compressor thing. I also have a Nord Stage EX88 keyboard/piano thing that rocks! My vocals are recorded with an Audio Technica 4033, that I have had since 1994 and sometimes a Shure SM7B, if I feel like holding the mike and just scream! I endorse Steinberg software and I have way too much 3rd party plug-ins.

Do you have that one piece of equipment that is the backbone to your sound and could not do without?

At this point, I could not imagine mixing without my NS10M Studios.

What is on the horizon for Unisound? Expansion of the premises/offering any other services or business as normal?

Not really. I am happy with the way things are working at the moment.

What albums would you say put you and your studio on the map which in turn led to you getting a lot more work?

Not sure, really. I think a lot of the early “No Fashion” stuff helped a lot. Marduk’s 1st, Katatonia’s Demo/1st album, 1st Dissection (also the second of course) Merciless Unbound, Unanimated’s 2nd, Dark Funeral’s 1st EP etc, also working with Millencolin from their 2nd demo to 3rd album brought in a lot of clients from that kind of music for a while. Also my own success with EOS, PTM, Bloodbath etc. have brought some albums to my door, for sure. Also more modern stuff like Hail of Bullets, Asphyx and Torture Division has also generated some mix work!

Do you ever find it difficult to manage how much you have and have you ever had to turn work down because you have too much on?

There have been a few occasions where the bands just asked for too much in not enough time. But that stuff usually ends after 1 email where I cannot commit to a project until after 3-4 months. I think it’s kind of weird to ask an obviously pretty successful business if they can work on a metal opera with 250 tracks of choirs and have it ready in 2 weeks from the day the email is sent!?

Following on from that, how far in advance do you typically take bookings?

Some bands have given me a heads up even a year in advance… but those bookings are very often rescheduled or cancelled. It’s very complicated to keep things running smooth. I usually end up with periods of almost nothing and then massive craziness. Once I had like 9 albums to mix at the same time and my own record to finish…those were crazy days, but I delivered each album in time, or even early.

What would get your attention from a younger band in terms of them asking you to mix/master their work

You have to ask them. I guess people still look at the covers or the credits online to see who mixed or mastered this one…and if they like what they hear, they usually get in touch, and surprisingly often we end up working together.

Is there anything you’d recommend to a band that would make the process of mixing and mastering easier?

There’s just so much but I am a fan of consistency. So always record stuff with the same equipment at the same levels. If you have to switch instruments because of 6 or 7 strings etc. try to choose something with a similar pick up and make sure to record at a similar level. Not setting the interface to the same since the output is most likely different. If your drummer isn’t as good as you thought, you suffer less from programming the stuff than to edit him to death. Won’t bring you any additional success. Programmed drums (done right…) sounds better than a bad drummer, trying to follow a click track, and his kick and snare are edited, but the hi hat and ride hits in between are not… very “un-groovy”. I could go on forever.. but those are the most usual things.

With bands that come back time after time, how easy or difficult is it to look at their previous output and make it better? Is it because you have more experience, get to know the bands sound or the fact that you have new and more up to date equipment to play with?

There are times when I think…f**k, how do I improve something that’s already extremely good? Well, sometimes there are tiny things to improve, that makes a big different in the end. But most bands always bring their albums to that 100% point, and there is no 101% – so it’s all about bringing it to 100% again, with new material and maybe new instrumentalists/singers etc.

You cannot reinvent the wheel all the time, you know. I feel that the monitoring I have had since almost 2 years now makes it easier to get where I want faster, since they only tolerate “the best sound ever” all else sounds crap…my previous monitors were a bit too “friendly” and even albums you know sounded terrible in some situations, sound alright in those..this means that also a pretty terrible mix could be mistaken for something that could work. They were also digital with a built in AD/DA thing and the transient response wasn’t nearly as good as with the NS10’s.

Part two to follow tomorrow…

Unisound Studios: official | facebook

Dan Swanö: official | youtube

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