Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Mark ‘Spike’ Stent

Inside Track: Muse 'The Resistance'

Published in SOS February 2010
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Technique : Recording / Mixing

Britain's biggest name in mixing, Mark 'Spike' Stent has achieved international success in almost every genre. With Muse's latest album, The Resistance, he was dealing with rock at its most epic.

Paul Tingen

Mark 'Spike' Stent is the most successful British mixer of the last two decades, and one of very few non‑American engineers to have become a big name in the hip‑hop/R&B genre. In so doing, Stent has clocked up more than 700 credits and worked with the likes of Madonna, Beyoncé, Björk, Lily Allen, Depeche Mode, Massive Attack, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Oasis, U2, Usher, Lady Gaga, and so on — and on.

Stent grew up in Hampshire, close to the then‑famous Jacobs Studios, where he made the regular tea‑boy‑to‑engineer transition. Following a stint at Trident, he went freelance in 1987, and soon afterwards made his name with his pioneering mixes of the KLF. Stent's nickname was given to him the same year by Wayne Hussey of the Mission, who for some reason couldn't remember the name of the then 22‑year old spikey‑haired engineer who was recording the band's album Children. Since then, Stent has worked in an unusually varied array of musical genres, but in all cases he brings a signature approach to his work: ultra‑clear, ultra‑tight and hard‑hitting.

Going To California

Stent rarely gives interviews, but SOS has been on his trail ever since the inception of the Inside Track series, and his work on Muse's recent album The Resistance and its lead single 'Uprising' gave us the perfect opportunity to get the low‑down on his mixing methods. When I speak to him, he is in the UK mixing Goldfrapp's forthcoming album, but explains that he is mainly based in the US these days.

"My family and I have lived in LA for two and a half years now. We went there in the summer of 2007 for a six‑week project, and decided to stay. My work in the US had exploded, and with 60 percent of it being there, I wanted to have a life and be around my family, so we all moved there.

"It was a big challenge for me, because I went from being a bigger fish in a small pond to a minnow in shark‑infested waters! I had done a lot of work in America and people knew me, but I still had a point to prove. Moving out there gave me a big kick up the bottom, so to speak. In my own mind that was good, because change is good and I was maybe not exactly resting on my laurels in the UK, but I had gotten into the habit of doing things a certain way.”

One result of Stent's move across the big pond was that he started listening to American records with new ears. "Going there made me understand the sonics of American records,” notes Stent. "I thought I did, because I obviously had listened to them for decades, but it turns out that I didn't. It's a completely different approach there, and it was a real watershed for me. I learned very quickly in my first few months in the US how to go about making urban records. The bottom end is different, the kick drum, the whole rhythm track is completely different to what you do in England. It's not about using specific plug‑ins or effects, but more about the depth and punchiness of the bottom end. It's to do with the placement of the drums and the vocals, the guitars, everything. In American records, especially urban records, the bottom end is very prominent, with the kick very forward and the bass quite thin to make room for the kick, while the snare or clap are further back. The kick is truly pummelling you in the chest.”

Getting Back In The Box

Another development in part furthered by Stent's move to the US was that he had to change his working methods to suit today's technology, music, working methods and budgets. After 25 years of swearing by mixing on an SSL, Stent decided to adapt to the current in‑the‑box method. He is coy when prompted for specifics, but does explain "I mix most urban and pop records in the box now, while rock and acoustic records are usually done via the G‑series desk. I like the way that the guitars and real drums are affected by the sound of the desk, and while I've been doing a combination of mixing in and out of the box for the last six years, last summer when coming back to England after mixing the Muse album, my assistant, Matty Green, and I had some time on our hands and really got the microscope out to make sure we could get that same sound in the box as from the desk. I had some time on my hands to experiment and really managed to dial that in.”

"Moving to mixing in the box wasn't a watershed moment, more of a natural progression. Computer processing has become more powerful, and plug‑ins are so much better than they were. I normally use shitloads of Waves plug‑ins, the E‑Channel SSL bundle, I like the Chris Lord‑Alge plug‑ins, the Waves PuigChild, I use the R‑Bass a lot, [Metric Halo] Channel Strip is an old favourite, for delays I use [Sound Toys] Echoboy a lot, and for colouring things I think the [Tech 21] Sansamp is great. I also like some of the Pro Tools 8 plug‑ins, even though I'm still using 7.4 — I'm waiting until 8 stabilises. I learned very early on that not jumping straight in with new software was the best strategy. In addition, producers, record companies, and artists are used now to the fact that they can call you, even two months after your mix, and request a change, and you just bring up the Session and five or 10 minutes later the change is made. So mixing in the box is about time and being flexible, and of course it also saves on the budget.”

Underground Sound

The Resistance was not, however, mixed in the box, nor at either of Stent's regular studios. Instead, he and Green went to the band's private studio near Lake Como in Italy, which is entirely located underground (there are some interesting video clips of the band recording there on YouTube). It turned out that many of Stent's above‑described working methods and gear were indeed used when he worked there. "They told my wife and manager Tracy that they were very keen for me to work there,” recalls the mixer. "I was a bit sceptical, so she asked for an equipment list. When they sent it, I was shocked, because it was pretty much my setup! They have the same SSL G‑series console, they have GML outboard, NS10s with Brynston 9000B amps, SSL compressors, four Distressors, Lexicon 480, the Standard Audio Lever, which sits in an API rack and which is brilliant, 902 De‑Esser, LA2A, my favourite blackface 1176 Special Edition, and a Pro Tools system with a shitload of plug‑ins. Plus their room sounded great. Their studio is purpose‑built, located in an amazing location, and they're lovely people, so Matty and I had a thoroughly enjoyable time.”

There was another ingredient in the mixing sessions for The Resistance that improved Stent's 'joie de mixage' even more, namely the way that Briton Adrian Bushby (Foo Fighters, Maximo Park, Placebo, Feeder, Gomez) had engineered the album. Having recorded two albums with John Leckie and two with Rich Costey, the band had taken the production helm themselves, creating huge arrangements of multi‑layered tracks, with drums, vocals, synths and other instruments, including classical orchestras, all fighting for space.

"Adrian did an amazing job in recording this album,” states Stent. "The Sessions for The Resistance contained probably among the best recordings I have ever worked on, and that's a credit to Adrian and the band. The way Adrian had tracked everything made my job very easy. The new album is slightly different for the band, and the fact that they produced it entirely themselves says a lot. The classical elements on the album didn't make any difference to my approach, though obviously I gave particular attention to the Queen harmonies in 'United States Of Eurasia', making sure the balance was right. The boys were very particular about that. Whatever it is that you're mixing, you obviously need to get the band's or the artist's vision across. You do that together with the band, artist, and/or producer.”

Starting Points

Stent went out to Italy with a few choice pieces of his own equipment, among them his Lavry Gold A‑D converters, his KRK 9000 monitors, and a batch of plug‑ins and iLoks, and found it extremely easy to settle into working at Muse's studio, with equipment that was familiar to him and Sessions that were organised in a way he liked, which didn't need much organising or cleaning up. "The Sessions and the board were pretty much flat, as far as I remember, and most of the plug‑ins were added by me, so I did pretty much my own thing. Normally speaking, before I mix a track or a project, I'll ask to hear the roughs or maybe the demos, so I can get a sense of what needs to be done, where there are problems, and so on. The rough will give me an idea of what the A&R, the artist and/or the producer think is good, even though the sonics may be wrong or something in the balance isn't coming across. I then put the roughs in the Session, so I always have a reference and I can A/B them with what's going on.

"In general, when I start work on a file, Matty will clean everything up and organise it the way I want it. Particularly if I'm working in the box, I'll often add kick and snare samples, and if I'm dealing with a live kick drum, we'll clean the tom tracks, so there is no spill from them, because tom microphones ring round, and if you have them really loud in the mix you have a lot of ringing going on. Sometimes I add samples to the toms, because I want them to be really loud and punching through, but again without spill. If the drum track needs redoing I may bring in a programmer to work on it — in LA I use a guy called Spider a lot. Vocals are cleaned, with breaths taken down and any de‑essing dealt with. If I'm really compressing the shit out of vocals to get a vibe, it's particularly important that the breaths are taken down and the ends of lines cleaned up if there's spill on the vocal mics, or if it was recorded with a handheld mic and you're hearing lots of extraneous noise. The whole Session is cleaned up and organised in a very methodical way. I'm very particular about this, because it makes the whole mix process easier and quicker. But again, there was very little to do in this respect on the Muse Sessions, and in the case of 'Uprising' I didn't add any samples.”

'Uprising'

  • Written by Matt Bellamy
  • Produced by Muse

The Pro Tools Session for 'Uprising' is huge, with 80‑plus audio tracks — including 35 drum tracks, five bass tracks, and 20‑odd vocal tracks — plus a number of effect, subgroup and volume tracks. The drum section features no fewer than four kick‑drum mics, four snare mics, three overhead tracks, six room‑microphone tracks, and nine tom overdubs, seven of which are the same part but picked up by different room mics. Many of these elements are submixed to aux tracks, which, explains Stent, is at the heart of his way of working. It should also be noted that the Session was done in Pro Tools 7.4 (at 24‑bit/96kHz), but that Muse have since upgraded to version 8, so when studio engineer Tomasso Colliva recently pulled up the Session to take the accompanying screenshots, it showed in version 8. As Muse don't have the same plug‑ins on their system as Stent, not all of the plug‑ins he used are shown.

Spike Stent: "It is indeed quite a big Session, drum‑wise. The way it's put together is very interesting and very clever, with, for instance, all the different kick and snare-drum mics. All the drums were brilliantly recorded, which is why I didn't need to add any samples. The session starts at 19'30” because they had done a few different versions of the song, and recorded them sequentially. This is how they managed the Session — people often work like this. In many respects, the 'Uprising' Session is completely typical of me, with four kick drums being subgrouped to one track and the same with the snare, and so on, and that's then sent to the console. I even subgroup when I'm working in the box, with sub‑compression on these groups, while at the same time having individual plug‑ins on each individual drum track.

"When I mix a track, I normally start with the drums, and then the bass, and once I've got the rhythm section rocking and I have a good feel, I'll get the vocals in and then other key hook elements. I may then take the vocals out again and start dialling in all the parts and fine‑tuning the guitar parts and so on. With this particular track I tried to keep the bottom end tight and very defined and absolutely rocking. This track was about the power of the rhythm track, but at the same time you need to make sure that you get the emotion of it right and that the vocals can be heard. It's a hard balance. Record companies always want the vocal louder than God, but you need to keep the power in the track as well.”

  • Drums: Waves SSL Channel, desk EQ & dynamics, Metric Halo Channel Strip, Chandler EMI TG12413 (plug‑in) & TG1 (hardware). The entire 'Uprising' Session is far too big to print or even view on a single screen! Here are some of the drum tracks, including tom overdubs (lower half of screen) added by the band in Devon.As well as mixing on his favoured SSL G‑series desk, Stent also made extensive use of Waves' SSL E and G Channel plug‑ins. These are the settings he used on the SM7 bass drum mic.The Chandler/EMI TG12413 limiter was used to get the room mics to pump.

"There's a kick master, which is a subgroup of the four kick tracks, and which came up on the desk. But I also would have had some of the individual tracks come up on the board. The same with the snare. The stereo subgroups for the toms, overheads and room mics would each have come up on two channels on the SSL, but in these cases no individual tracks were sent to the desk.

"I had the Waves SSL Channel on the first kick, which was recorded with a Shure SM7. Why did I use a plug‑in and not the desk? Good question. No idea. It's what I do. I don't think about it too much. Does the SSL Channel sound like the real thing? Let's say that I like what it does and I have used them for years. I had the SSL Channel on three of the four kick-drum mics, and the 'D' on the other one [indicating the use of a plug‑in on that channel] is something dynamic. I will have used tons more EQ and compression on the SSL, all to get it to colour and punch right. I'm EQ'ing for accuracy and getting that bottom end tight. I hate flappy, untight bottom end. I like subby low, but I don't want it to sound like chaos. On this track it was tricky, because there's a lot of rumbling going on, so I had to manage the bottom end really precisely.

"What I often do is have my main drum sound under the main drum faders at the left of the console, and then I'll send stuff out via the small faders to a pair of groups and then to outboard EQ and compression, and it will come back up on separate channels. With the more powerful and punchy things like kick and snare I'll probably EQ this very toppy and subby, and will then mix that in underneath the main sound. Different section of the songs may have more or less of that submixed compression and EQ. You try to find the right thing for each section of the song. I have done this process for years. I also have the SSL Channel on the snare top and snare bottom mics, and the greyed out plug‑in 'C' is probably the [Metric Halo] Channel Strip [see screen on previous page]. I will also have added lots of board EQ and compression to the snare, and nothing else, because all the space comes from the room sound mics. I did the same with the claps, the toms, and the overheads: Waves SSL plug‑in on the subgroup and EQ and compression on the board. I don't compress things to death, but I do use heavy compression.

"I blended the six room mics together and automated them in the box for different sections of the song. On the console I will then have ridden them a lot for the major sections. All these different room mics are the result of the way Adrian tracks, which was brilliant, because it gave me a lot of options. I had a Chandler EMI TG12413 limiter on one of the room mics, because I'm hyping the room, making it pump a bit. Over the inserts on the channels on the console I would have had a TG1 outboard as well. Underneath the rooms subgroup track are the toms overdubs, in total nine tracks. Seven of them are the same part but with different room sounds, so it gave me a lot of colours to work with. They're subgrouped and go to tracks 13‑14 on the console. The SSL Channel helps to make the toms more accurate. The band also rehearsed and recorded in a house in Devon, and five tracks of overdubs from that are in this session; 'ETSO' is the subgroup that went to the board.

"Dom [Dominic Howard] is very particular about his drums, and wants to ascertain that every drum fill comes through. So I spent quite a bit of time making sure all his toms tonally were correct and fills were exaggerated. Dom is an incredible drummer and he knows exactly what he wants. In fact, Muse are an extremely tight band and incredible musicians, and everyone was very clear on where they were going. By the way, I would have checked every single one of these drums and room tracks for phase and then I would have checked the groups against the kick and the snare. I'll check whether the kick and snare tracks all line up, and so on. I'm flipping phase all the time. I'm anal about that, because it is essential for getting a really tight mix which sounds big on radio, cars, laptop, and so on.”

  • Bass: Waves SSL Channel, Tech 21 Sansamp, Purple Audio MC77, Sound Toys Filter Freak. Much plug‑in processing was applied to the 'top end bass' track, from Waves' SSL G Channel, Tech 21's Sansamp distortion and Purple Audio's MC77 compressor.

"The way the band and Adrian had tracked the bass was incredible. Chris [Wolstenholme] has a great bass sound, and I think he used several different pedals and amps and stuff. It was definitely an eye‑opener to me and resulted in a fantastic bass sound. Adrian recorded five bass tracks: a bass synth, a DI, a bass sub, and two tracks of bass effects that are subgrouped to 'bassFX', which comes up on channel 15 on the console. There's again a Waves SSL Channel on the top bass, plus a Sansamp, which was automated for sections. The Purple MC77 limiter is just holding that track into place. The Sound Toys Filter Freak plug‑in on the remaining four bass tracks was automated to come in and out in certain sections.”

  • Guitars: Sound Toys Filter Freak & Echoboy, Empirical Labs Distressor.Given the number of tracks in the Session, it's perhaps surprising that there are only five guitar tracks: the three highlighted in the centre of the screen, plus 'HIGT' and 'GTR1' (the solo) further down.

"There were five guitar tracks, split over two different places in the Session. It's the way the Session came, and because it was so well‑organised I simply worked with it as it was. The main rhythm guitar was sent to channel 22 on the board, the 'guitarchops' to 23‑24, the 'hi guitar' to 28 and the solo to 29. I had a Filter Freak on one of the 'guitarchops' and the rest was done on the board.

"I would have added a delay plug‑in, probably Echoboy or Waves H‑Delay. It's rare that I use reverb. I prefer to use plug‑in delays these days, because you can really automate them, and I love the way you can be very creative with them and yet the sound always comes back the same. I'll now only use an outboard delay if I want a certain sound from a delay, like the AMS, or the [Eventide] H3000, or the [Roland] Space Echo or any of the tape delays I still have lying around. But I use them less and less for mixing. They only tend to come out while I'm tracking a band. On the desk I sent the guitars to a subgroup and that would have gone through outboard compression and EQ and then mixed back in. What outboard? Probably some Distressors.”

  • Synths: Waves SSL Channel & Mondo Mod, Digidesign Revibe.A rare example of a reverb in a 'Spike' Stent mix! Here, Digidesign's Revibe is being used as an insert on one of the synth parts.

"There were half a dozen synth tracks and they sounded great, so I didn't add many effects, other than a reverb that Matt wanted, and which I can't tell you about. There's an SSL Channel on one of the synth lines, and a Trim Adjuster on some others, probably because I wanted to change the timing on them. The Revibe was a reverb, of course, and the Mondo Mod added some sort of chorus effect. On the desk the synths were fairly straight.”

  • Vocals: Waves De‑esser & SSL Channel, Dbx 902, Teletronix LA2A, Universal Audio 1176, Standard Audio Leveler, desk EQ & dynamics, Tech 21 Sansamp, Sound Toys Echo Boy.

"The lead vocal tracks are called 'ALT VRS 1' for the verse and 'ALTCH1' for the chorus.Some lead ('ALT VRS 1' and 'ALTCH1+tn') and backing vocal parts from the Session. Stent makes widespread use of de‑esser plug‑ins, but always takes care to tailor the settings to the track in question. I had Waves' De‑esser and SSL Channel on both. There would have been standard EQ and I would have automated the SSL plug‑in for different sections of the song. Do you see the '25+' marking in the I/O section? [See screenshot at bottom of page.] That means that the lead vocals went to channels 25, 26 and 27 on the board, and I had different chains on each. On channel 25 I would have had the Dbx 902 de‑esser, going into an LA2A, on channel 26 again the 902 but going into a blackface 1176 Special Edition, and on channel 27 the Standard Audio Leveler, which I love. It's great for colouring the sound and adding warmth and distortion. I would have mixed these in, again checking the phase. Why both the Waves and the Dbx de‑essers? I'll go in hard with scooping things out with the Waves, and the Dbx is just a general de‑esser that's just tickling the signal. My mixes are quite bright, so I really need to make sure that I keep these esses under control, depending on the vocalist and the song. The LA2A and the 1176 offer different sounds. I probably compressed the vocals quite a lot, and also would have EQ'ed them on the board.

"At the bottom of the Session I had a number of effect tracks, to which I sent the lead vocals via busses 51‑56. Several aux tracks with different effect chains were created for the vocals. On this one, a Sansamp distortion feeds Sound Toys' Echoboy delay.On 51‑52 was the Sansamp, with a bit of distortion, probably only for certain sections. The Sansamp was going into an Echoboy, which was again automated for sections. Then 53‑54 and 55‑56 also had the Echoboy, with eighth‑note and quarter‑note delays. All these vocal effects are coming up on channels 39‑40 on the console, where they probably had some compression and gating.

"There are quite a lot of backing vocals, on which I again used the Waves De‑esser, and had compression and EQ on the desk. The de‑essers would have been individually tweaked for each track. I don't just slap on a de‑esser and hope, even if it is the same vocalist. His performance and/or the microphone may be different. You can see that one de‑esser on the backing vocals affects 4326Hz [see left]; the other [is set to] 4362, which is a minimal difference, but it's there.”

End Mix

"Matt really wanted me to mix to half‑inch, so I mixed to that and back into Pro Tools. The band has an ATR100 tape machine which I used for this. I don't normally mix to tape any more, because tape batches are so unreliable these days. I'd also brought my Lavry Gold A‑D converters for going back into Pro Tools. For going to the desk we used the regular 192 D‑A converters, but I'm very particular about what I mix through, and I love that Lavry. Muse also have one of them, I can't remember which one we used, theirs or mine. They're fantastic musicians and I really enjoyed working on this album.” .

The Only SSL In Salisbury

"When I'm in LA I work in Studio G in Chalice Recording Studios, where they have my favourite board, the SSL G‑series,” says Mark 'Spike' Stent. "I had my own room at Olympic Studios in London for 11 years, and five years ago my family and I wanted to move to the countryside, so I built another fully blown studio in our house here in Salisbury [UK]. I owned all the equipment in my room at Olympic, and when that closed in 2009 I moved everything over here and duplicated my Olympic room here. I now have lots of gear all around the house, but I did manage to sell the console I previously had here, and installed my magic desk, the SSL G‑series, that I had at Olympic. I also had my room here acoustically designed according to the specifications at Olympic. I think it sounds better now than my room at Olympic ever did. You can have the best equipment in the world in your control room, but if the room sounds like shit, you're onto a hiding to nothing.”

Naturally, Stent does not only have a good‑sounding room, but also "the best equipment in the world,” including four Pro Tools rigs, loaded with "shitloads” of plug‑ins, endless arrays of outboard, his beloved Lavry Gold A‑D converters, his "magic” SSL G‑series, and his favourite Yamaha NS10 and KRK 9000 monitors. "I'm used to them, so I know exactly what I'm listening to.”

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