Kevin Grainger has developed a unique approach to dance mixing — and, as Joel Corry's 'Head & Heart' proves, a highly successful one. We break down this hit track.
"My first and foremost aim is to make things sound good in a club. I work with dance music, and if it doesn't succeed in a club, it won't work as a record. It needs to sound awesome on a system, and this means a lot of focus on kick and bass and the groove. That is my mentality for mixing all records. If it is more of a radio record, which 'Head & Heart' was, over time I will finesse it more towards radio, rather than mix it as a straight club track. But the final product simply has to work in a club."
Speaking is Kevin Grainger, who in recent years has become one of the world's go-to mixers for dance music. 'Head & Heart' is, of course, the insanely catchy hit by Joel Corry, featuring MNEK, which went to number one in the UK on the last day of July this year. In addition, Grainger has mixed hits for Avicii, Sigala, Seeb, Fisher and many more — Fisher's 'Losing It' was nominated for a Grammy Award, and Grainger with it.
Grainger's career path to becoming one of the world's top mixers is unusual, and continues to have a big impact on the way he mixes. In a nutshell, Grainger worked for many years as a mastering engineer, and because of the vagaries of the dance music world, his work gradually morphed into mixing. And while it's not unusual for mixers to become mastering engineers, the reverse is a road barely travelled.
From his studio at Wired Masters in South London, Grainger recalls his first steps in the music industry, "I played guitar, drums and bass in bands all through my teenage years, and then went to study environmental biology at Royal Holloway, University of London. I joined a tech crew for bands that came to perform there, and I really got into that and decided I wanted to have a career in music. But I didn't want to do the live thing, I wanted to be in a studio. So I wrote to loads of studios, and in 1995 got a job as a tea boy at Masterpiece Mastering in Fulham, and worked my way up. In 1999 I went to work at Heathman's Mastering, and then my business partner and I set up Wired Masters in 2003."
It was in mastering tracks for Sandy Rivera, aka Kings Of Tomorrow, that Grainger's work went off the beaten mastering track. "I had done a lot of mastering for Sandy, and one day in 2003 he came to London with his Pro Tools rig, and we realised that we could take things so much further if he gave me stems to master. We got great results, and if suddenly a song sounds better than everybody else's, it's like: 'How did you get this to happen?' So labels and artists started sending me stems to master from. It all happened really organically. I never said to people: 'Oh, if I had five stems it would be so much better than working with just the stereo.'
"Today 95 percent of what I do is dance stuff, which is all about the production and making things sound good in the club. This direction really took off for us during 2010-11, on the back of me working with Swedish House Mafia & the EDM explosion in the US. I mastered, did DJ mixes, and also stem mastering. The mastering-from-stems approach gradually got more and more involved, with an increasing amount of stems, and when I began Melodyning vocals, swapping out drum sounds, and reprogramming drums to get the groove right, it was like: 'Hang on, this is no longer stem mastering, but mixing.'
"I mixed most of Avicii's last EP, Avīci (01) , and mastered all tracks on it, and have worked with Sandro Cavazza as a result of that, not just doing dance stuff, which is wonderful. After Avicii died his father and lawyer got in touch with me to mix the posthumous album Tim . That credit was really helpful for my manager to convince especially people in America that I was doing mixing as well as mastering. Changing that perception was quite hard."
"The dance world is nice to be a part of. Everybody is happy to share why this or that sounds good. It is really positive!" Grainger enthuses, and he put his money where his mouth is by sharing extensive details of his dance-orientated mix approach in general, and of 'Head & Heart' in particular. His room at Wired Mastering is acoustically treated and contains his favourite monitors, as well as some essential outboard, the latter connected to his mastering background.
"My main monitors are the PMC BB5 XBDs," explains Grainger. "I also have some Yamaha NS10s on a Bryston 4B, but my decision-making is done on the big speakers. Only in the latter stages of a mix will I start checking on the NS10s, particularly with vocals where I'll be doing a lot of detailed EQ on little inconsistencies. Alternatively, I sometimes do these on my Audeze headphones. In addition I have a Dr Dre Beats Pill, and I listen to stuff on my iPhone. But that is right at the end when a mix is nearly finished.
"For the most part I mix on my BB5s, at a conservative level. Even at a quiet volume they move a lot of air, so you feel the weight of a song without having to crank it. The room was built around the speakers, and working here for me is not in the first instance about the kit, or this or that EQ or compressor, it is primarily about knowing everything about the room and how it translates."
Regarding EQ and compression, Grainger's room at Wired has some stalwarts of the recording studio, like a Manley Massive Passive Mastering Equaliser, and a Chandler 'Abbey Road' EMI TG12345 Curve Bender equaliser and Zener Limiter compressor. But what catches the attention are the five pieces of Maselec equipment, more commonly found in mastering suites.
"My outboard hasn't really changed over the years, despite moving more into mixing. Leif Mases, the guy who designs the Maselec gear, built me the STM-822 summing amplifier — it was the first one he ever made. My signal comes out of my Apogee DA-16X converters, into the summing amp, then into the MTC-6 console, and after that I can choose to go into my MEA-2 mastering EQ, MLA-2 mastering compressor, and/or MPL-2 mastering limiter and de-esser, and my Manley or Chandler gear.
"They are all on inserts of the Maselec desk, so I can engage them when and where I want them. These are very traditional mastering chain options. I learned mastering on Maselec gear, and have had them in all the facilities I worked in. The Zener is a real secret weapon. It's way too grabby for mastering, but it works great as a parallel compressor. I smash the signal into it pretty hard, with the compressor on the THD setting, and it saturates in a really wonderful way. When I mix a bit of that in, it gives this gorgeous density without things sounding too built up."
Kevin Grainger: "If someone is absolutely obsessed with loudness, the nuances that the outboard gear brings to the table are just wiped out by the level."
Grainger stresses that despite his deluxe mastering options, all his mix decisions are made in the box, and then summed to his mastering chain, if he chooses to use it. Grainger's in-the-box environment is once again off the beaten track, as he uses Ableton Live running on Windows; and although he has just taken delivery of two insanely specced-out PCs built by Carillon, his rig at the time of writing still runs Windows 7!
"Apple are not a good company for me. We paid 18 grand for the two PCs, which include a lot of UAD cards, and the equivalent Apple computers were over 40 grand, each! If a power supply or CPU fan fails during a session, I can send one of our boys to a computer shop to get a new part, and bang it in and half an hour later we're up and running again. With an Apple, you need to send the machine back and it's gone for a couple of weeks. I just love the value and flexibility of PCs, and also because of mastering, I used SADiE a lot, which is on PC. I'm still on Windows 7, because that computer is not connected to the Internet, and I'm a great believer in not fixing what works. So I also often don't do updates.
"I've worked with Ableton since 2005. We did a lot of DJ mixes in those days for compilation albums. I took songs off a record player or CD player and compiled them in SADiE. It was cumbersome, and then James Zabelia, the DJ, came in and said, 'Have you seen Ableton? It will blow your mind!' By the end of that session I bought Ableton, and it became a huge part of our workflow. So as my work gradually progressed into stem mastering and then mixing, the way Ableton evolved with each update was perfect for me.
"The last two Ableton updates are a case in point. They have new features that I could now not even imagine working without, and I don't know any other DAW that does these things. The capacity to just keep grouping your tracks, and add new levels of processing each time, and change the order of the plug‑ins in your effect chains, and drag these chains around to other tracks and groups, is unbelievable, as is the parallel processing. You can have the automation at any point in the chain and move it around without losing anything. The control you have over routing and gain structure is incredible. It's just so flexible."
So, armed with his PMC speakers, Ableton Live and mastering outboard, how does Grainger pile into his dance mixes? The first topics he mentions are speed and objectivity. "Objectivity is one of the great things we bring to the table. You may have agonised over a snare sound for ages, but when I hear it, I make the necessary changes as quickly as I can, while I still have objectivity. I am careful not to go down that wormhole where you get lost in things and lose perspective. In Ableton I can route and group things quickly and make swift decisions, and get the vibe and direction of the mix right pretty quickly.
"I listen to the rough a lot, and put it at the bottom of my Ableton session, split to external outs, so I can level-match it without my master bus processing, and A/B it with what I'm doing. So all the way during my mix I can hear what the artist and the A&R and others involved in the project have been hearing. I have conversations with people first, and talk about their expectations and how attached they are to the rough. There often are a ton of people involved, also managers, record companies and so on, and a lot of my work can consist of managing politics. I can get stuck in the middle of some crazy conversations!
"Although people can send me Ableton sessions ever since Macs started using Intel, most of my mixes come in as stems. We like to get stems with and without effects, but that's not always possible, and I work with whatever I'm given. The first thing I do is arrange the stems in the session, colour-code them, and while doing that I'm all the time listening and getting familiar with the song. I used to have an assistant to do this and also things like topping and tailing tracks and making sure general levels are OK, but after he left I found that I really liked doing it myself. All that time spent doing this and listening is really valuable to connect me with the song.
"I check everything, especially timing. Dance music lives or dies with the groove, and whether it makes someone want to dance or not. I may move a snare or disco clap stem milliseconds to enhance the feel and groove of the track. That is super important to me. My mix workflow is to start with the kick and bass, and get the groove right, and then I add music, and more music, and the last thing I look at are the vocals. A lot of dance stuff only has vocals in the breakdowns, or maybe a chopped vocal in the drop or something, so getting the vocals to sit well is not always as critical as you may think."
With Grainger repeatedly emphasising the supreme importance of groove and the kick and the bass, the question arises as to what exactly he does to enhance them. "It's the relationship between the kick and the bass, it's the space between them, and how they interact to give you that groove. You want a big kick and a big bass, and finding the right balance between them is key.
"Sometimes the kick sits under the bass, as is common in rock; sometimes vice versa, as in hip-hop. More often than not they occupy the same space, and that's where syncopation and carving out the weight of the kick and weight of the bass are critical. I spend more time with every song on the kick and the bass than anything else. I'll often swap out kicks, or I may layer kicks, and get them to play off the bass. Getting the space and relationship between the kick and bass right is crucially important.
"It's where side-chaining comes in, but I'll side-chain a compressor to the transient of the kick, otherwise your release time does not work properly. This is where Ableton is great. You copy your kick track to another track, and then you can change the length of every sound that plays. So you can shorten the kick, or the clap, by taking off the decay, and that leaves you with only the transient, and I'll often use that as a side-chain trigger. I also sometimes mix that transient back in with the main kick to make it more clicky in certain sections, for example just in the drop sections, and then you can leave the kick more rounded in the verses. It's a really elegant way of working. This rather than using a plug‑in like the Transient Designer, and having to automate it.
"I also use the Wavesfactory Trackspacer for the side-chain, particularly if I want that to groove. The great thing about the Trackspacer is that you can take away only the frequencies that are fighting the kick. It is a phenomenal plug‑in. And again, I can apply it differently in different sections. The dynamics between different sections of a song are really important to me. I like consistency within sections, and variety between sections. So the sounds and levels of the kick or bass or other instruments will change from verse to chorus to drop and so on.
"Another issue in today's music is how you deal with sub-bass. I will often create a copy of the sub-bass track, take it up an octave, filter out the low end, so I just have a tiny amount of that octave above, and then mix this in with the main sub-bass track, to make sure the sub-bass carries through on small speakers. You don't want to hear it as an additional part. I don't ever want anyone to go, 'What have you stuck on my song?' I want them to go, 'Wow, how did you get my sub-bass to cut through on small speakers?' I do something similar with lots of sounds, such as horns. Lots of people filter horn stabs really aggressively below 500Hz or so, to take the weight off them. So I often copy horns to another track, take them down an octave, filter them, and add in a bit of 200-240 Hz, so you get that lovely weight again that you get from horns."