Count The Beats: Interview with a mixing engineer

In the last year I've spent a fair amount of time doing some recordings. In particular, I've been working on some of my own material. Having invested a large amount of time and money into pre production and the actual recording sessions, what started out as a small bedroom demo soon escalated into something much more than that (I'm sure you know what I mean). It soon became apparent that I was going to need someone with a bit more experience and 'know how' when it came to post production, and in particular, mixing.

After calling in some "favours," and reaching as far as I could into the "industry," as such, I was introduced to Mr. Stephen Harding. An exceptionally talented musician, producer, and up and coming mixing engineer. To my delight, I discovered that not only is he a pretty nice guy, he is also darn good at mixing, and he's a fan boy of all things Apple too!

Amongst all our post production endeavors, Steve and I managed to sit down with a cup of tea and some rich tea biscuits to talk Macs, set-up , plug-ins, outboard gear and the art of approaching a mix backed by the stability of Mac OS X.

Read on for some wise words on mixing, but be forewarned though, as is becoming customary in the Count The Beats series, there is some pretty heavy tech talk ahead. However, it does make for some juicy reading. Don't forget, if you don't understand, just nod your head and pretend you do like the rest of us! Enjoy.

TUAW: Steve, you've done a lot of mixing. Tell me, how did you get into mixing, and what is it about mixing that makes you get up in the morning?

SH: I'm actually fairly new to mixing! I've done a fair amount of music production over the years, seeing a project through from conception to the mix phase, but mixing is something that's become necessary more recently. Sometimes I mix a project because I like the creative control of a project from start to finish, other times its budgetary constraints. Mixing is regarded as an artistic performance - I love the infinite variations you can get from the same source material. I love the combination of science and art - a mix is sometimes a puzzle, sometimes a painting.

TUAW: Well, rise and shine! Tell us then, what are the tools of your intricate artistry?

At home, I run Pro Tools 8 on a dual core 2Ghz G5 Power Mac with 10.5Gbs of RAM (I ordered too much by accident! I don't think my operating system can make use of it all, but hey, what else am I gonna use it for? It can't hurt, can it? Seriously, please let me know if it does?).

For an interface I use the (Digidesign Digi) 003. I do a lot of programming, editing, tuning etc at home, but also vocals in an adjacent booth. The 10 digital inputs on the 003 allows a great signal path. I generally have 2 channels going through my ISA 428 pre's, into my Drawmer compressor, into my Apogee Rosetta, for conversion, into Pro Tools. There's no point in having Pro Tools HD in such a small set up. If I need lots of channels and more space I'll go to Newbarn or G2 studios. There are a range of Macs at the studios, including some 'vintage' G4's!

TUAW: Wow, we love that your putting those old school Power Macs to some good use. So, what approach do you

take on the whole 'in the box' (software plug-ins) as apposed to 'outboard' gear (the real thing)?

SH: It depends where I mix. Sometimes I'm at home, but most of the time I mix a lot with a friend (Tom Mills) at Newbarn Studios (which has nice outboard gear). We try to get the best of both worlds. Mostly it's in the box mixing on Pro Tools, but we both really like sending stuff out for processing. We use the Empirical Labs Distressor loads, the Drawmer 1960 on stereo stuff and the Neve 8816 summing mixer (the stereo widener is really nice!).

Plug-in wise, the Bombfactory Fairchild plug-in is often used, particularly on vocals and busses. The Bombfactory 1176 emulation is great for guitars. For EQ, the McDSP Filterbank is so versatile and great sounding, although the EQ3 plug-ins that come with Pro Tools are really usable for subtractive EQ. The Pultec emulators are really great for adding top end. I also love some of the smaller spaces on the TL Space Reverb plug-in. Oh, and Echoboy, how could I forget him?

TUAW: Indeed, how could you! In terms of DAW's, you've pretty much only mentioned Pro Tools. Here at TUAW we recently ran a poll about Logic Pro. Do you ever mix in Logic Pro, and have you upgraded to the latest version? What are your thoughts on mixing in Pro Tools as apposed to Logic, or any other DAW?

SH: Well, simply put, I don't mix in Logic, I'm a creature of habit. I started mixing on Pro Tools first, and for this reason, it just makes the most sense to me, so I've stuck with it. However, I do use Logic 7, but for programming and when I'm playing live keyboards. I wouldn't do that on Pro Tools.

To be honest, I think Pro Tools can be rather over priced and plenty of stuff annoys me about the way it does things (the real-time track bouncing, limiting software track counts and inputs etc), but it is the industry standard for a reason. I think Pro Tools has the edge on any live recorded sources, with its simple and powerful editing features and uncluttered appearance, which really matters if you're spending most of your working life looking at a screen, but I haven't checked out the latest Logic though...

TUAW: Lets look a little more at the art of mixing. Say you've just got a new bunch of tracks in, ready for you to do your thing. How do you approach the mix, and how does the Mac platform enable you to do this best?

SH: Have a listen first! This is something I learned early on when I was doing programming: listen to the track first. Where is it going? What does it need? Where should I begin? Don't just jump in, ask intelligent questions. With mixing, knowing what the track is built around is very important. Bringing up a vocal at the end of a mix is a risky strategy as you may find yourself EQ' ing yourself into a corner. The vocal is very often the thing people are listening for, so mix accordingly. What is the rhythm built around? Most likely the drums or percussion, but often an acoustic guitar. LISTEN!

With regard to Macs, I love the design, the software and the power of the computers, but the thing that is most important to me is stability. Nothing kills the creativity like having to stop every 10 minutes. We've all been there before (AAAHHH)! Learning to go with the flow is so important in music - knowing when to keep going and when to stop is vital. Macs facilitate this by doing their job, which allows me to get on with mine.

TUAW: Some very wise words there. OK. What do you feel in your heart when, in the studio, a musician does a half-baked take and the engineer says, "nah, they'll fix that in the mix?"

I don't have a heart, I traded it for a DI box! But seriously, I'm usually the engineer so that doesn't happen, and the engineers I work with don't have that mentality. On a project with limited budget, sometimes you have to crack on when you know that if you had a couple more hours it'd be a lot better, but that's the challenge of any recording - getting the best out of the time you have, with the players you have, in the space you've got.

TUAW: Do you have any bad mix stories that you'd like to share?

Off the record? Well, there was this guy called Tinsley... Honestly, no real horror stories. There are occasions when I would appreciate more time, but I'm sounding like a broken record.

TUAW: Finally, you have the mix of your life ahead of you, but you only have a MacBook Pro to hand and your choice of the following. One DAW, one interface, one set of monitors and one plug-in. What would you choose?

SH: Well, it would have to be pretty much what I have now because knowing your technology inside out is vital. Pro Tools 8 with my Digi 003 and I really like the ADAM monitors, probably the P11A's. Assuming no other plug-ins at all, I'd go for the iZotope Ozone mastering plug-in because its got everything! EQ, multi-band compression, exciters, stereo wideners, limiting and even reverb! Is that cheating? If I have the bundled Pro Tools EQ's I'd go for a good compressor, maybe the Fairchild 660 or Digidesign's Smack! It's just so versatile.

(if you'd like to hear the fruits of Steve's mixing talents (and labour) on my tracks you can check out the final mastered mixes here and here.)