The perfect mix
How our seminars rocked London’s APRS Exhibition
The Association Of Professional Recording Studios (APRS) held its annual bash at Kensington Olympia last month. The Mix was there, and so too were three leading record producers to present three separate seminars - arranged in association with Allen & Heath and stuffed full of brilliant insights into mixing rock, dance and reggae. Each producer demonstrated his skills using A&H's GS3V Automated console, a desk that brings the hitherto exclusive benefits of automation into the realms of the budget studio. Phil Ward spoke to Stephan Galfas, John Crossley and Gerry Lions at the event...
Stephan knows how to create an earth-shattering rock album when he needs to. How about the original Bat Out Of Hell? OK, Deadringer For Love, then? Add to this tribute albums for Count Basie, John Mayall, songwriting with Ray Charles, and production for John Waite and The Allman Brothers among many others, and you've no excuse not to gasp in awe when he describes - his way - The Perfect Mix...
"Rolling Stone once described me as 'the master of tasteless American commercial crap'. I really like this as I've always tried to make things reach out and grab your face and yank you under the speakers. I think you have to have an intuitive sense of something Quincy Jones called 'ear candy'. People are so surrounded by music now - they hear it all the time, everywhere. Most listening to music today is passive: while you're ironing, making dinner, driving in the car, it's all passive listening. I would say that in America as much as 90% of music listening is passive, so if you want to grab someone's attention your mix has to be aggressive.
"What I try to do is ignore what reality is and take all the powerful sound colours that are available to us. If the drums aren't punchy and grabbing me and establishing the groove, then I know something is wrong and I feel lost. I'm not able to make the kind of records that other people want, I don't have that ability as an engineer. If it's what I do I do it right, but if it's another style like, say, dance mix stuff, then I'm not really capable.
"So what I do is make the records that I like and I make it where I really love it and hopefully other people with like it. My taste in music has been said to have the mentality of a 13-year-old girl from Kansas City. I like hit records. I like the things that people like. I've always looked at it as great music and great songs."
How do you create so much space with a bunch of small, signal-processing boxes?
"First, you have to imagine your mix not as a left-to-right plain but as a cube that has top, bottom, left, right, back, front and all the points in between. When I start to mix I close my eyes and I see the position and I actually visualise where I want things to go. With drums, for example, the type of reverbs and delays that you use can cause apparent depth. The same with a harmonizer, or a flanger - not for flanging but almost as an echo chamber. Set it up with a synth and send bits to it; what happens is that the movement of the flanger creates depth and movement within your stereo picture - which is what happens in reality with waves bouncing back and forth.
"Don't be afraid of what we might consider junk: the Space Station, the Yamaha R100, the MIDIverb... Maybe these things don't have the spec of the [Lexicon] 224, but for most rock and pop stuff they have such interesting programs. Bizarre reverb programs that sound like aliens attacking - put a little bit of it fed onto a guitar and you're not really hearing the strange effect, but there's a different depth perception, a different set of reflections... Layering these things can make a mix exciting. If you don't have more than one unit, take that one unit and perhaps record it to an open track so you have the illusion of having two instruments, or put a little delay on one thing and set it to the reverb.
"I have done some of my most successful mixes in this way. Like [Meatloaf's] 'Dead Ringer' - that was done with one reverb. Bob Clearmountain and I did that; we could choose whatever we wanted and we chose to experiment. All we had was an EMT plate. We did it without 10 million AMSs and Lexicons. They're lovely machines if you can get them, but if you have the vision you can figure out how to do it.
"I have recently done what I consider some great mixes on Allen & Heath desks - desks I wasn't that familiar with until recently because I work on SSLs and Neves. But I've had a lot of fun, and come up with a lot of innovative ideas, working with this cheaper outboard gear and these smaller mixers. I think you'll find that a lot of producers are now using this less expensive stuff, simply because it's got more unique sounds to it."
OK, we 're talking rock, so give us some secrets of guitar recording...
"The best guitar sounds that I have got are from Robin Trower and Dave Johnson on the Meatloaf records. I've been privileged to work with the greatest guitarists in the world. Most of them were recorded with two [Shure] SM57s at a 90° angle, six inches from the speaker cabinet. Yes, there is a volume problem, but I don't believe that amps work unless you crank them, and there are ways around that. Then you take this amplified sound and perhaps you mix it with a one of these DI devices - Rockmans are great but they're not the same as an amp, they're a different instrument. Not better or worse, just a different instrument. A combination of the two can provide a good sound, but I do believe that for rock 'n' roll you've just got to turn that amp up. Let those speakers distort it! As a player I know that you play different to one of those DI boxes than you do with an amp - any player will tell you that.
"I don't care how much reverb or delay you put on it - that depth, that colour of sound of a room is irreplaceable. A room doesn't mean a great piece of real estate; I've recorded some of my best sounds in a room 4' x 4'. The noise that speaker makes when it hits off the wall, all this crap that the manufacturers of DI boxes claim that their device gets rid of, that's what makes the guitar exciting to me. Can you imagine going to see Eric Clapton live and he's got a Rockman plugged straight into a PA...?"
Dance music has fewer finer exponents than John Crossley, who turns his hand to an enormous range of production and remix projects from his vantage point at two of this country's most pioneering new labels - T:me Recording and Submission Records. The CV includes remixes for Quincey Jones and Depeche Mode; coproductions for ABC, Arthur Baker and The Blow Monkeys; and an album for New Order. Yo! get down! we say, and Yo! again... and tell us about The Perfect Mix, too...
"The important thing with dance music is not the cleanliness, it's the dynamics. There are various things that make a track work in a club. One of them is dynamics, having the power between the noise that is loud and the noise that is quiet, and the more junk you put on, the harder it is to get those dynamics.
"Another thing that makes tracks work is a raw sound, or maybe a raw approach when putting the tracks or mixes together. Rather than having everything sounding clean and too clipped, there are things in there that are overdriven or are done quickly so that they are not perfect and done by the book; and often that can give a track energy.
"This is the reason why some people use breaks. Breaks were incredibly fashionable when sampling first started, and it's now gone through a phase where people have got tired of it. But the reason why breaks are still used is that they're so useful when you're doing a remix. You have to bear in mind that the people who are doing remixes are trying to condense into two days what a producer of a live band may spend a week doing. You need certain short cuts, and breaks are that. They are a way of putting in an ambient feel, a mood, some kind of rawness into the track. You have your bass drum that you know kicks, a snare drum that you know really hits hard, and your hi-hats that will really make it simmer, and then you can drop your break in - it needn't be very loud, actually - and then suddenly the track will breathe."
Samples shouldn't be too good, then?
"It depends on the purpose. If you're sampling a lead vocal you want to be as faithful as you can. On the other hand, if you are sampling a break you might want it to be grainy. There are facilities to resample at a lower rate and degrade the quality, and I do that quite a lot. Sometimes I get a sample that's a bit too real, a bit too rare. So you degrade it a couple of times and you get a sound.
"Film and TV are great for that. I'm working on an album at the moment that I've just done the demo mix of, that is very much dance with a classical approach, very melodic, very rich and moody, and what we are doing is using a lot of that kind of thing - taking snatches from films and TV, not in the way of voiceovers, but more ambience and atmospheres that inject a mood."
What is the chain of events through a typical remix?
"Basically you get your original on either multitrack or DAT. A DAT could be vocals on one track and SMPTE on the other track, and if that was the case I would probably drop that on to a 2" [analogue multitrack master] of my own. The next question to come up is: Am I going to use their arrangement? If their arrangement is totally unsuitable for what I am going to do, then I need to sample the vocals off and play them the way I want them to be. If you have the 2" multitrack you still have the same initial question - again, you can choose to sample things off and re-trigger them. With the majority of remixes, once the multitrack has been absorbed into the sampler the multitrack doesn't move again for the rest of the session.
"The GS3V is a brilliant board; it's a musicians' desk, you don't need to be a trained engineer to use it" - Gerry Lions
"The next thing is to decide what you want to keep off the original. The vocals are the obvious thing. It might not be all the vocals; it might just be a hook line or whatever, but if it's more than that I like to see what the meeting point is between what the artist wanted to achieve with the track and what I can do with that track.
"If I'm working on my own I tend to play everything I do - I was a musician before I went into producing. I take the vocals, work out the key, and try some ideas. For half a day or more it will just be ideas: you just run the sequencer, putting down track after track of ideas, and after some time you get some idea that works.
"I don't always start with bass and drums. Often I like to start with some interesting sounds or hooks, because at the end of the day it is things like that that make the track stand out from the crowd. It's nice to start with perhaps a chord bed or something and some interesting hooks, and listen to them on their own. You find that when you have your motifs and things like that, you can bring in the drums and bass and it all comes together.
"But you have to be careful, especially in a high-stress situation when you only have a day or something to do a mix, that you don't go off at a tangent that may or may not be a good tangent. You can hit a bassline and start piling it in, but sometimes you need to be able to step back and listen to it, and if necessary bring some other people in and say to yourself: Is this the best I can do with this track, or can I do better? What I tend to do is build a multitude of ideas up that I can just select between... The beauty of working with a sequencer is that is no final decisions have to made until the DAT is in record."
How useful is automation in dance mixing?
"Automation plays a big part in remixes. I certainly work with automation 99% of the time and it is very important to me to let the desk do all the mundane mutes and things, so that I can sit back and listen to it. There is nothing worse than having to keep muting stuff and changing levels to make it sound right.
"But you can't rely on it. I mean, a record company may ring up and say: 'We love the remix but it was too high on the hi-hat - it will only take you two hours won't it?' Well, it doesn't work like that. If I've done a mix and I'm asked to do something in the same studio, then in two weeks I can pretty much get it sounding the same..."
Is remixing always a case of sequencing and sampling?
"By and large yes, but what is starting to happen and will increasingly happen, is that those technologies will be used with more live instruments. When I worked with the band Sugar Bullet they hired a funk band and hired a studio and got them to play some old funk stuff and recorded it all on to DAT, and then what we did was to sample some bits of it and use it in their tracks so that we were using technology to capture that kind of feel of instruments and musicians playing. So you are bringing in real musicians, but technology gives you the control you need."
Gerry is a reggae session musician as well as a producer, and combines guitar playing with a high-tech approach to mixing. His playing, arranging, mixing and production have graced albums by Alton Ellis, Frankie Paul and Maxi Priest, and from his own studio in South London he's expanding into movie soundtracks, remixing and hugely entertaining seminars at professional recording shows on how to achieve - from a ragga perspective - The Perfect Mix...
"Reggae music is changing along with technology. Once upon a time you wouldn't have dreamed of using a sampler to make reggae music, but that's what is happening now with things like jungle and the music that is coming from Jamaica. You use certain styles and techniques to make techno sounds, and they are now being used for reggae music."
What does automation mean to you?
"Automation means that if I've got something in my head, I can get it right before putting it on tape. That is the advantage; I still mix the music by pressing the buttons, by doing the usual things. But automation, for me, improves the preparation. If you make a mistake you can go back and correct it. It might take a bit of time but it's there for musicians, engineers and anyone who knows how the system works, to be used and manipulated to whatever style they want.
"I'm a guitarist, who mainly uses his vibes to do solos. You might get a musician in and you might say to them, I want you to play lead over this track. With an automated system, you can take three or four tracks of a guitarist doing a solo, until he feels that he has done all he can. Then you can pick and choose the parts of the solos that you want. To me, it's a miracle that they have managed to put this in a mixing board this size. It's great to have that option."
It sounds unlikely that reggae can be generated with something like Cubase...
"Interpreting the feel of reggae through a computer is relatively easy. You tell a computer what you want it to do. It took me two months to learn Cubase, and I find it very useful to build up my tracks without having to turn on my multitrack machine. There are some things that don't work straight away, so you do have to play with the quantize - especially if you want a reggae track to swing.
"A lot of people hear my music and say it sounds good, and don't know that it's a computer. It doesn't make any difference. I use time codes, too. I have some stuff on the multitrack linked up to Cubase. This is where Allen & Heath have solved my problem; they have made a mixing board that can allow me to control all these elements. And if I need to extend it, I can - that's another good thing about the board."
How about mixing that all-important bass in reggae..?
"You identify a reggae track from the bass line. Unlike rock, which uses a lot of melodies, reggae has melodies but the foundation is the drum and bass. What we call the heartbeat is the drums; and the cornerstone is the bass. I use a variety of bass sounds, mostly from a variety of keyboards. I have a couple of bass modules, but I don't use them. My main bass sound is a wood piano sound from a DX100. I came across it, and it became the Gerry Lions sound. I use EQ to get the right sound for that bass.
"If you have a fast reggae, it's better to keep in an EQ range that everyone can hear; if you're playing dub and the keyboards and the horns are doing most of the work, you find that the reggae bass line is more or less the same throughout. I don't use the same EQ for a dub track and a lovers' rock track.
"A deep dub track is almost subliminal. To get a low bass that you can feel rather then hear, you use a lot of bottom end and cut away the mid-range. I don't use any top on my bass. I use more mid, to hear the range of the bass, and you will feel the bottom. I tend to give mid-range so that everyone knows what the bass is doing, and add the bottom frequency to give that reggae feel.
"We use the pick guitar, too, to highlight what most people wouldn't hear, like a guide. If you put it at the top, everyone can hear where the bass is going, as the pick guitar follows the bass. If you listen to Bob Marley's music you can hear the pick guitar following the bass line. He might play three guitar notes to one note on the bass - it depends on what style you prefer.
"At my studio we group things. It might be the pick guitar, the rhythm guitar, piano and organ shuffle. We group them so that I know they're all there at the push of a button. Actually, if I had the chance to mix a rock track, I'd mix it like this - like a reggae track. It would most definitely sound different because of the mix. These are the things that I would like to experiment with."
Feature by Phil Ward
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