Richard Furch: Tasting Notes From A Plug-in Connoisseur

Richard Furch

Richard Furch is a mix engineer at the top of his game. His résumé boasts six Grammy-winning albums out of 17 Grammy-nominated projects. He’s worked with international RnB artists from Outkast to Usher, and some of the all-time giants of the industry from Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis to rock royalty Prince. Despite – or more likely because of – this, Furch comes across as a genuine and sensitive musician, painstakingly fine-tuning his plug-ins with a passion akin to a fine-wine connoisseur, aiming to build his clients confidence in their own work without intruding on their creativity. He shares his tales about his climb to the top, the dream of being tapped up by Prince, and how Exponential Audio has become the prize bottle in his cellar.

From classical roots to the New York sound stage

Interestingly, for a musician of such caliber, Furch cannot boast generations of family musical heritage: “I am probably the first musician in the family. I haven’t done my research on that, but certainly my parents were not super-pleased when I considered embarking on a career as a pianist. I’ve been classically and jazz trained for north of 30 years now. At one point, I actually wanted to be a jazz musician by trade until I figured out that that’s one of the hardest ways to make a living, hats off to the masters who do!”

As a teenager in Berlin, he spent his time playing in bands – “as a student you play the things teachers want you to – the classical and the jazz. But you also want to be a rock star – show me a boy who doesn’t want to be a rock star and I’ll show you a liar! So, I tried my hand at pop music, at punk music, at rap; played whatever was around basically, and tried not to embarrass myself.” But alongside the teenage jamming, he was serious about his musical training. “To try to get into German music schools I had to practice really, really hard, because they only take four or five pianists a year. So you not only have to be really good but better than the other four.” But the young Furch felt he couldn’t just practice eight hours a day. “So I went to the SAE Institute in Berlin, and also did a bunch of MIDI programming out of my house, and I realised about a year in that that was the interesting side of things. This was where I wanted to be music-wise: it was the way to be able to work on projects I could never work on as a musician alone. I realised as a pianist I wouldn’t be able to work on a Marcus Miller record but as an engineer I later would.”

With this newfound direction also came the realization that “there wasn’t that much music I really wanted to work on in Germany, so I set my sights on the U.S, and continued my studies there at Berklee College Of Music in Boston. From there I graduated, moved to New York, did the runner thing at a big recording studio, Sound On Sound in Manhattan, then started my independent engineering and mixing career.”

Mixing with the hip-hop virtuosos

As for how a classically-trained aspiring jazz pianist ended up mixing for hip-hop and RnB royalty, Furch sees it as just the way things fell, and a result of the musical talent he came into contact with early in his career. “I landed in New York at a major studio facility, with all the SSL and Neve consoles I had dreamed of in my life.  During the day, we would do Broadway recordings and jingles. Then at night - 10pm or so - you would have the hip-hop session that runs until 8am or 10am the next day. And because in a lot of hip-hop a whole track is (a) programmed and (b) done by one person, you have these incredible programmers, these ‘hip-hop virtuosos’ that can program MPCs and use them like instruments. Dr. Dre, Scott Storch, Cool And Dre, Swizz Beatz, Jerry Wonda… these people are really musically powerful.”

Furch also insists the shift from classical to hip-hop isn’t as unlikely as you might think. “Themusic I am involved with is mostly very keyboard-based, so it kind of fits. The jazz and classical background to an extent apply there – I speak the same language and can hang with the cats.”

After four years in New York, Furch felt a pull to the West Coast. “I was actually craving more natural instruments; I thought ‘I’m an engineer, I would like to be involved with more bands or at least organically-based production. A gig took me over to the West Coast and two weeks later I called my wife and said ‘Is this the time? Let’s just move!’ And we moved within one month. And just kind of stayed here. The funny part is none of what I moved for actually came to pass. I went straight back into RnB and pop, and that’s fine. It’s the growing pains that go into something resembling your career.”

Prince just drops by…

Alongside the growing pains came the big breaks. Undoubtedly the biggest of which has to be being sought out by Prince to work as mixer and engineer on his “Lotusflower/ MPLSoUND” album. Few people get that kind of break – and most would give their right arm to even be in the same room as such music royalty. “Me too! I’m a super fan, always have been - I had all his albums at least up to Emancipation or maybe Rave Unto The Joy Fantastic, and all the bootlegs (I’m sure he wouldn’t like that!).”

Getting the gig, Furch recalls as almost dream-like. “It was the most natural gig I’ve ever gotten. We all dream of the day where your hero hears of what you do and gives you a call – well that’s actually what happened! Normally you have to send around discographies, schmooze, find the right connection, jump through the hoops… but I was at a recording session with Christina Milian at Chalice Studios in LA, and she says ‘Prince is one of my friends, he’s going to come by tonight’. And we’re all like ‘Right, THAT’s going to happen!’ But sure enough at 3am he comes round and was really cordial and funny. And he says ‘So what are you working on?’ We play him what we’re doing, and first thing he says when the song ends is ‘Who mixed that?’ And I said “Well,... I did’, and he said ‘Well I need your number.’ It was a dumbstruck moment! Of course, it’s one of those days when you don’t have a card on you so you scribble your number on a piece of paper and he walks away with it. And you think ‘Of course nothing’s going to happen here, whatever.’ Then two weeks later he called and we embarked on what became a triple album. It was amazing.”

Just mix it, don’t change it

When it comes to workflow and processes, Furch says the projects he gets approached with fall most of the time into one of two camps. “One, where someone comes to you and throws up their hands in the air and says ‘I don’t know, I got it as far as I could as a producer/artist etc, but can you make this shine? Can you make this good, make me look great? I’ll pay you good money for it!’ And that’s the most creative part, where I can say ‘OK, let me do my thing, see what makes this tick, whatever is right for the song, and we’ll get it there’ So that’s one side.

But more often what happens is that I’m getting a song that basically everyone has already signed off of creatively – the producer, the artist, the management, the label; they all like it, and it might be slotted to come out two weeks from now. So basically the job description is a little bit different, because what they’re saying is ‘Listen, we have made it through all these steps, everyone loves it and agrees it’s a great song, but can you please (a) make it better but (b) retain what we love about it - everything about it’ That’s a really important part of doing creative business; keeping the client confident about their own creation: improve upon it but don’t change it. A producer client in the past told me something that took me a long time to understand; he said ‘just mix it, don’t change it’. As a young engineer, I was like ‘what does that mean? I’m supposed to make this sound great!’ But he was right. Take the essence of the record, improve on it.

Furch rarely likes to go in deep and add elements according to his own interpretation. “Unless I talk to somebody about it beforehand, I probably wouldn’t go there. Because that’s a production move. If you hear something and think ‘That would take the song to another level’, I would probably mix their record first, then mix an alternate version and say ‘What about this?’ But if you do that you’ve got to be really convinced that this is making a huge difference, because it’s a bit of an intrusion; you’re changing somebody else’s arrangement, it’s a very, very fine line.”

The fine wines of the reverb world

This respect and fine touch Furch applies to his client relationships extends equally to his gear. Reverb is his first love, and he talks about reverb units as if they were fine wines. His earliest reverb memories relate to units that “were just always there”. Through SAE and Berklee, and onto Sound On Sound in New York, he was surrounded by the 480L, the PCM70, the SPX90: “the staples of any studio that you can still find at least in the analog studios (even though they’re of course not analog). So to me these were the reverbs, they weren’t good or bad reverbs they were just what we had. That was the normal and that’s why I have them in my current studio, the mixHaus, as well.”

Going into the computer, Furch started working with the usual suspects of plug-in reverbs. He felt they were good, but lacked something that the Lexicon reverbs got right: “There’s this thing the Lexicon reverbs do…they enhance and embrace the sound but it doesn’t feel like there’s a thousand delays going in the back of your sound. A bunch of other reverbs have an issue that they’re clouding the sound stage with a lot of information that is maybe in the reverb sound, it’s meant to be there, but it doesn’t help the record. To me it makes the sound stage opaque instead of transparent.”

Moving into the box, muses Furch, has presented some challenges, and made us think about reverb in a new way. “Back in the day, if it was on an SSL or 480 I would just say ‘Let’s put some reverb on it’, use the 480 and that did it; we didn’t think any further on it. But the moment we moved in the box we had to think more about it. Now we think ‘Let’s put some reverb on it’, then think ‘That’s an odd sound’, so you change presets, you change EQs, you change how you’re making music. When I went into the box that’s when I started realizing there’s something about reverb that I’m looking for which the old pieces gave me automatically without me thinking about it. Now I had to work harder.. I had to look for new versions of old processers in a plug in format that gave me that feeling.”

Exponential effortlessness

Looking to capture the old pieces in new formats brought Furch to Exponential Audio through the Bricasti. “I was thinking, ‘Am I going to buy a Bricasti? Do I really want another outboard reverb?’ and that’s when I started clicking around on the website, because Exponential Audio has a great remote software for the Bricasti. Then actually one of my composer friends said ‘You should really get the R2’. I downloaded the R2 demo and thought this is incredible! Then I called him and said ‘You were right and he said ‘What!? I never heard of that reverb!’ It turned out he meant a totally different reverb plug-in. So it was a misunderstanding, but I found a great reverb out of it!” 

Furch's admiration for Exponential plug ins stems primarily from on the ease with which they work; you just sit there and straight away they work. “You go ‘OK, here’s another plug in, let’s see what it can do’, you fire it up and click on a few presets whose names sound familiar, and think ‘Hmm, this is nice!’ With Exponential’s plug ins you immediately get this not-so-cluttered delay stage in the lower mids. That’s the first thing I will listen to on anything I use as a reverb. I send some effect through it and think ‘Ahhh!’ - or not - and in this case it was a beautiful, beautiful moment. It was very much enveloping my source sound instead of just this cardboard of a reverb behind the sound I’m sending from, where I get a little sad that I’m using it, which has happened to me with many plug ins.”

“The things I change about reverbs right away – parameters to fit my mixes – are pre-delay and high frequency damping. I use the high frequency damping almost like second reverb time control; it basically controls how much of the length of that reverb pops through your mix. You want a two-and-a-half second reverb but I make it somewhat dark and it’s almost like a release time on a compressor, you shape it into your mix then it disappears. So, these are very important parameters for me that have to work great and have to work together well, the way they let me shape a tail is very important to me. It was just effortless with Exponential’s plug ins, that’s probably the best word.”

NIMBUS: not just another reverb

The unit Furch waxes most lyrical about is NIMBUS, which he has lovingly tweaked to the perfect shape for his mixing. “I was thinking ‘so how does this fit into my workflow?’ Because a lot of what it does has already been solved for me; I have my hardware units and I’m very happy with them, and I have a few plug ins that I use for very specific other things. I decided to look into it a little bit further, because the one thing I would really like to do over time is to be able to retire some of my hardware. Not so much because I don’t like them, but because I know they have a shelf life. They are 20 years old, 30 years old some of them, and there will come a day when one of them passes and there will be no replacement, or at least not one I want to pay for. With NIMBUS I felt I could hear a quality and a specific thing I’m always looking for: the cleanness, the transparency. And I thought ‘I can I make this sound like one of my other reverbs’. I know that Exponential Audio says NIMBUS is not exactly a parametric reverb, the way a digital reverb is supposed to sound. But I was like ‘Well let’s just try something’. My favourite, favourite preset on the 480L is the A Plate; I use it on a bunch of vocals all the time, so I was like ‘Well can I do something with that?’ I kid you not. I chose any one of the plates (I don’t even know which I started with) and started matching it - of course you can’t just match the numbers, everybody has a different way of doing things - but I tweaked it and tweaked it and tweaked it, took me about 25 or 30 minutes and I came up with something that I cannot tell the difference. How long it was, how bright, how explosive; the 480L has a shape and spread parameters almost like an ADSR curve for your reverb - and NIMBUS matches it! I really took my time with it and it’s incredible, I’ve used it on a couple of records already and I don’t feel in any way bad about it. I think it might actually replace this particular program for me. It was amazing. I know it’s not meant to be the same, but it’s able to do what I wanted to do. It’s not ‘just another reverb’, it actually does a very specific thing really well that I’m looking for in a great reverb.”

Embrace the chaos

If Furch could offer one piece of advice to his teenage self or anyone starting out in the music business, it would be to “embrace the chaos.” It’s all about accepting and enjoying the journey: “I didn’t plan to be exactly where I ended up; the way here has been adventure-laden, exciting and surprising – and hard of course. It’s always going to be hard because you’re trying to do something that a lot of people want to do and only the hard-core people stick at. It can be disheartening, you get a lot of knock-backs and that’s fine, that’s just the way it is and it will never stop.” And any advice as to how he has stayed at the top? He laughs - “I’ll tell you when I figure that out! Most people think a career especially in this place looks like a straight line from ‘I am no-one’ to ‘now I am the guy’, but it doesn’t look like that, it goes up and down - there’s a busy year, there’s a not so busy year. The point is to keep at it and accept that that’s just how life is and how a music career works, there will be fluctuations, it’s dynamic, like music itself. Hopefully you will have a story like mine at the end. I didn’t plan on this exact story but I am proud of it.”

You can learn more about Richard Furch by visiting his website.