For Rivers Cuomo and Weezer, going back to basics meant a reunion with one of the biggest names in rock mixing: Tom Lord-Alge.
“Sorry guys I didn’t realise that I needed you so much / I thought I’d get a new audience, I forgot that disco sucks / I ended up with nobody and I started feeling dumb Take me back, back to the shack / Back to the Strat with the lightning strap / Kick in the door, more hardcore / Rockin’ out like it’s ’94.”
Thus sings Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo in ‘Back To The Shack’, the lead single from the band’s ninth studio album Everything Will Be Alright In The End. Rarely has an artist expressed a mea culpa to his fans in such unequivocal terms. The quote refers back to Weezer’s eponymously titled 1994 debut album, also known as The Blue Album. Produced by former Cars frontman Ric Ocasek, its combination of raw, grunge-inspired rock and quirky power-pop gained it sales of over three million and classic album status.
Rather than repeat this formula, however, Cuomo’s restless creative spirit pushed him to continually experiment, and the band took their most dramatic change of direction with 2009’s Raditude and 2010’s Hurley. Both were made in collaboration with producers, artists and songwriters working in the commercial pop, hip-hop and R&B arenas, such as Dr. Luke, Polow da Don, Jermaine Dupri, Lil’ Wayne, Desmond Child, Greg Wells and Rick Nowels. Sadly for Cuomo and his bandmates, no new audience arrived, their original fans were not impressed, and the band’s album sales plummeted even faster than those of the music industry in general.
Cuomo’s intention on Everything Will Be Alright In The End is thus crystal-clear: stop the rot by going back to basics and giving Weezer’s fans exactly what they want, namely a return to hard-hitting melodic rock. As part of this plan, the band once again hired Ric Ocasek to produce. They also asked Tom Lord-Alge to mix the new album, reuniting a team that had last worked together on the third Weezer album, 2001’s self-titled effort known as the Green Album.
Tom Lord-Alge is the younger brother of Chris Lord-Alge, and between them, they appear to have cornered the market in mixing heavy, in-your-face, commercial rock. Moreover, both of them share the same unique mix approach, which sees them using a Sony 3348 48-track digital tape machine as an intermediary between Pro Tools and their favoured SSL desks. Tom Lord-Alge’s impressive credits list includes Oasis, U2, the Rolling Stones and Peter Gabriel among many other famous names.
Tom Lord-Alge’s first studio experiences date from the mid-’80s, when he became assistant to his brother at Unique Studios in New York. Their working together laid the foundations for their similar approaches, as Tom recalled in a previous interview in SOS, in April 2000, when he explained that “From a technical perspective, Chris taught me everything. Many of the tricks I still use, I got from him.”
In 1995, Tom Lord-Alge was asked to mix an album at South Beach Studios in Miami, and almost literally never left again. He still resides there today, in Studio A, with pride of place going to a large SSL desk that’s not just used as an expensive coaster or laptop support. To be precise, the desk is a 4064 G+ with Ultimation and E-series EQ. The studio also holds Lord-Alge’s favoured Sony 3348HR, which is capable of 24-bit operation at 44.1 and 48 kHz resolutions (the original 3348 was 16-bit only). Before diving into the Weezer mix, Lord-Alge explains his general mixing approach, and why the 3348 is still one of his main mixing tools of choice.
“Of course I use Pro Tools, which to me is like a tape machine on steroids. I use plug-ins, automation, its editing capabilities, and spend a lot of my time working with it. I then go digitally out from Pro Tools to my 3348HR, which functions as my D-A converter, and then to the SSL. I use the 3348 for several reasons. First of all, I love the way the converters sound. I refer to it as vintage digital, if there is such a thing! Another reason for still using the 3348 is that I am a strong believer in data backup, and I make sure that I have multiple copies of everything. I keep the 3348 multitracks of each session, and I print the main stereo and main instrumental mixes back onto the same multitrack. I also print the mix back into the Pro Tools Session, running it via a TC Electronic Finalizer, which I call poor man’s mastering, but this is just for listening files for the artist and management.
“People have to wake up to the issue that there is no standard in the way things are recorded or archived. If you come back to a DAW mix in 10 years, there’s no way that you can be sure that you’ll still be able to play that mix back the way you mixed it. It’s easier for me to just play back a 3348 multitrack tape than to deal with the bullshit that goes with opening up an old Pro Tools Session. A few months ago Avril Lavigne asked me to stem out music I mixed for her more than 10 years ago. I tried opening the Pro Tools 5 Session, but although it opened reasonably well, I quickly decided that it was easier to just load my 3348 multitrack tape, pull out the recall data and lay the mix out over the console and do the stems like that.”
South Beach Studios is part of the Marlin Hotel, which is an art deco building steeped in rock & roll history (it was owned for a long time by Chris Blackwell of Island Records fame). The building itself, its near-waterfront location and the Florida climate make it a very attractive place for bands to come and visit, according to Lord-Alge. “What rock band would not want to come over to Miami Beach for two weeks!? It’s not unusual that they stay at my house, which I enjoy. I encourage bands to come down, because it’s a lot easier to have them in the room. I can immediately see their reactions while I am working. Having said that, Weezer stayed in LA, and the entire mix project was done with Rivers and I communicating via email. We never had a phone conversation, which I saw as, ‘Wow, this guy really trusts what I do.’ He had a big picture in mind, he knew what he wanted, and he related this to me in our correspondence. They were after that vintage Weezer sound, and the good news for me was that the sessions were very well recorded. There wasn’t a lot of trickery necessary during mixing. Basically it was a matter of getting the drums to sound good and the guitars loud and aggressive.
“I am a big fan of the band, and because I have worked with them before, I know their sound and what they are looking for. You can tell by listening to the new record that it was made today, with more bass and high end, but the songs and the performances hark back to the older records. The main difference was that I used a lot more compression this time, because these particular songs lent themselves so well to having that kind of spank. I did not feel bashful about being heavy-handed with compression! The only debate was about the amount of effects Rivers had on his vocal. In general he prefers as little as possible, and occasionally he wanted me to change the balance and turn a harmony line into a lead vocal, which I thought was very interesting. There were also some songs on which he had very particular ideas about the way the guitars were panned, in one case like a string orchestra. Finally, Rivers is a fucking genius, and he constantly updates and changes things. His songs aren’t done until they actually are on the record. I knew this would be the case, and had reserved some extra mixing time to incorporate last-minute changes. It was a fun time.”
In this day and age, it’s unusual for a single mix engineer to do an entire high-profile album, but Tom Lord-Alge takes pride in doing so often, and was tasked with mixing the entire Weezer record. ‘Back To The Shack’ was the first song he mixed, which had certain repercussions for his mix approach.
“’Back To The Shack’ was one of the more straight-ahead songs,” explains the mixer. “If you look at the Pro Tools screenshots you can see that it was recorded in a modern way, with for example each guitar part split out over three or more tracks. When you have 10 guitar parts, it can add up to 40 tracks for the guitars alone! The original session was 150-160 tracks, even though the song and the arrangement are actually quite simple. There were Sessions that came in with 90 channels of guitars that really only needed to be three or four channels! As work progressed on the album, I would more and more bounce things down to one audio track per performance, which made it a lot more manageable. If I showed you a Session for a later mix for the album, you’d see that it’s much more concise. This made it a lot quicker for me to do what I needed to do.
“There really is no reason to have that many tracks. Make a commitment and stick to it! But it’s a trend amongst modern engineers to record many mics on many different tracks, and keep their options open. In this case it may have been hard for the engineer to simply keep his head above water, because Rivers works really quickly and will record so many different bits and pieces. The engineer may never have gotten the chance to go back in and clean this stuff up and make it a bit more manageable. But in general modern engineers are under the impression that this is the way to record. It works, but you end up with super-big sessions that are difficult to manage, without any apparent benefit from the size. So I keep telling young engineers: if you have something that sounds great, bounce it down! You can always hide the individual tracks or save them in an archive session, just in case you do want to go back.”
Lord-Alge has a very methodical approach to mixing, and “data management” is a major part of his job. He explains: “I’ve heard horror stories about people losing Sessions or parts of them, and that shit never happens to me. When a new Session comes in, my assistant, Eddie, will first organise it to my liking. He’ll place it in the order that I like, with percussion and/or any loops at the top, then the drums, in a particular order, bass, guitar, and so on. He will also relabel things, so that I can immediately see what’s what. I want him to remove what I call the hieroglyphics, which is whatever guys call the tracks. There are no standards, so they call them these whacky names that nobody but they can figure out. For me, if a part is the main guitar, I simply want it called ‘main guitar’. I call the bass drum ‘foot’, so there’ll be tracks labelled ‘ft’. I am also really anal about removing capital letters, because I don’t like these names shouting at me. It’s distracting. Eddie’s job is to make every session that comes in look in a similar way, so I immediately know what I’m looking at, and I don’t have to scroll up and down so much. Basically, when I open a Session up, I want it to look the same as the Session I opened up yesterday. This makes it easier and faster for me to work with.
“Another thing Eddie does is create kick and snare trigger tracks at the top of the Session. In the case of ‘Back To The Shack’ they’re called ‘Ft Gate Trg’ and ‘Snr Gate Trg’, and I use these to trigger gates to get rid of any leakage on the bass drum and snare drum. The tracks can also be used to trigger samples. My assistant will go through the entire Session, beat by beat, to make sure everything is perfectly aligned and in time. This is very time-consuming, but I want it perfect, and there’s no program that makes it perfect, so it needs to be done by eye and by hand.
“Below these trigger tracks you can see gate dummy tracks, which are there to make sure the delay compensation, which comes in when I add plug-ins, does not affect the moment the gate or sample is triggered. Once my assistant is done, I will if necessary go through and time-align everything to the snare drum and make sure there are no phasing issues. The tracks that I do this with have the prefix ‘fixed’. If I want the slight delay that you naturally get between, say, the snare mic and the overheads mic, I’ll leave it as it is, but in this song I wanted the drums to be really aggressive and tight, so I time-aligned all the drum mics to the snare drum mic.
“Eddie also makes sure everything is routed to the designated tracks on the 3348, and the corresponding tracks on the desk, with one channel for the bass drum, one channel for the snare, two channels for the toms, two channels for the overheads, one channel for the bass, and so on. But my assistant does not do the actual bouncing to the 3348. In fact, apart from when I print the mix to the 3348 I am just monitoring through it and the desk, and I spend most of my time mixing in Pro Tools, using plug-ins and so on. Generally, 80 percent of my work is done with what I call ‘faders up’ on the desk, which means that my desk faders don’t move, and instead I’m working in Pro Tools, where I try to get as close as I can to a finished mix. I’ll be adjusting and riding the levels of all the instruments and the vocals in Pro Tools, apart from for the drums, because I’m using quite a bit of console compression on them, which means that I can’t really do the rides in Pro Tools.
“I tend to use plug-ins, rather than volume automation, to adjust the volume levels of tracks in Pro Tools, which again is a matter of data management: I want to be able to just glance at things and see what I have, and not have to think about it, because I’m trying to get a mix rhythm going. I’m trying to focus on the song. I trained myself to have the volume levels on all tracks in Pro Tools at zero, using a plug-in gain, so there’s no guessing as to where the level is, or if I make a change, where it was. I get many Pro Tools Sessions in with the bass at -5dB and the overheads at -12dB and so on, and it becomes very confusing to look at. It’s much easier to run things at unity gain, and use the plug-ins to set the gain. Like this, the Session becomes dummy-proof!
“If I am muting a section of a track, I’ll tend to mute regions. If I want to do volume rides on a track, I’ll write it into the volume automation, and set the track to automation read. This allows me to immediately see which channels have volume automation, and if there is no automation, I know they’re all reading zero. Once the mix is close to completion, I slave Pro Tools to the 3348 and I’ll start moving faders on the console. At that point I use the console like a mastering console, a finishing device, adding some top end or other EQ and compression here and there, and as I mentioned, I’ll do any necessary drum rides on the desk as well.”
- Drums: Drawmer Dynamics, Bomb Factory BF76, Waves SSL E-channel & C4, Avid Digirack EQ III & D-Verb, SSL desk EQ & compression.
Tom Lord-Alge: “This particular track had two complete drum kits, consisting of the main drums, which spread out over many tracks, and a second drum kit which had the same amount of tracks, although it only played three fills in the entire song. So I mixed the second drum kit down to just one stereo track, and I indicated that with the checkmark in front of the track ‘Fills’. A checkmark tells me that I compiled several tracks to that track. This was not an unusual event with this album, with several songs having different drums for the verses and the choruses, or a bridge section, and so on. In general I treat the chorus drums as ‘God’, and I set them up as the main drums on my desk, because you always want the choruses to be big. In the songs in which the verse drums had a totally different sound, I’d mix them in the box and they might then come up on the desk on just two channels. In this case the fills came up on channels 3-4.
“Next in the session are a ‘Fixed’ hi-hat track and 10 ‘Fixed’ regular and big room tracks, and the big room tracks are routed to ‘GatedBigRoomS56’. All these big room mics had a lot of sustain, so I grouped them to bus 5-6. The plug-ins on the ‘GtdBgRmS56’ track are the Drawmer gate, which is triggered from the bass drum track near the top of the session, so they only open when the bass drum played, and they then went through a Bomb Factory 76 compressor, which is pummelling it, and then there’s a Waves E-series SSL EQ. It comes out on my room channels, 7-8. Below the ‘GtdBgRmS56’ track are five ‘fixed’ mono room mic tracks, which I ran to another sub below, which has the Waves C4 on it to control some of the cymbals, bringing down some of the harsh frequencies at 2.3kHz. I think this was the only song that had this many room mics. The regular setup for the album was two stereo room mics and five mono room mics, and this song had three extra stereo room mics. There’s also an SSL E-series plug-in EQ on the individual mono room tracks, which are rough-in [ie. preliminary] EQs which I apply regularly.
“Below the mono room mics are the actual kick, snare, tom and overhead tracks. There are ‘Ft In’, ‘Ft Out’ and ‘Sub Kick’ bass drum tracks, and on the ‘Ft In’ mic I have the Digirack EQ, which I used to suck out the frequency that gives that sound of a basketball bouncing, which is around 700Hz. I use the EQ3 because I can get a really tight Q with it. In this case it had an 18dB drop at 760Hz with a Q of 10. Next is the SSL E-channel EQ, just adding some top and bottom end, and also adding some gain to balance it with the other two ‘Ft’ mics. It seems like I did something similar on the ‘Ft Out’ mic, though I used the EQ3 here to take out a lot of the 200Hz range. The SSL E-series plug-in is again mostly used for gain, because I like to use my Sessions with all my channels at zero, so plug-ins are either gain enhancers or reducers. All kick tracks, and also the snare tracks, also have a Drawmer gate plug-in, to remove some of the leakage. The snare tracks also have the SSL E-series, just for EQ and gain, and there’s a snare reverb track with the D-Verb. On the SSL desk I was using desk EQ and compression on most of the drums.”
- Bass: Focusrite D2 & D3.
“Weezer have a phenomenal bass player, Scott Shriner, who gave me really good tones. You can see four channels of the main bass, which were run to a sub channel called ‘Bass Sub b15’, on which I had the Focusrite EQ plug-in, Focusrite compression, and again some Focusrite EQ to add some 300Hz. There’s also four bass fill tracks, which come in during the second verse, the bridge and the solo. In the bridge the main bass is doubled with a distorted bass sound. These four tracks also go to a bass submix track, on which I had Focusrite compression. It all worked, and the main thing I did was create a stop at the end of the guitar solo, right on the words ‘take me back’.”
- Guitars: Waves Eddie Kramer Guitar & SSL E-channel, Avid Digirack Expander/Gate, Focusrite D2, SPL Vitalizer, desk EQ.
“From top to bottom, there’s an ‘Xtra guitar’, ‘main guitar 1’, ‘main guitar 2’, ‘guitar riff’, ‘break guitar’, ‘guitar solo’, ‘high guitar line’ and ‘low guitar line’. Each of them consists of multiple tracks, and the grand total is about 40 tracks of audio. I took the two main guitars in the song and panned them left and right, and the ‘Xtra guitar’ is in the middle, to give the chorus a jump; it kind of blends in with the bass and creates this totally over-the-top distortion. Generally speaking, I’ll spank the hell out of the latter to give it as much mid-range and bite as possible.
“The three ‘Xtra guitar’ parts go to the submix track below, on which I have the Eddie Kramer Guitar plug-in, which goes through the Digidesign Expander/Gate, because the Eddie Kramer plug-in is very noisy! But I like what it does to the treble and mid-range. It adds a nice bite to the guitar. Finally, there’s an SSL E-channel EQ, taking out a bit around 200Hz. Again it’s a rough-in EQ, though I probably didn’t add anything on the console. I had the same signal chain, the Eddie Kramer, Expander/Gate and SSL E-series EQ, on the two main guitar submix tracks, and the first two plug-ins were also on the two ‘Riff’ sub tracks and the solo sub. The ‘high guitar line’ tracks and Moog go to another submix track, which has the Focusrite plug-in, for rough-in EQ, again the Eddie Kramer, and then it goes to the SPL MkII Vitalizer, which I use to create some stereo expansion. I would later have added desk EQ to the guitars.”
- Vocals: Focusrite D2, Bomb Factory BF76, Avid Digirack Pitch & Expander/Gate, SPL Vitalizer, SoundToys Echo Boy, Waves CLA Vocals.
“The main vocal track has a Focusrite EQ going into the Bomb Factory BF76. I think the BF76 is a great vocal compressor. It has a great sound. I’ve tried loads of other ones, and I find that they all sound very similar, and it really is about which one is the easiest to control. I like the BF76 because it kind of bites and spits at you. There’s a lead vocal double in the choruses, which also has the Focusrite and BF76. Below that there’s a ‘StrSprdb’ track, which has the Digirack Pitch, with which I take the left side one cent down and move the right side one cent up, put a slight delay on either side, and then add the Vitalizer, again for stereo expansion, and all this creates what I would call a room sound on the vocal. It’s very light, and subtle and wide, and when he sings more loudly, you can hear the ringing in the room. It’s one of my tricks.
“The ‘Bridge Delay’ vocal track has a 172ms delay, from the Echo Boy, to give the illusion of Rivers entering a slightly bigger room in the bridge. The bridge harmonies also have that 172ms delay, and a Focusrite EQ, and the BF76, and below that is a ‘Bridge Harmony’ sub, which has my brother’s vocal plug-in from the CLA collection, for some more space, and again the Expander, and the BF76 to compress the whole thing. I had the same setting on the ‘woo-hoos’. Rivers doesn’t like any effects on his vocals, he likes them dry. I like that too, but did my best to create some very subtle ambience around his voice.”
- Stereo mix: SSL desk compression, TC Electronic Finalizer.
“At the bottom of the Session is the final mix, ‘updated’ because I made some minor adjustments to it. Below that are vocal stem, and harmony, woo-hoo, a cappella, instrumental, vocal up, vocal down and TV track stems. All my sessions are at 44.1/24, which is my favourite setting because of what the 3348 does with it, and because I am a strong believer in data backup I create multiple copies of everything. My stereo mix and my main instrumental mix get printed to four channels of the 3348, right out of the Quad compressor on my SSL console, and are also printed into the Session that I am printing from. I print the final mix back into the Session via a TC Electronic Finalizer, which is what I call poor man’s mastering, It really is just to give it a level bump, just a touch of brick-wall limiting that really is more for listening copies for the artists and management to listen to, so it has at least a real-world volume level when they play it in their car or other audio devices. I have found out over the years that it needs to sound as close to a final mastered version as possible.
“I also run another Pro Tools rig and record the mixes to that at 96/24, straight out of the SSL with nothing in between, apart from my Black Lion Audio Sparrow Mark 2 A-D converter. I like mastering to have a hi-res copy as well, even though I am mixing from 44.1. But when you are coming from an analogue console, it will be adding additional air, and I found that the 96k version often comes out really well. Many record companies these days like to sell hi-res formats online on specialist web sites. I left Ted Jensen, the mastering engineer, 4-5dB headroom in the files that I sent him, so he had space to be creative.
“Once again, this mix was not about reverbs or other trickery. With Weezer it’s mostly about compression. It’s about getting a hard, in-your-face, over-the-top, kick-your-balls sound. Everything has to be louder! Make it sound big and keep the essence of the song. It’s all about rock!”
Or, as Cuomo has it, “Rockin’ out like it’s ’94.”
The DASH (aka Digital Audio Stationary Head) format was introduced by Sony in 1982, with a digital two-track recorder, using quarter-inch tape and a 24-track recorder, using half-inch tape. Studer also produced machines using the DASH format. The most famous DASH recorder of all is the 3348, 16-bit, 48-track recorder, introduced by Sony in 1988. The 3348HR (you guessed it, HR stands for High Resolution), which can handle 20- and 24-bit word lengths, and 44.1 and 48 kHz resolutions, saw the light a number of years later. (Studer also introduced a 48-track, 24-bit DASH recorder called the D827 in 1993, while Tascam jumped on the bandwagon with the DA800/24.)
During the 1990s the 3348 was ubiquitous in professional recording studios around the world, but like all tape recorders, it was gradually superseded by the DAW. Today Tom Lord-Alge and his brother Chris (see SOS May 2007) are two of the most prominent remaining users of the 3348. The former recalls, “My original 3348HR was the fourth machine ever made, and I paid 254,000 dollars for it. Holy shit! It’s still working perfectly. They are workhorses! To be sure I can keep it running I bought a second 3348HR a couple of years ago, for five grand. And more recently I purchased a couple of regular 3348s — many of the parts are interchangeable with the 3348HR — and one of them was only $500. I also am constantly on the look-out for tape, and if I see it available, I buy it all up.
“The 3348HR came out at a time when everyone was still working in 16-bit, and was a major advance in sound quality. I still love the way the 3348HR sounds. There is something that the 44.1/24-bit resolution on the Sony does to the top end that Pro Tools doesn’t. It makes it kind of hard and aggressive-sounding, something that I find lacking in modern equipment. A lot of my clients also like that sound, which I call, as I mentioned elsewhere, ‘vintage digital’. I’m sure that there are technically better D-A converters out there, but there’s a familiarity about the sound that I really like, because I’ve been working with it for so long. The sound reminds me of the records that were made in the 1990s, that were digitally recorded and mixed through an analogue console.”
In Tom Lord-Alge’s previous interview for SOS, in April 2000, he waxed lyrically about the many compressors that he had, and still has, at his disposal in his room at South Beach studios. They include the Urei 1176, Teletronix LA2A and LA3A, Neve 2254, 2264 and 33609, Distressor, Inward Connections VacRac, Focusrite Red 3, and Dbx 160 and 163. Fourteen years later, all these hardware compressors are gathering dust. On the Weezer record, which Lord-Alge describes as “lending itself to a lot of spank” the mixer only used plug-ins to do the vast majority of his compression — and not only that, but relied heavily on the humble Bomb Factory BF76 bundled free with Pro Tools. So what happened?
“There is no doubt that the quality of plug-ins has become better and better,” explains Lord-Alge. “Today I am able to get the same sound that I was getting from my outboard from plug-ins. Once it came to a point that when I was dialling in my sounds with plug-ins and A/B’ed them with my outboard and found that there was very little difference, it was a no-brainer to use mostly plug-ins. It’s much easier, also, with respect to recalling mixes. It also removed the variables of patch cords, which always were an uncontrollable factor when recalling a mix. You might get your mix 99 percent the same, but one dodgy patch cord that doesn’t put the entire signal through can make a difference. There are so many variables involved in using analogue equipment that simply aren’t there in the box. So, for me, dialling in the sounds that I want using plug-ins was progress. And the BF76 certainly is one of my go-to compressors. I use it instead of four or five other outboard compressors to get me similar sounds.
“Another factor in changing from mixing predominantly on the desk to predominantly in the box is that I gradually became more and more familiar with Pro Tools and how it operates. Pro Tools also became more and more reliable, and as I started delving deeper and deeper into it, I forced myself to become comfortable only using plug-ins. The days of me having all my outboard patched up to my console and using it are gone. Today I use outboard only occasionally, on a case-by-case basis, if I’m looking for something very specific that I can’t achieve with a plug-in. I have another set of 192s [Pro Tools HD interfaces] just for inserts, so I can use my outboard gear as plug-ins, and I can print the outboard effect back into the session, just to remove the variables of that piece of outboard maybe not working any more in five years’ time or if I don’t have it any more.
“Having said all that, my mixes are still spread out over my console, because of the difference in sound, which is indescribable. I like to say that mixing in the box sounds like looking at standard-definition television. It looks good, it’s clear, but it’s a bit flat. But add my Sony 3348HR D-A converters and my SSL, and all of a sudden you’re looking at high-definition. All of a sudden there’s a depth and a space that wasn’t there before. For me it’s night and day.”