Let’s chat with Mike
Mike shares his thoughts on recording and mixing techniques, and how they evolved over his 45-year career with the transition from analog to digital.
Talk about the digital vs. analog controversy.
It's less and less of a deal as old analog-only guys die out or - pardon the pun - convert.
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 usually prefer the sound of voices and instruments that have passed through analog equipment, often with tubes, and even sometimes analog tape. That's why we have the Studer and all the analog outboard gear. However, digital is far more accurate in capturing what the artists actually did. The Avid and DAD converters have gotten so good that they do not change the sound in a scientifically measurable way. And digital files are an order of magnitude more durable and flexible than analog tape. Don't get me started on vinyl.
Yes, plugins in NLEs can help make bad performances acceptable, and NLEs let people make records on a laptop in their bedroom, 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 get a better product. The flexibility of Pro Tools on the S6 lets you accomplish so much more, faster and more accurately, to capture and manipulate musical performances. And you can get the analog color you want from preamps and other outboard gear and even, in some cases, analog-modeling plugins.
Are you an “in the box” guy or an “out of the box” person?
I’m 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. We're up to almost 60 high-end mics, and about the same number of preamps and channel strips. The Avalon is particularly sweet for vocals, and you can boost at 32 kHz for "air", understanding that the center of that band is about 8 kHz above what's being recorded. One of my favorite vocal chains is a CV4 or M149 into the Avalon and then an 1176. 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 a superb tool 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. And the plugins keep getting better. I liked our Harrison board and 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.
Today you can get "that analog sound", if you want it, right along with the capabilities of Pro Tools on the S6.
What's your philosophy as a producer?
My philosophy may not be a lot of help to young folks out there because I started in the 70s on large frame analog consoles and tape machines. Even though we have Pro Tools and an S6 at TRC, my style retains elements from history. For example, we have quite a few analog preamps and compressors here, and I do use compressors when tracking. In theory, you don't need to do that going to digital with 32 bit floating point depth, but it gives me tracks that feel right to mix. I also use a Rupert Neve Master Bus Processor on my mix bus, rather than a plugin. Well, I do use a brickwall plugin at the very end, not to squash as in mastering but just to make sure I don't send out anything that's clipped.
Our chief engineer, Jake Saghi, and his young fellow Belmont grads don't have the loyalty to analog that was prevalent even ten years ago. And for pop and hip-hop you really can do it all in the box. They also use a lot of synthesizers and samples. I'm not a total antique, and do use samples for overdubbing keys, horns, strings and even bass sometimes, as well as drum replacement. But for country and classic rock nothing works for me like live musicians with the right acoustics, mics and analog preamps and compressors. And I can't get guitars to sound much like guitars inside Kontakt.
I do mostly remixing anymore, so I don't have control over what the tracks are like. I hope not too many potential clients read this, but if I have a specialty it is making average or even bad tracks into a good mix. Melodyne on vocals, Auto-tune on horn tracks, drum replacement, things like that. We have probably too many plugins here, and three-quarters of them are out of the plugins folder. But when you're working with tracks that weren't done by Garth in his studio it's good to have a huge palette of options for processing. I'm a physician, so maybe folks can think of me as a remix doctor instead of the transplant surgeon I once was. And I can make great tracks into a super mix, but average tracks are probably my specialty. I live to make them shine in the mix.
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 some 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, and of course you can phase align the tracks after recording either with a plugin or just sliding them. I've mixed some stuff where the drums were mic'd this way, and you're somewhat restricted because you have a lot of tracks with several drums on them. Levels and eq on the cymbals, for example, affect other drums to a considerable degree. My preference has always been one close mic per drum, except for kick and snare (either or both of which generally need two), and one pretty close mic (a KM-184 or 185, for example) for each cymbal. Maybe because only one of my earlier tracking rooms was as good as 4a, I didn't get in the habit of using room mics much, although they're standard for drums in Nashville. I like to have more control over each drum and cymbal in the mix with close mic'ing, and more control over ambiance with reverbs and echoes than with a bunch of room mics.
How has recording changed since you started out?
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. Sometimes you can, in today's DAWs. But sometimes you can't. 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 did a lot of our earliest work on one of Welton Jetton’s first Auditronics 501 boards (mostly after modifying the eq on the channel strips), and later on an MCI JH-532. Mellencamp’s single “Crumblin’ Down” was recorded on the MCI. We had fader automation on it, the Harrison and the Trident. Took up tracks on the tape machine, and sometimes worked. That MCI board was so dense with electronics that you could feel the heat radiating up off the console. We upgraded the HVAC in Studio B twice.
Anymore, we tend to take DAWs for granted. I was remixing a McDonald's jingle the other day for fun. It had been recorded on 24-track tape with Dolby SR, so some time was spent baking, transferring, and decoding. Once we had it in Pro Tools, though, I was again amazed at what a different experience it was from back when we mixed it from tape. The male and female lead vocals were very good, but not perfect. So, into Melodyne they go. Now they're perfectly in tune. The male singer came in late on one entrance. Cut, paste (could have done it in Melodyne, too), boom - he's right on cue. And the flexibility with comping and mixing enabled a much better in the box. Instead of stuff coming by you in real time, 24-tracks at once, I could fix tracks one by one while looking at the waveforms as well as listening. A different, and probably better, experience.
On the other hand, rather than bouncing, I did real-time mixes to a "2trk" track in Pro Tools. So, when everything was ready to go, I could still have the experience of moving the faders myself when they needed to be moved. Fun to do, and no time-waster on a 60-second spot. In fact, that's becoming my standard procedure, especially as the final mix approaches.
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 some 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, and of course you can phase align the tracks after recording either with a plugin or just sliding them. I've mixed some stuff where the drums were mic'd this way, and you're somewhat restricted because you have a lot of tracks with several drums on them. Levels and eq on the cymbals, for example, affect other drums to a considerable degree. My preference has always been one close mic per drum, except for kick and snare (either or both of which generally need two), and one pretty close mic (a KM-184 or 185, for example) for each cymbal. Maybe because only one of my earlier tracking rooms was as good as 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 with close mic'ing, and more control over ambiance with reverbs and echoes than with a bunch of room mics.
Talk about your career in jingles.
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. The goal became to make commercial music appealing in the same way popular music was. Barry Manilow is still remembered for the “You deserve a break today” stuff he did for McDonald’s. It was fun for us to do new arrangements of that for some seasonal and special promotions for them. He also did iconic music for Dr. Pepper, Band-Aid, Nationwide ("is on your side") and a lot of others. And everybody who saw the finale of Mad Men was reminded of “Buy The World A Coke” that some guys at McCann-Erickson did 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 hundred or more, for regional and a few national advertisers. These were the forerunners of what we now call "native ads". 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, as we tried to make these jingles sound as good as possible, 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, stuff that's now called production music. I thought the work we did for McDonald's, Eli Lilly and Hampton Inn was particularly good. You can listen to some of this stuff on the Streams page of the web site.
What is your philosophy on compression?
Early on, my favorite tracking 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, even in the box, kind of a holdover from my tape machine days. I usually run the kick and the snare through the compressors in the Porticos, but not a lot unless there is an effect I’m going for. My current vocal favorite is a Mik-Tek CV-4 into the Avalon with a little compression, then through an 1176 with a little more and then to the converters for recording. Our engineer Jake Saghi came up with this chain for a Matt New single in part through a shoot-out process, and I really like it.
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. Another trick that digital has made easier, and less expensive, is chaining compressors in series so you don't ask for too much out of each one. This is cheaper and easier in mixing than going out to the hardware that we use for recording.
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 1176LNs in there, with just a few db of reduction, 4:1 ratio, attack and release adjusted by ear. Rather than mix bus plugins, I now use almost exclusively the Rupert Neve Master Buss Processor. It's a hardware device that's an extraordinarily flexible mastering instrument. Transformers, red and blue silk, texture, width, depth, compressor and limiter. Ya gotta love it.
As everybody knows, many engineers have been disturbed by the trend to squeeze the life out of pop music in mastering, and even in mixing, to make it sound loud. Today there are brick wall limiter plugins with built-in loudness metering. You can stomp that tune right on down, make it loud and irritating. We do usually have a lookahead brick wall at something like -0.2 dbfs after the MBP just as a final insurance clip catcher. I'll sometimes crank that up on client mixes so they can get an idea of the finished product. We have a calibrated hardware spectrum analyzer and loudness meter on the control room monitor feed. At the end of the day though, for mastering, the best move is to hire a pro and send them a mix with dynamic range to work with. iTunes, YouTube and Spotify will "fix" your level for you if you don't prepare properly.
What about effects?
So much music is actually created "in the box" today that I don't see a line anymore between music and effects. Whole pop tunes are done on laptops with maybe a MIDI keyboard. I'm bothered by out-of-tune vocals, so a major revolution for me has been the ability to tune and time singers. When Auto-tune arrived, I got comfortable with its graphical mode, but Melodyne is more intuitive, more powerful and more musical; it's all I use now for lead and harmony vocals. I still occasionally stick Auto-tune realtime on backup vocals that don't warrant individual hand-tuning. Today, every vocal that gets on a record has been tuned; it's just the standard. So now you notice how everybody was out of tune on the stuff we recorded in the prior millennium. I probably shouldn't say this, but today even singers who refuse to be tuned get tuned when they are not looking.
What about control room monitors. Don’t listeners pretty much all use earbuds with their MP3s?
This is extremely important. Whatever you're mixing, 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, Indy Studio A (the third main room I helped design) had a Russ Berger LEDE control room with JBL 4435s, and provided a great reference without any room eq at all. I think we had some Whites in the chain for producers who wanted them, but we mostly ran with them out. And I've used NS-10Ms for 40 years in six different control rooms for nearfield. It really is true that if your mix sounds good on NS-10Ms it'll sound okay anywhere. And you’d also take mixes out and play them in your car and on your home stereo. I still do that, and of course now there's phones with Bluetooth earbuds.
When I first came back, I had no control room per se, and mixed in my home theater on NS-10Ms and headphones. And by the way, I always liked Sennheiser phones, but just got a pair of 800s. I never saw that much difference in high-end phones for mixing, but these are in their own class, just superb, superior to our Focal Clears. Anyway, I knew what I was getting on the NS-10Ms, but they're fatiguing and I was missing out on the opportunity to hear the mixes in a professional control room with purpose-built monitors. When Steve [Durr] was doing his initial masterful tuning of the control room in 4a, I gained a new appreciation for the environment as a reference point when you mix. We've got Trio6 Bes and the Yamahas, too, but 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 15-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 an intentional gentle 3 db taper at 15-20 kHz to avoid stressing the tweeters with stuff you can't hear. If you've got 20k stuff in your mix that shouldn't be there, in any room most folks'll have to find it with the RTA instead of your ears.
We started out in Nashville with White 4400s for tuning and crossovers, but now use a Trinnov MC Optimizer. It gets a digital signal from Pro Tools so the DSP phase and frequency correction, crossovers and DA conversion for the tri-amped main monitors all happen in that one unit. You put a calibrated 3D mic at the listening position and push a button. The Trinnov puts out a pulse of pink noise and tunes itself to a curve you define. The improvement in the sound by getting all frequencies in phase is amazing. Just really builds on what Steve has done, although I'm not sure he agrees it's an improvement. It's sure as heck not as much fun as watching Steve tune a room, and it only works because he designed a great room to begin with.
Until we built 4a, I didn’t think anybody could really 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. 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. I particularly enjoy mix coaching, and the Covid thing gave me a chance to get good with online collaboration. Sometimes I mix stuff that comes in that I like for free. I'm not having as much time for this as I would like, since I'm doing my own stuff and projects with friends, but I like to work with new and unfamiliar stuff every once in a while. And you meet new people.