Tim Latham

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Pro Tools Recording Session

Well, I’m back from England having finished 5 weeks of recording The Kanyu Tree at Angelic Studios and it’s fair to say that pro tools/daw’s have changed the way in which records are made forever.  This has been true for a while, but this record has point a fine point on this sentiment.  This is the bands first record so they didn’t have the history of the limits of analog recording so they were free to explore all of the options available to them to make the record that they wanted to.  Tempo has always been an issue when making records.  What works live doesn’t always work on record.  Natural timing pushes and pulls give recorded music it’s human feel.  While locking everything to a grid is appropriate sometimes, it occasionally takes the heart out of a song. This was the biggest challenge on this project.

The producer and the band liked some sections of some songs to be locked solid to a grid, but other sections felt too stiff.  We tried recording the songs at several tempos and then edited the sections together, each having it’s own tempo.  But some songs still didn’t “feel” right.  The answer came in the form of elastic audio.  We averaged out the tempos, recoded the song to a click at one tempo and had the flexibility to change tempos of different sections using elastic audio until the song worked as a whole.  While certain sections felt good at a specific tempo, but when the song played through some of the sections still needed to be tweaked just a bit to get the whole song to feel right.  I’ll state the obvious by saying that this was inconceivable before daws/pro tools came along.

Also, some of the arrangements are huge with many layers of vocals and guitars that would have taken tons of bouncing down and comping to make room for further overdubs.  We had the luxury of experimenting with varying arrangements thanks to the massive track count in pro tools.  Being that I wasn’t sure if I would be the mix engineer for the project, I made sure that the tracks were cut n a way that would allow for maximum flexibility during the mix.  The quick example is that I made sure to take a dry di signal on all of the guitars and bass for the purpose of re-amping.  Being that I am indeed mixing the record I’m glad that I thought of the mix engineer when recording.

Having spent much of my time over the past years mixing, I had a pretty clear picture in my minds ear of how I though the record would sound when finished.  By getting better at mixing, my recording engineer skills have also improved as well.  I have a pretty good sense of how different instruments blend together in a mix so I’m able to record them in a way that facilitates the mixing process.  Keeping the final mix in mind as I’m recording helps me tremendously when it comes time to mixing as I hope that when other engineers mix tracks that I’ve cut find that there is less damage control going on and just having fun with the balances and imaging.  It was a tremendous experience working with such a talented team and using all of what pro tools has to offer to cut an awesome record.  On to mixing……

Recording session

For the past few weeks and for the next several I’m recording an Irish rock band of brothers in the English countryside in a barn converted into a studio, Angelic Studios, with Ali Shaheed Muhammed from A Tribe Called Quest producing.  It’s a great combination of influences and it’s been quite fun with the usual long hours and a lot of laughs.  The first challenge for me was to switch gears.  The day before I hoped on a flight to this side of the pond I was mixing a Spanish artist that mashed up traditional flamenco with drum loops, samples and horn sections.  It was a big gear shift to go from mix engineer to recording engineer in a day, on a different continent, and vastly different styles.  Having mixed and recorded both genres many times made the shift exponentially easier, but it’s a big change nonetheless.  The focus of each is fairly different.

Recording and mixing are two half’s of the same brain.  Mixing drains the creative side, and tracking the more technical side of my grey matter.  My approach is to record with the final mix in mind.  As the track takes shape, I try to hear the song finished while we’re still recording.  I started the tracking session out by creating a template in pro tools to use at the start of recording each new song, complete with input and output assignments as well as group assignments.  The group assignments are crucial when doing multiple takes, which we were doing.  I set up a group of all of the tracks that constituted the live tracks (drums, bass and guitar) and when it came time for a new take, I simply created a new playlist (with the group activated) on one instrument and all of the other tracks in the group added a new one as well.  The file management can get a bit out of control when working with many takes, so careful attention is a necessity at all times.  Sessions also get a bit messy as you start to overdub, so I make sure that I keep plenty of notes doth in the comments window and by scribbling on a pad as we go.

Tracking Setup

I’ll detail the sessions and setup when I get back to NY.  As always, it’s been yet another learning experience.

Recording with the final mix in mind

This weekend I recorded an album. Not a single. Not the basics. I recorded an entire blues album in one day. I was contacted by some very talented friends about cutting their newest record. I said great, let’s do it Saturday. The response was a bit doubtful but everyone was encouraged by the challenge. How do you record an album in a day? Preparation. The band knew the songs cold and I was kinda familiar with the studio. The night before, we did a quick prep of the room, and showed the next day to make the final adjustments of the amp placements. I chose the proper mics for each instrument and placed them in a manner to get the best sound with the greatest amount of isolation. This is where my skills as a mix engineer came into play. Having spent years tracking before I started spending most of my time as a mixer, I knew how to place everything in the room (it was a very small room) to achieve enough isolation. By knowing how the final record should sound before the first note was recorded I knew we would get great results under less than ideal conditions. Having this picture in my minds ear was crucial to getting the results we did. That picture developed over years of mixing records. There’s unfortunately no substitute for time served. After an hour or so of setting up pro tools for the session and checking all of the mics we were ready to go. And go we did. We cut 12 songs in a day, the old school way. My thoughts were that it’s a blues record, not a polished work of art to hang in a museum. Raw rough and rugged is what we went for and achieved, but it sounds really good. With a minimal mic set up, I achieved a really full sound. By having the picture in my mind before we recorded, mixing is going to be a breeze. This is a perfect illustration of my theory that in order to become a great recording engineer, you need to learn to mix first. Most of us learn both as we go so I suggest to practice mixing as often as possible. Like a great athlete, it all comes down to training, and we train our ears.

Another decade as a Mix Engineer

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.

Hire a proper mix engineer

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.

Mixing Demos

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.

Mix Engineer

The role of a mix engineer and how it’s evolved: When I was starting out in recording studios, the role of the mix engineer was fairly well defined. A few weeks of lock-outs (24hr. sessions) were booked at a studio of choice, the tapes arrived a day before starting, the multitrack machines were aligned, and all of the extra outboard gear was hooked up and tested. On day one the mixer would arrive, set up their effect sends and returns and the mixing would begin. Typically, a day to a day and a half were required to complete a mix. At the end of a mix, the assistant would document everything in the room. Everything. Every setting on every piece of outboard gear was written down. It was very tedious and extremely important to get all of it 100% correct because this documentation was used to recall a mix at a later date to make some very minor changes. There would be a recall or two and the mixes were then sent off to a mastering studio. The mix engineer mixed. There was an occasional overdub, but the mix engineer was just that. The role has now evolved to a combination of a few disciplines. The mixer now is an editor, a vocal tuner, arranger along with the role as mixer. I have embraced these extra responsibilities with gusto. The speed in which I am now able to work in pro tools is exponentially faster than the analog days. It is by no means cutting corners, but hours a day are saved alone by not having to sit idle as 2 24track machines rewound and locked back up. That time is now used for the editing and tuning which I feel gives me a bit more insight into each song. Digging into the structure of the song bridges the left brain to the right brain. For me, mixing is a battle between the two halves and having that occasional bridge to cross is beneficial in giving each half a break every once in a while.