Tim Latham

Blog

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.

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.

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.

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

Online Audio Education

I’ve been receiving a lot of questions regarding online audio engineering programs. There is desire amongst home studio engineers to learn more about their craft. Bit there appears to be a limited amount of options available. The two most common sources for such an education are the big name music schools and instructional dvd’s. There doesn’t seem to be many other alternatives. After years of fielding the same questions, I’ve developed an online program that I’m pretty sure fills the gap between the two. It is designed to increase your skill set as a mix engineer. I’ve drawn from my 23 years of experience in recording studios to assemble what I think can be of tremendous value to home recording enthusiasts and established mix engineers who want to advance their careers in the music industry. The technical details are being finalized and within the next week or two and the program will be detailed here. Please check back and feel free to contact me as your input will help me shape the program

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).