Where does a young mix engineer learn the techniques to deliver hit rock mixes? In Dan Lancaster’s case, right here!
The decline of the studio industry over the last 15 years or so has placed in jeopardy a rich culture of music recording and mixing expertise, built up over decades. It’s no longer an option for most newcomers to learn on the job, following the traditional career path from tea boy or runner to assistant engineer, so aspiring engineers are forced to look for other ways to obtain this precious know-how.
When this series was introduced in 2007, one of our main goals was to address exactly this issue. The idea was that Inside Track would offer detailed insights into the techniques and working methods employed by the world’s top mixers of high-charting recordings. As expected, this was an instant hit with the semi-professional home-studio owners who make up a large part of SOS’s readership; what was more surprising was learning that some well-known mix engineers too have used these details to rebuild mixes done by their colleagues and try to pick up new tricks.
And now, appropriately in the magazine’s 30th anniversary issue, Inside Track has its first graduate. Step forward 29-year old Dan Lancaster, originally from Hertfordshire, now based in London. Lancaster first came to prominence in the UK music scene in 2007 as guitarist and singer of the post-hardcore band Proceed, and has spent the years since developing his production, engineering and mixing skills — with, he says, the Inside Track series as one of his most important guides (see box). Along the way Lancaster has co-written, engineered, mixed and/or produced recordings by acts like 5 Seconds Of Summer, Lower Than Atlantis, Don Broco, Mallory Knox, Nina Nesbitt and Little Mix.
Lancaster attracted mainstream attention with his work on pop hit singles such as 5SOS’s ‘She Looks So Perfect’, Lower Than Atlantis’s ‘Here We Go’ and Don Broco’s ‘You Wanna Know’, and landed his first high-profile mixing job in the summer, when he was asked to mix the whole of Bring Me The Horizon’s fifth studio album, That’s The Spirit. Released in September, it was narrowly beaten to the UK top spot by the Stereophonics’ Keep The Village Alive, debuted at number two in the US, and reached the top spot in Australia. These are Bring Me The Horizon’s highest-ever UK and US chart positions, and part of the credit obviously goes to Lancaster, who has clearly ‘made it’ as a mix engineer.
According to Lancaster, his ultimate aim is to “build a web of clients that will eventually be strong enough to be a selling point for me as an artist”. For the time being, though, he’s fully focused on serving other artists, with his break into mixing being the result of his mix of the Lower Than Atlantis hit song ‘Here We Go’. Lancaster had produced the band’s self-titled fourth album (and co-written many of the songs, including ‘Here We Go’), which was mixed by Neal Avron [another Inside Track alumnus, see January 2008]. But ‘Here We Go’ came into being after Avron had finished mixing the album, and so Lancaster’s mix was used. It got tons of radio play and helped propel the album to number 16 in the UK album charts. Next on the horizon was Bring Me The Horizon.
“The first time I worked with the band was in 2014,” recalled Lancaster, “when they were contributing a song to Zane Lowe’s project to re-score the music for the movie Drive. They recorded one song with programmed drums, and through a mutual friend I got the job of mixing it. I really tried hard to make it sound great. I actually mixed the track on my Bose QC15 headphones, which are noise-cancelling, so a lot is about what you’re used to!
“Six months later the band contacted me for a blind mix shootout for their new album. It was pretty much the same situation as described by Ken Andrews in the Secrets Of The Mix Engineers series [July 2013] of how he got the job of mixing a Paramore album. I did not know at the time who the other mixers were, though I later found out that there were some big names amongst them. All I could do was to give it my best shot. We were all given stems of a song called ‘Drown’ [Bring Me The Horizon’s highest-charting song to date, reaching number 17 in the UK singles charts in 2014]. Everyone liked my mix the best, so I got the job.”
Lancaster conducted his mix of ‘Drown’ at his Zing studio, with the same equipment as he currently owns, with one vital exception. “I mixed ‘Drown’ on my KRK VXT8 monitors, which I have had for six years, and which are really good. But when I got the opportunity to mix the Bring Me The Horizon project I felt it was time to step up my monitoring game, because the KRKs could only tell me so much about the low end. You find workarounds, but it takes longer to judge the low end.
“So I got the Barefoots, which are a huge jump up, and they reveal a lot more. I have the MkII with the ‘MeMe’ switch, which allows me to make them sound like NS10s, mid-range ‘cubes’, or hi-fi speakers. It’s a feature I quite like. I remember the moment I had them in my studio and first played one of my mixes on the Barefoots: I was immediately sold. They are big and heavy speakers, but not so big that they clutter up my room, and they tell me exactly what’s happening in the low end, so I don’t have to have the clutter with subs. It’s amazing, and it worked out great with the Bring Me The Horizon mixes, because they always have synthesizer subs running alongside the bass guitar.”
Bring Me The Horizon’s That’s The Spirit has been described as “a shift away from the group’s metalcore roots, in favour of a more melodic rock sound”. It is the band’s first major-label album release in the US (their second in the UK), and their first self-produced effort, with singer Oliver Sykes and keyboardist Jordan Fish taking the production reigns, and the latter also programming and engineering, helped out by engineer Al Groves.
A mischievous Wikipedia entry claims that the band self-produced so that they could use the budget to pay a personal fitness trainer, but the truth is, as Lancaster says, that “they were more than capable of doing it themselves, with Jordan and Oli between them both having the necessary technical skills and vision, and Jordan the Pro Tools and synth skills.” Nor was the album recorded in penny-pinching fashion; instead, the band decamped to Black Rock Studios, housed in a luxury villa with pool located on a Greek island.
What is true, says Lancaster, is that “the band went more into a pop-rock direction with the album. Their older music was a lot heavier. But I don’t think this greatly impacted my approach in the mix. The genre does not impact what you do as a mixer that much. In any case, you want to have the vocals clear, the guitars sounding as wide as possible, things like that. It’s not rocket science. The last album, [Sempiternal, 2013], which was mixed by David Bendeth, also was already lighter, with vocals that were more melodic. But again, that’s more to do with the production than the mixing.
“The way I mixed the tracks spoke for itself with the sessions and arrangements that I was given. There was little or no discussion about the direction I should take, other than when I did the mix shoot-out, and I asked Jordan what the band’s vision was at that point. Had he said ‘raw and real’ I would have been shooting myself in the foot if I’d tried to polish it too much and made it sound as big as possible. So because of the blind test I had already built up an understanding, even as it was mostly unspoken. I knew that they essentially wanted it to sound as massive as possible. Once I started mixing the album, I did not even think about it.”
Lancaster mixed That’s The Spirit at Zing over a period of three and a half weeks in June. He recalls, “Jordan came round, dropped off the hard drives, and I got started. I had been listening to Jordan’s rough mixes for a couple of weeks, so I was familiar with the music and had a good idea of what needed to be done. I was working on my own part of the time, and the band would come in later in the day and they’d give me feedback. I tended to mix each track to the end, rather than switch between tracks. This comes from the fact that I love mixing: I always want to hear the end result as quickly as possible! I dived right in and went all the way until I reached a point where I was happy, and I then got feedback.
“Only right at the end, before delivering the mixes to mastering, did we open a lot of sessions in succession to make minor adjustments. That took quite a long time, and was done with Jordan by my side, apart from with ‘Throne’. That was the first song I mixed, after which I developed a kind of template for the other mixes, and gradually fine-tuned the spaces all the instruments lived in. After having mixed the entire album, I wanted to return to ‘Throne’ to make a number of minor adjustments in line with what I had done on the other songs, for my own benefit. By the way, I also mixed a new version of ‘Drown’. The single version had been mixed by Ken Andrews. The band had kept the vocals but added a different recording to it.
“The sessions were in 96/24 and sounded great. Jordan had prepped them before he dropped them off, so everything was quite well organised. They were easy to work with, even as I did change some of the order and colouring. The biggest change I made in terms of organisation was that I often chopped up the vocals and spread them out over several new tracks, because I wanted to have different processing for them in different sections of the song. I would also add some drum samples, and replace some of the samples that the band had added at the demo stage. They were cool with that. In general I’d start my mixes with building the drum sound, because in my view they were the part of the rough mixes that needed the most attention.”
‘Throne’ is three-minute slice of intense, keyboard-driven melodic rock, reminiscent of Linkin Park. The song’s Pro Tools session conforms to modern expectations in containing about 100 tracks consisting of, from top to bottom, a cello group track, 15 synth tracks (beige), 11 aux tracks (green), 17 drum tracks (purple for samples, red for real drums), three bass tracks (blue), 18 guitar tracks (green), 35 vocal tracks (light purple), plus one further aux, a VCA master and a master fader track.
The green aux tracks group together the different main elements of the session, specifically drums, a parallel path for compressed drums, reverb, bass, synths, three delay tracks, samples, guitars and vocals. The other noteworthy aspect of the session is that a relatively small number of plug-ins is used almost everywhere, the main contenders being Waves’ SSL E-Channel, Audio Track, CLA-76 and Manny Marroquin Distortion, plus the Massey TapeHead, Native Instruments Transient Master and tons and tons of instances of the basic Pro Tools EQ1.
“I normally have the drums at the top of the session, like most people, but in this case I pulled the synths to the top because Jordan was tweaking them quite a lot,” explains Lancaster. “Jordan and Oli were very particular about the synths, and them being at the top meant that we could scroll to them very quickly. They have such a dominant role in the instrumentation that I also wanted to be able to access them very easily.
“The green tracks are all the group buses, purely used to be able to volume-ride these aspects of the mix. They also allow me to pull things back in case the master bus at the end is hit too hot. The Reverb aux track had the Waves IR1 plug-in, and the delays aux tracks have the Waves Supertap 6 and two instances of the Manny Marroquin Delay.
“It’s true that I used some plug-ins a lot in this mix. I like using the SSL channel strip, because it gives me very quick and musical results. I first read about that, and the CLA plug-in, in the Paul Davis Hager article, and tried them out, though the way he was using them did not work for me, so I had to find my own way. The SSL Channel now is a favourite on vocals and drums in particular. I like to work quickly and intuitively and add EQs to generally change the sound, and after that I’ll often use the EQ1 to notch out specific frequencies that bug me. So I always use a combination of EQs. Each one has a different musicality and application, so it’s rare that I can achieve what I want on a track with just one EQ. I tend not to think about it too much while mixing. After a while of doing this you know what things need to sound like and you just follow the process of getting there. I am just trying to get things to sit together. That’s why there are these strange stacks of EQ plug-ins sometimes.”
- Synths: Avid EQ1, Waves SSL E-Channel, CLA-76 & Audio Track.
“The synths mostly have the EQ1 to make them fit with each other and the track. Jordan had already done a lot of work on them, so they came in sounding cool. Most of the EQs are in fact high-pass filters, and I’m often adding around 1.5kHz to add some excitement to the sound. Nothing too complicated. I also used the SSL Channel, the CLA-76 and the Audio Track on some of the synths, to add some compression here and there. There were so many synth tracks, it was mostly just a matter of getting them to sound good together. In general synths don’t require as much thought and as many treatments as for example guitars and drums.”
- Drums: Waves SSL E-Channel, Audio Track, API 560, Manny Marroquin Drive & Puigtech EQ, Avid EQ1, NI Transient Master, Massey TapeHead.
“The red tracks are the real drums and the purple and blue ones the samples. At the top are two kick samples, close and room, on which I had the SSL Channel, Audio Track and EQ1. Next is the live drum kick, which has a lot of plug-ins: Waves API 560 EQ, EQ1, Transient Master, Audio Track and SSL, all to get it to sit right with the sampled kicks and the drums as a whole. I am boosting 1k, pulling down 500Hz and lifting 63Hz. I use the Transient Master to reduce the sustain, because there was too much going on in between each hit: it works as a gate here.
“There are six plug-ins on the snare: SSL Channel, Audio Track, EQ1, Manny Marroquin Drive, EQ1 and Transient Master. The problem with the snare was that it was quite dull-sounding, and I am using the Drive plug-in as EQ. I turned it up until the snare started to ring a bit, and the great thing about that plug-in is that you can balance the dry signal against the distorted signal, without killing the transient. I added some vibe around 500Hz, which is a great way of bringing character back into the snare and it still to have the impact I wanted. The Transient Master at the end is enhancing that as well and adding some more attack, and it’s adding some sustain to get some more rattle. The two EQ1s are adding tiny lifts around 500Hz and 1000Hz.
“Next is the snare bottom track, which is interesting, because I always wanted to know what to do with the snare, and I spent years trying to work it out! In the end I very often reach for what you see here, with the SSL Channel at the top boosting some high-end, because snares often come in too dull, and then you have to boost the low end as well, so it does not sound like a piece of paper. I also do that with the SSL. In addition there’s some compression, with a slow attack and a 4:1 ratio and 3dB of gain reduction. Paul David Hager was using a fast attack with the Jonas Bros, but that did not work for me, I always use a slow attack on the snare.
“The ‘11718’ and ‘11920’ tracks are snare samples printed from MIDI. So I had all these different snare sounds, each doing different jobs, and it’s quite an art to get them to do what you want them to do and sit together. It’s a question of slowly building the mix and tweaking things between them until you get a finished snare sound. Balancing the snare drums is quite a weird art form! The rest of the drums are hi-hats, with the SSL Channel, Audio Track and TapeHead, and the overheads, which again have the SSL, and then the EQ1, TapeHead, EQ1 and PTE is the Jack Joseph Puig EQ. The two room tracks also have the TapeHead, which I had on the ‘bright’ setting, and I pulled the drive down and pushed the trim up, to get some grit that helps it to sit well with the EQs.”
- Bass: Waves API 550, CLA-76, Puigtech EQ, SSL E-Channel, Audio Track & C1, Bomb Factory Sansamp PSA1.
“There are a bass DI, bass amp, and synth bass tracks. The latter is quite significant. The bass DI is just clean, with some brightness added with the API 550, boosting 2.5k with +12dB and a bit of 1.5k, and then there’s CLA-76 compression. It was similar on the bass amp track, but I also added some Sansamp, again using distortion as an EQ. The Puigtech EQ lifts some bottom end at 30Hz, after the compression and distortion has been added. The bass synth track has the SSL Channel and the Audio Track, which is not doing anything, and at the last moment Jordan and I stuck on the Waves C1 compressor in the middle eight, to side-chain it. I also EQ’ed a lot of 300Hz into the sub-bass, which gave me the low-mid range that was missing from the guitar/bass mix.”
“There are just two main guitar parts, which were each recorded with two mics, and the other guitar tracks just play bits and pieces. The two main tracks again all have the SSL Channel, EQ1, Audio Track and C3 multi-band compressor on them, plus another four instances of the EQ1! It’s the same as notching four frequencies out with one EQ, but once again, it’s just quicker and easier for me to just add several instances of the EQ-1. The guitars came in really bright, as they often do, and I like them bright, because you want the aggression and excitement, but you don’t want them to sound harsh. So I boosted +6dB at 2.5k, 4.3k and 8k with the SSL Channel, to make them sound crazily bright, and after that I notched out specific frequencies with the EQ1s. This is probably the most I have ever done notch-wise. The guitars always seem to need a lot of processing, because they are the main space filler, so they really need to be right. With all these EQs I could turn them up and they sounded aggressive and smooth at the same time, and I was happy!”
- Vocals: Waves SSL E-Channel, CLA-76, Puigtech EQ & Manny Marroquin Drive.
“There are lots of vocal tracks, but the first six tracks are Oli’s lead vocal, pulled out over different tracks because I had different treatments in different sections of the song. They almost all have the SSL Channel and CLA-76, and several have the Puigtec EQ. The Puigtec is boosting at 16k in the main verse, which gives a really cool vibe that the SSL can’t really do, as it can be a bit cold. The Manny Marroquin Drive adds some distortion. The CLA works mainly on the lower octave, and I am using it as a spreader.
“The rest of the vocal tracks are backing vocals sung by Jordan, and they have similar treatments, just not quite as elaborate. The blue track amongst Oli’s lead vocals is a stem that Jordan gave me on the last day of a vocal delay that they had made in the demo and that they had decided to keep, and that sounded cool.”
- Master Bus: Waves NLS, API 560, SSL E-Channel & Linear Phase EQ, Sonnox Oxford Inflator & Limiter.
“The issues we addressed in this track just before we sent the album off to mastering were quite specific. The band wanted to adjust the bass guitar, because they did not have a bass guitar on their demo, and I had made it quite zingy in the top end to make it fit with the guitars. That pleased me, but it wasn’t their vision for the track, so I took down the high-end EQ and volume on the bass guitar, which resulted in there being more emphasis on the synth bass. There also was a synth hook at the beginning of the chorus that they wanted to bring out more, and we subtly blended the guitars there a bit. They were small changes, but the band’s vision improved my mix, which was satisfying.
“The master track at the bottom of the session is the final output and print. I have six plug-ins on that track: the Waves NLS non-linear summer, API 560, SSL-Channel, Linear Phase EQ, and Sonnox Oxford Inflator and Oxford Limiter. The Oxford plug-ins were doing loudness stuff and were there only for reference for the band, as well as the Linear Phase EQ, and I took these three off before sending the mix to Ted Jensen for mastering. So in the end my stereo mix had the NLS on a Spike Stent setting, which has a cool distortion, and the API added some treble at 8k and 16k to brighten the entire mix. The SSL Channel is doing some bus compression of 3-5dB gain reduction, with a slow attack of 30ms and a fast release and set to a 4:1 ratio. The setting is not extreme, but it is still doing a lot to the mix. Again, I got that from reading in Inside Track what the big-name mixers do with the SSL compressor on the desk! I tried to copy it, and it worked and it stuck in my arsenal of techniques. It sounds cool.”
Given Dan Lancaster’s route to studio mastery, it’s no surprise to find that he has the archetypal 21st-century studio, with gear consisting of just a Pro Tools HD rig, a few mics and an absolute minimum of outboard, augmented by high-quality Barefoot MicroMain 27 monitors — set up, at the time of writing, in his East London flat. “This space is great for songwriting and, apparently, also for mixing,” he says. “I have some outboard, like a Urei 1176 and mic pres like the API 3124+ and the DAV Electronics BG2 four-channel unit, and mics like the SE Electronics Gemini II with a Reflexion Filter, a matched pair of AKG 414s and some dynamic mics. My interface is a 16 I/O Avid 192. I record things like guitars and vocals here, but for drums I will still go to a larger studio.
“I went into engineering and production in 2008, when I got a Mac tower and a Pro Tools 002+ rig, and a few mics. My family is in the business of printing, and at the time my brother had a printing facility in Hatfield, and lent me the money and offered me a space in his factory. I became obsessed with production and sound, recording and engineering. I used to read SOS a lot, and several Secrets Of The Mix Engineers articles had a major impact on me, like Chris Lord-Alge on mixing My Chemical Romance [May 2007]. I also recall going on holiday in 2009 and reading the article on John Fields and Paul David Hager working with the Jonas Brothers [September 2009], and studying that religiously, so that when I came back home, I could apply the things they were talking about.
“My next step with my studio was that I needed better microphones and preamps, so I got another loan from my brother. After that I upgraded to Pro Tools HD, which was another 10 grand, by which stage I was having clients and could finance that with a bank loan. Meanwhile, the route for me continued to be to teach myself, and I kept studying Inside Tracks. These articles were invaluable for me. There were so many questions that I had, like what do you do with the bass guitar, how do you make the snare sound great, and so on. I was able to apply many of the things that I was reading about, and to be here now, years later, talking about how I’ve mixed Bring Me The Horizon for a Secrets Of The Mix Engineers article is actually pretty crazy!”