Sound Engineering Courses | Rob Mills’ Mixing Blog # 5
Sound Engineering Courses | Rob Mills’ Mixing Blog # 5
Week five introduced a completely different way of learning on our sound engineering course. The class found itself in a small but well-designed live room that had sound diffusers on the wall and a rather cool, vintage Yamaha baby grand piano with built-in pickups. After the sofa had been removed from the mixing room, the class entered, and were greeted by an imposing and hugely impressive Vintage Custom Neve 8078 mixing console. Far bigger than the mixing consoles I have seen in the past, it featured row upon row of analogue units and hundreds of knobs. It looked special, and is.
Dave introduced us to the studio director and engineer, Luke Buttery, before leaving. Luke is a very friendly, calm, interesting guy with an obvious love of analogue gear. He is a respected mix engineer and producer who has worked with many big names. The large room had a peaceful air, which rooms that have been subjected to thorough acoustic treatment always seem to have, and the conversation naturally turned to the monstrous console in the middle of it. He explained that the console was built in 1977 for Sony Studios, and in today’s money would have cost over a million pounds to put together. He also explained how many of the quirks in analogue gear introduce pleasing musical artefacts and have their own ‘character’.
I, like a number of my classmates, have a geeky interest in studio gear, so it was a treat to be talked through the impressive rack-mounted gear. The highlights for me were some the compressors, which included a Manley Vari-Mu stereo valve compressor and a Vintage Neve compressor/limiter. Luke then explained how the room had been treated (which was interesting, but too much to go into here), and described mixing as an ‘imprecise art’ that can’t be quantified and is best learnt through observing others, perseverance and making mistakes (gratifying to learn from the class’s perspective). He also explained a cool trick that can be used when recording with tape in order to get an old-school, compressed sound for drums. After spending so much time working in the digital domain, hearing someone with his amount of experience explaining the virtues and flexibility of working with analogue gear was nice.
By now the tune that was to be mixed (a member of the class’s had been chosen at random) had been imported into Pro Tools, and the class had the chance to experiment with the EQ on the console. To perpetuate a cliché, the analogue response was very ‘warm’, and from the outset everything sounded amazing, not least because of the large and expensive dual-concentric monitors (Manley Tannoy ML-10s). Luke had explained that he favoured the dual-concentric design because the tweeter’s high frequencies are not spatially separated from the lower frequencies, meaning that the frequency balance isn’t altered as he moves around the massive mixing desk.
Watching Luke mix was enthralling, and he regularly stopped to explain what he was doing. The track was a slow, instrumental, slightly ‘arty’ one, featuring a lot of bass synths and a variety of recorded sounds (including water going down a plughole) that had been subjected to a lot of treatment in Ableton Live. Over the day, the most memorable things that were done to the track were: the main synth was pitch-shifted, the drums were treated to parallel compression, and some other slightly chimey synths were sent through a real plate reverb unit that the class went and looked at with envy. The entire mix went through an SSL X-Logic G Series stereo compressor and was EQ’d. When doing this, Luke explained how to get the compressor to work for the track, and encouraged the class to try and set it up so that it added to the groove of the piece.
Of course, over the day a lot more was done to the tune. But a list would make dull reading. What was most useful was seeing a professional work. Luke works far more quickly than I do, EQ’ing often without soloing. He obviously works very intuitively and ‘zones in’ on the music. By the time Dave returned to the studio to have a listen, the track had been mixed and listened through several times, and sounded really, really full and vibrant. The analogue gear had made its mark, but so had Luke’s skill and experience.
One thing I have taken away from this week is the way that introducing an EQ before a compressor can yield a highly pleasant result, as this is what Luke did on the mix buss. It allowed the compression to be controlled in a different way, and Luke explained that it is then okay to go back and quickly re-EQ any sounds that have suffered from this process (on returning, Dave also explained that beginners have to be very careful if they compress an entire mix). Hearing a fully professional mix done on such enviable gear has also given me something to aim for in my own work. Of course, I am aware that plug-ins can’t compete with outboard gear that costs thousands of pounds, but I will endeavour to get as close as possible and have started to use emulations of vintage compressors more than I did previously. Before, I favoured the control I could get from other compressors over the subtle qualities vintage emulations introduce, but since changing my ways have achieved some very nice results.
Most of all, it was watching Luke mix that proved the most valuable lesson this week. The speed at which he works is partly down to experience, I know, but I imagine working that way means you are able to mix far more intuitively, without over-thinking what you are doing and causing your mind to over-focus on particular sounds. Taking part in this sound engineering course has made it abundantly clear to me that I have to remix the whole of the last album I made, and when I get round to doing so I will experiment with working more swiftly, spending far less time isolating sounds and far more time in that weird, calm zone Luke makes his money from…