“I’m all for keeping the weirdness”: award-winning mixer Caesar Edmunds
Scooping an MPG award in March and being mix engineer on St Vincent’s Grammy-winning Masseducation, the rising star engineer to Flood and Alan Moulder is one to watch. We talk rough mixes, working fast and his journey to working with British production royalty.
“I’m from Singapore and there aren’t many Asian people working in audio in the UK,” says Caesar Edmunds. “I’m probably one of the few people from Singapore to win a Grammy. Hopefully, I can be an inspiration to young producers.”
The recording engineer is reflecting on a milestone year, having been named the Music Producers Guild’s breakthrough engineer of the year in March, which is an accolade he added to the Grammy he picked up for contributing to St Vincent’s Masseduction in 2018. With a CV bursting with punchy records from PJ Harvey, Queens of the Stone Age, Beach House, Ride and many more, it’s unsurprising he’s found a place as a key engineer at Assault and Battery, the London studio run by legendary production duo Flood and Alan Moulder.
“Winning the MPG award was incredible but they don’t tell you about the sheer horror of having to do a speech in front of so many people,” says Caesar. “But when I collected the award, I announced I was from Singapore. It felt important to acknowledge that.”
Caesar has indeed travelled some distance. His musical journey has led him from Singapore to London via years at LIPA, the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. Music was an almost illicit pursuit when he was younger and a far cry from the studio adventures he’s since enjoyed with many of his heroes.
“Singapore was a weird place for rock music when I was growing up,” says Caesar. “I remember The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails was banned, so you’d have to find it and other albums like it on import. It sounds crazy. But when I did finally get hold of this music, I was blown away. I became addicted. I never thought it was a world you could get into it.”
From this infatuation grew Caesar’s fascination with guitar pedals, which led to early attempts to emulate his favourite musicians and artists. Caesar tried unsuccessfully to get a place at music school in Singapore before spotting a course over at LIPA. His decision to come to the UK in 2009 to study music was life-changing.
“LIPA gave me a great understanding of the core recording processes,” he says. “From mic’ing kick drums to balancing mixes and using mixing desks and even tape, studying music meant that I had experienced everything and was well set up for an industry career.”
Caesar’s hunger for music-making and recording grew as soon as he was exposed to the magic of the studio. From then on, he did his best to beg, steal and borrow as much time to work on music within this environment as possible. “I just wanted to learn, experiment and try things,” he says. “Alongside the lessons, I learnt a lot through doing. I used to drive my friends mad as I’d always be in the studio or working on something.”
A pivotal moment came during his second year at LIPA when Caesar landed a work-experience role at Assault and Battery, an opportunity he was well equipped to make the most of, in part thanks to his studies. “I can’t emphasise how important LIPA was to me ahead of going to Assault and Battery for work experience,” he says. “I stood out, as I knew all the processes. It meant I wasn’t lost when I was asked to do something.”
Open the flood gates
Based in West London, Assault and Battery is one of the most prestigious studios in the business, thanks to the careers of co-owners Flood and Alan Moulder. Split between multiple studios, including room one, with its SSL desk, many of music’s greats such as Foals, Led Zeppelin, La Roux and The Killers have had their records shaped and structured inside. The duo has been behind some of contemporary music’s heftiest albums from acts such as Nine Inch Nails and the Smashing Pumpkins.
“On my first day, I met Flood and Alan and I was a bit shaky and in awe,” says Caesar. “I didn’t used to read the credits on records. I just enjoyed listening rather than looking behind the music. But after I began investigating, it seemed that most of my favourites were produced by them.”
Caesar’s first forays at the studio are almost unbelievable for a work-experience stint. They include Foals’ Holy Fire and some intense weeks of non-stop graft contributing to Led Zeppelin’s legendary Celebration Day album, a recording of the iconic rock band’s reunion gig at London’s O2. “I was so excited to be there,” says Caesar. “The first day in the mix room with Moulder, he pressed play and Foals’ Inhaler started. It blew my mind.”
The deadlines for the Led Zeppelin release meant Caesar had to suffer some serious late-night sessions. “Alan was in the middle of mixing Foals, then he took a break to mix this album from Led Zeppelin’s show,” says Caesar. “He had to do that within a month, and needed some support. I was there in the right place at the right time. Alan would go home at midnight, then I’d stay working on the stems through the night. It was brutal but getting the chance to work on Led Zeppelin’s music and Page’s guitar was amazing.”
Preparation is key
After such dedication, Caesar managed to land a full-time role at the studio, supporting Moulder across numerous projects. With such a track record, joining their team has certainly helped Caesar raise his profile alongside collaborating on some brilliant records. As their engineer, Caesar’s role is to help them turn their creative aims and ambitions into reality. Much of his work involves preparing the studio for recording sessions, attempting to pre-empt any issues and to administer tweaks to vocals and guitars.
“I’m a problem-solver,” says Caesar. “They’ll have their ideas and I’ll have to think about the technicality of making them real in the studio. Learning the tech side of production at LIPA paid off – like recording stems, prepping and setting up multiple rigs so they can talk to each other. But working as an engineer, you have to be quick and observant. You need to be a step ahead of what’s happening in the studio so that everything stays on track – and organised.”
“Technical proficiency should never come ahead of the song being served”
While Caesar has contributed to records by many of his all-time favourite artists, his experience working with Queens of the Stone Age on Grammy-nominated album Villains was surely one of his most memorable. “Getting on a plane to LA to work with Queens of the Stone Age at the Pink Duck studios was fantastic,” he recalls. “It was my first time in LA and I remember working on Pro Tools, working on the computer fine-tuning something, then I turned around and there was Josh Homme, Moulder, the rest of the band, Mark Ronson, Mark Rankin. I was the least-qualified person in that room.”
With their reputation for raising hell, it may seem like collaborating with the rockers might throw up a few unique challenges. But this wasn’t the case. “They are the nicest guys to work with. Josh is so charming and open. When you hang out with them, they make you feel like you’re part of the gang.”
Caesar cites other releases from Beach House and the new Ride material, including their latest album This Is Not A Safe Place, as career highlights too. “I loved working with Beach House, and Andy Bell from Ride is a genius of a guitarist. There’s just something that I’ve learnt from being around all these talents that I’ve been blessed to work with,” says Caesar. “The main thing is not to be a pleaser or to worry too much about what the world will think of you. All of these artists are totally committed to being themselves. They don’t make records for anyone else. It’s an attitude I’ve tried to adopt.”
Keeping the weirdness
With each artist in Caesar’s discography so unique, every project is tailor-made to fit them, their sound and their aesthetic. To onboard for a new project, Caesar believes full immersion in the act’s music and working quickly are key to bringing their songs to life.
“I usually spend a lot of time listening to the songs over and over again to tune into the band’s vibe,” he says of his process. “I’ll try to take it easy the night before a session but keep the music percolating in the back of my mind. When it comes to really mixing, I try to understand as quickly as possible what I love, what I want to capture and what I want to lose, then I try to work as fast as possible. Moving quickly means I avoid self-doubt. I like to follow that initial reaction, to chase my gut instinct.”
Caesar is also keen to emphasise that, although technical knowledge is important, mixing engineers should always avoid trying to show off their skills at the expense of the songs. “When you hear some insanely big hits, there are some pops and errors present but they often still work amazingly well,” he says. “Technical proficiency should never come ahead of the song being served. When they’re starting out, a lot of engineers make everything
too clean and too polished. I’m all for keeping the weirdness in if it feels right.”
Overstay your welcome
With a veritable arsenal of equipment at his disposal at Assault and Battery, Caesar has plenty of options when it comes to his mixing. He cities the Overstayer Modular Channel compressor as an important piece of kit. “Every time I’ve recorded a session with an act such as Ride or Suede, I’ve had to have it,” he says. “It’s at the core of my process, because I can just put everything through it.”
“Mixing is the same too. I use this modular channel and we’ve just got the SSL desk. It’s so simple but great at achieving the right balance.” The desk was previously used by Alan to mix material by Nine Inch Nails and shipped over to London from New Orleans. Since winning the MPG award, Caesar has adopted Genelec speakers when he can, while he also cites Waves’ plug-ins as part of his technical armoury.
Caesar’s endeavours at Assault and Battery have mainly been based around mixing. But he made the step up to recording when working on Suede album The Blue Hour in 2017. “I wanted to work as the main recording engineer on that Suede record,” he says. “I was concerned it might not have worked out but it did and I’ve continued from there. The Suede album was a fairly straightforward rock ’n’ roll record with a few effects and aspects of studio wizardry. I then recorded Circa Waves’ third album What’s It Like Over There?’. It was a totally different approach. They wanted me to play around with sampling the drums. It was a very modern production method.”
The art of recording
Caesar is now coming up to his eighth year at Assault and Battery and looking forward to many more. He believes it’s important for aspiring engineers to invest time and effort into their passion for sound.
“Plenty of engineers assume they can go at it straight away by themselves,” he says. “But nothing beats the experience of learning in a proper studio.” With fewer and fewer traditional recording studios, this kind of experience is perhaps harder to come by now more than ever. But Caesar feels it’s essential, not only for professionals’ development but for the health of the recording and wider music industry.
“It’s tough to get into this industry, as there are fewer studios out there,” says Caesar. “But I think it’s important to preserve the art of recording. I love music technology, being able to work so quickly in-the-box and all the magic that comes with it. At the same time, there’s no substitute for good, solid recording. If we lose this, it will make for a strange musical landscape. And a strange-sounding one.”
While technology’s evolution has led to an increase in the consumption of digital music, the recording process has also changed thanks to easier access to high-quality tech. “The quality of those working in the early stages has increased. Software DAWs such as Logic and high-spec home computers are so much more affordable now than they were when I was starting out.”
Caesar feels that this new musical landscape we’re living in requires everyone to up their game. “There’s pressure now for even new and emerging artists to sound great from the start,” he says. “There’s no such thing as a rough mix now. Those days are over. Now the rough mix could be the final version and sent out to radio. From engineers’ perspectives, you need to be awesome from the get-go. But it means we’re all working harder to be better.”
With the future uncertain, Caesar has busied himself with recent projects, including a return to Liverpool to work at Parr Street Studios with up-and-coming band The Lathums. He’s also co-mixed with Moulder on Black Honey’s upcoming second record Written & Directed, and took on some additional engineering on Orlando Weeks’ debut solo album
A Quickening. “The Lathums’ EP is amazing,” says Caesar. “It’s produced by James Skelly from The Coral. It’s a real Liverpool thing.”
Despite the pandemic, Caesar is optimistic about the future. With the MPG award under his belt, he’s keener than ever to continue working with the stars of today and tomorrow. “There was no-one I could look up to when I was starting. That’s why the MPG award meant so much. It’s more than just an award. It’s about inspiring the next generation.”
For more information about Caesar and his music, visit caesaredmunds.com.