Tim Latham

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Genres and Career Possibilities

I’d like to start this  by having the you ask yourselves a question:  How long of a career do you want to have as a mix engineer?  It takes quite some time to become a good mixer and to build a resume.  But to do so built on a single genre in my estimation will shorten your career.  An engineers life cycle is “Who’s Tim Latham?…Get me Tim Latham!!…Get me someone just like Tim Latham!!!…Who’s Tim Latham?”

No matter how successful you become, there will be someone new who wants your gig.  I highly recommend that you, the aspiring mix engineer, try to work on as many genres as possible.  This is a difficult task because as you become proficient and successful in a particular style, you’ll get more work in that style, and it’s difficult to turn away work.  This is not a bad thing, but a good situation.  Success breeds success.  But try to think a few years ahead and set goals.  What might be popular today might not be popular a few years from now and your name will be connected with a fad that’s passed.  You will become pigeon-holed whether you like it or not.  It is a challenge to diversify, especially when considering the city in which you work.  There aren’t too many country records being cut in New York.  If you are living in a city where one genre is the bulk of the work, you have a challenge ahead of you.  If it means taking a few low/no paying gigs in an unpopular genre on the side, take them.  Take them and build your discography.  Your mixes are your business cards.  There have been very successful engineers that have had great, long lasting careers working in a single genre, but you can increase your odds by expanding your resume.  The sad truth is that often your work as an engineer is often overshadowed by sales or lack of sales.  There are mixers who get a lot of work based off the hits that they’ve been involved with, sometimes with less than stellar work.  You might be a great engineer, but you might be overlooked (for a while) due to lack of sales.
I think that it’s even more important now to be diverse and competent in a wide range genres due to declining overall sales and even more importantly, because genres are being mashed together with great ease thanks to pro tools and daw’s in general.
You should strive to be a great mix engineer, not a great”___” engineer.  Bruce Swedien is my favorite example, as well as being one of my heroes.  His work has spanned decades and many genres and he is one exceptional mixer and a great guy to boot!

Mixing Drums: The Motor Of The Mix

Drums. Every engineer’s favorite topic. And for some reason the snare drum in particular has always been the gold standard by which mixes are judged. And this is a phenomenon I will never for the life of me understand. I’ve tried to, but as a mix engineer who spends many hour of every day mixing records and balancing often 70 plus tracks only to have such a delicate juggling act reduced to, “wow, great snare sound” escapes my capacity of understanding. Mixing is hours upon hours of hundreds of subtle changes, shaping and molding an amazing amount of moving parts into a single form whose sum is exponentially greater than the whole of its parts. This is not meant to downplay the importance of any one instrument, but if mix engineers were to focus on a single instrument, it without question should be the vocal. Back to drums. I love drums and I love mixing drums. I think of drums as the motor of a mix. And for a motor to function at its peak, all of the parts must fit together precisely and be well lubed. What good is a shit-hot frame, body and paint job if it’s sitting in a showroom? I try to mix drums as a kit, not as individual sounds. This was learned the very hard way. I spent years getting the “perfect” kick sound and the “perfect” snare sound only to put them together and have one big mess on my hands. I like to treat the all of the parts as one to avoid these sloppy, disjointed motors. When assembling the motor, I go one step further and add the bass to it. It turns a small block 350 into a big block 427. I do this because I consider the kick and the bass to be a single instrument. Once the parts are fit together, it time to lube ‘em up. Compression is one way to keep it running smooth. I tend to (not always) use a touch of individual compression on the separate drums as well as a slight overall compression on the whole kit, which has been bussed to it’ owns auxiliary. A touch of verb, be it a room preset on the whole kit or some plate on the snare for ambience also “smooth’s” out a kit. So in conclusion, build your motor solidly, keep it well oiled and never again reduce someone’s hard worked mix to “wow, great snare sound,” appreciate the whole record.

Listening to your favorite mixes

As a beginning mix engineer, I found a few records that I loved the way they sounded. Some of them being Earth Wind and Fire’s “All n All”, Donald Fagens “The Nightfly” and Peter Gabriels “So”. You should try to find a record that you really love and use it as a reference when mixing. Don’t try to copy every part of I, because that is an impossible task. There are literally thousands of decisions that go into the sound of a mix, including all of the thousands of decisions that went into the recording process. Choice of mic, mic placement, mic pre, compression, eq, room, etc… on often 40-70 instruments adds up to a lot of decisions during the recording process. And an equal amount of decisions go into the mixing process. So to try to replicate what a mixing engineer has done to arrive at a mix is difficult if not impossible. I am suggesting using a song or a record as a reference of the overall balance, sound or mood. Also, it’s important to develop your own style. Pick your record and close your eyes and listen. Listen to a lot of records. Listen to the relationship between the rhythm track and the vocals. Figure out which of the harmonic instruments (keys, guitars etc…) are more “up front” and which are tucked in/back. These relationships are important because they create dimension. Borrow different sounds or uses or reverb that create these dimensions in your mixes. And don’t be too concerned about genre. It’s actually incredibly useful to be able to cross reference instruments across genre lines. I can’t stress the importance of listening to as many records as you can from as many genres as you can handle. (There are some genres I can’t listen to, but they’re very few). Happy listening.

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.

Illegal Downloading

I’m not going to get on my soapbox, but I do feel it necessary to mention a few thoughts about the rights of artists to be compensated for their work. There is ceaseless discussion on countless message boards (more like whining) about illegal downloading of copyrighted files. It would behoove all of us to do our small part in the education of the consumer of the wrecking ball effects of illegal downloading. A short message on all of our homepages explaining that not only are record companies hurt, but there are thousands of people behind the scenes and their families that get affected by stealing music. They are very real people that perform very real jobs that have very real bills to pay. Studio owners, engineers, assistants, equipment manufacturers, the vendors, managers, independent promoters etc… If there is anyone that can articulate this message in a few small sentences, please send it to me. I will be proud post it on my homepage. Nothing preachy. Just a short and simple request to discourage this practice. This is an issue that cannot be litigated away. I think the message has to come from the source: all of us in the music business. Now, back to mixing

Vocal Microphone Technique

First and foremost, vocals are the most important element in modern music, with the obvious exception being instrumental music. The drums are the motor that drives a mix and the vocals are the navigator. One of the biggest challenges as a recording engineer is the get a great vocal sound.

To start, the most appropriate microphone should be chosen, not the best. Often the most expensive tube microphone will not sound as good on a particular voice as an inexpensive condenser mic. If given the luxury, set up 3 mic’s next to each other and have the singer run through the song acapella. Switch between the three mic in the control room (make sure the singer doesn’t have headphones on, this will drive them crazy) and one of them should jump out as the obvious choice. One chosen, have the singer run through a verse or chorus with their headphones on and listen to how the sound of the vocal “sits” in the track. No that you’ve picked the appropriate microphone, it’s time to place it. First, raise the mic to the height of the singer’s mouth. Then flatten your hand and hold it parallel to the ground and place in between the capsule and the singer’s mouth. This is usually a good distance to start from. Finally, place a pop filter in between the mic and mouth and you’re ready to record.

What does this have to do with mixing records? Well, we don’t spend all of our time as audio engineers mixing. A well recorded vocal will make your life exponentially easier when it comes time to mix.

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.