We sit down with 3-Time Grammy Award winning Mix-Engineer, John Frye, to discuss how the process of mixing a record has changed over the years, as well as tips on how you can manage your sessions. Mixing records often requires more than just technical knowledge. Most times, you will have to make compromises between your technical self and the what the artist/producer desires to happen.
We can admit that being an audio engineer is hard, there are lots and lots of buttons, knobs, and functions to understand. However, at a certain point we also have to admit that all of these "tools" are very similar. For example, and EQ is just an EQ, no matter what brand, they all do the same thing. Yes, some have more buttons and knobs than others, but their essential function is always the same. At a certain point, you have to look beyond the glitz and glamour of the "technical" world and accept that it takes more than some fancy named equipment to make your clients happy, especially when it comes to being a mix engineer.
Being the last person in the chain of events that is "music production" can pose a certain set of challenges you won't encounter on the recording side. Often times, you are hearing the song for the first time when it arrives. Certain clients might send you a rough mix of the song ahead of time, however that is not guaranteed. Most likely, you will be hearing the song the exact way the artist/producer has been hearing it throughout the production process. They will have grown "comfortable" with the sounds, blends, and dynamics, as the song came together during the production process. Even if it might not sound "good" in your opinion, it is "awesome" in their opinion. What do you do? Do you remove everything and start at zero, or, do you Chase The Demo? Most engineers will chase the demo every time.
Grammy Award winning mix-engineer, John Frye, states "The first thing I do when getting a session to mix, is listen. Before I ever touch the mix, I spend as much time as I feel necessary to understand the song, and the elements in the song that grab my attention. I try to understand where the artist/producer has the key elements blended as this is the sound they are used to. I don't want to change their sound, I just want to emphasize it." Think about it this way: beyond the technical aspect of working with a session, it's important to remember not to change what the artist created, but to make it better. The very first step to this is understanding what the artist intends for the song. This doesn't require any special equipment, just your ears.
There are several things that can be done to help make sure everyone is on the same page, moving in a positive direction. "We always ask our clients for 2 things: the rough-mix of their song they have been listening to, as well as a reference track they would like their song to sound like." says Frye. This helps determine which direction the mix needs to go. With a few swipes of an EQ, it's very easy to go in a different direction than the artist intended, having the rough & reference tracks helps set a direction for the mix. By listening to a reference track, it helps to get us in sync w/ the "feeling" the client is looking to achieve. Reference tracks can be anything the client wants, possibly a Katy Perry track, an Outkast song, Future, whomever. The import part is using those reference tracks to understand how they sound in your mixing environment. Every set of speakers, in every room, sound different, making it very difficult to create a baseline. By listening to reference material in your mixing environment it helps you understand where frequencies are sitting and how to expect them to respond.
Another important step in moving forward is deciding what to do about the plug-in situation that occurs with most sessions. It's no secret that plug-ins are readily accessible in your DAW, often times becoming a part of the production process. Almost every tracking session I work will get to a point where I'm asked to "throw a quick compressor" on a track, or twenty. Inevitably, these plug-ins become part of the sound everyone gets accustomed to hearing. Once the production process is done, there are two things that primarily occur: the session is sent to mixing "as-is", or, the tracks might be bounced (rendered), to embed the "sound" of the production. There is no guarantee as to what you will see until you open the session for the first time.
*side-note: when working with the same groups of people on a consistent basis, you will pick up on their workflow, generally knowing what to expect
There are a few fundamental issues that seem to arrise when taking in client mixes, the primary one being lack of plug-ins. It's impossible to have every plug-in on the market, as there are too many. You open the session and 1/2 the plug-ins are missing. Poop! This is a tricky situation as it directly impacts your ability to hear what the artist/producer was hearing. One way you could compensate for this is by referencing the rough-mix. Listening for context in the rough-mix, you can sometimes decipher how the part needs to be treated. Often, it's just a mild EQ change, or it can be a dramatic change such as a fx processor. The other way to tackle this conundrum is is you have the printed tracks from the production session. This way you don't have to rely on any plug-ins at all, as you are hearing the production version in it's final form, with everything in the production "pre-mix" printed to new audio files. While this is an ideal way to work, reality doesn't always work in your favor.
To help manage the plug-in situation, John recommends taking a couple of steps to help you get through the mix efficiently.
1. Use the "Save As..." feature in Pro Tools. Always create a saved copy of the session whenever you make massive changes.
JF: "I create a Save As copy of the session every time I re-open the session, either during the mix process, or during the revision process. Often time I'll wind up with up to 10 session documents, each labled by date"
2. Use the "Comments" section to keep track of the session. The Comments section in Pro Tools is the equivalent of a note-pad during the analog days of recording. Without those notes, you were at a loss for what was going on with the tape.
JF: "When I get into a session, before starting to change anything, I make notes as to how the session showed up on my system. I use the Comments section in Pro Tools to notate which plug-ins are present on the track, as well as if they are "active" or "inactive". Once I finish documenting the session, I will save it as a copy. The copy becomes the "main" session I will start mixing from, while the original is used to archive the session as it came to me. This way I can always reference the original session, prior to my changes, in case I need to go back."
Once the session is prepped, it's time to start listenting. Listening to the reference tracks helps get your ears in-context with the goal of the artist/producer. Everyone has a different process when they start mixing.
JF: "I usually start making minor adjustments after listening back a few times, my hands naturally gravitate toward volume faders and EQ knobs." Do you have any particular EQ you prefer? John Frye: "I've used the McDSP plugs-ins for many, many years and have always liked then. However, I will use whatever is available at the studio. I come from the console days, where you had a the same EQ on every channel, which is why so many people made a big deal about "SSL" or "Neve" rooms. Sometimes you had access to a "boutique" piece of gear, which meant that you could bounce that signal to an available track on the tape, if you had one available. It really was a nightmare, so, many of us got comfortable using the console EQ and Dynamics sections."
As you work through your mix, you'll notice that most of the "work" revolves around a few basic parameters: Volume, Pan, and EQ.
JF: "I spend most of my time making adjustments to level and pan, usually writing in the automation as necessary. However, I am simultaneously make gradual changes on the EQ (if necessary) as well. The entire time, I am referencing the original rough-mix, as well as the reference-mix."
During the mix process, one of the areas you should focus on is your FX chain. Not in terms of which delay or reverb you're using, rather, how the introduction of those signals into the mix can change the blend.
JF: "A lot of people forget to EQ their effects. It can be distracting trying to figure out some of these modern plug-ins and it's easy to lose sight of the overall context while you're fidgeting with "Special Reverb XYZ". The introduction of a reverb, delay, or echo, etc..., can introduce harmonics into the mix that weren't present. It seems most noticeable with low-frequencies. A simple Lo-Cut (Hi-Pass) EQ is all you need to solve that problem. You have to remember to listen objectively."
Once you feel the mix is starting to take shape, it's a good idea to get the clients' input on whether or not they like the direction. This will usually involve several bounces and mix revisions. While there is no set number, as each session is different, on average, 3 to 5 mix revisions take place before final approval. Keep in mind that this scenario usually plays out when the mix is done remotely. If the mix engineer and artist/producer are mixing together, there is the possibility for less revisions as you don't have to send mixes for approval, the approval happens on the spot.
JF: "I'll send the client an initial mix and await their feedback. Most of the time it's minor changes that are requested, such as volume rides, more or less effects, that sort of thing. We might go back-and-forth 3 or 4 times before the clients gives the final approval. I know my job is finished when the client tells my they are happy with the results. I try not to "overthink" the process too much so I don't wind up in knob-turning hell. You can easily talk yourself out of a good mix: "maybe I should use this other plug-in? maybe I can tweak the vocal levels a bit more?" It becomes an endless cycle of second-guessing yourself. I try to avoid that by listening to the clients. If they're happy, I'm happy."
Do you have any suggestions for aspiring audio engineers?
JF: "Slow down. Take the extra couple of moments to understand "why" things are happening the way they are. Myself included, we've all been at the point where we believe the best way to overcome our deficiencies we must push harder & harder. In the never-ending quest to know "every" knob in the studio, you could lose sight of what you're doing there in the first place. Take a breath and slow down. Be purposeful in your actions, not just fast. Remember that we are there to help the song live up to it fullest potential, not to change it."
John Frye is a multi-time Grammy nominated audio engineer with 3 Grammy wins to his credit, including mega-hits by Outkast: Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, as well as Yeah! by Usher ft. Lil Jon, Ludacris, Gwen Stefani, Ludacris, T.I., E-40, Kelis, Too $hort, TLC, Babyface, Travis Porter, Gucci Mane, and many, many, more.