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Page 2: Inside Track: Central Cee 'Straight Back To It'

Secrets Of The Mix Engineeers: Sean Donoghue By Paul Tingen
Published May 2022

Prepared Paths

Using a template is vital when Donoghue has to work so quickly. “The turnaround times nowadays are just crazy fast, and it’s getting worse. My template has lots of different options, so I can use it for many different types of songs, and I edit it regularly. The template allows me to complete a mix in one to two hours, unless there’s a problem, in which case I may spend four hours working out the relationship between the kick and the bass. It just depends on the track.

“Most of my template centres around aux bus tracks for vocals, all music, kick, drums, music, and effects, and so on. As I mentioned earlier, I’m super into busing, and have bus going into bus going into bus. My assistant will route all audio tracks to these buses, and then they go into other buses, and finally the master bus. It allows me to gain‑stage properly throughout the mix, and it gives me a lot of control at any point in the mix. The plug‑ins are also mostly on my buses.

Sean Donoghue: I personally love music that is wide and hard‑hitting, but to get a mix approved I cannot always do what I want. The fact is, artists love their demos, and every single detail of it needs to be copied. And then it is my job as a mixer to improve on that.

“When I start mixing, I kind of work top‑down, starting with the main buses and then going to lower‑level buses and ending with the individual tracks. I start with the kick, then the drums, then the music, effects and then I’ll get onto the vocals. I spend most of my time on the lead vocal, as it’s the main instrument in the track. When I’m working on an album, once an artist has approved his vocal sound for a mix, I’ll normally stick with that vocal chain for the rest of the project, even though I might tweak it, because he might have used different mics and recorded in different places, so you need EQ to match things.

“Throughout I’ll be doing a lot of comparing with other mixes that I like, but most of all, I reference the rough all the time. Many people go in and EQ everywhere and by the time you listen to the entire mix, you have butchered it. If you over‑mix a song, you lose the vibe. If you make it too clean, no artist will like it. The reference is the vibe. But vibe is a subjective term. I personally love music that is wide and hard‑hitting, but to get a mix approved I cannot always do what I want. The fact is, artists love their demos, and every single detail of it needs to be copied. And then it is my job as a mixer to improve on that.

“Central loves his demos, and what he wants is a nice, loud, professional version of his demo, maybe with some added effects. With some artists the vocal may sound really bad, but if it’s what they want I have to work with that. So when I first work with a client, I need to learn what they want. Half of mixing is people skills. When people walk in and see all the shiny plaques of my platinum and gold records, I can sometimes win them over to my vibe, at least a bit. It’s why I like people to come to my room for the approval.”

'Straight Back To It'

Sean Donoghue's Pro Tools session showing the main tracks.Sean Donoghue's Pro Tools session showing the main tracks.

Donoghue illustrates his approach with ‘Straight Back To It’. This was the first song he mixed off 23, and demonstrates how he works with his template most clearly.

Download larger view Pro Tools session template showing detailed screens:

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As the Pro Tools session window shows, his approach is literally ‘top down’: there are six print tracks at the top, followed by a master track and two main mix buses (blue). Below these is the next bus level (turquoise), with AllMusic, All Music Parallel Width, and Acapella. The bus level down after that consists of seven buses (red) of Kick/Bass, Drums, Music, Music Width, All Music FX, Vocal FX and Vocals. Next down are six parallel buses for many of the above elements, of which only Parallel Vocal FX is used, and an unused Instrumental bus (all in green). These 19 bus tracks represent three and potentially four levels of bus hierarchy, and there are even two further levels, because of the Vox Main, Vox Sub and other vocal buses further down the session.

The full Pro Tools session for ‘Straight Back To It’ is based on Sean Donoghue’s template and thus incorporates a lot of unused tracks. It reflects his ‘top‑down’ approach to mixing, with many levels of busing.The full Pro Tools session for ‘Straight Back To It’ is based on Sean Donoghue’s template and thus incorporates a lot of unused tracks. It reflects his ‘top‑down’ approach to mixing, with many levels of busing.Below these 19 bus tracks is the reference mix, followed by the individual audio tracks, in the following order: drums (starting with kick and 808), keys and other instruments, general sound effects, an unused vocal record track, the vocal tracks and aforementioned vocal buses and, at the bottom, 14 aux effect tracks. The session is awash with remnants of the template, with unused tracks and greyed‑out plug‑ins.

“The bass and low end were quite lacking in this session,” says Donoghue. “I am not sure whether the producer had low‑cut the bass, or perhaps had worked with a big woofer, but I had to really work to bring that low end back. It was an issue with both the kick and the bass. I mainly used EQ and the Waves RBass for this. For the rest it was a matter of keeping the raw drill feeling of the reference. That meant not over‑polishing it, not over‑EQ’ing, and keeping the saturation. Central Cee likes his tracks quite loud, and as I mastered it myself, I was really pushing it. I was hitting ‑7.5 to ‑8 LUFS with him!

“The fact that I was adding bass to this track was unusual, as I approach mixing as sculpting. I am normally chipping away, rather than adding. I sculpt on each of the buses with a little bit of compression and EQ, using subtractive EQ. I’m not taking away too much anywhere, just sculpting gradually, and maybe at the final stage, when I have the final sculpture, I might add a little EQ if necessary.

“I do the subtractive EQ mostly with the FabFilter Pro‑Q 3, and I use analogue emulation plug‑ins for additive EQ because these plug‑ins add nice saturation. Obviously, when I use compression during the various bus stages, this sometimes adds a frequency I don’t like, and I’ll add another subtractive EQ to take that out.”

The Top Deck

Once the bass levels were satisfactory, Donoghue began working on the All Music, All Music Parallel Width and Acapella buses. “Everything apart from the vocals goes to the All Music bus, on which I have the Pro‑Q 3, the Slate Digital VMR, the Waves RBass, and the McDSP Moo X. The latter comes from the APB and adds some really nice outboard saturation. The Q 3 it is just taking out some muddiness, the VMR also adds saturation, and I add low end with the RBass, for the reasons I mentioned earlier.

“Everything but the vocals is also sent to the All Music Parallel Width track just below, which I use to create more width, using the SideWidener, an old free plug‑in. I cut low end with the Pro‑Q 3 on the Width track so you don’t get phasing in the low end. Every single vocal is sent to the Acapella bus, but I don’t do much on that bus other than gain‑staging control. There’s a Pro‑Q 3 to notch out a frequency and that’s all.

“Below this are buses with more individual elements of the track. The Kick/Bass bus again has the RBass to bring back some of that low end that was lacking. If I get sent a song with amazing bass, I might not use that plug‑in, but if I need some extra harmonics it’s really effective. One of the three audio kick tracks is sent to this bus, the other two are sent straight to the main mix bus, because of the direct way I want them to sound in drill.

“Next is the Drums bus, and it has the McDSP ChickenHead, which is a really nice compressor, and it applies the main compression on the drums. Sometimes I use Oeksound Spiff to add some attack. The signal is just going through the VMR to add some glue and a bit more of an analogue sound. The mix sounded very digital, so I tried to recreate some real‑life warmth every step of the way. There’s also a send to the DrumVerb aux, which has a Lexicon plate.

“Everything but the drums and vocals goes through the Music bus, which has only the VMR. It is sent to the Music Width bus below, with the Credland Audio StereoSavage adding more width. I like doing this on a parallel track, because it gives me more control. All Music FX has incidental sounds, like gunshots or reverse crashes or that kind of thing, and all my vocal reverbs and delays go through the Vocal FX bus.

“All vocals go through the Vocals bus, with the VMR, Focusrite D3 DeEsser and Avid Lo‑Fi. Much further down in the session, below all the audio tracks, are two vocal buses, Vox Main and the Vox Sub bus, and they have the main vocal processing. The vocals are first sent to Vox Main, on which I have the Fabfilter Pro‑Q 3 and Pro‑DS, and from there to the Vox Sub bus, which has the Oeksound Spiff and Soothe 2, UAD 1176AE, Waves RVox, Kilohearts Ensemble chorus, and Avid AIR Flanger, and three sends, to the Plate aux with the Valhalla VintageVerb, the TightVerb aux with the D‑Verb, and the TapeDelay aux with the Waves H‑Delay. I like to build up my reverbs using tiny bits of each. In general I like to layer different plug‑ins that each do very little, to add texture.”

A Little Bit Of Everything

The manic scheduling meant there was never going to be a separate mastering stage, so Donoghue’s own mix bus processing made it onto the released tracks. “This has my standard master bus chain, though I am regularly trying new things. There are several EQs, like the Pro‑Q 3, Acustica Audio Cream2, TDR Slick EQ and McDSP Royal Q. All these EQs each do something slightly different. They each give different sounds. I like the Cream for its nice saturation, and the Royal Q as well. That EQ sounds amazing.

“The UAD SSL G Bus is for compression, and the VMR adds some air. Again, each plug‑in does something very subtle, and none work heavily, because I like my mixes transparent. The Slate Digital FG‑X does some compression and limiting, and I bring the mix up to full volume for mastering with the FabFilter Pro‑L 2. This gives me my final couple of decibels. That plug‑in is the most smashed. But because I already have used so many layers of compression, I never have to push the L 2 too much.

“I print the main mix from the Mix bus, while the Master track has a couple of measuring plug‑ins, the TC Electronic Clarity M and the Waves PAZ Analyzer. Below the Mix bus is the Pre Master Print Bus track, which I use for label delivery, in case I don’t master a track, so it has fewer plug‑ins and no L2.”

Clearly, Donoghue’s signature mix process is based on a lot of know‑how and skill, which allows him to break the rules, and has played a big part in putting drill and Central Cee on the map, in the UK as well as internationally.  

Training & Sharing

Having learned from mentors such as Derek Ali and Alex Tumay, Sean Donoghue is keen to share his own knowledge.Having learned from mentors such as Derek Ali and Alex Tumay, Sean Donoghue is keen to share his own knowledge.

Sean Donoghue mentions Derek ‘MixedByAli’ Ali and Alex Tumay as his biggest inspirations. “Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City [2012] is an incredible‑sounding album, and the way Ali uses width and mixed the vocals and everything else about it inspired my whole sound. Watching Alex Tumay doing his Red Bull seminars on YouTube also reassured me as a young engineer that I was not too far off. The engineering community in the UK is quite closed‑off, with very few people willing to help others, but these American guys are really open about their techniques. It inspired me later on to hold workshops in which I teach young engineers what I would have liked to have known when I started.

“When watching YouTube videos you can get the idea that there’s a right way of doing things, and that makes it harder to develop your own way. But why you do things is far more important than what you do. When you know why, you can experiment. And most important is learning what sounds good. So you have to train your ears. That’s almost more important than any technical knowledge.”