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.

Update: Recording with the final mix in mind

I recently had the pleasure of producing/recording/mixing a blues album for some very talented folks who happen to be friends of mine as well, The Tangiers Blues Band. The idea was simple, yet hardly original: Record an album in a day. We spoke about the technical aspects of recording, briefly. The idea was to set up and let them play. It is a blues records. And to me that meant not getting too precious about any of the technical details. I used 4 mics on the drums, one each on the guitars,lap/pedalsteel and bass with a pair on the B-3. Eleven mics were used on the whole record.

Tangiers Tracking Session Set Up

I used no more than 14 tracks on any song. We recorded the entire album live in 4 hours. Some of the vocals were replaced and the harp had to be overdubbed overdubbed (Harpist, Danny Clinch has a  day gig in photography and he was busy shooting Eric Clapton the day we recorded).  Less than 8 hours total were spent cutting the whole project and about the same amount of time was spent mixing it. I knew in my minds ear exactly how I wanted the record to sound and I nailed it. I approached the recording with mindset that a different mix engineer was going to mix it and I wanted to make it obvious what we were after. I love getting tracks from great recording engineers because it makes mixing so much easier. Whether or not others think it’s a good recording is a matter of taste. But having a crystal clear picture in my minds ear before we started allowed me to set up quickly, get out of the way and let the boys make some noise. A sample of what we accomplished is here.

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!

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.

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.