As this decade comes to its inevitable conclusion, I ask myself, well, how did I get hear? What a long strange trip it’s been I must say. It started out with me living in TriBeCa, actually purchasing my first cell phone (I can hear the laughs from hear) and using pro tools only casually, to finishing it with my own blog, a couple of cell phones, a website to run, and a full blown pro tools mixing studio in a house out in the burbs of NYC. As the next decade begins I find myself mid-way through my 3rd decade of life inside a recording studio. With nearly 24 years years of studio time, I realize that I’m starting to become a competent mix engineer. I said it. I, Tim Latham has finally become a competent mix engineer. I did resist the full switch to a daw until I was sure that I could get similar results from one that I could with tape. When pro tools hd was released and de-bugged, I was sold. Some have called it the home studio revolution but I think it was more evolution. With budgets sinking faster than Jay Lenos ratings and real estate prices skyrocketing combined with the cost of daw’s coming down to about 1/10th their digital reel to reel counterparts, it was nearly impossible for studios to keep their doors open. Home studios began to fill the void of the closed rooms. A few great tracking and mixing studios have survived to this day (thankfully) and a few new, smaller rooms have opened up as well. In a rare moment of foresight, I saw the end of big room studios coming to an end and dove head first into the industry standard pro tools, and built a mix room in my house in an effort to survive. Some of my colleagues weren’t too happy with my decision, claiming that I was becoming part of the problem (mixing in the box is still taboo to many mixing engineers) but I have bills to pay and I wasn’t going to throw away at that point close to 20 years of experience as well as years in college on principal. And I was wholly qualified to do absolutely nothing else. So I dedicated a lot of time money and effort to get my studio up to speed as well as re-learning how to mix. So as a new decade dawns upon us I am remiss to hazard a guess about what the future holds after seeing the tumultuous decade of the aughts. But I will guess that the recording studio business won’t change all that much, with a few big rooms managing to stay open and smaller rooms like mine will continue to offer great quality mixes. The monetizing of recorded music will figure itself out. And I can only hope that there is a cultural sea-change amongst consumers who feel that free music is their right. While I really want a Ford GT, if I took one off the lot of my local dealership because I felt that it was my right to have one I’d wind up in prison doing 1-5 for felony grand theft. I am hopeful. A bit nervous (nothing like a touch of fear for motivation!) And I am also very grateful that I’m still invited into peoples dreams for a living.
This is topic that I’ve been dealing with for my entire career as mix engineer. I implore every band and every recording engineer working with a band to encourage them to budget time and money for mixing and mastering. Even with the guidance of a producer, time and money has a habit of disappearing quickly. This may seem to be self-serving, and I guess that it is. But being a mix engineer, I constantly hear from bands wanting me to mix their records (not demos) for free because they spent their entire budget recording their record. While there have been occasions that I actually have mixed for free, I submit that it would be a bit nuts to go out and buy everything you need to build a house but didn’t allow for the actual construction or the painting of it. I’ve never met a contractor who would build/paint for free. Hiring a proper mix engineer is crucial to making a great record. One that possess’ real talent can take a decent recording and turn it into a masterpiece. The likelihood of finding one to do it for little money or for free greatly diminishes your choices. There are plenty of really talented mixers who can take your project from OK to amazing, for a price. Inquire in advance the fees of a few mix engineers that you would like to work with and budget accordingly. Don’t get sloppy and cut corners while recording, just record smart. If the proper amount of time is spent in pre-production an awesome record can be made on a tight budget.
When mixing a demo, treat it like you’re trying to beat Sgt. Peppers or Pet Sounds or any of your favorite recordings. Any mix engineer worth their weight in patch cables should never put anything less than 100% into their demo mixes or rough mixes. There are numerous instances in my career as a mix engineer where the rough mix was as good as if not better than the final mix. As mixers, we tend to get in our own way when attempting to make a mix perfect. I find that it’s often the imperfections in demo mix or rough mix that give a record its charm. There certainly are instances where the arrangements are far too complex nail a mix when doing a rough. Mixing records that are complicated require much more time to realize than an hour or so. But there are plenty of occasions when putting together a rough mix that the mix kind of falls into place. Sometimes its unconscious and there is something to be said for that. It’s a good tool to have as an audio engineer, that tool being the ability to “get out of your own way”. Also remain conscious of the fact that there is always a chance that the rough or the demo might become the actual record. Never underestimate your own abilities when mixing demos. Mix every song, be it a demo, a rough mix or a final mix as if it’s going to be the one that get’s you the Grammy award.
There is a lot of discussion in the mix engineer world regarding the “loudness war”. There has been a trend for the past few years to limit and compress mixes to within inches of their lives to make them louder, not better. There has been complaining from every section of the audio engineer world. Mastering engineers and mix engineers alike have been at odds with each other over this topic. Mix engineers are in a tough position as most are aware of how lifeless records become when compressed and limited too aggressively, but clients expect mixes to sound like records when submitted, before mastering. Mastering engineers are left with no room to do much of anything, other than to provide a red-book standard file (ddp) suitable for reproduction purposes. I’ve been asked by mastering to provide the un-crushed versions of mixes that were crushed, but the mixes tend to come un-glued at the seams when done so. So the mastering engineer then has to approximate what was originally given them while adding their input, which is very difficult because the client expects the mastered version to be very close to what they’ve been listening to. I try to educate new clients as best I can about the pitfalls of slamming before mastering with some success. But there are occasions where I either hard limit to the point of clipping, or not pay my bills. I typically will use compression across the mix buss as well as some soft limiting to give mixes enough apparent loudness while at the same time leaving enough room for mastering engineers to work their magic. Until dynamics are re-introduced into the musical vernacular, as a mix engineer I will try to walk the line between crushing mixes and leaving enough dynamics in mixes to keep them more musical.