A Mountain Of Mixes

I’ve been on vacation from uni for a few weeks now, have settled into my new studio and I have started the mountain of work I have to do over the summer. I recorded loads of bands late last school year and now I have to mix it all!

It started as a bit of a daunting task, 8 tracks, 4 bands and all completely different vibes and genres. A 70′s style rock band, a funk/ ska band, a folk band and a pop/R&B group. If I’m quite honest, mixing has thus far not been my strong point. I’m much more comfortable sat in the studio working with musicians but It’s something I enjoy never the less and I want to become better. And I am becoming better, hooray! I’ve found the secret. It took a lot of searching, a lot of time but I’ve found it. It’s practice. I was hoping for a short cut. Some magical list of plugins and settings to make my mixes work, but with no black magic to hand, and no first born children to sacrifice I’ve had to do it the old fashioned way.

I imagine a lot of young hopeful mixing engineers will be in the same position as me, so here’s the advice that really helped see progress and improvement in my mixes.

1. Learn your equipment. And to most people this means your plugins. Try to treat each plugin as a brand new piece of hardware, learn it thoroughly, experiment with it until you know it inside and out. With such a huge range of plugins available online for free it’s very tempting to download everything and throw random plugins at a project until it sounds good. Choose your favorite few plugs, a couple of EQ’s, compressors, reverbs etc. and learn them. Know what to use is any given situation and then if you find you can’t do something you want to do look at another plugin and bring that into your collection. This will improve your mixes vastly.

2. Know your end result. When I started mixing these tracks a few weeks ago I was frustrated at how crap my mixes were sounding. It took me some time and planning to work out what I wanted to do with each song, what they needed to get there and how to do it. But this process made me think about each step and allowed me to nail the sound much quicker than just diving straight in and mixing.

3. Communication. Both with the band and fellow engineers. Other people tend to be able to spot your mistakes or how to improve much quicker than you can. I have 2 other friends who work in audio and I constantly annoy them with rough mixes, if It passes their ears and doesn’t sound like shit I know I’m on the right path. Also, you’re mixing to please your clients, the band. Talk to them throughout the process so you know you’re heading in the right direction.

4. Patience. This takes time. You are not going to be the worlds greatest mix engineer in a week, or even a year. Practice as often as you can and never stop learning.

I’m really happy with the result of the couple of mixes I’ve finished, but I’ve still got tons more to do. I’ll keep you guys updated with the results on my Facebook page. I’m also off to Norway again in a few weeks to record with 3 bands over 2 weeks. I can’t wait! I’ll let you all know if I learn anything cool.

Thanks for reading,

Liam.

Home Sweet Home Studio

Moving recently has been very exciting for me, and not just because I’m moving in with my girlfriend. In our new house we have a spare room, which means I get a home studio! I think this may have only been agreed too so my girlfriend no longer has to listen to me mix, but all the same, I’m very happy. 

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Luckily I have a reasonable amount of gear already to outfit my new studio room, a pair of Yamaha HS5′s, a Focusrite Saffire Pro 40, an SM58, some drum machines, guitars, a bass, amps, keys etc. and I’ve just bought an AT2020. 

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The AT4040 is a great mic I’ve used often at LIPA. Its great on acoustic guitar and works amazingly on some vocals. The 2020 is it’s cheaper, cardioid little brother. I got a chance to try it out last week when my friend Will came over. We recorded some acoustic covers of a couple of Black Metal songs. Only using my new AT2020 on my pretty crappy Fender acoustic was an interesting trial. The great thing about a limitation like that is it forces you to take time to get the result you want, rather than just throwing a ton of microphones in front of an instrument. Carefully positioning the mic for each section of the songs to get the result I wanted, and not settling until It sounded perfect. 

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I’m a fan of the AT2020 already and it genuinely seems like the best microphone in it’s price range. It has great rejection from the back, lovely sounding mids and highs and is incredibly versatile. If you’re looking for a budget condenser mic I would highly recommend it. It has a somewhat lower output than I would like however, but a low self noise, so in the age of digital recording this isn’t really a problem. 

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I need to spend some time treating my new room and getting used to it, but I’m pretty happy with how it sounds already, and it’s inspiring me to mix. I’ve got tons of material to mix, so I’ll have something to show you all pretty soon!

Thanks to Charlotte Tangen for the photos and thanks for reading,

Liam.

Magic In The Magnets

I finally got the opportunity to record a band on tape last week. From 10 till 6am on the 4th of May, I fought a battle with ancient technologies and won. It was my first time actually recording onto tape, and it wasn’t easy.

There’s so many things you get used to in the digital world, how easy it is to set up projects, to route signals around, to edit. All of this was hard in the land of tape. You have to think a lot more about what you’re doing, what you’re patching where, what will happen to the signal. We have a few mishaps, but the recording went extremely well. 

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I was recording Anne Groen (She’s amazing, go check her out on Facebook!) and her band. They’re a psychedelic prog rock band, in the vein of something like Led Zeppelin. It just felt right recording it onto tape. They speed up and down during the track, and change time signatures, but doing it to a click felt too rigid and just didn’t suit them. I tracked them live, with limited mics, 12 for the whole band, drums, bass, guitar, acoustic and vocals.

I used the good ol’ Glyn Johns method for the drums, mostly because this had been used on a lot of Zeppelins records admittedly. I also tracked the vocals and acoustic in the same room of a blaringly loud electric guitar. I originally planned to over dub them vocals and acoustic, but the spill from the electric guitar actually sounded great, so I kept the original take. It took us two run throughs of the song to get the perfect, imperfect take. It had so much energy. When a band knows that everything they play counts, that there is no beat detective or melodyne, you get a different vibe. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different. The whole band playing their hearts out together has a magical quality. Hence the title.

Tape brings something to the table. You may not like the hiss, or the way it fucks with your sounds, but you have to appreciate it’s finality. When working with tape you have to do a lot of your EQ and compression on the way in. To get the right gain structure it’s essential to compress anything very dynamic and if you EQ any highs once you’ve recorded onto tape you’ll be bringing up tape hiss. This in itself is magical. It’s hard to make decisions in the digital world, everything can be undone, but I don’t think ctrl z is out friend. Working this way has really inspired me to make decisions and stick to them.

The record isn’t mixed yet, but it’s sounding great. The pleasure of doing so much on the way in is that when you’re done tracking the band gets to listen to something almost finished. It’s a great feeling. Tape is good, I encourage any of you who have access to a tape machine to go try it out, you might find some magic in the magnets too.

Good luck,

Liam.

 

Plugins, Plugins, Plugins!

For anyone working in the digital domain, plugins are your best friend. Unfortunately not all of us have the luxury to be able to afford outboard hardware, or simply need a more portable solution, so plugins are the next best thing. The only problem is, there are hundreds of them out there and it’s hard to tell which are worth your time. Today I’m going to talk about the best free plugins I’ve found, as I’m sure a lot of you are cheap fuckers like me.

I work pretty much exclusively with Protools, and I sometimes use a bit of Logic so this post will focus on these DAW’s. First, my favorite plugins bundled with Tools and Logic. The basic EQ’s and dynamic processors on both Logic and Tools are amazing. I love the EQ3 for its simplicity and ease of use and use it for most of my EQ needs. I’m not a fan of most of Protools AIR plugins, but there are great plugins included with the software.

Protools includes the SansAmp PSA-1, a software emulation of Tech 21′s incredibly popular SansAmp PSA-1, an amp emulator/ DI box. The plugin is incredibly flexible and comes with a wide range of decent presets and best of all, is free with Protools. Mix engineer Tchad Blake (Who recently mixed AM by the Arctic Monkeys) swears by this plugin and uses it on kick, snare, vocals, guitars and is the only thing he’s used on Bass for the past 10 years. He talks a little about the plugin here.

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Logic also has a great selection of plugins bundled with the DAW including some amazing reverbs and delays. My favorite of which, Space Designer, I really wish I could port to Protools. Space Designer is a convolution reverb meaning it combines your audio signal with an impulse response (IR) reverb sample. An IR is a recording of a rooms reverb characteristics. Space Designer even lets you import your own IR’s, such as this brilliant library of the famous Bricasti M7 impulse responses.

Now lets look at some free plugins that are floating around the internet. Of course there are ways to “acquire” most plugins, but we’ll be looking at legitimate free plugins today. One that I’ve been using a lot lately is the Softube Saturation Knob which can be downloaded here if you use Protools. I first saw this plugin when mix engineer and presenter of Pensado’s Place, Dave Pensado, mentioned it on one of his videos. This is a pretty simple plugin that does what it says on the tin. It’s a knob that saturates your audio. Saturation is basically harmonic distortion. This means if for example you run a very low bass through this plugin, you can create higher harmonics. This is very useful on bass as it can be used to make your bass cut through even on systems that have little bass response, such as laptop speakers. The plugin has three modes; Keep High, Neutral and Keep Low. Keep low will allow you to distort the track without effecting the low frequencies and keep high will do the same but for high frequencies.

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Another great free plugin is King Dubby, which you can download here. King Dubby is a dub delay plugin based on dub producer King Tubbys custom dub delay. The plugin sounds a lot like a dubby tape delay, and gives you the usual delay controls (time, feedback, mix), extensive filter controls, degrad and panning controls. It’s not only great for mixing dub/ reggae, but also for some crazy experimental delay effects.

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With a little more research you can find tons of great plugins without spending a penny. On top of this, many high end plugin manufacturers give away their plugins for a limited time to promote them. SoundToys have done this with their last two releases. I managed to get their new plugin, Little Primaltap for free and the whole collection of Line 6′s POD Farm. If anymore free plugins turn up I’ll be sure to post about them.

Happy hunting,

Liam.

Adventure Awaits

Lately I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my next step in life. I’m more than half way through university, and I soon need to work out what the hell I’m going to do when I finish. What’s for sure is that recording is my one true love (Minus my girlfriend, don’t hit me Charlotte).

So a studio seems the way to go, working in one or owning one. Both of these prospects are completely terrifying. In the UK, London is the go to place if you want to work in a commercial studio. But with moving to London comes London prices and living on nothing working as an assistant and I like being able to eat. But opening a studio requires lots of upfront cash and a hell of a lot of work. Even then you never know if people will come record and you may waste a lot of money for nothing. There’s no clear answer, just to try to do the math and see which seems feasible.

There’s definite pluses to each, there’s so much to learn from the professionals but equally lots to learn from trying to figure it out on your own. Dream scenario, I’d get a job at a big studio work my way up and eventually open my own studio. But we’ll see… Either way I want an adventure and I won’t settle for any less. Anyone who knows me probably knows I’m pretty stubborn and I’m not prepared to be bored at any rate.

Basically, I’m having an identity crisis. So as soon as I can I’m going to bury myself in mixing until everything makes sense. Mixing makes everything better. I think this is probably something everyone goes though, so If my fellow brothers (and sisters) in audio are feeling the same I hope this may comfort you. To the future!

Thanks for reading,

Liam.

What instrument do you play?

I play the mixing desk. I’ve slowly been realizing over the past couple of weeks the importance of performance. Obviously the most important part of a recording is the musicians themselves (I think us engineers/ producers can forget that sometimes, we’re not supposed to be the centre of attention). But our performance is also incredibly important.

I know it is very easy in the world of Pro Tools to manually draw in our automation, changing levels only a small amount from 3-6dB or what ever. But i think we’re falling into a trap. Why do we have mixing desk with real faders? Why not use them properly. Get your track rolling and record down to a stereo track. Grab hold of those faders and play that desk like it’s supposed to be. Maybe your plug in automation can be done with your mouse, but man, those faders deserve some action.

But saying that, I’ve also been thinking alot about the old “There is no wrong way” in regards to recording. It’s said over and over again throughout the many colleges and universities teaching recording. But what they should say is there is no right way. Nothing you will ever do will be perfect. Accept that. But you can make something spine-chillingly  awesome while not being “perfect”. But I think there is a wrong way. Some things don’t sound good, people can do a really shit job sometimes. We can’t hide that by saying it’s art, shit is sometimes just shit.

The beautiful thing is there are many ways to get it right. For example, mix engineer extraordinaire Chris Lord-Alge mixes out of protools into a bloody Sony 3348. A 48 channel DASH digital tape machine tape. Some people own a studio, some record in their garage and some people stick to a laptop and some plugins. As long as we have creative thinkers and great musicians we will get great records. The best bit, is every records journey is different.

Thanks for reading,

Liam.

2ube and Tape

So I thought I’d give you an update on what I’ve been up too this week. It’s been filled with stress, but the good kind. The kind you feel when the pressure’s on to do well that helps drive your passion.

For me this week it’s been a live streamed gig. At uni we have a weekly gig called The 2ube (Odd name I know, blame LIPA managers) that I help run. And every few weeks we have the great pleasure of livestreaming the whole thing. I say pleasure, but really I mean the feeling of wanting to pull your own eyes from your skull. It’s a lot of fun, but also a lot of work and most of the time everything that can go wrong does so. This time I was in charge of mixing the broadcast mix, for the whole world (Or the 200 odd people who listened anyway) to hear. Due to the usual chaos that ensues at this event, we only got half a sound check for the broadcast mix, meaning we had to mix the 11 piece band live from scratch, along with some others. But luckily, apart from a few hiccups along the way it mostly sounded good. I was mixing alongside my friend Sophia and I feel we did a really good job overall, but like i said, de-eyeing almost happened.

So after that I’ve been “mastering” the live performances that sounded decent. Originally we hoped to get five multi tracks out and recorded into Pro Tools, but as so often happens in the audio world, the ancient gods of recording had other plans so that didn’t work out. I say mastering loosely, because I’m essentially trying to improve on my live mixes using EQ, some stereo spreading and then limiting them. It’s actually working out surprisingly well. I’m sure I will post the results in a few days.

I’ve also been in the studio this week, learning how to use a tape machine and recording with a band. The band was just standard affair, it’s a folk band and we were recording guitars and vocals. The tape was more interesting. If you’ve never used a tape machine before I really suggest trying to get a hold of one and giving it a go. It really makes you feel like an actual sound engineer. Getting the screwdriver out to align the beast was a lot of fun. I love tape. It’s such a hassle and possibly not worth all the effort these days but It does sound great. It’s nothing particularly noticeable either, some slight harmonic distortion and roll of on the high frequencies but there is some magic in that magnetic strip.

One of my current projects is to record and mix a band full in the analogue domain. It’s more of a challenge for myself than anything, but they sound very Led Zepplin and I just couldn’t help myself. You’ll probably hear more about this later when I may have less hair due to ripping it out over this recording.

Anyway enough of my ramblings. I’ll leave you with a link to the livestream I mixed and hope you have a great week,

Liam.

I am an addict

Over the past few years I have slowly surccum to an addiction. An addiction to sound technology. I’m a huge gear head, obsessed with mics, outboard  and the idea of owning my own studio. As my addiction became worse I knew i would have to dedicate my life to the world of recording sound, and probably being poor for the rest of my life. Oh well, I guess I can’t complain when I get to do what I love. I’m currently studying sound technology at LIPA in Liverpool and having a great time practically living in their studios. I love what I do and want to share some of it with you all. It might be interesting crap I find on the internet, ideas I’m playing around with in the studio or even things I’m taught about at uni. In this case it’s the latter.

Today we were talking about a couple of interesting thing. The first is Steve Albini. The famous “producer” who refuses to call himself a producer. He is a great engineer, working with some of my favorite bands, Pixies, Nirvana and Fugazi. There is a letter he wrote to Nirvana when they asked him to produce their album ‘In Utero’ which you can have a read for yourself here. I really echo his sentiment, the idea that the producer or engineer is there to help the band and capture them at their best, not to take control and use them as instruments to create the music the producer or record company wants to make. In my opinion (and I understand that we all need to make a living), music should never be about making money. Music is something that helps and heals us and really should be created for enjoyment, not changed just to make a few extra quid.

The second thing I want to share with you is something from the strange mind of Brian Eno, the producer behind U2, Coldplay and many more. He and his friend, the artist Peter Schmidt, created the Oblique Strategies. These are a deck of cards to try and help defeat the monotony that idea creation can be. A series of words and phrases to help you break free from your standard routine. Now if they will actually help you with your songwriting or mixing, or just confuse the hell out of you depends on what kind of person you are. Regardless, I hope you find them as interesting as I did, even if just as an insight into the brain of Eno.

On a final note, I just got the first radio play of any song I’ve ever worked on! If you want to have a listen or check out any of my other work, head over to my Facebook.

Thanks for reading,

Liam.