Questions from a university student

Hello Stephen.  I’m studying for a Bsc(Hons) in Sound Technology at the University of Glamorgan.  Would it be possible for you to participate in a quick questionnaire with regards to the working methods of current producers/mix engineers? Let the interrogation commence…

Happy to try to help.  You can find lots of articles and answers to recording/mixing questions on this site.

I’ll try to briefly answer your questions below.  However, I can sum up the answers to all the questions with my main philosophy, which is that I let the song dictate all my mix decisions.  In other words, I don’t think in terms of genres or styles, nor do I have a set routine or any type of presets that I use for each mix.  I carefully listen to the song before I do anything, and then let the song, and the emotion or message it is trying to convey, tell me what direction I should take it.  Mixing a song is at least as much, if not more of a creative process than a technical one, and it takes a good amount of natural talent combined with many years of training and practice to become very good at it.  Much the same as learning a musical instrument.

So, in answer to your questions:

1.   What Genre/s do you work in?

As stated above, I don’t limit myself to any particular genres or styles.  I listen to the song and do what I feel is best for that song.  I’ve been in this business a long time and have worked with almost all styles out there.

2.   What are the first three instruments or tracks that you set levels for when mixing and does this change dependent on the genre?

Doesn’t depend on the genre, it depends on the particular song.  Generally, I pull up ALL the tracks and listen to the song several times before trying to do any sort of “mixing”.  While I’m listening, I’ll grab faders and start setting up a very rough mix just with volume levels only to get a better feel for the song.  When I’m reading to start doing any kind of EQ or other processing I may leave all the faders at these rough levels I set up, or sometimes I’ll turn off a few, or many other channels, to focus on a few select instruments or groups.  If it’s a typical rock/pop song that is rhythm based, I usually prefer to work on the “foundation” first, by getting a solid rhythm section put together:  Bass, Drums and any rhythm instruments.  I don’t work on these instruments solo’d, because you need to hear what your changes sound like in the context of the mix, as masking and conflicts with other instruments/frequencies can change the way things sound in the complete mix.  I’ll usually only solo if there are some problem issues I need to focus in on and fix.

3.   What would you generally consider the most important instrument in a mix?

If it’s a song with vocals, then it’s always the vocals that are the most important.  Everything else should be supporting the vocals, because that’s what the listener is keying into, and you need to be able to hear the vocals clearly, and they also need to be presented in a way that supports the emotional message of the song.  If it’s an instrumental song, then it’s either the lead melody instrument, or it’s just the group as a whole if it’s something like an orchestral piece.

4.   Which sound or instrument would you generally take the most time over when mixing?

That depends on what I’m given and how much work is needed to make it sound good.  Sometimes there is a lot of clean up work, editing, or fixing to be done to make something sound good… I don’t consider that a part of mixing, but, unfortunately lots of people are recording at home and haven’t developed good practices, and often send me tracks that really aren’t totally prepared for mixing yet.  Otherwise, if everything sounds really great, then it just depends on how much automation work is needed to make a great mix.  Sometimes you need to do a lot of volume automation to enhance the dynamics or emotional impact of the song, while other times you barely need to do any automation at all if the performers did that on their on when recording.  Typically, though, I’ll leave the vocal automation for last after I have everything else where I want it, so that I can ride and edit the vocal levels to fit right where I want them to be throughout the song, and to smooth out any volume issues with the vocal.

5.   Do you use synthesized instruments or samples?

I use what I’m given when I’m mixing.  Generally, I’m not adding anything new to the song unless I’ve been hired to do so.  On rare occasions I may trigger some drum samples from the given drum tracks if the recorded tracks have some issues or need to be enhanced.
Now, on those occasions when I’m composing my own music, or producing or remixing music for other artists, I’ll use whatever works for the song.  It may be all synths and samples, or I may compose with samples and then bring in real musicians to replace my rough guide parts with much better sounding parts (I’m lucky enough to work with some of the top professional studio musicians).

6.  If yes, would you use them for melodic, rhythmic, harmonic or all aspects of the music?

All of the above, None of the above, or any combination of the above.  Depends on what the song needs.

7.  Have your answers for questions 2 – 5 changed during your time as a producer/mixer? If yes, please state a reason why.

No.  For me, it’s ALWAYS been about the song, and I never focused on genres or styles or fixed ways of doing things.  I’ve certainly improved my skills over the years, but the way I approach producing and mixing hasn’t changed much other than newer technologies changing the tools that I use.

8.   Please list the following musical aspects in their order of importance, with 1 as most important and 3 as least important:

Lyrics & Melody are always king.  Without those, there really isn’t a “song”.  But, in general, all aspects are equally important… everything has to work together as a whole for a song to be great.

9. Is there any other relevant information you feel you could offer on the subject?

Just browse through this site for lots of info!

Posted in Ask MusicTECH!