Saturday, April 25, 2015
Friday, April 24, 2015
Secrets Of The Mix EngineersPeople + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers
Ken Andrews won a blind shoot-out against some of the biggest names in the mixing world. His prize: the plum job of mixing Paramore's acclaimed comeback album.
Ken Andrews at his Red Swan Studio.Ken Andrews at his Red Swan Studio.
When a band lose two of their four founding members, including their principal music writer, in an acrimonious split, few would put money on the band going on to bigger and better things. Yet this is exactly what Tennessee emo band Paramore have done. When guitarist and songwriter Josh Farro and drummer Zac Farro left at the end of 2010, the three remaining members stayed together, refocused, and, two and a half years later, came up with the eponymously titled and widely praised Paramore. Released in April, the album received rave reviews and topped charts around the world, including the UK and the US, making it the band's first native number one.
Perhaps the hook-laden, punky pop direction of Paramore's first three albums had reached its natural end and a reinvention was overdue, even if the Farro brothers hadn't left. Either way, the remaining three members set about recasting the band's sound with gusto, dressing up their still hooky pop songs with quirky sounds and left-field arrangements. To help them, they enlisted Justin Meldal-Johnsen, who has been Beck's musical director for nearly 10 years and has forged a reputation as an innovative producer, working with ex-Failure frontman Ken Andrews, alt-rock bands such as Division Day and Neon Trees, and French electronic band M83. It was through Meldal-Johnsen's connection with Ken Andrews that the latter ended up mixing Paramore, but only after first clearing a serious hurdle: a mix shoot-out that saw him pitted against a handful of A-list mixers. Against the odds, Andrews mixed and conquered, and this is his story and that of his mix of the new Paramore album.
The Kid Doesn't Stay In The Film
Another view of Red Swan Studios.Another view of Red Swan Studios.
Born in Seattle, Ken Andrews' career began while he was at film school in Los Angeles, where he took a detour from which he never returned. "I started a band, Failure, and we didn't really think it'd go anywhere, because we were pretty left of centre. By 1991, I was actually directing music videos and making a decent living from this, but in that year Failure got signed to Slash Records and I put the video stuff on hold for a while to do the indie-rock thing. Twenty-two years later, here I am!”
As Failure's lead singer, guitarist and bassist, Andrews made three albums: Comfort (1992), Magnified (1994) and Fantastic Planet (1996). Following this he released an EP and two albums with a solo project called ON (1999-2002), and assembled a short-lived band called Year Of The Rabbit, which released an EP and a self-titled album (2003). Andrews' first solo album under his own name, Secrets Of The Lost Satellite, was created with help from Meldal-Johnsen and released in 2007. The two men are also currently involved in the "digital band” Digital Noise Academy, who funded their recently released debut album via kickstarter.com. So far, this reads like the typical career path of a moderately successful musician, except that 22 years later, Andrews' main working arena is not the stage, but his Red Swan private studio in Los Angeles. His reputation as a mixer has grown to such an impressive degree that beating the top guys at their own game simply seems like the next logical step upwards. How did he get so good at it?
"The genesis of the Failure sound was four-track cassette recordings that I had done of four or five of our early songs,” explains Andrews. "For me, recording and being a band member were hand-in-hand from the beginning. We recorded our first album with Steve Albini, and following that we recorded some very detailed four-track cassette demos for the second album. The record company wanted to release them as they were, but we chose to redo them, because we wanted to have real drums, and so on. We worked with a producer, but ended up falling out with him, and recorded a good half of the record ourselves. I wasn't entirely confident in my mixing abilities at that stage, so we got David Bianco in to mix it, and I learned a lot from watching him. By the time we did our third record, we were ready to completely take the reins and I engineered and mixed it. We convinced the record company to allow us to spend the recording budget, $75,000, on recording equipment, so we got a Mackie 32:8 and three early ADATs, and so on. After Fantastic Planet came out, I was immediately approached by several bands to record and produce their stuff. Even today, I still get work based on what I did on that album!”
In the 16 years since the release of Fantastic Planet, Andrews has worked as a mixer, engineer and/or producer with the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Beck, Pete Yorn, A Perfect Circle, Tenacious D, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Candlebox and many others. He also recently mixed the end title track for the science fiction film Oblivion, which was written by M83, and is currently working with M83 on another film score.
Ken Andrews' principal reverb and delay plug-ins were, respectively, Audio Ease's Altiverb and Sound Toys' EchoBoy.Ken Andrews' principal reverb and delay plug-ins were, respectively, Audio Ease's Altiverb and Sound Toys' EchoBoy.
Andrews is an outspoken fan of digital audio, which led to him being interviewed a few years ago on an American TV program called Wired Science, in which his views were contrasted with those of analogue believer Steve Albini. "The ADAT was the beginning of the home studio revolution,” explains Andrews, "and I used computers for the first time when recording ON. I worked on Logic for a while, but switched to Pro Tools in 2003. I have done a number of projects where I've gone to tape first, or mixed down to tape, but since I started using DAWs, I've worked on only a handful of albums without the involvement of a computer. I now work closely with Avid, beta-testing stuff for them, making videos for their teaser ads, and writing music that they can use for demo purposes. The sonic quality of digital is really good now, and there's no going back for me.
"My entire workflow here at my studio is based on a fast-paced mixing style where I'm bouncing between quite a few different mixes on any given day. You just can't do that in the analogue world. Also, artists care much less about attending mix sessions today. Instead, they have become used to the process of receiving draft mixes as an MP3, and they listen to these wherever they are, on whatever system they are used to, and they then send me their notes. I'd say that of the rock I albums that I have mixed in the last three years, in about 50 percent of cases the artists are listening and making their comments while they are on tour, sometimes several days after I send them the MP3. This makes the ability to instantly recall mixes with 100 percent repeatability essential.”
The Mix Factor
The role and status of specialist mix engineers within the music industry is also changing. Although their stock has risen dramatically, to the point where they are often expected to make creative contributions, recording budgets have continued to fall, and mixing has not been exempt. Many mix engineers have had to drop their fees, and in a competitive market, it has become increasingly fashionable to organise shoot-outs between several potential mixers. These shoot-outs are often unpaid, and it's a sign of the times that even A-list mixers feel under enough pressure to participate in them. So it was last Autumn that Andrews found himself taking part in what he called in his blog "an involved and somewhat nerve-racking audition process”.
"Justin [Meldal-Johnsen] gave me the chance to do the mix-off for the Paramore album,” Andrews explains. "The band had decided that they wanted to do this blind, with everyone mixing the same song. The mix files were labelled 'A' to 'E', and the band and Justin listened to them for an hour or so, and unanimously picked the 'C' mix, which was mine. I have to say that's how I got the last several mixing jobs I have done. It's becoming a really common thing, and mixers are willing to do it, because projects with healthy mixing budgets are becoming increasingly rare. Mixers working more and more in their own studios is definitely hurting commercial studios that have mix rooms, though studios in general appear to be doing better insofar as recording is concerned. When I rang around LA recently to book a studio to do some tracking, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that many studios were back to their old rates. I think that when it comes to recording, people still value good recording spaces, deep mic lockers, and good-sounding recording consoles.”
Three By Three
Inside Track: Ken Andrews and Paramore
Paramore had recorded a whopping 17 songs for the album, and Andrews' all-digital setup was ideally suited to handling such a massive project. It took him seven weeks to mix all songs, beginning October 15th and finishing early December, but he stresses that he wasn't working on the album exclusively during this period. "I kind of do my day in three chunks: three hours in the morning, three in the afternoon, and three in the evening after the kids have gone to bed. I often get the entire mix done during the day and I'll then do some recalls in the evening, and occasionally I'll finish a mix in the morning, do the recalls in the afternoon and start a new mix in the evening. It really depends on the songs and on how many tracks there are in a session. In the case of Paramore, it took me about two weeks to do the first drafts for all songs, and I then started work on another record, while doing recalls on the Paramore album.
"The sessions for the Paramore album usually had about 50-60 tracks, sometimes more, because there were a couple of songs that had a small orchestra on them. But the mixes didn't take that long, because they had been pretty smart about how they had recorded everything. The engineer, Carlos de la Garza, is really talented, everything was super-well recorded and the sessions were organised the way I like it, which is pretty common, with the drums at the top, the vocals at the bottom, and the instruments in between. When I receive a session, the first thing I do is a 'Save As' with my initials at the end, and I then listen to the rough, which usually has been printed back into the session. I get a sense of the vibe and direction of the song and I familiarise myself with the tracks that are in the session and then do some housekeeping, like going through all the regions and deleting any blank spaces. These blank spaces don't usually have noise on them, it's purely for me to have visual cues in the Edit window to see where parts begin and end.
"Also, because I have a good relationship with Justin and Carlos, I had been aware of what they had been working with, software-wise, and they gave me a list of the plug-ins they had used for the roughs. There were only a handful that I didn't already have, and these were relatively inexpensive, so I bought them all and installed them on my system. This allowed me to open their sessions and not have disabled plug-ins. Another part of housekeeping, for me, is to rip out all the hardware I/O that's in the session and make sure there's no automation anywhere. I then import my own internal I/O and bussing setup, which contains a template of auxiliary plug-in effects and instrument sub-groups like drums, bass, guitars, keyboards, vocal, and so on. Each instrument family has its own stereo aux track at the bottom of the session, and I make sure everything is routed the way I want it. My template will generally have three or four reverbs, two or three delays and some drum-bus compression. That's my starting point for a rock mix, but the settings always get changed, depending on the song. It's a quick way to get going, and for the most part I can go through a rock song just using these, even though I may create a few new ones here and there.
"My next step will be to get a really quick overall balance, without looking at the processing on individual tracks. I then pick something I'd like to work on in more detail. This may be the drums, or the bass, sometimes the guitars. It's usually not the vocals, because with this kind of music, the concept of getting the vocals to sound good and then fitting the music around that doesn't work for me. It's not just about the vocal sound, it's about the entire package. So I first get a good instrumental mix, and then I add the vocals in and make sure they can compete within that instrumental mix. At that point, I may address some overlapping frequencies and EQ some 1k or 2k out of the guitars or keyboards, or pan things out a bit more, to make room for the vocals. But in general my strategy for a rock mix is to first get a really good, punchy, rock instrumental mix going before adding the vocals.”
Synths Versus Guitars
"The rough mixes for the Paramore album were a really good representation of what they wanted, especially in terms of overall tone and balance. If you compared the roughs with my final mixes, you'd notice that there was a sensibility in the roughs that I kept. I wasn't asked to reinvent things or anything like that, or mix with an eye on the charts. The drums were really well recorded, but, like most mixers, I have my bag of tricks to make them sound bigger and punchier and whatnot. Mixing was simply a matter of pleasing myself and the band, and once we had done that, we trusted that other people would also like it. Having said that, the recordings were relatively polished and the band were clearly not after an uncommercial sound. We weren't making a White Stripes record. That dictated the presentation somewhat.
"What separates this new record from their previous records is, to a substantial degree, the synthesizers. They had many interesting guitar and backing vocal parts, but they also had all these synthesizer parts that had been added by Justin, and also Taylor, the guitarist, plus some percussive drum machine-type things. I believe the band partly hired Justin because they wanted his keyboard sensibility on the album. They'd experimented with synthesizers in their demos before they got in touch with him, so they were already going down that path. When it got to the mix, my challenge was how to represent that. The synths were important, and were the key to the new sound of the band, but we didn't want to lose the feeling that you're listening to a guitar-based band. There were usually one or two melodic guitars going on, plus a rhythm guitar, and the keyboard tracks. To my ears, there sometimes were too many keyboard parts, so I applied a number of creative mutes just to carve things out a bit and open up the sections.
"At other moments, I'd really let the keyboards shine, if I felt that the song called for it and that the guitar had already established itself strongly enough earlier in the song. In a situation like that, I'd occasionally allow the guitar to drift a little into a supporting position and allow the keyboards to take over. A related aspect is that the record is not super bass-heavy. When you have an ultra bass-heavy mix, it's harder to achieve the same detail in the guitars and keys, so it was a very conscious decision to make sure the mid-range was well-defined. Over-the-top bass can work for some hip-hop, because the groove is the most important thing, but in a rock song it can really skew the whole the whole picture. The Paramore stuff has a lot of counterpoint and melodic information in the mid-range that had to speak in the songs, otherwise it just sounded washy. Deciding whether the guitars or the keyboards dominated at any given time in the mid-range was probably the most fun, interesting, and challenging aspect of mixing this record.”
Drums: Waves SSL G-Channel & L2, Audio Ease Altiverb, Avid Digirack EQ III.
Inside Track: Ken Andrews and ParamoreThe cover of the album, featuring (from left) Jeremy Davis, Taylor York and Hayley Williams.The cover of the album, featuring (from left) Jeremy Davis, Taylor York and Hayley Williams.
"I added one kick sample to this session, which is the second track from the top. So there's their 'Kick In' mic, my sample, their 'Kick Out' mic, snare top and bottom, and the rest of the drum tracks, including two sets of overheads, consisting of one wider set of Neuman KM84s and another with a narrower sound coming from a stereo Royer SF12 ribbon mic. I split the hats track off into two tracks for different sections of the song, to get more control over the automation. I do that a lot. The 'S' on the inserts of all the drum tracks and the ride track is the Waves SSL G-Channel, which is my favourite plug-in for drums. In addition, I sent a little bit of the top snare mic to the Altiverb AMS RMX16 aux track, but other than that, I used the ambience that they had recorded. There were stereo close room mics, stereo far room mics and a mono room mic, and they all sounded awesome, so I was able to get a great drum sound just using them, plus the SSL G-Channel and the snare Altiverb AMS.
"There are also 10 tracks of acoustic percussion overdubs in the song, with tambourine, cowbells, cabasa, triangle, wood block and so on, and three snare overdubs in the bridge. It's almost like there's a percussion party starting in the bridge. The snare overdubs are sent to the Plate reverb. I also have a Waves L2 and the seven-band Digirack EQ on some of the percussion tracks.
"The SSL G-channel plug-in is one-stop shopping: you get an EQ, a compressor, gate and expansion, and it allows me to quickly shape the drum tracks. Many of the drum G-Channel plug-ins did nothing, they were just there to unify the drum sound. Using the same plug-in on all the drum tracks allows me to treat the drums as one instrument, and this helps with latency. I generally mix with the delay compensation on, but there are times when I turn it off because I want to add a part myself. This is something that I do a lot on projects that I am mixing. It just seems natural to me, and often I won't even tell the artist, and they will notice it, or they won't. Often it is not an entirely new part, but more something that supports what's already there, like doubling a guitar part, or adding a shaker very subliminally. On this record I did not do too much of that, apart from singing some different harmonies on a couple of songs and I maybe added some keyboards here and there. But for this reason I prefer to organise my mix in such a way that when I turn the delay compensation off, it does not fall apart. I want to be able, at any time, to grab a microphone to add a part to a session.”
Bass, keyboards & guitars: Waves C4, CLA2A & CLA3A, Sound Toys Crystallizer & EchoBoy, Avid Digirack EQ III & Echo, Audio Ease Altiverb, Trillium Lane AutoPan.
"Below the percussion is a bass guitar track, which is a comp that I made. The bass on this record was mostly delivered in three to five tracks, all of one performance but with different sound sources, like DI, pedals, amp 1, amp 2, maybe a different mic on one of the amps, and so on. Usually, when I'm halfway through the instrumental mix and willing to commit to the bass sound I sub it down to one track. Having one performance spread over many tracks makes it difficult to work with, for example if you want to have a global EQ on it or something like that. I had the Waves C4 multi-band compressor on the bass track. That plug-in is a big part of my workflow. It's incredible, I love it. You can tame a track that has a few unruly moments with this plug-in and you're not hearing it work, because it's multi-band. So it's great for subtle control. In this track I'm using it to control a build-up in the low mids. After that there's a tiny bit of overall control from the Waves CLA2A [compressor], with probably just 1dB of gain reduction.
"I added relatively few effects on the guitars and the keyboards. Some of the guitars have the Waves C4 and CLA-3A, and I sent three guitar tracks to the Altiverb plate reverb and two to the Altiverb bathroom space. People often record guitars very close-miked without any ambience, and I find that to get them to speak better in mixes they need a little bit of ambience, just so it feels like they are in a real space. I'd say that about half of the plug-ins on the keyboards are Justin and Carlos's. I listened to what they were doing, and in probably 75 percent of cases I left them in. Sometimes I removed a plug-in and replaced it with something that I felt improved it. The 'C' is the Sound Toys Crystallizer, and they were really into that one, because of its modulation effects. The glockenspiel had an EQ and a CLA effect, and I put on the Waves C4 and then the Digirack seven-band EQ, which was just doing a high-pass filter. There's also a Digirack Echo doing a quarter-note echo, and I also sent the glockenspiel to my EchoBoy quarter-note delay, and the two together make it a stereo quarter-note echo. I also added a little bit of the Altiverb plate reverb. The 'T' on various synth tracks is a Trillium Lane auto-pan. It's a simple plug-in that I love to use.”
Vocals: Waves Q2, C4, CLA3A & De-esser, Cranesong Phoenix, Audio Ease Altiverb, Sound Toys EchoBoy.Ken Andrews' vocal chain for Paramore singer Hayley Williams: Waves Q10 high-pass filter and C4 multi-band compressor, Waves CLA3A compressor, Cranesong Phoenix 'analogue warmth' plug-in and Waves De-esser.Ken Andrews' vocal chain for Paramore singer Hayley Williams: Waves Q10 high-pass filter and C4 multi-band compressor, Waves CLA3A compressor, Cranesong Phoenix 'analogue warmth' plug-in and Waves De-esser.Inside Track: Ken Andrews and ParamoreInside Track: Ken Andrews and ParamoreInside Track: Ken Andrews and ParamoreInside Track: Ken Andrews and Paramore
"The lead vocal was on one track, without plug-ins. I tend to break up a track like that into different tracks for sections of the song, like verse, pre-chorus and chorus. Typically I will first get a chorus vocal sound, to get my gain structures right, because that's usually sung the loudest. I will then copy and paste these plug-ins to all the other lead vocal tracks, and tailor their settings for each track — you see that all these lead vocal tracks have the same chain, while the other vocal tracks have almost exactly the same plug-in chain. The first plug-in is the Waves Q2, which acts as a high-pass filter, set at 62Hz on all the vocal tracks. Next is the C4, just for some general control on all four bands. Then there's the Waves CLA3A for some actual compression, to get that familiar rock vocal sound that people are used to. It obviously helps the vocal to sit in the track nicely. I used the CLA3A on about half the songs on this album, because I really thought it suited Hayley's voice. It adds a nice lower mid-range quality, and doesn't have many controls: it's mostly a matter of how hard you're hitting it. After that, there's the Cranesong Phoenix. I love that plug-in. It has five different versions, and unless I really specifically want to darken or brighten something, I usually pull up the Iridescent, because it is the most neutral in terms of EQ. It just adds more saturation. The Gold setting within that is the most EQ-neutral setting. The Sapphire setting brightens things a little bit and the Opal setting darkens a little bit. Typically, I'm using around 30 to 40 percent of that, but in something like a dense outro full of guitars and keyboards, I might bump that up a bit in order to keep the vocal on top. The Iridescent allows you to keep your vocals on top without actually changing the level, because it brings out more detail, so there are times I'm automating that plug-in as opposed to actually automating the volume of the track. The last insert plug-in is the Waves De-esser. That was pretty much my vocal sound for this album. The sends are going to the Altiverb plate reverb, and the EchoBoy slap and long delays, and the amounts are tailored to each section of the song.”
Mixdown: Waves NLS, SSL G-Master, H-EQ & Dorrough 380D, PSP Vintage Warmer 2. While mixing, Ken Andrews keeps his master bus plug-ins permanently open to the right of the Mix or Edit window, in order to keep an eye on the amount of compression taking place.While mixing, Ken Andrews keeps his master bus plug-ins permanently open to the right of the Mix or Edit window, in order to keep an eye on the amount of compression taking place.
"The session was 24-bit, 48kHz. I prefer to keep the mix files in the session. They first go through a stereo bus and are then printed to another stereo audio track. I like to have the various versions of the mixes in the playlist: mixes one two, and three, vocal up, vocal down, and an instrumental version. On the stereo bus, I have the NLS [plug-in] on a Spike Stent SSL setting, the Waves SSL G master bus compressor, and the Waves H-EQ. It is my favourite EQ, but it's a bit of a processor hog, so I tend not to use it on individual tracks too much. It is really good on the mix bus because it has a live frequency analyser on it that allows you to see what your mix is doing and where the peaks are. After that, there's one of my favourite things on the mix bus, the PSP Vintage Warmer 2, which is mostly a saturator, though it also functions as a level maximiser. It sounds awesome. I used very little of it, less than 1dB gain reduction, but it really shapes the sound in a great way for rock. Once I am at the point of adding the vocals, I turn it on and mix with it on. I also use the Dorrough 380-D, which is just a stereo meter, and on the right side of my display I'll always have the NLS, the SSL G-Master and the Dorrough, because they show you all the things you generally would see if you were mixing on a desk. You really want to be constantly aware of how hard you are hitting the bus compressors when you are mixing.
"The album was mastered by Ted Jensen, and I really liked what he did, because tonally it was not far away from the mixes I sent him. He didn't add a lot of bass or high end. Once again, it's not a hip-hop record, nor is it an ultra-slick, glossy pop record. It's more like a cool rock record, with the mid-range being the most important thing.” .
Ken Andrews prefers to use neither a desk nor a fader-based control surface, relying instead on a trackball and large flat-screen monitors.Ken Andrews prefers to use neither a desk nor a fader-based control surface, relying instead on a trackball and large flat-screen monitors.
Ken Andrews' Red Swan Studios is the ultimate 21st Century studio. It's a private facility entirely based around his Pro Tools system and Genelec monitors, with no control surfaces and only a few choice pieces of analogue gear. Andrews explains: "We built a room within the existing garage, so nobody outside can hear me working, which is nice. I have five Genelec 1031A monitors, which have been my favourite monitors for 15 years now, plus a large sub-woofer. I'm so used to the Genelecs it's too late for me to change. The only acoustic problem with the space here is that the sweet spot is very small. You go three feet backwards and the bass is crazy. It's one of the reasons why the advantages of just using keyboard and mouse and just being able to stay in the sweet spot outweighs having a bunch of faders to control. I also find that when you are using a control surface, you tend to look at the surface when you grab a knob and then look up at the screen to check whether it is doing what you want it to do. The screen is controlling your mix, so to me it's faster to just go there with a trackball. It's also much more efficient to me to get an overall level for a track, and then to draw in volume automation when something jumps out or is too soft. When you ride a fader, you're always reacting to something that has just happened, unless you learn everything and pre-empt your moves, which seems like a lot of unnecessary work.
"Most of my analogue stuff here is mic pres and guitar pedals. I have four Chandler LTD1s, which are 1073 clones, and four API and three UA mic pres. In addition, I have a couple of [Empirical Labs] Distressors, a couple of API EQs, and that's it. That's my front end for when I am doing overdubs, and I have it all patched in permanently. I record vocals in my control room, but also have a guitar-amp closet that's a decent size, with tall ceilings, so cabinets sound pretty good in there. I have an AKG C414 TLII for vocals and acoustic guitar, a couple of Royer R121s and some Shure SM57 and 58s for guitars, and that's it. My style is that once it's in the box, it stays there, all the way to mastering. I do occasionally run things out to pedals, but I always print the result on a new track. I try to avoid having any analogue gear live in a mix. In general, I keep my setup as simple and lean as possible. I find that having it this way keeps the focus on the emotion of the song, as opposed to the gear.”
Inside Track: Ken Andrews and Paramore
The Pro Tools session for Ken Andrews' mix of Paramore's 'Still Into You' consists of 81 music tracks. From top to bottom, these comprise 15 drum tracks, 14 percussion tracks, 13 guitar tracks, seven intro keyboard tracks and 17 more keyboard tracks (the region names indicate that the hardware keyboards used included an Arturia MiniBrute, Roland JX3P, Roland Juno 106, Korg MS20, ARP, Doepfer modular, Eowave Persephone and AtomoSynth Mochika), plus 15 vocal tracks, including the main lead vocal spread out over three tracks. Below the audio tracks are six aux effect tracks labelled Shimmer, Room, Snare Reverb, Plate, Long Delay and Slap Delay, and nine aux group tracks (three drum auxes, percussion, rhythm guitars, lead guitars, keyboards, lead vocals and backing vocals), a stereo bus and a mixdown master track. Unusually, perhaps, the regions in the Edit window have not been colour-coded by instrument group.
Ken Andrews: "I don't like colour-coding the regions, as in making all the drum regions the same colour, because it makes it hard to differentiate between tracks when you zoom in — and also, if you have an artist in the room who is looking over your shoulder and all the tracks have different colours, he or she will be able to say: 'It's that green track.' Colour-coded regions are a big confusing thing for me, so if I get a session like that, I change it right away. My alternative is group bussing, and in this session, I bussed tracks for the various instrument families, like drums, percussion, bass, guitars, keyboards and vocals, into their own stereo auxes. This really helps as a visual aid for when the track names themselves don't tell you what you're looking at, particularly if in a small Mix window. In this way I can quickly see under the I/O section what kind of track I'm dealing with. I prefer using coloured tracks to indicate actual grouping rather than identifying tracks. Going through this process is part of organising the session and familiarising myself with it. Another reason for having the master group tracks is to be able to quickly mute all guitars, or do a global ride on the keyboards. It's also really helpful when finishing a mix, because artists and labels now require you to deliver stems of all the mixes.
"As for the aux effect tracks, Shimmer is a Valhalla reverb. I was turned on to the Valhalla suite through Justin and Carlos. They used it a lot on this record, so it's one of the ones that I bought, and it's really cool. I use it a lot now. Room, Snare Reverb and Plate are all [Audio Ease] Altiverb effects, respectively a bathroom, an AMS RMX16 and an EMT 140 plate. I love Altiverb because they don't only have studios and churches, but also some really interesting small spaces, like bathrooms and kitchens. The Long Delay and Slap Delay tracks are [Sound Toys] EchoBoy effects, one being a quarter-note delay and the other a slap delay. The three drum group buses are Drum Clean, Drum Smack, on which I have the [Waves] CLA76 in blue mode, and Drum All, on which I have the Sound Toys Devil-Loc Deluxe, followed by the Waves C4 multi-band, and then the Cranesong Phoenix Iridescent. The Drum Clean and Drum Smack groups then go through the Drum All bus.”
Thursday, April 23, 2015
Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Tuesday, April 21, 2015
Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Duncan MillsPeople + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers
With the aid of producers such as Duncan Mills, Jamie Cullum has left jazz standards behind for a more experimental sound.
Duncan Mills in Studio 5 at Strongroom.
Jamie Cullum's sixth studio album, Momentum, sees the British pianist and singer further expanding his stylistic palette. Originally known as a mainstream jazz pianist and crooner, Cullum has incorporated more diverse musical styles and influences as his career has developed, as well as writing more of his own material. Cullum wrote or co-wrote nine of Momentum's 12 songs, and worked with producers Dan The Automator (Kasabian, Gorillaz), Jim Abbiss (Arctic Monkeys, Ladytron, Adele) and Duncan Mills. Also known for his work with Peace, Jake Bugg, Newton Faulkner, Vaccines, Lissie, Lamb, Malcolm McLaren and many others, Mills produced and mixed four of the album's tracks: first single 'Everything You Didn't Do', 'Save Your Soul', 'You're Not The Only One' and 'Pure Imagination'.
Mills' work gives these tracks a hard, percussive edge and a pop-like catchiness, with the exception of the atmospheric ballad 'Pure Imagination'. The emphasis on percussion stems from Mills' background as a drummer, while his panoramic production approach is informed by a love of the work of someone currently serving time in an LA prison. "When I was five years old, I saw Keith Moon on telly and know that that was what I wanted to do,” he recalls, "and later on, Phil Spector's Wall of Sound and mini-symphony-in-three-minutes approach became a massive influence. I then worked as a gigging drummer and a programmer until the early '00s, when I got bored with lugging gear around and my fascination with record production took over.
"I had been lucky, in that I had worked with good engineers when I played in bands. After that, many of my engineering skills developed through trial and error, but I kept coming up against a brick wall with my mixing skills. So I went to study at Alchemea College in London, who have some really intense courses and where I completely focused on mixing. I learned a lot from the amazing tutors there, but Marcel van Limbeek, who records and mixes for Tori Amos, took me under his wing and really helped me to push to another level, in terms of sonic approach and psychology. That was the final piece in the jigsaw. I knew what I wanted and I had very strong opinions on how I wanted things to sound, and doing that course filled in some of the missing gaps in my knowledge. After that, I became a freelance engineering assistant at Strongroom Studios in London, and four years ago I set up in the room at Strongroom where I still work today. It's Richard 'Biff' Stannard's old room, and 'Wannabe' by the Spice Girls was written and produced here.”
Duncan Mills' own room at Strongroom is kitted out as a 'hybrid' studio. There's no conventional mixer, but plenty of analogue outboard.
Duncan Mills describes his room at Strongroom as having a "hybrid” analogue/digital setup. He doesn't have a conventional mixing desk, but uses Thermionic Culture's Fat Bustard summing mixer and range of outboard including the Alan Smart C2 compressor, GML 8200 EQ, Thermionic Culture Vulture, WEM Copicat tape delay, Lynx Aurora converters, and so on. His room also functions as a writing, programming and pre-production space, and features huge racks of synths.
"Jamie and I did quite a bit of pre-production for the four tracks, in part remotely because his schedule was so busy, and in part at my room here or at his home in London. He sent me some initial ideas for each track, and I then would add some bits or adjust the structure and send it back to him. He'd then send me another version back. We both like quirky instruments and recording toys, like cassette recorders and a Dictaphone that we had modded so we could use the super-limiters inside of it. We used these things during the demoing and recording stage. For example, the song 'Save Your Soul' just wanted to be a piano vocal track, no matter what we did with it. Every time we added something, it distracted from the song. In the end Jamie and I decided that it would be just percussion, piano and vocal, and after getting the rhythms locked down, it was a case of getting the sonics right. The main kick drum in that song sounds massive but is a really cheap marching drum that I borrowed from a friend. We split the signal, with one side going through the Lovetone Cheese Source pedal and the other through the Dictaphone, which gave it super presence and attack. Jamie and I had a field day experimenting with all our crazy toys.”
Time To Track
Vintage keyboards racked and ready for use in Duncan Mills' room. From top: Moog Prodigy and Roland SH101; OSC OSCar and EDP Wasp; Korg M500 Micropreset and Suzuki Omnichord; ARP Solina, Roland Juno 60 and Jupiter 8.
Following the pre-production, tracking sessions took place at two separate London studios, and in the case of 'Everything You Didn't Do', tracking was completed in a single day. "The single was also intended as an advert for a San Miguel promotional campaign in Spain, and it therefore was recorded differently from the other tracks I did on the album. The latter three were all recorded in Studio 2 at Assault & Battery in Northwest London, which is their Neve room, while the single was recorded at RAK Studio 1 in central London [which has a 1976 48-channel API desk]. We had a couple of well-known Spanish rappers in the studio and the singer Nina from the Spanish duo Fuel Fandango, plus a TV crew. At one stage we had 30 people in the control room! For this reason, we had to work very fast, and we recorded the entire track in one day, and I also did the mix in one day.
"Before the studio recording sessions, we'd send the band our demos, so they could familiarise themselves with them and get a head start on what they would be playing. Jamie and I knew that 'Everything You Didn't Do' would be a very percussive track, and that Jamie would be playing almost all the instruments, because that is what the film crew wanted to shoot. In the end, he played piano, organs, guitar and bass, while the drums and percussion were played by Brad Webb, plus a few overdubs by me. Brad is very intuitive, and within 30 seconds he had figured out what to play. We wanted the track to have the fluidity of a live performance but also the swagger of an MPC-programmed kit. He overdubbed the main drum parts — kick, snare, and hi-hat — to the programmed foot-stomps and claps, and he then overdubbed the ride cymbal and rim clicks and toms and percussion, and so on. He's an amazing drummer who tracks to himself brilliantly, and it all ends up sounding like one take. We did all the drums between 11am and 2pm, and we then tracked Jamie's piano, and later in the day we overdubbed percussion. We were on a sort of samba wave and hired surdos and all sorts of weird and wonderful Brazilian percussion. All the artists and the camera crew had to go by six or seven o'clock, so we were finished by then.”
In &; Out Of The Box
Numerous toy instruments and sound sources were used in the recording of Momentum.
After a frantic day of recording at RAK studios, Mills returned to his Strongroom studio for the mix of 'Everything You Didn't Do'. Mills mixed back into the 24-bit/48kHz session, so the master mix appears at the top of the Pro Tools Edit window. Below that are eight stereo master tracks, seven of which go to his Fat Bustard summing unit. "It has 14 inputs, so master tracks 1-7 go to the Fat Bustard. The master tracks will be stereo drums, mono bass, stereo guitars, stereo piano, stereo keyboards, mono vocals, stereo backing vocals, and stereo master track 8 is the returns, so I can have my monitor mix running in parallel. If I need to reference something from the session, I only have to flick a button. The session was in 24/48 because it had to be fit to picture. I normally will run 24/44.1. If you're doing classical stuff, 96k upwards does definitely sound more detailed, but for a lot of the work I do with bands I need to be able to work fast and run many tracks. I find it really limiting to run sessions at 96k. I hate slow computers!”This composite Pro Tools screen capture shows the entire Edit window for the 'Everything You Didn't Do' session. At the very top is the stereo mix, above eight Master Fader tracks which control stem levels to Duncan Mills' summing mixer. Then come a huge number of drum and percussion tracks, followed by bass, piano, organ, Rhodes, glockenspiel, guitar and finally vocals.
Drums: Waves SSL G-series, Renaissance Compressor, IR1 & C4, Avid Digirack EQ3, Expander/Gate, D-Verb & Trim, Valley People Dynamite, Sound Toys Decapitator, Sonnox Oxford TransMod, Softube Focusing EQ & FET Compressor, Chandler Curvebender, Universal Audio 1176, Bomb Factory 1176.
"There are three kick tracks [recorded respectively with an AKG D112, Neumann U47 FET and Yamaha Subkick], which go to a 'Kick Bus' track, on which I had a Waves SSL G-series plug-in, a Digirack EQ3 and a Renaissance compressor, just keeping the kick in place. My secret weapon on the kick and the snare is the Valley Dynamite outboard compressor, which gives drums super punch. The snare mics were the [Neumann] KM84 at the top and the AKG C414 at the bottom, and I also recorded a parallel distorted snare track, created by overdriving mic pres on the API desk at RAK. It gives more weight and power to the snare when I add it in underneath. I routed all snare tracks to the 'Snare Bus' track, on which I have, again, the Waves SSL G-channel plug-in, adding 3dB at 172Hz — I really like bottom end on snare drums. In fact, I like for the snare to have as much of a thud as a kick drum. I also boost at 2.5kHz and a little bit at 5kHz, plus at 10kHz. Then there's an Expander/Gate, a Digirack EQ3 doing a small surgical cut at 210Hz, and the Sound Toys Decapitator — one of my favourite plug-ins — for some more distortion, and finally the Sonnox Oxford TransMod to boost the attack a little bit, compensating for the effect of the Decapitator, which adds fatness but also flattens the transients a bit. Duncan Mills is a big fan of distortion, and Sound Toys' Decapitator plug-in (as used here on the snare bus) in particular.I normally use my [Thermionic Culture] Culture Vulture for distortion but because this mix had to be done quickly I just put on the Decapitator. The snare also goes to an aux track which has the D-Verb on it, for some ambience.
"Below the 'Snare Bus' track, there's a hi-hat track, which has the Waves SSL G-series plug-in on it, and then there are the rack and floor-tom tracks, each of which is split up into a clean and a parallel distorted track, and then fed to a bus, as with the snare. The distorted tracks sound horrible on their own, but fed in with the main signal they add a really nice attack. While I fed the snare to the desk API mic pres to get distortion, I used the Focusrite 115 preamps for the toms, which sound more brittle but add amazing transients that sound great on toms. You want something a bit warmer, like Neve or API mic pres, on snare, and also on kick. The overheads have the Chandler plug-in EQ, adding 4dB at 10kHz for some additional excitement, and the Waves IR1 plug-in to add some plate reverb. 'FOK' means 'front of kick', which was recorded with a Neumann U87 mic about two feet in front of the kick, to give a strong mono image, and hit hard with an 1176. It's like an effect microphone, as you get a pumping mono image of the kit.
"Going further down, there's a floor-tom rim track, which, again, has a distorted parallel, ride cymbals, overhead cymbals, a room recording of the cymbals, and a cymbals bus track that has the Softube Focusing EQ, which is amazing. I think all Softube plug-ins are fantastic. Their FET Compressor plug-in, which sounds very much like an 1176, responds like no other plug-in. It really sounds like an analogue piece of gear. I often use it for my overall drum parallel [bus], which I squash severely. In this session, this is track 50, called 'Squash'. Tracks 43-50 are drum effect tracks, with the 'Drum Verb' track also having the Waves IR1 on it, which is on a plate reverb setting. Normally I go for something like the Trillium Lane 'ecoplate', but the IR1 just worked better in this instance. Underneath that, track 47, is the parallel compression track for the drums, below that the kick and snare send tracks for the outboard Dynamite and then the super 'Squash' parallel. So that's 50 tracks of drum kit!
"Below that are the percussion tracks, which include claps, on which I had the D-Verb non-linear setting to extend their tails, so they sound more programmed, as well the Softube FET Compressor and the Waves C4 multi-band compressor. Track 68 is the only bit of programmed drums that remained in the session. It's a Brazilian snare drum, a caixa, that's from Jamie's original demo. It has a Trim and a Bomb Factory 1176 on it.”
Bass & guitar: Avid Digirack Time Adjuster, EQ3, Waves CLA2A, Puigtec, Maxx Bass, Renaissance Axxe & API 550, Bomb Factory Sansamp PSA1.
"Jamie played bass guitar on this track. There are five bass tracks, one being a DI. Three of the bass tracks were recorded with a [Sennheiser] MD421, U47 FET and a Subkick on the cabinet respectively, and we also did a parallel of the DI run through a RAT pedal for some grit, as there was no Culture Vulture at RAK. The clean DI has the Digirack Time Adjuster on it to phase-align it with the amplifier recordings. All five bass tracks go to a 'Bass Bus' track, which has an LA2A plug-in compressor on it, a Digirack EQ boosting at 1kHz and cutting at 200Hz, and a Pultec plug-in EQ for more super top and super bottom. The Maxx and Fuzz bass tracks below are a sub-bass and a distortion, using the Waves Maxx Bass plug-in and the Sansamp, respectively. I love using lots of layers of subtle distortion in my tracking and mixes. The guitar was also played by Jamie and is further down the session. It had the Renaissance Axx compressor, just tickling it, an EQ3 just for surgery, and finally an API 550 or 560 plug-in.”
Piano & keyboards: Brainworx Hybrid EQ, Massey L2007, Avid Digirack EQ3 & AIR Distortion, Sound Toys Decapitator, WEM Copicat, Softube Vintage Amp Room.
"The piano was quite old and really bright, and needed quite a bit of work to get it to sound right when we were tracking it. There was also a lot of EQ surgery in the piano bus. I used the Brainworx Hybrid 2.0 plug-in on itTo shape the tone of the piano, Mills used Brainworx's Hybrid EQ., which is amazing and one of my favourite digital EQs. I set a high-pass filter at 60Hz and cut some of the mud around 300Hz. I also used the Massey L2007 limiter on the piano, which I think is one of the best digital limiters out there. The other three plug-ins are surgical EQs to remove any unwanted resonances or whistles. Below the piano is the organ, which was a Vox Continental, and it also is recorded both clean and distorted, and below that is a high organ overdub. I have a Decapitor on the organ bus, and an EQ3 for a surgical notch. I sent the organ bus signal through the Copicat, and I recorded that underneath. Below that is the Fender Rhodes track, which is a MIDI track. We had brought Jamie's Fender Rhodes to the studio, but we ran out of time, so we ended up using the Native Instruments MIDI electric piano, and to improve the sound I sent it through a Softube Vintage Amp Room to give it some more character, and a Digidesign AIR Distortion plug-in.”
Vocals: Waves SSL G-series, CLA 1176, De-esser, MV2 & C4, Avid Digirack Expander/Gate & EQ3, TL Labs TL Space, WEM Copicat.
"Jamie has an amazing Telefunken microphone that was given to him by the guys at Telefunken and that suits his voice perfectly, so we used it on all the album tracks. Plug-in-wise, I had the Waves SSL G, with a high-pass filter set to 100Hz to get rid of any rumble, and I added 5dB of 14k and a little bit of 1.5kHz as well, just to make it jump out of the speakers a bit more. There's also a 1dB shelf around 340Hz to warm it up a bit. Then there's an Expander/Gate and a CLA 1176, and three tiny surgical cuts with the EQ3, and finally a Waves De-esser. The send is going to a TL Space for some ambience. Below the lead vocal track is a duplicate, going to the Waves MV2 compressor, which is amazing and set to no dynamic range whatsoever, plus there's a small 4kHz boost from an EQ3 plug-in. The parallel track helps with the diction and for the vocals to jump out of the speakers. There's also a vocal double for the chorus, and I also sent Jamie's vocals through the Copicat, not set for delays but just because I wanted that saturated tape sound. The background vocals have similar signal chains to the lead vocal, with slightly different settings for each plug-in, as did Nita's backing vocals, which I left in for the album version because they added so much to the song. Finally, there are some group vocals that were recorded with DPA 4006 mics set up as a stereo pair. The group vocal bus also has the Waves C4 multi-band compressor to counteract the 200-400 Hz peak that the room had.”
Mixdown: Thermionic Culture Fat Bustard, Alan Smart C2, GML 8200.
"The stuff at the top of the mix session went through the Fat Bustard and then through an Alan Smart C2 compressor, which has the side-chain modification. It has a pair of filters in it that allow more bottom end through and that make your mix sound better. That goes to the GML 8200 EQ on the mix bus, adding a bit of top and bottom end. Because I had one eye on it going to be for TV, I also pushed a dB at 1.5kHz.”
Monday, April 20, 2015
Saturday, April 18, 2015
Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Leslie BrathwaitePeople + Opinion : Artists / Engineers / Producers / Programmers
The biggest hit of 2014 is a triumph of minimalism — and a triumph for mix engineer Leslie Brathwaite.
Pharrell Williams enjoyed major success over the years, as featured artist on Snoop Dogg's mega‑hit 'Drop It Like It's Hot' in 2004 and Ludacris's 'Money Maker' in 2006, as well as with hip‑hop band NERD and as one half of production duo the Neptunes, and in 2013 he hit a peak. The two best‑selling songs of last year — Daft Punk's 'Get Lucky' and Robin Thicke's 'Blurred Lines' — both involved Williams as featured artist and co‑writer, while he also produced the latter song. Since then, 'Happy', released under Williams' own name at the end of last year, has become the biggest hit of 2014 so far.
The song was made for the Universal Pictures animated movie Despicable Me 2, itself such a staggering success that it has become the fourth highest‑grossing animated movie of all time. In a clever bit of cross‑project marketing, 'Happy' is also the lead single for William's second solo album GIRL, which was released in early March.
'Happy' is a mid‑tempo soul song in faux‑Motown style, with an arrangement that is, by modern standards, very sparse: programmed drums, one bass and one keyboard part, and handclaps both programmed and played, all topped off by Williams's lead vocals and a whole posse of backing vocals. The song was arranged and recorded by Andrew Coleman and Mike Larson at Circle House Studios in Miami, Florida. They sent the session over to Leslie Brathwaite, who mixed it in his fully in‑the‑box studio at Music Box Studios in Atlanta, which is owned by eminent hip‑hop recording artist and producer Akon.
From his white, science‑fiction‑esque mix room Brathwaite explains his setup and working methods, and how they were applied in his mix of 'Happy'. Apparently it was the connection with Akon that got Brathwaite the job. He says: "Pharrell and Akon know each other and Akon recommended me, after which Pharrell and I did a few projects together, for example with Leah Labelle, an artist that he works with. We started getting into a groove and I could tell that we were speaking the same language. He called me one day saying that he wanted me to mix some of the songs he was doing for the new Despicable Me movie, and I ended up mixing three, 'Happy', 'Scream', and 'Just A Cloud Away', plus some of the instrumental sections that he wrote that were more like a movie film score.”
Brathwaite has been in his room at Music Box since 2012. He'd previously been working out of another top Atlanta studio, Patchwork, but the connection with Akon prompted him to move to Music Box, which is a four‑room facility. "The other three rooms house Akon's producers,” explains Brathwaite. "They pretty much live there, just like I live in this room. It's really helpful to share a building like this. We all bounce around from room to room, because it's great to have people around that you can share energy with, or release energy with when you need to play a little bit, and most of all to have guys around who have other talents. They will also invite me into their rooms and ask me whether something sounds good, because I am the resident mixer, and I will chat with them about the occasional bit of production that I still do, like recently I produced Snoop Lion [aka Snoop Dogg, PT]. So we bounce ideas off each other and share ideas.”
Recall & Response
Another factor in Brathwaite's decision to move to Music Box was that he was ready to finally part ways with his beloved SSL desk and go for a 21st Century DAW‑only approach. He recalls that he had in fact already been working in the box during his final year at Patchwork. "I was still sending all the individual tracks through the SSL desk in my room during that year, but I was no longer using outboard or the SSL faders, EQ, or compression. The SSL functioned as a huge summing box, with me splitting things out purely for the sound. Since moving to Music Box I am completely in the box, without summing mixers or outboard, and I don't even use the Avid Artist Control that I have. I'm a mouse guy now: just point and click!
"I moved fully into the box for two reasons. The first is that it was the only way to keep up with my productivity schedule. Doing recalls on large format consoles is a pain the butt, because it takes a lot of time and it is therefore just not efficient. With my workload increasing and me also trying to meet the demands for smaller budget projects, going into the box made total sense. It also does away with the need to have assistants, because there's nothing any more for them to do. Everything nowadays is done at the press of a button. I do have interns sometimes, but that's purely a matter of me being a mentor and showing them what I know.
"The other reason for going into the box is the UAD plug‑ins, which give me the warmth and depth in the sound that I'm after. When I first listened to them it was clear to me that Universal Audio is one of the companies that really takes modelling of old outboard units seriously. Their stuff sounds really good, just like the old equipment. Getting to know the UAD plug‑ins allowed me to get the same sounds I had before and made me comfortable with mixing in the box. To be honest, many of the producers I work with, like Pharrell, and the JUSTICE League, who I work with all the time, have been telling me that my mixes sound better now that I am in the box. It allows me to really push the envelope.
"All I use in my mix room now is my Pro Tools rig with a UAD Satellite, and some other plug‑ins — I'm big on Waves plug‑ins as well — and my speakers. My monitors of choice are my Focal Twin6 BEs, which I use together with the Focal Sub6 sub. I love them. I tried the Focals about two years ago, fell in love with them, and never looked back. They're pretty much all I use. My go‑to speakers used to be the [Yamaha] NS10s, and I still have them, but they've become redundant since discovering the Focals. I occasionally reference my mixes on the white edition KRK Rockets that I have, but don't use the Quested room speakers at all. They're purely for playback for clients who want things blasted out loud.”
Old & New Schools
The need to prepare sessions for mixing can also eat up Brathwaite's valuable time, but fortunately most of his collaborators do a good job themselves. "I have producers and engineers who send me stuff that is well‑organised,” he explains, "like Andrew and Mike who do Pharrell's stuff, and in those cases I have to do very little or no prepping. Though there are still some younger producers and artists who send me stuff that's not prepped at all, and in those cases I may have to spend part of the day or sometimes a whole day just doing prep work. I'm definitely big on good organisation. The more organised you are, the fewer mistakes you make. I still like my sessions to be organised in a similar way as a large‑format console, with top‑bottom equalling left‑to‑right on the desk. So it's drums at the top, then instruments and then vocals. I also like things to be colour‑coded, with lead vocals in red, instruments in a brownish colour, and so on. The colours help me move around quicker.
"Funnily enough, I never pay attention to track names. Instead I just look at the wave forms in the edit window. When you've been doing that for 15 or 20 years, you can pretty much open the session and just by looking know what the instruments are. It's gotten to the point where I can recognise what certain words look like. So when I do clean versions of songs, I can recognise what words like 'shit' look like and edit them out. It's a bit crazy, but other engineers who have been doing this long enough will tell you the same thing. It's one of the reasons why I almost always work on the [Pro Tools] Edit window. I'll have a look at the Mix window now and then, but not very often. I know that people used to say that it's better to use your ears and not look at the music, but I think I'm fortunate to have experience of working in both the analogue and the digital worlds. This means that I can apply old‑school concepts and approaches, but I can also be adaptive and responsive to the new‑school stuff. For me, looking at the music helps. It makes you a little bit more efficient.
The success of 'Happy' reinforced that of its parent film.
"It's the same with all the other tools we have at our disposal now, for example to get things 100 percent correct in terms of timing and pitch. Some people look at that as a bad thing. I think it's because they have done things in a certain way for a long time, and they are used to the way things have sounded in the past. But I think the powers we have now to correct things are great. For me it's about finding the right balance between old and new approaches. It's about training your mind to be open to progress and to new things. I have always been one of those guys who was open to the latest thing. I thought the Internet was great at a time when everybody was screaming about how it was going to ruin the music industry. I like progress and I like change.”
Brathwaite acknowledges, however, that the digital revolution has brought its own set of challenges. He's sympathises with the complaint expressed by some of his mix colleagues, which is that with music producers now having the same tools as mixers and often spending months mixing their tracks, they create very sophisticated rough mixes that they become very attached to.
"It's true that we're fighting the rough mix more than ever,” reflects Brathwaite. "When you mix something made by guys who have been working on a rough mix from a couple of months to a couple of years, it's a very delicate balance. What I try to do in those situations is to simply enhance the mix and make sure that it's technically correct, and not to change what they have gotten used to. I might fix a couple of vocal lines that are slightly out of tune, making sure the bass and high end are sitting in the right place, and so on. I am not as frustrated as some other mixers may be in this scenario, because I still have a job to do, and I still need to make sure the mix is technically correct, and somehow that is just as challenging, because I need to take something that someone has worked on for a long time and still make it better, without messing up the elements that they are attached to. You're still looking for that response where they walk into the room when your mix is finished, and they go: 'Wow, I love it!' For me that's equally gratifying. Having said that, I am fortunate in that I also have a sizeable batch of clients that send me their sessions straight after they have recorded them, so they haven't gotten the chance yet to get used to their rough. In this scenario I have a lot more freedom. Again, it's about balance, and in this case having a nice balance of clients.”
Free & Easy
Pharrell Williams is one of those clients who gives Brathwaite a lot of freedom, and the mix of 'Happy' was no exception. "Pharrell is not one of those artists who listens intently to the rough mix,” elaborates Brathwaite. "Instead, he sends you the song the moment it is recorded. In fact, Andrew and Mike sent me the session the very night that they finished the recordings. When I get a session like this, I will play it through one time to get a sense of where they left off. It still is a rough mix — Pharrell and the others just haven't had two or three months to get used to it. This means that I can make changes without running into the problem of them being attached to what they have. So I run the session through to find out what they were feeling and what they are aiming for, and then I have a conversation. Conversations are important.
Leslie Brathwaite's room at Big Box is set up for him to work entirely 'in the box'. Visible in this photo are his Focal, KRK and Yamaha monitors.
"Most producers will tell you what they would like their stuff to sound like. When someone says to you, 'I want this to sound like Aretha Franklin,' it's an easy blueprint to work with. All I have to do is listen to the songs they reference and apply that to the mix. When I spoke with Pharrell, he said things like: 'I would like it to sound a little bit like a combination of André 3000's 'Hey Ya!', a Phil Collins song and a Motown song.' So I downloaded the three songs Pharrell mentioned and that gave me a feel of what he was going for, which in part referred to the classic Motown era. This meant that I knew how to approach the claps and drums in the session, and the reverb that would be best for the drums, and the way the vocals had to feel and where they had to sit. In the Motown days they didn't have the best microphones, so the vocals weren't pretty and in your face. Instead they had to be a little in the background and spread out. These were the kinds of things I had in mind when I mixed the song.”
Simple But Effective
As mentioned above, the arrangement for 'Happy' is positively Spartan by modern standards, and this is reflected in the session screenshot. At the top of the session is Brathwaite's final mix input channel. Underneath that is the rough mix, and underneath that the print of Brathwaite's final mix ('LBP4'), followed by three empty tracks for potential new mixes. Then there are just five programmed drum tracks — kick, snare, hi‑hat, claps and percussion — a bass track, one keyboard track, a track containing a 'hmmm' sample, eight live handclap tracks, four lead vocal tracks, six Pharrell backing vocal tracks, and a multitude of tracks with the rest of the backing vocalists. Just two tracks of what's known as "the music” — ie. bass and keyboards — must surely count as a new record for minimalism in a 21st Century production! Moreover, it turns out, Brathwaite himself is similarly minimalist in his use of plug‑ins, using the same de‑esser, compressor and EQ on each of the vocal tracks, and also using several instances of a few other plug‑ins on various other tracks. The Pro Tools session for 'Happy' is relatively small, reflecting the fact that it contains only a handful of instruments.
"I always start every mix with the vocals,” he explains. "They are the most important part of the song, so I want to lock them in first, while my ears are still fresh. I'll even start with the vocals when mixing hip‑hop, because when I get the sound of the vocals first, my ears aren't burnt out by the time I get to working on the drums and bass and have everything playing loudly. I like to mix the subtle things first and then work on the loud stuff. I'll start the mix by working on either the lead vocals or the background vocals first, depending on the song. Once I have the vocals the way I want them, I will go to the drums, then the bass and the relationship between the bass and the kick, and I'll then bring in the keyboards and guitars and other instruments, and finally I will bring the vocals back in. I will sometimes reference them while mixing the music, just to make sure they continue to sit well in the mix. The sound we were after with 'Happy' was for all the backing vocals together to sound almost like a musical instrument, so I started with them. After finishing with the backing vocals I got a nice blend of how I wanted the leads and backing vocals to sound together, and then I started work on the music.”
Lead vocals: Waves De‑esser, Renaissance Compressor, SSL Channel & L2, Universal Audio SSL Channel, Audio Ease Altiverb, Avid Extra Long Delay.
"The four lead vocal tracks are colour‑coded red, and each covers different parts of the song, like 'PH85' is the verse vocals track and '8101' is the hook vocal track. You will note that I have the same three plug‑ins on each individual vocal track: the Waves De‑esser, the Waves Renaissance Compressor and the Universal Audio or Waves SSL Channel for EQ. The reason to keep the tracks split out is that I'll treat each vocal track slightly differently based on its characteristics and its role in the song. Pharrell will have sung the hooks a bit more aggressively, because he is singing with the backing vocals behind him. This means that the compression in the verse lead will be a bit different from that on the hook lead. These four lead vocal tracks are sent to a yellow aux track, called 'Lead', on which I had the Waves L2 and again the SSL Channel, this time using the compression. The L2 limiter adds a little bit more presence to the group, and puts the vocals more in your face. The three sends are going to the Altiverb, and two delays with different timing on them. I prefer to have the reverb on an aux as opposed to on the inserts, because I like to have everything that I send through it feel like it's in the same room. I tried to build a sense of space and distance depending on how much reverb I put on each element. The vocal aux delays are the Digidesign [Avid] Extra Long Delays, and they are really subtle. I also took the low end out of the delay return, so they become like a whisper sounding in the distance. It's something to keep your brain occupied, without you being aware of it.”
Backing vocals: Waves De‑esser, Renaissance Compressor, SSL Channel & L2, Celemony Melodyne, Universal Audio Precision EQ, Audio Ease Altiverb, Avid Extra Long Delay.
"There are six Pharrell backing vocal tracks, in blue, below his lead vocals, and the backing vocals are sent to the aux track immediately below them, just above the lead vocal aux track. Below these two vocal aux tracks are all the other backing vocal tracks. All backing vocal tracks again have the Waves De‑esser, Renaissance compressor and SSL Channel EQ. In fact, I will use these three plug‑ins on every individual vocal track I work on. Every background vocal will have the esses at a slightly different place, so for them be accurately de‑essed I need to treat each track differently. I also want to be able to roll off individual notes in sections or accentuate the high end. These plug‑ins are only marked on the Pharrell backing vocals tracks because the other backing vocals were tuned in Melodyne.
"I like to process the tracks with de‑essing, compression, and EQ before I send them into Melodyne,Leslie Brathwaite poses with an extra from Despicable Me 2. so there are no latency issues. When I work on a mix I first figure out what vocals need to be Melodyned, and I do that before anything else. I then put these Melodyned vocals back into the session. I did also Melodyne some parts of Pharrell's vocals, he encourages that, but not entire lead vocal tracks. I prefer Melodyne for more realistic tuning of vocals, but I have also used Auto‑Tune a lot. In fact, I mixed many of T‑Pain's big hits, and we kind of started his signature Auto‑Tuned sound when working on his first single, 'I'm Sprung', in 2005. I put the effect on his voice, and he was like: 'Please turn it up even more, I want to sound robotic!' Pharrell's backing vocal aux track had the SSL Channel, the L2 and the UAD Precision EQ, which allows me to home in on a specific frequency. I often use it to tweak the high end, boosting it to give some nice sheen. Pharrell's backing vocal aux track goes to the same Altiverb reverb and two Extra Long Delay aux tracks as his lead vocal aux, which are at the bottom of the session.”
The music: Flux Stereo Tool, Universal Audio Little Labs VOG, Pultec EQ, Precision EQ & Precision Enhancer, Audio Ease Altiverb, Waves SSL Channel EQ, L2 & Renaissance Compressor.
"The kick drum has the Flux Stereo Tool, the Little Labs VOG Analog Bass Resonance Tool and the UAD Pultec EQ. The Flux helped me to balance the kick which was not quite in the middle, the VOG allowed me to add a bit more roundness to the low end, and the Pultec added some more low‑end definition. The snare has the UAD Precision EQ and Precision Enhancer kHz plug‑ins to enhance the high end of the snare. The hi‑hat also has the Flux Stereo Tool and the Precision EQ, and the kick, snare and hi‑hat go to a drums aux with the Altiverb. I think I put the drums in a smaller space then the vocals, to bring out more of the body of the drum sound. Next is a claps track which was programmed using a Roland 808 and on which had the SSL Channel EQ. Then there's a percussion track with the Precision EQ and the L2 to make it cut through. Below that is the bass, which has the VOG and Pultec, similar to the kick. Both plug‑ins are great for tightening and enhancing the low end. I didn't treat the keyboards, or the 'Hmmm' sample. Underneath the sample are a whole series of live claps. I used some Renaissance Compressor on two of the clap tracks.”
Stereo mix: Universal Audio Precision EQ & Precision Enhancer, Waves L2.
"The song was mixed via the 'yep' track, on which I had the Precision Enhancer and EQ, like I had on the snare. Universal Audio call the Enhancer 'a specialised tool designed to enhance high frequencies and breathe new life into dull tracks', and it allowed me to add a nice gloss to the mix. The Precision EQ is treating one specific frequency in the high‑end range. Below that is the L2, which I put on purely for Pharrell, to give him some idea of what mastering would do to the mix. I took it off again when I sent the mix to mastering, to give the guy some headroom to work with. I did a full mix in stereo, and I also created stems of the drums, bass, guitars, pianos, vocals and backing vocals, which I sent to Gary Rizzo, who was the re‑recording mixer for Despicable Me 2. Where necessary he will have adapted the parts to specific scenes.
"It's quite a simple session. There aren't a lot of tracks in this mix. It's how Pharrell produces. He is a minimalist! He is one of my favourite artists because he allows me to be me and do what I do. So in looking at this mix you also got a nice glimpse into my approach and my world.”