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John Nathaniel on Mixing OneRepublic with ShaperBox 2

Canadian producer, songwriter and mixer John Nathaniel is hot property right now, with seven Number Ones and more than 25 Top Ten singles under his belt, not to mention the Rock/Contemporary Album of the Year award at the 2019’s GMA Dove Awards, and the SOCAN Songwriter of the Year gong in 2017.

With a client list that includes pop heavyweights OneRepublic, EDM superstar Kygo and post-grunge heroes Switchfoot, John is sought out for his epic, cinematic production style, and deft fusing of acoustic and electronic sources – and a key weapon in his mix engineering arsenal is ShaperBox 2.

If this comes as a surprise, it really shouldn’t. Although often perceived as a primarily creative effect, delivering everything from groovy sidechaining and elaborate modulated filtering to wild stereo sorcery and time-bending temporal acrobatics, ShaperBox 2 is also an incredibly powerful mixing tool, opening up endless possibilities for the surgical shaping of dynamics, frequency content and stereo imaging. Indeed, when it came to the mix stage of the new OneRepublic single, ‘Wild Life’ – also currently finding global recognition onscreen as the lead track from Disney+’s true story movie 'Clouds' – our flagship plugin proved invaluable in helping John realise his sonic vision for the project. We caught up with him at his Montreal studio to find out more.

First, tell us how your musical journey began – and where it’s taken you to.

“My father introduced me to classical music and opera when I was very young. I did a year and a half of classical piano when I was five, learning Mozart, Beethoven and so on. The teachers pushed me to read sheet music, but I was never good at it – I would always learn the songs by ear. They’d get mad at me for that, so eventually I quit. I didn’t touch a musical instrument until I was 15, when I fell in love with guitar. I picked up piano again in my 20s, and that’s when I started producing and mixing. I was all over the place, juggling between rock, folk and electronic music. I’m also extremely fond of classical instruments – violins, cellos, etc.

Lately, I’ve had the chance to work with many incredible bands and artists, such as OneRepublic, Switchfoot and Kygo. It’s amazing to collaborate with that level of talent!”

Your production style is very distinctive, combining electronic and acoustic elements with an overarching epic feel. Have you consciously developed that, and how do you realise your sound in literal/practical terms?

“Thank you! I’m generally pretty spontaneous. I have strong taste and opinions that come off when I’m creating music, and I’m not afraid of being different or weird sometimes.

I always try to connect with a record, and when I’m in the zone, I do things without thinking about them too hard. I’m always conscious of what the vocals are evoking, and I shape everything around that to make the singer shine. Music and vocals should always have a conversation – the secret to a really great vocal is having everything else support it.

If a song needs epicness, it’s all about momentum and contrasts. Other times, it’s just about being more minimal and doing less – and that’s OK too! You have to know when to scale back.

I’m also used to collaborating. I love other people’s ideas. They can feed your creativity and you can feed theirs. I truly believe collaboration is the secret to longevity.”

Analogue synths from Moog and Sequential Circuits work alongside cutting-edge software in John's studio

You’re a songwriter as well as a producer and mixer. Do you approach songwriting entirely separately from the production process, or are the two intertwined? What advice would you give to others trying to balance these two roles?

“It depends. If I’m working on records that are more electronic, I might start with a production mindset, whereas if I’m working on a more emotional/stripped type of record, I might sit down and jam on the piano with the artist. As a mixer, I also have to kill the voice in my head that wants to EQ, compress and shape a vocal/sound before it’s right. It’s really easy to fall into a rabbit hole of editing/mixing early on, but there’s a time and a place for that. You just have to learn to wear different hats and switch at the right time to not kill a vibe.

The best advice I can give is: resist the urge to get too technical when writing or starting a song. Paint a beautiful raw picture and finesse it later. Also, trust your first ideas – they’re usually right!”

When working with a given artist, how important is it to you that you maintain the ‘John Nathaniel sound’? Does this ever clash with the artist’s own vision, and if so, how do you resolve that?

“When collaborating, I never think of ‘my sound’ as the ultimate goal. I think both our colours will come across, as that’s the point of collaboration: they’ll give an idea, I’ll give another. I go where the song takes me, and I always try to do something different in every song I produce/write or mix.

I always try to connect with a record, and when I’m in the zone, I do things without thinking about them too hard. I’m always conscious of what the vocals are evoking, and I shape everything around that to make the singer shine. Music and vocals should always have a conversation – the secret to a really great vocal is having everything else support it."

Your studio is packed with fabulous gear, and we’re honoured that ShaperBox 2 is part of it. How did you first discover Cableguys plugins, and what did they bring to your particular creative table?

“I started doing the sidechain compression effect with compressors more than a decade ago, and it was always extra steps to set up. When VolumeShaper came along, it changed the game – sidechain compression within seconds while being able to shape the perfect curve. I don’t remember how I discovered it, but I’m glad I did, because it’s making my life easier every day.

Then ShaperBox 2 came along with more tools and insane creative possibilities. People usually smile when I start to get creative and give rhythmic or panning movement to static synths or other sounds. The possibilities are endless.”

Spot the gear! We see Yamaha NS-10 monitors, a Mac Pro, Universal Audio 1176 and LA-2A compressors, a Kush EQ… And ShaperBox 2 slap-bang in the middle of it all

You’ve used ShaperBox 2 on the new OneRepublic track, 'Wild Life'. How did you use it, exactly? Which sounds should we be listening out for?

“We used it quite a bit in that session. The obvious pump on the bass and synths to give movement and create space for the kick drum – we have it set to 1/2 in the first half of the song and 1/4 at the top of verse 2, right up until the end.

Where I go kinda nuts, though, is in the last post chorus. I created rhythmic panning movements with the shaker and tambourine, where they get a tiny bit wider, in time in the right and left channels, accentuating the up-beats. It’s subtle but it adds excitement and depth. That’s where the real power of ShaperBox 2 lies: you can be subtle with it and enhance the groove and space of a record.”

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Hear ShaperBox 2 at work in OneRepublic's 'Wild Life', the lead single from the new Disney+ movie 'Clouds'

Which ShaperBox 2 features do you like the most? And do you have any ShaperBox tricks you’d like to share?

“I love tailoring the envelope of kick drums with VolumeShaper 6. It’s crazy how you can shape your low end that way. I’m also a big fan of the Sallen-Key filters in FilterShaper Core. They sound really musical and can be pretty smooth if needed. Creating lo-fi sounds with the CrushShaper unit by reducing the sample rate… Giving any kind of rhythmic movements you can think of with volume, distortion, filtering, width… The thing is limitless.

And if you wanna get nuts, HalfTime is also bananas!”

Follow John Nathaniel on Instagram.

'Wild Life' song credits

Written by Ryan Tedder, Brent Kutzle, John Nathaniel
Produced by John Nathaniel, Brent Kutzle
Mixed by John Nathaniel
All Instrumentation by OneRepublic
Programming by Brent Kutzle, John Nathaniel
Additional BGVs by John Nathaniel
Additional Keyboards by John Nathaniel
Violin by Eric Speed
String Arrangement by Brandon Collins, John Nathaniel
Mastered by Chris Gehringer

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