I met Aaron Meier in a Facebook group called Pensado's students, which is a great resource if you'd like to network and learn. Aaron immediately stood out as a guy that would gladly share knowledge from his experiences so I liked him instantly. As I've mentioned before I write Audible Mention to document advanced mixing techniques & theories as I learn them. I can honestly say I got a lot from Aaron and I hope you do too!
What mixing obstacles do you think are specific to mixing ITB? As an ITB mixer how do you combat those issues?
Two come immediately to mind. The first is visual; when I look at a computer screen, there’s so much going on in such a confined space that my eyes are constantly being drawn to something, and I find that often distracts me from actually hearing the music. One of my favorite buttons in my studio is the power button on my computer monitor…I regularly turn the screen off and just stare at the wall as I’m listening. It’s really amazing how that can completely change my perspective and allow me to make better decisions. I think the human brain can only handle so much input at once, and it tends to prioritize visual input, so turning that off, or at least turning it down, lets in more information from your other senses.
The second obstacle is tactile…not having physical buttons, knobs and faders to put my hands on. I think there’s a certain immediacy when you are able to manipulate the music with both hands and all ten fingers that can get lost when you’re scrolling through dozens of tracks and using a mouse to move one control at a time. On a console, you make decisions based on what you’re hearing, and you’re able to execute those decisions quickly, which keeps you in that creative zone that is so important when a mix is just starting to come together. Those first few minutes after I’ve gotten all the faders up on a mix are so critical…that’s usually when inspiration strikes, and I either take advantage of it, or it’s gone in a flash and I have to really work hard to get back to that point, if I even can. One of the ways I deal with that is to use a control surface. I use a Frontier AlphaTrack…it’s touch-sensitive with one fader, a few knobs, and some transport controls. It doesn’t take up much space, and it gives me something to reach over and grab when I need to. I’d love to have a large format controller, but I just don’t have the space at the moment, so something like the AlphaTrack really fits the bill. Another way I deal with it is in how I organize my sessions. I make a lot of use of markers in Pro Tools, specifically the Track Show/Hide function. I like to set up markers for all of my different groups of tracks…drums, vocals, guitars, etc….so when I want to tweak something, maybe a vocal, I just call up that marker and everything except my vocal tracks goes away, and I can almost instantly zero in on the track I want to work with. That sure beats having to scroll through seventy or eighty tracks to find the one I want…by the time I find it, I may have totally lost my train of thought on what I wanted to do.
What advice do you have for other ITB mixers in regards to getting great mixes?
Honestly, the same advice I would have for any mixer, ITB or otherwise…learn to mix intuitively. Mixing is an emotional pursuit, not a technical one. The technical knowledge is important of course, but my approach has always been to learn it, then forget it. In other words, master the skills you need to know, but once you understand them and know when and how to use them, put them out of your mind. You will instinctively call on them when you need to. Don’t let yourself get bogged down in the technical aspects of our craft. That will only inhibit you and keep you from doing what is best for the song on an emotional level. I don’t think top mix engineers get to that level by being technical wizards, even though many of them are…I think they get there by being able to feel their way through a mix and shape it in a way that will have the biggest possible impact on the listener.
One other piece of advice…use reference mixes, especially while you’re still learning. It’s easy to think you’ve created a masterpiece when you’re listening in a vacuum, but you don’t really know what you’ve got until you compare it to other mixes that people are listening to. You may be in for a punch in the gut…or, you may realize that your mix stacks up pretty well. Either way, it’s important to know where you stand. It’s one of the best and fastest ways to improve as a mixer.
A frequent complaint to mixing ITB is a lack of warmth, depth and width. How do you address these issues when mixing?
Saturation and harmonic distortion, mainly. I think the primary reason we tend to hear digital audio as being “cold” is because those signals aren’t being run through near as many levels of analog gear as they once would have been. Many times, the projects I receive were tracked straight into an MBox preamp with nothing else in the chain. Compare that to before digital, when that signal would have gone from the mic into an outboard preamp, then probably into a compressor and maybe an EQ, then into a recording console, and finally to tape. And once it’s time to mix, that same signal would come back into the console, probably through a few more pieces of outboard gear, and back to tape again. That’s quite a few stages of saturation and distortion being added, and it’s the sum of all of those stages that lends something to the sound that we tend to interpret as “warmth”. So in the mix, one of my objectives is often to add as many layers of saturation and THD as necessary to get those signals to a point where they sound as if they were run through a long chain of analog gear. I use console and tape emulation and saturation plug-ins on just about every track…sometimes just one, sometimes all three, depending on the style of music and the sound I’m going for. I even use them on my submix busses and on my effects returns. I really think that last part helps with the depth problem…saturating the effects returns seems to help set them apart more from the original sound, so you get better separation, and you end up having to use less of the effect while getting more depth overall.
How do you go about giving each sound its own place in the mix?
I can’t stress enough how important balances are when it comes to fitting things into the mix. Some people reach straight for EQ or compression when they want to bring something forward, or add reverb or delay when they’re trying to push things back, but I think they too often overlook a simple fader move. I spend the first couple of hours of a mix just getting my balances to feel right, and I spend much of the rest of the mix fine-tuning those initial balances. The fader is always the first thing I reach for, and it’s only when I’ve dialed the level in as well as I can that I reach for other tools to get me closer to where I want to be.
Speaking in a broader sense, I think it’s vitally important to be really comfortable with the style of music you’re mixing. As mix engineers, I think our number one job is to find what’s important in the song and serve it up on a silver platter for the listener. Once you know what should be the center of attention, the rest usually falls into place naturally. But what’s important in the song can change drastically depending on the style and on the artist. In country, it’s all about the lyric and the fills…the audience needs to be able to hear every single word and melodic hook. In rock, it’s about the guitar riff and the groove…the vocal tends to get treated more like an instrument. With hip hop and most pop, it’s about the vocal and the beat…if your beat sounds weak and puny, the song is probably in serious trouble. If you make the wrong choices about what’s important, the mix might not connect with people who listen to that style of music or to that artist in particular. And the only way you can know what’s important in a style of music is to spend time listening to that kind of music. Push yourself out of your comfort zone and get familiar with as much music as you can. Personally, I spend as much time listening to music for educational reasons as I do for pure enjoyment, and I feel that having exposed myself to such a broad range of music is one of my biggest assets.
All that said, what is just as important as knowing what is stylistically correct is knowing when to throw stylistic norms out the window and do something unexpected, because that can make the song really jump out of the speakers and grab peoples’ attention. Don’t play it safe, because your mixes will just blend in with all of the other “safe” mixes out there. The risk-takers have the most to lose, but they also stand to gain the most. They are out there on the edge knowing that there is a real chance that they will fall flat on their faces if they make one false step. But if they walk the tightrope just right, they make a dramatic statement that gets people excited about the song and about the artist, and at the end of the day, that’s all anyone can really ask from a mix.
Does loudness factor into your mixing choices? If so how do you treat individual tracks to optimize loudness and how do you then maximize loudness on mix and or stereo busses?
I don’t consciously consider loudness when I’m mixing, but I tend to use quite a bit of compression, so by the time my mixes get to the mastering stage there isn’t usually a ton of dynamic range that needs to be controlled. I like to use some compression on the 2-bus to add punch and a little glue, but I rarely use limiting. I do like the Waves L1 on individual tracks at times…if I have a live snare or kick drum that wasn’t played very consistently, for example, it can help me keep the level more consistent by reigning in any overly enthusiastic hits. I prefer that over compression for strictly controlling the level because it gets in and out without doing much to change the sound...I use compressors more for sonic shaping.
Since you sum in PT do you use any software and or techniques to simulate analog summing? Do you bounce to disk or record the song to a stereo track within the session?
For summing, I’ll typically send all of my tracks to subgroups, and then use something like Slate VCC on the subgroup auxes. For printing mixes, I used to be strictly a Bounce To Disk guy, but more recently I’ve started printing my mixes inside Pro Tools. Not because of any sonic difference, but just for keeping my prints organized and available for easy comparison. If I need to make some tweaks to a mix, it helps to be able to do a quick AB between the current mix and the most recent print. It’s also nice to be able to punch into the middle of the song should you need to stop and fix something while you’re printing the mix, which always seems to happen to me.
What Peak & RMS db level does your mix typically end up at on the master bus?
I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to RMS levels when I’m mixing, but I try to get my peaks hitting between -16 and -10 dBFS. I like to keep plenty of headroom available on my 2-bus. It’s very easy for things to get out of hand and suddenly you have to start pulling faders down and readjusting your mix because you’re clipping the master, and then the whole sound changes and you might not be able to get it back. One of the first things I do when I start a mix is crank my monitors up to about 80% or 85% of their total available power. That way, when I start bringing up faders, I’m getting sounds to a strong level in the room, but my levels in Pro Tools are still pretty conservative. I’m sure most mastering engineers would be ecstatic if more engineers took advantage of the full range of power that’s available in their speakers. I mean, that’s what it’s there for, right? It’s not for playing back iTunes tracks at 130 dB.
What plugins can typically be found on your master bus?
I almost always have bus compression on the master. My favorite is the Waves API 2500…it probably ends up on 85% of my mixes. Sometimes I’ll use the Waves SSL bus compressor if I want a different sound. It has a tendency to neuter sub-bass, though, so I don’t use it on mixes that depend heavily on those frequencies. If neither of those are doing it for me, I might drop the McDSP 6030 on there…it has some nice sounding algorithms, especially when you’re not hitting it very hard.
Another plug-in you’ll almost always find is Slate VCC…the MixBuss version. I really like to drive that hard...I usually have the Drive knob cranked all the way, and it’s almost always set to the Neve emulation. I might also have some sort of tape emulation and/or saturation on there…one of my favorites is the UBK-1. It has some mix buss and tape saturation presets that can help me shape the overall texture. I’ve also used Massey TapeHead with success, although that is definitely a hit-or-miss. It either sounds great, or it sounds like it’s doing way too much. It’s not a subtle plug-in, but when it’s working, I really like the color it adds.
Sometimes I might add a little EQ at that stage…usually a Pultec emulation adding just a little bit of top end and maybe shaping the low end a bit. I’ve also been known to use a muti-band compressor once in awhile to shape the mix a little. Nothing extreme…if I have to do a lot with it, I’ll go back in at the track level and make the changes there. I just find that when I have things sounding close, but maybe just a hair shy of where I want to be, working on it at the 2-bus can get me there without having to change the balance of my mix. But if I go in and start tweaking at the track level, I might end up going down a long rabbit trail that ultimately changes my whole mix. Now, if that’s what needs to happen, fine…but sometimes, you just need that last little bit of something, and changing your whole mix to get it just doesn’t make sense.
How is your mixing style different from other mixers?
Hmm…good question, and one I don’t really have a good answer for. I just mix until the song is making me feel like I think it should. I don’t mix by numbers, and I don’t get wrapped up in trying to use every advanced technique I’ve ever learned. For me, a mix takes whatever it takes…no more, no less. When it’s right, I just know. I feel it in my gut. I guess a good way to put it is that, when the mix disappears and I’m actually hearing the song and the performance, when there’s nothing in there that makes me cringe or that draws my ear away from where I tried to focus all of the attention, I know I’m finished.
What is your favorite vocal chain for recording?
Right now, I’m really liking the Telefunken CU-29. It’s a really natural sounding mic…very open and warm. It seems to do really well on most female vocals and on male tenors. For male baritones, I like the Mojave MA-200. If neither of those are doing it for me, I’ll throw up an SM7B. My go to preamp for vocals is a Great River, and from there I might go into either a Summit Audio TLA-50, which is a warm tube compressor with a really transparent compression circuit, or into a Distressor if I want the vocal to cut a little more or have a little more attitude.
If you could pick only 5 single-function plugins to use on a mix what would they be? (As in no plugins that do everything like Ozone or the Waves signature series…that’s cheating lol)
1.Waves C-1. This is my desert island plug-in. There’s just so much that you can do with it; compression, de-essing, de-noising, gating, dynamic EQ… The C-1 plus a good EQ can get you a long way.
2. Waves H-EQ. It has become my first stop for EQ on just about anything. I love that they incorporated a frequency analyzer and piano roll into it. The visual feedback speeds up my workflow considerably.
3.Slate VCC. Even though what it adds is fairly subtle in the grand scheme of things, I just can’t imagine mixing without it now. It’s become the perfect “finishing touch” plug-in for me. It’s one of those things where when I bypass it, I instantly miss it.
4.DigiDelay. It just works.
5.TL Space + Samplicity’s Bricasti M7 impulse library. I use this combo on every mix. TL Space has some great IRs in the stock library, but that M7 library gives me a whole palette of world class reverbs to choose from. And it’s a free library, so there’s no excuse not to have it.
Do you master your own mixes ITB? If so can you please describe your mastering process and what peak & RMS level you like to end up at?
For one reason or another, I do end up mastering most of the projects I work on. I don’t usually need to do much because I tend to mix with the goal of getting it as close to a finished sound as I can. I listen to lots of references as I’m mastering…more so than during the actual mix, even. I like to listen across several records that might have a similar feel to what I’m working on to get a sense of their loudness, and of the overall tonality. Mastering an individual song is usually pretty straightforward since I’m not having to compromise to make the track feel more like a bunch of other tracks on the same record. I’ll typically start with an EQ, maybe a Pultec for simple shelving, or the Brainworx BX_digital V2 if I need something more powerful. That is such an amazing plug-in. I might also use a multiband comp like the Waves C6 or Linear Multiband. I don’t generally use a lot of compression in the mastering stage since I have probably already used quite a bit in the mix. I might add just a touch of stereo widening to open the mix up a bit, and I might add some tape emulation or maybe some additional saturation to help round out the transients a bit. For limiting, I usually use the Slate FG-X. I don’t tend to hit the limiter as hard as it seems most folks do, so my masters may not be quite as loud, but I can’t say that I’ve had many clients complain about that. If they really want it loud, I’ll push it on up there, but my initial instinct is usually to go fairly conservative, maybe -13 or -12 dBFS RMS, and leave at least some transient information in the song. As far as peak levels, I have taken to the new Mastered for iTunes standard of setting my ceiling at -1.0 dBFS to keep the mix from clipping the internal circuitry of whatever the listener is listening on. The last thing I do is put on some headphones and turn the volume down to the point where I can just barely hear the music, and then I listen for distortion. You might not hear it at normal playback volume, but it seems to really jump out at low levels.
I'd like to extend a BIG thank you to Aaron for allowing me to interview him. He is currently the owner and operator of Stepping Stone Sound which is a full-service, Pro Tools based recording and production studio located about 20 minutes west of Gastonia, North Carolina. If you'd like more information here's his website and blog.
Thanks for reading my blog!!!