Q & A

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, 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, 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. The flexibility of Pro Tools on the S6 lets you accomplish so much more, faster and more accurately, to capture and manipulate music. 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. In 2019, we're up to more than 50 high-end mics, and at least that many preamps and channel strips. The Avalon is particularly sweet for vocals, and you can boost at 32 kHz for true "air". 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.

Today you can get "that analog sound", if you want it, right along with the capabilities of Pro Tools on the S6.

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 a track on the tape machine, and sometimes worked.

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 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 mix. 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.

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, and of course you can phase align the tracks after recording either with a plugin or just sliding them. 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, and I try to avoid gates. Some guys do great with Beat Detective, but if I need to carve out kick and snare hits, I do it with the keyboard and mouse in the Edit window.

And I really enjoy playing with the transient designer plugins that are out now, especially on the kick and snare. Cleaner tracks seem to make that easier for me.

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. 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. 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, 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?

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, 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. 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 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. I'll sometimes put a mastering limiter on client mixes so they can get an idea of the finished product. At the end of the day though, for mastering, the best move is to hire a pro. iTunes, Amazon, and the streamers will "fix" your level for you if you don't prepare properly.

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. Paul McCartney is said always to have 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". I save the heavy delay and reverb for specific effects and, frankly, to sort of cover up a bad vocal after it’s been tuned. I gained a lot of experience recently with this technique working with my own vocals, and those of my friend Ray Amico, just trying to make them presentable now that we’ve lost an octave of range [laughs]. I used to use Auto-tune in the graphical mode, but Melodyne is both more powerful and more musical; it's all I use now. Anymore, every vocal that gets on a record has been tuned; it's just the standard.

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, Studio A was LEDE with JBL 4435s, and provided a great reference without any room eq at all. 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. 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 knew what I was getting on the NS-10Ms, 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 developed massive gratitude to him for that environment as a reference point when you mix. You do need to switch around to the Yamahas, Focals, headphones and even earbuds to check things, but mixing routinely on those Yamahas 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 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 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 it's better to start pure.

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, 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. 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.