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Inside Track: Chris Young 'Losing Sleep'

Secrets Of The Mix Engineers: Billy Decker By Paul Tingen
Published January 2018

Inside Track

Keeping up with the Nashville music world means working fast — and few mix engineers work as fast as Billy Decker!

Nashville star mixer Billy Decker spends an average of 45 minutes on each song he mixes. Yes, you read that correctly: 45 minutes. From loading the audio files he’s received to sending his mix to his client, it takes him, as a rule, less than an hour. Recalls and fine-tuning can add another hour: very occasionally, two.

Thanks to his ultra-fast way of working, Decker clocks up 1500 mixes a year, and his personal record for mixes done in a single day currently stands at 17. And it’s not like he’s putting out low-quality, production-line garbage. In fact, Decker’s had 13 number one records in the country world, and was not so long ago invited for a blind mix shootout with some of the world’s mainstream A-list mixers. Decker won.

Finding The Balance

Decker’s 45-minute mix process is not the only thing that’s unusual about him. Despite working predominantly in the country genre, he is a fan of metal. He also loves woodworking, and has a degree in criminal justice from the University of Nebraska. Plus he’s a late bloomer, who had his first number one hit when he was almost 40, with Rodney Atkins’ album If You’re Going Through Hell — the title song was the number one in Billboard’s 2006 country year-end chart, and was the most played song that decade.

“I’m all about balance,” explains Decker. “If something is out of balance, everything is out of whack. Get your home life in order, and all of a sudden your phone starts ringing, the money starts rolling in, and everything falls into place. In the late ’90s I went into engineering full time, and I did a lot of work on songwriter demos, which people did in batches of five, and I was working from eight in the morning until 11 at night. My son was born in 1996 and my daughter in 1999, and when they were growing up, they and my wife weren’t happy because I was away all the time. So I did two things. One was that I decided to focus on mixing. I saw Chris Lord-Alge in all the magazines, working with big artists. In the engineering world he was like the quarterback on a football team. I was like: ‘Damn, that looks cool!’

“The other thing was that I wanted to be home in time for dinner, and I was tired of having to spend hours recalling the console and setting up all the outboard and so on. Someone showed me Pro Tools, and I thought, ‘Wow, I am going to mix in this thing.’ I realised that I could set up faster, recall 100 percent faster, and roll easily from one song to another using templates. This was in the early ’00s, before they had delay compensation and all that stuff. I’m told that I’m the first guy in Nashville to mix a country Billboard number one in the box, using Pro Tools’ bounce-to-disk function and no outboard. This was with Atkins’ ‘Going Through Hell’.

“At the end of the day, we’re not putting men on the moon, we’re just trying to put them on the radio. So don’t take yourself too serious and spend all day on your mixes, and as a result miss out on the finer things in life.”

Twenty-five million album sales and 13 number one hits later — at the time of writing, the song ‘Small Time Boy’ by Dustin Lynch was topping the country singles charts in the US and Canada, and Chris Young’s Losing Sleep was number one in the Billboard country album charts — it seems to be working out pretty well.

The Smart Assistant

The key to Billy Decker’s super-fast mixing approach is his use of templates. “When I began mixing, I realised that I could speed up my mix process considerably by using templates, and started to develop these. My current template is the result of 15 years of tweaking. I now treat my templates like an electronic assistant. When I was on an SSL, my assistant needed an hour or more to patch in things and so on before I could do anything, but it now takes me a couple of minutes to load up a song and start mixing. I normally get sent a Pro Tools session, but these days, Nashville also has tons of programmer guys, and they all love Logic, in which case I receive tons of WAV files, which for some reason are always stereo, even if they’re mono. So I reduce many of them to mono.

“The way I work is that I either load these WAV files into my Pro Tools template session or, more often, I open up the Pro Tools session I’ve received, and do a ‘Save As’ so I retain the original session. I then retitle my mix session ‘The Deckorator’, which is a little joke that started with a songwriter asking me to ‘deckorate’ his music. My next step is to import my template, execute a couple of commands that lock the clips so they can only go up or down and can’t move left or right, and then I literally drag the audio from the session into my template. I don’t copy any plug-ins or mute or volume or other automation, but I do keep the song and tempo markers, which is another time saver. To save space I then delete all the tracks in my mix session from the original session, but obviously, I can get them back with a click of the mouse.

“All that takes just minutes, which means that I’ve already saved two hours by not having to set up the console. Obviously my template won’t fit any session, but for the most part, drums will consist of a kick track, a snare top and bottom track, hi-hats, toms, overheads and room mics, and there’ll be a bass, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, a steel guitar and maybe keyboards. I slide the audio onto my corresponding template tracks, which are pre-loaded with my plug-ins, and I’m already 85-90 percent there, and can start mixing. Some of the time I’ll take a quick listen to the rough, but many times, I won’t. I’m being paid for my take on it, which in that case listening could steer me off the beaten path. I’ve learnt to shoot from the hip. I love what I do, but at the end of the day it’s all about customer service. Instead of me asking if you want ketchup and mustard on your burger, I ask if you’d like reverb and delay on your mix. When people ask why I’m so fast, I tell ’em, ‘After sitting in this chair for this many years it had better not take me 30 minutes to EQ a kick drum!’

“Normally, people want you to just work with what they have given you and make that as loud as possible, and get it ready for the radio. They call me because I’m like the flashy radio guy, and they tend to leave me to do my thing. But they may say, ‘Please check the rough, we really like this guitar solo panned on the left.’ In that case I’ll go and listen. But for most of the time I’ll listen to maybe 10-15 seconds of the rough, just to preview the verse and the chorus, and for the rest I’ll start mixing from scratch. It’s the same with original session plug-ins. I’ll retain them if I’m asked to, but for most of the time I don’t use them and will do my own thing. If they want a certain sound that they got from a plug-in, like some kind of spacey effect or an echo, I tell them to print it. If they don’t, I’ll make my own version of it.

Chris Young: Losing Sleep artwork.“But again, every song, whether it’s a demo or a master, takes me about 45 minutes to mix. When I mix an album, I’ll mix about three songs per day. Once it feels good to me, I will send it to the clients, and they send me back their notes. I’ve never had a client who doesn’t have at least one comment. I could do what I think is the perfect mix, and there’ll still be a request to tweak it. Of course, the actual changes don’t take that long, it’s more a question of them coming to the studio, tweaking, and then it’s ‘Hey, let’s go to lunch,’ come back and tweak some more. We may do this multiple times for each song, sometimes over several weeks, maybe even a month. So I could actually spend much more time on a mix than someone who spends a day a song!”

Losing Sleep

Since winning the 2006 Nashville Star singing competition, Chris Young has gone on to become one of Nashville’s most successful artists, with crossover appeal to rock and pop. Decker mixed Young’s self-titled debut album, and returned to the fold to mix Young’s fifth and sixth albums, I’m Coming Over (2015) and It Must Be Christmas (2016). The follow-up, Losing Sleep, was released in October, and reached number five in the Billboard mainstream chart and the top spot in the US country chart. The album’s title song and lead single was a number eight in the Billboard country singles charts at the time of writing.

‘Losing Sleep’ is a country-tinged pop/rock song, with a guitar intro that is an almost direct quotation of Ed Sheeran’s guitar part in Justin Bieber’s ‘Love Yourself’, followed by a hard-hitting, distorted electric guitar-driven chorus. Decker’s mix session for the song contains 62 tracks, organised in fairly standard fashion, starting with his master track at the top, followed by 18 tracks of live drums, 13 tracks of programmed drums and percussion, four drum-related aux tracks, one bass track, two acoustic guitar tracks, eight electric guitar tracks, a Hammond B3 track, six aux effects and group tracks, two lead vocal tracks, and six backing vocal tracks.

Kick & Snare

“My mix process is that I always begin with the drums, then I add in the bass, the acoustic guitars, electric guitars, and I do the vocals last. When working on the drums, I start with the kick. My template now has four kick tracks, all of which are samples. I drag down the original kick audio tracks, and then use them to trigger my samples with Slate Digital’s Trigger plug-in, and print the samples — the screenshots show the consolidated session, so you are seeing the sample waveforms. The four sample kick tracks are the ‘J-Kik’, which has a really clicky sound, the ‘Dry Kik’, which has a low-mid thump, the ‘Honeymoon’, with a super-low, flappy sound, and the ‘14.1’, which really moves air. I used to use Sound Replacer, but Trigger is fantastic and much faster.

This composite screenshot shows Billy Decker’s Pro Tools mix session for ‘Losing Sleep’. All the kick drum tracks and most of the snare tracks are prints of Decker’s replacement samples.This composite screenshot shows Billy Decker’s Pro Tools mix session for ‘Losing Sleep’. All the kick drum tracks and most of the snare tracks are prints of Decker’s replacement samples.“I’ve used this blend of four kick samples for the last two and a half years. I never use the original kick, or blend it in. People don’t mind, because my samples sound like a real kick. Using the samples is another thing that speeds me up. I don’t have to battle with a real kick, gating it, cleaning it up, and so on.

“I also have a couple of plug-ins which are preset and ready to go. They are the Waves SSL Channel on the ‘J-Kik’ and the JST [Joey Sturgis Tones] Clip on the ‘14.1’. The SSL Channel does a high-pass at 60Hz and adds 3dB at 8kHz, and the JST increases the volume without changing the size of the waveform and pushing your meters in the red. I tailor the kick drum sound to the song by adjusting the blend of my four kick samples. If I want a clickier kick sound, I push up the ‘J-Kik’, or I can make it more dance by pushing up the ‘Dry Kik’. It’s like, 10 seconds and the kick drum is good to go!

“It’s similar with the snare. There are five snare tracks in this session. The top two are from the original session, ie. snare top and bottom mics, and the other three are my samples, in the order low-mid-high: ‘Fatty’, ‘HB’, and ‘13.06’. ‘Fatty’ has a lot of 160Hz, ‘HB’ stands for Howard Benson — it’s one of his — and ‘13.06’ is what gives a crack, it is almost like a click. Again, the plug-ins are part of my template. The SPL Transient designer on the ‘13.06’ snare makes it even crackier, the McDSP G Console on the ‘HB’ adds a little bit of EQ and a little bit of compression. I use a fast attack and a medium release, to make it snap more, that mid thing, and 3:1 compression, plus I am adding 15dB of 187Hz with the bell curve — I’ve always just turned EQs till they sounded good!

“Just like with the kick, I can adjust the plug-ins and blend these sample tracks to get the sound I want. I can bring up the fat snare, or bring up the crack snare, raise the real snare, etc. If somebody wants a more organic, roomy ’70s sound, I can run the real snare tracks really hot and bring the samples down, perhaps using them just for the two and the four. If the clients want a more modern sound, I run the samples hotter and maybe squeeze the compressors just a bit more.”

In between the kick and snare tracks is a ‘Cymbals’ track, which Decker places there as a visual separator. “It puts a space in my mix window. They are cymbal swells going into the choruses, and almost everyone uses them these days. I usually also will use my sample, but in this case the audio came from the original session. Below the snares is an aux track called ‘Verb’, which is the snare reverb, which is a reverb sample triggered from the ‘13.06’ snare track above it. It’s a medium room sample from Slate, number ‘13A’. Whenever that snare hits, it fires off the sample. For me, that is an easier way to control the size of the snare than sending to a reverb.”

More Drums & Percussion

Below the snare reverb track are seven more tracks of real drums, albeit ‘deckorated’. “There’s a hi-hat track with Waves L3 and the Metric Halo Channel Strip. I actually bought that plug-in in 2001, and then I endorsed it, because I love it so much. It is my main EQ on just about everything. Tracks 1, 2, 3 are toms, and they all have the Slate Trigger on them, the McDSP P4 four-band EQ, and the JST Clip, for more volume. With the toms I blend the session toms with my samples, which you can do using the parallel knob in Trigger. I generally go for 75 percent samples and 25 percent real, but if the producer wants the toms more organic, it’ll be 50/50. Below the toms are two overheads tracks, which have just the Waves SSL E Channel, with a high-pass at 350Hz and boosting 9dB at 10kHz, and the compressor has a fast attack and I am knocking it back 3dB to smooth the toms out. I put Waves TrueVerb on the room track, called ‘FAR’, using a preset called ‘DrumRoom’. I’ll run the room at half volume, because I am more a direct guy and am not too keen on a dominant room sound.”

Next are 13 audio tracks consisting of programming by the producer Corey Crowder. Well, mostly. Decker: “‘CBkick’ is a kick sample that Corey put in, which sounds like a Justin Bieber track. He’s a big fan of Justin Bieber, hence also the guitar intro. The programmed drum tracks also include an 808 kick and an 808 clap, subby kick, and so on. They all have the Waves L2 on them for more volume. In general I use more limiters than compressors. There are four claps, including the 808 one, and one of them had reverb printed in the chorus, and you know what? After listening to the song on the radio I wish I had dropped that reverb clap by 3dB, because it gets in the way of the snare a bit on the radio on a few stations.

“I added the tambourine, using a custom-made program that was given to me. They’re real tambourines recorded here in Nashville. I use that plug-in a lot, because I know it works. I know that if I drop the fader to between -7 and -10, and put the L2 on it, it works every time. That saves me another 30 minutes! Instead of having to worry about putting in a real tambourine, or replacing it note by note, I have a program that puts it in in about five seconds. It is the same with shakers. They have been used on huge records by me, so I know they sound awesome!”

Below the last programmed track, ‘Grooveloop’, are four drum effects aux tracks, the most important being ‘D-Sub.1.1’. Decker: “The kicks, snares — apart from the bottom mic track — and toms all feed into two subgroup tracks: the ‘R-Kik’, which has no plug-ins, and the ‘Kicks’ track, on which I have the Avid Impact, set to 10:1, so I slam it back 10dB. Both then go to the ‘D-Sub’ track, as do the other drum tracks. My drum sub setup was given to me by Kevin Churko, one of my engineering heroes. It’s basically parallel compression. The overheads never go through it because it washes them out too much. Some people do it, but I can’t get that to work because heavy compression turns the cymbals and hi-hats into white noise.

Billy Decker discards any miked bass tracks and uses the DI’ed signal, invariably through the same plug-in chain.Billy Decker discards any miked bass tracks and uses the DI’ed signal, invariably through the same plug-in chain.“I’m running the dry bus at +2.5dB and the slam track at -3.7dB, and on the ‘D-Sub’ track I have five plug-ins. They are the McDSP CB3 compressor, with a fast attack and a medium release and 3:1 ratio, which tames the peaks; the McDSP AC1 tape simulator, which adds some saturation; the McDSP Retro Limiter that knocks things back another 2dB; and finally I clip the drums with that JST. The JST has 10 lights, and I don’t know that the hell they do, but turning it up three lights works in Billy Decker’s world! Finally, there’s the Sonnox Oxford EQ, and all I am doing is high-passing at 35Hz. The ‘S Rev’ aux track is for reverb on cross-sticks, which weren’t used in this song, so it’s not in action.”

Bass, Guitars & B3

“The bass track is called ‘B-Amp’, but is actually the bass DI. I never use the bass amp track. All I have on that is the Sonnox Oxford EQ, dipping below 100Hz and at 2kHz, and the Waves MaxxBass bass enhancer, set to ‘Aggressive’. There’s no compression on the bass track, because the players in Nashville have pretty good rigs with in-built compression and they are recorded well, again with compression. If I do need compression I’ll put on the McDSP Compressor Bank, with my own preset called ‘Sta-Put’, which is my version of the [Gates] Sta-Level, with an attack time of 10ms and a release time of 30ms.

Acoustic guitars are fed through this preset series of plug-ins from Decker’s mix template.Acoustic guitars are fed through this preset series of plug-ins from Decker’s mix template.“Next are two acoustic guitar tracks, and both have the Metric Halo Channel Strip, high-passing at 125Hz to get rid of any garbage in the low end, and nothing at the top, the acoustics always are bright enough. Then there’s the Waves CLA-76 black, set to 5:1 with medium attack and a super-fast release, and the L2. There are six electric guitar tracks, including the two main guitars and the Justin Bieber-inspired guitar intro [E1 and E2]. All electric guitar tracks have the URS BLT EQ and Waves L2. The BLT has two knobs — bass and treble — and I add 10dB treble and 5dB bass. The two main electric guitars also have the JST Clip, again set to three lights, the magic number, to bring up the volume.

The URS BLT EQ was used on all electric guitars.The URS BLT EQ was used on all electric guitars.“The B3 organ track again has the Metric Halo channel strip, boosting about 5-6 dB at 11kHz and then 3dB at 6kHz, and I also add 125Hz, take out 224Hz, high-pass at 20Hz to get rid of any room noise, and then I limit it. Right after the B3 is the instrument delay aux, which has the EchoBoy, which is always set to a Deluxe Memory Man preset, to the tempo of the song. Next to that is an Instrument reverb aux with the Waves RVerb, set to a small room preset called ‘Short Club’. I am a big preset guy. I’m hoping that if somebody spends the time designing and figuring out something, they are probably way smarter than me and it is probably pretty good! The delay is just on two electric guitar fills, and the room on the two main electric guitars. The acoustics are totally dry, though sometimes I send them to the ‘Phase’ track, which has a Waves Doubler on it, set to mimic the Eventide Harmonizer.”

Vocal Doubles!

The two main vocal tracks, for both verses and choruses, are called ‘Hook’, below which there are another six backing vocal tracks. In Decker’s template, the vocal effect aux tracks are above the vocals, while most of the effects on the lead vocals are on the inserts. It turns out that he’s got a unique trick up his sleeve to get his lead vocals to cut through that’s so simple, it may lead many to have a facepalm moment, as in, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ Or, perhaps: ‘You cannot be serious!’

A simple but effective way of making the vocal louder is to duplicate the vocal track! Note the use of automation to raise the vocal level at the end of each chorus.A simple but effective way of making the vocal louder is to duplicate the vocal track! Note the use of automation to raise the vocal level at the end of each chorus.

“The two lead vocal tracks are clones, ie. exact copies of each other. Because of my gain structure, I mix so hot that I can never get my vocals loud enough. So I just duplicate my lead vocal track, and it’s twice as loud! I like where my gain structure hits, and I’m a creature of habit, and if I was to readjust my template I’d have to relearn 15 years of sitting in this chair and knowing exactly how everything feels. So I prefer to just make the lead vocals louder by having them twice. I’ve found, though, that if you mix and match DSP plug-ins with native, phasing occurs, so stick with all one type.

“The lead vocal plug-in chain on both tracks starts with the Waves CLA-76, and I use the blue because Chris [Lord-Alge] told me to. I have no idea why. Then there’s the Metric Halo Channel Strip, which is used as just an EQ, and the Waves RVox. I always pull the latter down to -18, which is the magic number for my template. Finally there are two de-essers. One of them is actually a de-honker, because I put it at 2kHz, to take out all the nasalness. That 2kHz honk thing is like fingernails on a chalkboard for me. I run the other at 8-10 kHz, depending on whether it is a male or a female voice. But male, female, screamo, pop, country, I always use the same vocal chain.

Billy Decker’s vocal plug-in chain again never varies, regardless of whether he is feeding a female country singer or a screamo metal vocalist through it.Billy Decker’s vocal plug-in chain again never varies, regardless of whether he is feeding a female country singer or a screamo metal vocalist through it.

“There are three sends on the lead vocal tracks. Send 9-10 goes to the ‘V-Verb’ aux track, on which I have the Waves De-Esser to clip off some high end, and the RVerb set to a plate; 11-12 goes to the ‘V-Delay’ aux, which has the Line 6 EchoFarm, and 13-14 to the ‘Phase’ aux, with the Waves Doubler. I tend to run all the lead and background vocals and maybe an acoustic guitar to that Doubler to get a slight chorus-like effect and give it more of a pop sound. The backing vocals all go to the ‘V-Sub’ track, on which I have the same plug-ins as on the lead vocals, both inserts and sends, apart from that it misses the send to the V-Delay with the EchoFarm.”

Young Master Bus

Returning to the top of the session, Decker discusses his master track, which is titled ‘Master’ (the 1 repeats because of endless copies he’s made of his template). “The first plug-in on the master bus is the Oxford EQ, just for a high-pass at 35Hz. Next is the Waves Kramer PIE compressor, set to 2:1 ratio to knock it back about 1dB. I then use the Stillwell Event Horizon, which is similar to the JST, to increase loudness, and that feeds into the Waves L3, knocking it back another 1dB. And that is it. I send a version without the L3 to the mastering engineer, and a version with. A mastering friend of mine calls the latter a ‘heated version’.

Another constant in Billy Decker’s mixes is his master bus plug-in chain. Each compressor and limiter is typically only applying about 1dB gain reduction.Another constant in Billy Decker’s mixes is his master bus plug-in chain. Each compressor and limiter is typically only applying about 1dB gain reduction.

“The settings on the master bus remain identical on almost every mix. The only thing I can see myself doing is maybe squeeze the Event Horizon a little harder and maybe the L3. But the Kramer usually smoothes things out. I use a lot of compressors and limiters, but I tend to use a little bit of each one. It all adds up and smoothes things out. It makes it possible to spend relatively little time on volume rides, as you can see in my vocal rides, which are straightforward. I basically bump up each chorus half a decibel and have a small bump at the end of the chorus, and that’s it. It’s another way in which I figured out how to minimise the time I spend, because volume automation can take up a whole lot of time. I’ll also sometimes automate the threshold on the limiter on the chorus, give it a little bit more squeeze in addition to riding up the master volume. It’s a cool trick to make the choruses hit harder.

“In addition, having worked with this template for as long as I have, I mix by sight as much as I mix using my ears. I know that if I have the track set to medium view in Pro Tools, I need a quarter inch of space at the top and at the bottom on the waveform of the kick track, and it will hit my compressor exactly the way it needs to. I use the Clip Gain function to lower or raise the size of the waveform on just about every track.

“If I know a song is going to be a single, I’ll push the snare up another 3dB, because I know the radio compressor is going to push it down. Pushing the snare up a couple dB puts it exactly on the radio where I originally wanted it to sit in the mix. Playback on streaming web sites remains true, so I only push the snare on terrestrial FM mixes.

“I try to bring an intensity to country music when mixing. I love pushing boundaries and definitely like to break the rules. I have a few T-shirt slogans: ‘Kick drums sell records’ and ‘Louder is always better!’ Anyone can push up the faders on some drum kit channels and make it sound ‘eh’. But I want people to go, ‘How did they do that?’ That is what makes it fun for me.”  

Templates: One Size Really Does Fit All!

If Billy Decker’s efficiency depends on an all-encompassing template, doesn’t that make everything sound the same and hamper his creativity as a mixer? Not so, he insists. “To begin with, a lot of country music in Nashville is made by the same 15 people with the same five producers, in the same four studios, working with the same session musicians. There are maybe four drummers who appear on almost all recordings made in Nashville. I know the setups of everyone and of everywhere, and I have templates for each of those drummers, and I have a template for a couple of these producers, and I have templates for different studios. If something comes from a particular studio, after 20 years of doing this I know what their rooms sound like and what their cymbals will sound like. I know exactly what I’m going to get from the different engineers, in terms of how they organise their sessions and the sounds they get.

Decker’s mix template makes extensive use of the JST Clip plug-in. Here, it’s being used on the electric guitar tracks along with URS’s BLT EQ. Decker’s mix template makes extensive use of the JST Clip plug-in. Here, it’s being used on the electric guitar tracks along with URS’s BLT EQ. “I have one main template, my current one, and it is always my favourite. It evolves because I regularly adjust it with new settings or a new plug-in I discover. But you will be surprised how versatile a template is. A vocal is a vocal, and even if I make slight changes, for example to adjust some of the frequencies if I have a female vocal, everything else will pretty much be the same. I recently had a day when I mixed three bluegrass songs in the morning, and a modern screamo metal track in the afternoon. I used the same template for all of them. It’s the template I made from the Chris Young record.

“I recently did a presentation for the Nail The Mix web site, which covers mostly modern metal, and showed how a country template can be applied to a metal record. It doesn’t actually need a lot of adjustments. I kept all the same settings. The only difference was that I fed the compressors harder to get a more aggressive sound. In Nashville everyone wants really mellow, smooth drums — actually, they’re going through a 1970s phase, with just two mics on the drums and no samples. There’s a tendency at the moment to make things sound underwhelming. By contrast, my stuff sounds super hyped-up, with aggressive, loud drums. For me the studio is the Wizard Of Oz, fairy dust is floating in the air and magic is happening, and I like things to sound larger than life. People know when they come to me that they’re going for a more slick, pop sound, with super-big drums, rather than an organic Nashville vibe.

“In fact, mixing the metal track was easier, because it’s just drums, bass, guitar and vocals, while country is one of the hardest genres to mix. In country, all the acoustic instruments constantly fight with the hi-hats and the cymbals. There’s acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo, dobro, fiddle, steel, piano and usually a B3 and some synths, and they all live in the vocal range.

“Some people say that country doesn’t have low end, but what they really are referring to is that there’s little of the 160-240 Hz impact you get from an electric guitar and a Marshall cabinet, with the speakers popping out. A Telecaster going through a Twin Reverb will have none of that. Country has low end, from the bass, and high end, but little of the low mids that are the meat and potatoes of rock music. When mixing country music I am always looking for that low-mid, whether it’s coming from the left hand of the piano, or by EQ’ing some electric guitars. I don’t often add instruments when mixing, but very occasionally I’ll throw in some power chords at half volume to fill that space.”

The Sound Of Wood

For the last three years, Billy Decker has mixed out of this minimalist space in Nashville’s Westwood Studios.For the last three years, Billy Decker has mixed out of this minimalist space in Nashville’s Westwood Studios.

Billy Decker was born in Nebraska in 1967, and started playing guitar as a teenager. After studying criminal justice at the University of Nebraska, he changed course and did Full Sail University’s Recording Arts bachelor’s degree in 1992. Following this he enjoyed a stint as staff engineer at Master Sound Studios in Virginia Beach, working mainly on hip-hop and R&B. A desire to work with more acoustic instruments eventually took him to Nashville, where he became a staff songwriter at publishers Curb Music and then Big Tractor, and honed his demo-recording skills. Around 2000, he made the decision to be a full-time engineer.

Decker’s Avid Pro Control is used only as a glorified volume knob!Decker’s Avid Pro Control is used only as a glorified volume knob!For 17 years, Decker worked from his own recording and later mix room at a studio called Sound Stage, but three years ago he moved to a very minimalist studio space at Westwood. “This room is like a log cabin,” he says. “There’s something about wood and audio that sounds good together. I built the cloud above the desk and some of the baffles, all using my woodworking skills. The desk is an old Avid Pro Control in an Argosy frame. I really like the height of these frames. But I’m 100 percent in the box and don’t use the Pro Control, other than as a volume button for the monitors. Having it in the room makes me feel like I’m sitting at a console. All the studios I’ve worked in back in the ’00s had a Pro Control, so when I moved here I bought one.”

The Pro Control obviously also helps to impresses clients, and it looks good in photos. By contrast, the few other bits and pieces in Decker’s mix room are essential. “My main monitors are Mackie 824 MkIIs, with an 18-inch Quested sub. I like where the Mackies sit on the console. The tweeters actually shoot over my head, which keeps me from getting fatigued with the many songs I mix. I also have some Wathen Audio speakers, which are made out of stacked plywood. They remind me of old Tannoys, and are really fun to listen to. I bounce back and forth between them and the Mackies and a JVC boombox, which I bought in 2001 for $99. I didn’t even listen to it. It simply was the cheapest boombox with line-ins I could find! For the very occasional overdub I have a recording booth, with an SSL X-Logic channel strip, and an Audio-Technica AT4033 microphone — in Nashville you can rent just about any mic ever made, and most artists have their favorites anyway, so that’s the reason for the inexpensive go-to 4033.”

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