Q & A

Let’s chat with Mike

Mike shares his thoughts on mixing techniques, his own personal career and why he’s decided to offer free mixing services to a select clientele.

Talk about the digital vs. analog controversy

I know it still rages in some circles, but for me it comes down to facts, not religion. Chris McCollum, who built our latest studio and is a great musician in his own right, asked me one question before taking the construction gig: “Analog or digital?” He didn’t elaborate, but if I had given him the wrong answer, I don’t think he would have worked with me.

However, digital today has evolved. The Avid and DAD converters have gotten so good that they do not change the sound in a scientifically measurable way. On the other hand, humans are analog beings. Sound is analog, and our ears are analog. On top of that, we’ve grown accustomed over decades to the coloration that analog recording equipment adds to music. A lot of it is pleasing harmonic distortion. People describe it in different ways, but you hear “warmer” a lot. And I gotta confess that I usually prefer the sound of voices and instruments that have passed through analog equipment, even including analog tape. That's why we have the Studer and all the analog outboard gear.

Yes, plugins in NLEs can help make bad performances acceptable, and NLEs let people make records on a laptop, which helped put some great studios out of business (watch that documentary about Sound City), but those aren’t reasons not to use digital in an intelligent way to enhance creativity and get a better product.

Are you an “in the box” guy or an “out of the box” person?

I’m very definitely a hybrid. Almost everything I record goes through an analog preamp, usually one with tubes. I love our tube LaChappells, and we’ve got Rupert Neve, Avalon, Manley, UAD and Trident 80B channel strips, API preamps, and a bunch of others. Actually, we now have 50 high-end mics (some are vintage), and an equal number of preamps and channel strips. And we can record to the Studer 24-track, and even do some overdubs on there if we want. But at some point we dump the tracks into Pro Tools.

The S6 is stunning in its flexibility for comping and mixing, we have hundreds of plugins, and of course we can route stuff out of the box to the analog outboard gear. Plugins, by the way, are getting better and better, and almost all of ours now have dedicated hardware DSP. I was going to get a couple of the new hardware Harrison 3232 channel strips, but Harrison had manufacturing delays and the UAD plugin is so good I just go with it when I want that sound.

The objective is to get that “analog sound” with the versatility of Pro Tools and the S6.

How has recording changed since you started out?

Wow. A lot in many ways, and not at all in others. The factors that should stay the same are great musicians in the right acoustical environment and ambiance, a wide range of high-end mics expertly placed, and an experienced engineer and producer. Lots of folks have de-emphasized these things in the switch to digital, thinking they can fix all this “in the box” after the players are gone. In the pure analog days, it was a joke to say “We’ll fix it in the mix.” Tape made you get the performance right before thinking much about effects and editing.

Between 1972 and 1990, I did hundreds of songs and, uh, jingles on tape, using some great boards and outboard gear. My favorite board was the Harrison 3232C, with the Trident 80B right behind. We also did a lot of work on one of Welton Jetton’s first Auditronics 501 boards (mostly after modifying the eq on the channel strips), and on an MCI JH-532.

That 532 was so physically hot that we had to add more HVAC to the control room. You could feel the heat rising off the surface of the console, and there were light meters that used something like 12,000 volts DC and ran hot, too. Still, it sounded good. Mellencamp’s single “Crumblin’ Down” was recorded on that board. We had fader automation on that board and on the Harrison and the Trident. Took up a track on the tape machine, and sometimes worked.

Are things being mic'd differently today?

One of the bigger differences I see is with drums. The tracking room in 4A has gotten a reputation as a drum room, and we get a lot of that work. Several of the producers are using 20 or more mics on a drum kit. More than one on each drum, plus stereo overheads and three room mics. I expected phase issues, but the kits sound fantastic. I do wonder if these guys will get restricted when they mix the whole band, because you have a lot of tracks with several drums on them. Levels and eq on the cymbals, for example, are gonna affect other drums to a considerable degree. My preference has always been one mic per drum, except for kick and snare (either or both of which often need two), and one pretty close mic (a KM-184 or 185, for example) for each cymbal. Maybe because I never had a room like 4a, I didn't get in the habit of using room mics much. I like to have more control over each drum and cymbal in the mix.

Talk about your career in jingles.

I’ll bet you didn’t ask Don Was that question [laughs]! Up until around 1970, jingles really were, uh, “jingles.” Cute little ditties that were intentional earworms. Ask your grandmother to complete these lines: “You’ll wonder where the yellow went, when . . .” Or, “Mr. Clean gets rid of . . .” Then a change occurred, and I actually credit Barry Manilow with driving it. The goal became to make commercial music appealing in the same way popular music was. Manilow is still remembered for the “You deserve a break today” stuff he did for McDonald’s, and he did iconic music for Dr. Pepper and a lot of others. And everybody who saw the finale of Mad Men was reminded of “I’d like to teach the world to sing” that some guys at McCann-Erickson did for Coke in 1971.

So, TRCPG did a lot of these pop music style jingles in the 70s. I wrote, arranged, produced, engineered, sang, played keyboards, and/or played trumpet on I’ll bet a couple hundred or more, for regional and a few national advertisers. There were some good things about this. First, it helped pay the bills in the studio, when most of the pop and rock work was local groups doing demos as cheaply as they could. It helped a stable of singers and studio players make ends meet and gain increasing familiarity with the studio environment. And, we tried to make these jingles sound as good as possible, so we learned a lot about everything from mic placement to stereo/mono compatibility.

Later, as advertisers realized that they could license actual pop songs for their commercials, original jingle work fell off, and TRCPG turned to film sound and music for trade shows. I thought the work we did for Eli Lilly and Hampton Inn was particularly good.

What is your philosophy on compression?

As you know, many engineers have been disturbed by the trend to squeeze the life out of pop music to make it sound loud. I’ve been teaching myself to master - not there yet - and there are some limiters that will bring the average level up to what seems like a couple of db below clipping. Despite all the admonitions against it, seems like everybody does it.

For years, my favorite compressor was the LA-3A. These were electro-optical devices that had a sweet sound, and were extremely flexible. You could use them on anything. I still use hardware compression when recording most individual tracks, kind of a holdover from my tape machine days, but not a lot unless there is an effect I’m going for. I usually run the kick and the snare through the compressors in the Porticos. Compressors can also help groups of instruments or vocalists hang together, so I often use them on those busses when mixing. It’s one reason I use more busses than VCAs in Pro Tools.

Compression on the mix bus is a whole different matter, and I’m experimenting with new ways to do that. In the past, I almost always had LA-3As in there, with just a few db of reduction, 4:1 ratio, attack about 2 msec, and release as slow as possible without pumping. Recently, I've become enamored of the UAD emulation of a vintage SSL G Series bus compressor. Only takes a few db to really glue the mix together. There's an API 2500 plugin that's good, too.

Additionally, I will often put in something like a Maxim or even the Izotope Ozone maximizer on the client mix to give them a rough idea of what mastering will do to the level, but that wouldn’t be on what we send to be mastered.

Still, as producers and equipment get better and better, it enables more compression without pumping and other artifacts. I remember when the last Blue Sky Riders album came out, these veteran singer/songwriters let a lot of what sounds like mix bus compression get into the process at some point. Even so, the album sounds great and doesn’t fatigue my ears.

What about effects?

Well, they’re overused, but they do have their place. I never stick them in unless the client and I know in advance what we’re looking for. With a Lexicon M200 and hundreds of plugins, there’s almost too many ways to screw things up if you’re not careful. Somebody said Paul McCartney always has 65 msec of digital delay on his vocals, and you can bring a little of that in to fatten vocals up without making them sound “processed", but I save the heavy delay and reverb for specific effects and, frankly, to sort of cover up a bad vocal after it’s been Auto-tuned. I gained a lot of experience recently with this technique working with my own vocals, just trying to make them presentable now that I’ve lost an octave of range [laughs]. And, you NEVER use Auto-tune in the automatic mode. If you use it, it has to be in graphical mode, manually fixing one phrase at a time, note by note. And in many cases, Melodyne is actually a better choice for this.

Do you always use a click track?

Not much back in the analog tape days, but almost all drummers are used to them now. I wouldn’t force it on a client who refused, but I’d probably go back and quantize the drums and the bass, if necessary, before going ahead with overdubs and mixing. I don’t use the auto-quantize in Pro Tools, but enable elastic audio and then go through and adjust sections manually to the tempo, snapping downbeats or backbeats to the grid here and there. Alternatively, if the tracks are clean, you can cut and paste drum hits to the beats. As soon as that’s done, we commit the track and get out of elastic. This retains the natural sound of the drummer, but gets us in position to comp and edit from there on out. But it would probably still sound better if the drummer had used a click.

What about control room monitors. Don’t listeners pretty much all use earbuds with their MP3s?

This is extremely important. Wherever the music is destined to go, you have to have a reliable and comfortable control room monitoring environment as a reference. Control room tuning and monitors have always been a passion of mine. Prior to my sabbatical from recording, Studio A was LEDE with JBL 4435s, and provided a great reference without any room eq at all. And of course NS-10Ms for nearfield. And you’d always take mixes out and play them in your car and on your home stereo. Now it’s your iPhone.

When I first came back, I had no control room per se, and mixed on NS-10Ms and headphones. I thought I knew what I was getting on the NS-10Ms, and it is generally true that a mix that sounds good on the NS-10Ms will sound OK almost anywhere. But I was missing out on the opportunity to hear the mixes in a great control room with purpose-built monitors. When Steve [Durr] was doing his tuning of the control room in 4a, I realized how important it is to have that environment as a reference point when you mix. You do need to switch around to the Yamahas and headphones and even earbuds to check things, but mixing routinely on small speakers is fatiguing for the ears. You are just sonically adrift without access to world class room acoustics integrated with true reference monitors.

Steve had our monitor housings made to order by Travis Smith. They are loosely based on the old "Voice of the Theater" design, with 16-inch Altec woofers in the cabinet, and Altec horns with TAD drivers on top. 4a is small enough that we added a Bag End subwoofer, but you can’t tell it’s there as a discrete device. It does enable us to be flat down to 20 Hz. The high end is bright but not harsh, with a gentle taper starting at about 15 kHz. And the sweet spot is surprisingly wide. This helps because the engineer and the producer aren’t bumping chairs all the time trying to find that spot. And, if you are working alone, the sound doesn’t go all squirrelly when you lean to the side to adjust outboard gear. We started out with White 4400s for tuning and crossovers, but now use a Trinnov MC. The improvement in the sound by getting all frequencies in phase is amazing. Just really builds on what Steve has done.

And, yeah, it’s too bad that folks listen to compressed MP3s through cheap earbuds, but that’s no reason to let your standards slip as a producer and mixer. That’s why we record at high sample rates and listen in the truest room and on the truest monitors money can buy. Yes, you do lose information when you convert and dither down to 44.1 and 16 for a CD, but its better to start pure.

Making an MP3, on the other hand, involves a different kind of compression, actually discarding information via an algorithm to make the size of the file smaller. The lower the bitrate, the more information is discarded. This doesn’t change the amplitude of the audio like analog compressors (or their digital emulations) do. Instead it throws away information that is part of the essence of the recording.

Until we built 4a, I didn’t think anybody could tell the difference between CD audio and an MP3 encoded at 320 kbps, so when ripping from CDs or encoding audio for my phone, I used LAME “extreme” VBR, which averages out around 320. But listening in 4a, there is a difference in “depth” between a CD and a 320 kbps copy. So I listen mostly to WAV files, now. And with storage getting cheaper and cheaper, I predict that consumer audio will evolve to the use of lossless formats such as ALAC and FLAC.

Why are you making yourself available now to mix stuff for free for people you don’t even know?

I literally love to produce and mix, actually more even than recording tracks as a player or an engineer. I’m an experienced producer, but certainly not a famous one, and obviously not the best one in Nashville. So the call is out for stuff for me to mix. If material comes in that I can’t help or don’t have time for, I send it back. Don’t know how much of this I’ll have time to do, since I’ll also be doing projects with friends, but we'll see.