Tim Latham


What makes a bad mix bad and a great mix great

When I’m asked what I do for a living, there is a now familiar look of confusion when I say that I’m a mix engineer. Or a recording engineer.
Mixing records is a very difficult concept to describe to someone who has no idea what a recoding studio is, never mind what an audio engineer does. Once that difficult task is overcome, the next challenge is describing what makes a great mix.

Most people will know a poorly mixed record when they hear it, but will not be able to describe why. But I’ve never met a non-engineer that understood what a great mix is and why. In my opinion, formed over two decades in recording studios, a great mix is one that is transparent to the song. The listener should never “hear” a mix, they should “hear” the song. A bad mix is easier to identify than a good mix. They sound cheap, or like a demo. A good mix sounds “nice” or “clean”. A great mix should create an image, a visual to put the listener in the setting of the story of the song. And it should do this without being obvious. A great mix engineer is able to pull the listener into the story. A great mix should have the same effect that a great movie does: it should pull you into a space where you forget where you are. My favorite example of a great mix is that of “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel (engineered by Roy Halee). It’s a visual masterpiece. Pro Tools has given me the ability to create unique spaces easier than when I was working solely with analog gear. “My Own Zero” by Zap Mama is a mix that I feel that I created a stage for the lyrics.

Chosing monitors for your studio

Monitors: The ears of your studio.
A question that’s often asked when someone is putting together a recording studio or mixing studio is what monitors they should use. I think your monitors are the most crucial piece of gear in your studio. They need to be comfortable to listen to, but more importantly, they need to be accurate. I use Genelc 1031a’s because they “fit my ears”. That is to say that I find that when I take mixes out of my studio they sound as good as they did in the studio. You can have all of the best plugins in the world and the best analog compressors built, but if your speakers aren’t telling you the truth, the results of all of the time you spend mixing records might be misleading. While most speakers in every price range are pretty accurate in the higher frequencies, the achilles heel of all monitors are the bass frequencies. Some have too little and you’ll end up adding too much bass to your mixes and some are the opposite giving you a false sense of low end.

Spend time at your local music store listening to your favorite mixes on different speakers. Remember, expensive doesn’t always mean better. There are some very affordable self powered monitors that sound really good. A lot of this is a matter of taste. Find a pair to use in your recording studio that translate to the real world. Next installment: your studios acoustics and how they relate to your choice of speakers.

An eq tip from a master

Eq. A favorite topic amongst audio engineers, veterans and aspiring alike. I’m often be asked what my favorite eq is. And the answer without fail is always the same: the one that gets the job done. It could be real Pultec EQP 1A or a free plugin. After some time, mix engineers build up a library of knowledge regarding the sound of dozens of eq’s and how/when to use them. Sometimes the gentle boost on the top end from a EQP1A is more appropriate than the more aggressive top end of an API 550. Knowing what to use when comes from years of experimenting. So here’s the tip of a lifetime. Always take out the trash before polishing the floors otherwise you’ll be polishing a mess. By this I mean always subtract before you add. To get a clear and present vocal sound don’t reach for the 10k knob and twist. Using a parametric, set the lo-mid frequency to somewhere around 300hz. Sharpen the “Q” to it’s narrowest setting and crank the gain all the way up. The slowly sweep the frequency up and down and I promise you you’ll find a really horrible messy frequency in there. When you find the problem child, widen out the “Q” a bit and start subtracting. The vocal sound will open up and breathe better. Then you can add some sparkle up top. You’ll be a star in any singers eyes!

Mixing pro tools in the box

I’ve heard from many mix engineers of varying skill that “you can’t mix in the box or shouldn’t”. And my response it that I can “mix in the box” only because I’ve retrained myself to do so. It’s an ongoing debate with valid points made on both sides. Mixing in pro tools is certainly not the same as mixing on a big console. Having spent almost 2 decades in the analog world, I have a different point of view then those who’ve started their careers in the pro tools world. In the early versions of pro tools, doing anything in it sounded like crap. When digidesign got the HD together, I was sold. Not just on recording in it. It was a great digital recorder that replaced reel to reel machines forever. But it also was a great editor. It changed the way in which records were made forever.
But it was a few years before “mixing in the box” became an issue. Technically, you should be able to do a much better job mixing pro tools files through an SSL or a NEVE in a big name recording studio. And at fist that’s exactly what I did. And then the budgets started shrinking, fast. I saw the budget tsunami on the horizon and built my own HD mixing studio with a ton of plugins as well as my analog gear. I spent a lot of time tuning my room and it’s pretty damn flat. Then I had to re-learn how to mix. This was a challenge, but I had my analog experience to draw from. One of the first projects completed in my new room won Best New Artist on the MTV awards, The Gym Class Heroes. There have been many since, including a Grammy Award for the Broadway cast album for “In The Heights”. So yes, it can be done without compromising quality. I would never work in a manner that would give my clients anything but the best that I could possibly give them. And I have successfully made the change to mixing in the box. For those who tell you that it can’t be done, I say that it cannot be done by them.

Live from AES

Hello from the AES convention in NYC. I spent a few days gawking at new gear There was plenty of stuff I wanted for my mixing studio, but only some of it practical. I ran into some colleagues from Battery Studios and my friends from Electric Lady studios as well. It was encouraging to see that the recording studio business is still alive. There were plenty of veteran engineers attending as well as some future mixing stars. There were a few Digidesign pro tools plugins that piqued my interest. I’m going to download the demo versions to see how they sound in my mixing studio. This week I’ll be doing all of the file management that I’ve put off for too long. I’m looking forward to mixing a few new projects with Bill Sherman ( producer from In The Heights).