We try to bring a bit less garage and a bit more rock to a self‑recorded production with a retro feel.
What makes a mix sound warm? Ask a hundred engineers and you'll probably get a hundred different answers. Many of these will probably involve saturation and distortion, but my own feeling is that distortion alone doesn't usually have the required effect. A more fundamental part of the equation, to me, is the overall balance of frequencies that a recording presents to the listener. Most of the recordings we think of as sounding warm do so because the overall focus is squarely on the mid‑range, with high frequencies being less prominent.
Back in the '60s, this sort of mid‑range focus was almost forced upon recording engineers. Even if they had had the technology to capture very high and very low frequencies faithfully, it would have been wasted on the replay systems of the day. Tape machines attenuated high end significantly, especially when submixes were bounced to conserve track counts. Microphones of the time did not tend to have the sort of fierce high‑frequency lift you find in many of today's project‑studio capacitor mics, and they were typically employed at greater distances from the sources.
To my mind, then, 'vintage warmth' is mainly a product of overall spectral balance. True, some recordings from the '60s do exhibit obvious distortion, and with the right source, saturation can contribute to the impression of warmth by thickening up the mid‑range. However, if there is already lots of treble content in the source, applying distortion can quickly make the top end harsh and gritty — the very opposite of warmth.
This point was readily apparent in some of the source tracks for this month's Mix Rescue. Othmar Schönafinger is a project studio owner who, true to the garage‑rock spirit, likes to work as fast as possible, committing his recordings to disk before inspiration fades. With his self‑recorded track 'Oh Boy', he had been looking for a modern sound with a bit of '60s garage‑rock warmth, but what he had ended up with sounded too much like a demo, being — in his words — "muddy and crowded”.
It's often the case that mixing challenges result from arrangement issues as well as recording problems, but on downloading the multitrack, I was pleased to find that this was definitely not the case here. As well as drums, Othmar had tracked acoustic and electric guitars, electric bass, Farfisa organ, tambourine, shaker, and lead and backing vocals. Everything had a clearly defined musical role, there were no serious tuning problems, and all the different instruments stayed nicely out of each other's way. So far, so good.
Othmar himself suspected that the roots of the mix problems lay in his haste to get the song tracked as quickly as he could. The drums had been tracked with an experimental miking arrangement he'd put together on the spur of the moment, and as no other drummer had been available, Othmar had played the kit, heavily editing the results in Logic to create a rhythm track over which other parts had later been overdubbed. And, as he'd warned, the drum tracks were indeed a bit of a mess. The bass‑drum sound was feeble and beset with spill from the other drums; and while the top snare mic sounded pretty good, the under‑snare mic was badly clipped. There were no close mics on the toms, and rather than use a stereo pair of overheads, Othmar had set up three separate mics in different positions around the kit. These consisted of a mono overhead, a ribbon mic to pick up room ambience, and a Shure 55 'Elvis' dynamic mic between the kick and snare drum.
The last two were pretty lo‑fi, and although they had the potential to sound quite cool in a supporting role, it was clear that the main presentation of the kit would need to come from the overhead mic. You'd expect that recording an obscure omnidirectional dynamic mic from the former East Germany through a valve preamp would give you warmth in spades, but the reality was rather different. The mic itself obviously had a very crisp treble response, and the additional saturation added by the preamp made things pretty harsh and aggressive. Othmar's editing had also introduced some awkward level jumps and suspicious transient spikes, but he was unable to track down the unedited drum takes, so I was stuck with what we had.
The lead vocal had, likewise, been recorded with a bright capacitor mic (in this case a Rode NT2A), and once again, the additional harmonic content added by a valve preamp had made it sound edgy. The acoustic guitar parts too were recorded using a capacitor mic through a valve preamp, and on top of that, had been played aggressively and miked a little too close, yielding boomy low‑mids and a harsh top end. By contrast, Othmar had recorded his Vox AC15 guitar amp with a ribbon mic, and the electric guitars sounded great.
From a mixing point of view, then, I felt there were two main goals. One was to give the whole assemblage the right spectral balance, so that neither the mix nor its constituent elements sounded harsh or, at the other extreme, muddy. The other was to make a collection of overdubs feel more like a coherent group performance. Although everything had been recorded in the same room, close‑miking had been used almost exclusively, and both the bass and organ were DI'd. I felt work needed to be done to 'glue' all the parts together sonically.
As luck would have it, Othmar's multitrack arrived just as I was starting work on two products that are reviewed in this issue: Softube's Console 1 and Universal Audio's Apollo Twin. The former provides a well‑featured emulation of the SSL E‑series channel strip with a dedicated hardware controller, while the latter is an audio interface that builds in the UAD2 Powered Plug‑ins platform. I decided to see if I could remix 'Oh Boy' using these as my main tools: Console 1 as an insert on every channel, and UAD plug‑ins for other processing and auxiliary effects.
My first task was to try to make the drums sound punchy and coherent, and this was a task that turned out to be ideally suited to Console 1. Not only does the channel strip have all the necessary processing built in, but the controller makes it easy to flip instantly between different channels, allowing me to build up the drum sound through incremental EQ tweaks. I reasoned that if I could re‑shape the individual tracks to shift their focus to the mid‑range — somewhere between perhaps 600Hz and 1.8kHz — then hopefully the whole drum mix would begin to punch through in this area, rather than being dominated by woofy low frequencies or gritty cymbal crashes.
In pursuit of this goal, I ended up carving some pretty extreme EQ shapes: the overhead mic, for instance, received a 9dB cut at 2.4kHz and a 4.5dB shelving cut from 1.5kHz upwards. I also made full use of some other Console 1 features. The built‑in gate helped to tame some of the snare spill on the kick drum mic, and the transient shaper made it punch through a bit more, as did moderate compression with a fast attack. My favourite feature, though, is the saturation section. Depending on where you position the Drive Character control, this can be used to brighten up a source by adding upper‑mid harmonics, or to thicken and enrich the low‑mids, de‑emphasising the treble by comparison. No prizes for guessing which direction I turned it on most of the drum tracks!
Once I'd managed to inject some punch into the drum sound, I began to think about how it might be made a bit more expansive. A stereo drum mix wasn't really an option, as the Elvis mic had picked up a completely different picture of the kit from the overhead, and panning them made me feel seasick. Instead, I set up two reverb sends with different instances of Acon Digital's Verberate plug‑in. Since the under‑snare mic wasn't really usable as a dry signal, I routed this directly to the first instance, where I loaded a chamber preset. The second reverb was a very short stereo ambience, and I applied this to the entire drum mix using a send on my drum bus. This stereo ambience helped to glue together the different drum mics, and would eventually serve the same function for nearly everything in the mix. Some tape emulation from the UA Ampex ATR 102 plug‑in, running in 15ips mode, also helped thicken the sound and tame those harsh high frequencies still further.
Even after all this work, there were places where Othmar's hasty editing job had left the drums sounding disjointed and scrappy. The main culprit was the overhead mic, so I spent an hour or so drawing out errant waveform spikes with Pro Tools' pencil tool, and using level automation to duck some obtrusive cymbal splashes. I also brought up the level of the tom fills in the overhead track, to compensate for the lack of a close mic.
Next, I turned my attention to the DI'd bass guitar. I flirted with the idea of beefing up the song's garage‑rock quotient by turning it into a JJ Burnel‑style 'lead bass' using distortion plug‑ins and amp simulators, but was never entirely happy with the results, and eventually abandoned this idea in favour of a more subtle approach. The main issue with the recording was that the instrument had apparently been played quite hard with a plectrum, resulting in a huge transient spike at the start of each note. Again, Console 1's transient shaper came to the rescue here. Once again, I used the Drive section to thicken up the sound, and compression to even out the overall level. A boost at 2.7kHz helped the instrument cut through, and I found that overlapping a high‑pass filter and a low shelving boost served to add weight to the 100Hz region whilst reducing unwanted sub‑bass. Adding reverb to a bass guitar might not seem like the most obvious thing to do, but again, I set up a send to the stereo ambience, to try to give the impression that it had been recorded in the same space as the kit.
There were two tracks of Othmar's gloriously cheesy (and alarmingly crackly) Farfisa organ, playing the same part an octave apart. I kept the high part throughout, but used the low part only in the intro and outro where it needed to be more prominent. The electric guitars were, as I've already mentioned, in pretty good shape, though I applied some gentle EQ to tone down the thick lower mids. In some cases, Othmar had doubled the same parts using slightly different sounds. I'm not a big fan of double‑tracking for the sake of it, so I simply chose the ones I liked best and muted the others.
Othmar had, likewise, recorded two acoustic guitar tracks. I thought at first that one was a simple double of the other, and prepared to jettison it as unnecessary, but it turned out that in some parts of the song they were playing different parts, so I kept them both in, and used level automation to change the balance between them in various song sections. In both cases, the recorded sound was dominated by low‑mid boom and scratchy treble. Removing the former was easy enough: as the acoustic guitars were never exposed, I could eliminate everything below 300Hz or so with impunity. Dealing with the latter was rather more difficult, and my eventual solution involved a combination of shelving cut from 8kHz up, the darkest possible Drive setting, and another UA Ampex ATR 102, again in 15ips mode. The end result was, I hope, an acoustic sound that was still bright, but in a good way, with plenty of jangle in the upper mid‑range but a much smoother top end. I used similar treatment on the tambourine and shaker, too, and again, all received a healthy dose of stereo ambience.
The biggest challenge was the lead vocal track. Simply cutting the high frequencies using the Console 1 EQ left it sounding dull and unexciting, without completely eradicating the harshness. It was clear that more 'beef' needed to be brought to the vocal sound. Once again, I tried to do this by applying saturation, but targeting this towards the lower half of the mid-range. It took two plug‑ins to achieve the necessary tonal re‑shaping: as well as applying EQ, compression and Drive in Console 1, I used UA's 610A preamp emulation, with the treble EQ set to the ‑6dB position and enough virtual gain to add audible saturation. Even with so much top end rolled off, I still felt that Othmar's sibilants were coming through a bit too strongly, so I also used Fabfilter's excellent Pro‑DS to tame them.
The Console 1 approach to mixing is great fun, but brings in its wake the temptation to rely too much on compression for level control, as the hardware controller can only address the Console 1 plug‑in itself, rather than the DAW's faders. The Console 1 compressor was doing a good job of pinning the vocal level, but when I finally girded my loins and added some level automation, I felt it did make a noticeable improvement.
Othmar's original mix had employed a tape‑style slapback delay on the vocal to good effect, so I set up something similar on an auxiliary send using another instance of the Ampex ATR 102 plug‑in. I also sent the vocal to both of the reverbs I'd already set up, and in case it wasn't sounding wet enough, added an instance of UA's EMT Plate 140 for extra richness.
The vocal part for the song's middle-eight section had been recorded to a separate track, and was crying out for a psychedelic treatment to help break up the song. To this end, I added some reverse reverb to the start of each phrase, but this alone didn't really do the job. In fact, Othmar didn't even notice it was there in the first mix I sent him. It also turned out that he wasn't very happy with his vocal performance in this section, so when I came to revise the mix, I ran this part through Melodyne to correct the most obvious pitch deviations, and devised a more radical vocal effect using two instances of Softube's Tube Delay plug‑in panned hard left and right.
The remaining tracks consisted of two groups of backing vocals: four takes of a simple harmony part, which had been pitch‑corrected to the point where they sounded distinctly electronic, and six tracks of chanting and handclaps intended to create the impression of a gang vocal at the end. I panned these across the stereo spectrum, and with the aim of making them sound more like a group of people singing in a room, heavily cut the top end and added improbable quantities of reverb.
Of course, describing a mix by going through each instrument in turn doesn't explain the path by which those settings were reached — a path that is, in practice, often rather winding and confused! As I mentioned at the beginning, one of my main aims with this particular mix was to give the whole thing a pleasing spectral balance. A tool I rely on a great deal for evaluating this aspect of a mix is Focusrite's VRM Box, a headphone amp with software speaker modelling. It doesn't quite replicate on headphones the experience of listening on speakers, but what makes it invaluable for me is the ability to switch instantly between a range of different loudspeaker and room models. Do this with a well-balanced, properly mastered, professional mix, and it's amazing how consistent the sound remains. If there's anything wrong with the frequency balance, by contrast, you'll hear alarming jumps in the tonality as you switch between speaker models.
Depending on how far out of whack things are to start with, re‑shaping the overall frequency content can be quite a challenge, and my own approach is usually to treat it as an iterative process. I'll get a rough balance together, then place an EQ across the master bus and try to figure out what sort of overall spectral changes are needed to match my reference material. I'll then bypass this EQ and try to manipulate individual source tracks to shift the overall frequency balance appropriately. After several rounds of applying master EQ, then removing it and adjusting individual sources, I hope to get eventually to a place where the spectral balance of the mix as a whole requires little or no master EQ to make it acceptable. 'Oh Boy' was more of a struggle than most in this respect, and even in my final mix I wasn't able to eliminate the need for master EQ entirely. Some of this I implemented as dynamic EQ using Fabfilter's Pro MB multi‑band processor, as this seemed effective at retaining brightness in the upper‑mids yet avoiding harshness.I also employed another instance of UA's Ampex ATR 102 tape emulator, again set to 15ips, to provide still more smoothing of those harsh high frequencies. Finally, some fairly aggressive limiting was necessary to match the loudness of Othmar's original mix.
Othmar Schönafinger is a musician and producer from South Tyrol, Italy. "I played guitar in various bands (John's Revolution, the Fabulous Exploding Lovers, Jesus Christ Superfuzz) and was always the main songwriter in the past. I am now looking to get together a new band called the Shea. I have another solo project called Liquid Gas, which is more electronic and psychedelic. I mainly do it all myself — writing, playing, recording, mixing — as I like to work quickly and get tired of waiting for the others to show up! I will include 'Oh Boy!' in the next single, which maybe I will release in May 2014.” Anyone who's interested in Othmar's earlier work should visit https://soundcloud.com/zinzin.
Lately, I've taken to listening in mono a lot while mixing. I find this forces me to concentrate on the issues that are most fundamental to creating a good mix: the relative levels of the instruments, and the ways in which they fight each other for those all‑important chunks of mid‑range frequency spectrum. There's also the psychological boost of cancelling the mono button at the end of a mix session and suddenly hearing everything in glorious stereo!
In the case of 'Oh Boy', Othmar's original panning decisions were quite conservative, so I was able to achieve a broader stereo impression without problems for mono compatibility simply by hard‑panning a lot of the mono sources. Lead vocals, bass and drums went straight down the centre, while almost everything else ended up either hard right or left. Every source in the entire mix also went to my stereo ambience to at least some extent (provided by Acon Digital's Verberate plug‑in); this too helped the whole thing feel wider, though like all such reverbs, it doesn't survive being collapsed to mono with much grace.
"Well, it sounds pro now! And still garage‑rocky! I love how I can hear my recording room in the mix, it gives it character. Everything has its place like it should be, even if that means that my sloppy playing is more exposed now! I do miss my big, fat, low snare a bit in the new mix, but Sam's mix just works and sounds spot on. OK, now you gotta tell me what exactly you did to the kick! And how did you manage to get the bass guitar right?…”
To hear 'before and after' examples of the complete mix and the main elements, go to /sos/jun14/articles/mixrescuemedia.htm.
The 'before and after' mixes, roughly level‑matched. The original is pretty loud, so a fair amount of limiting was necessary to achieve this!
In these files you hear each drum mic in turn — kick, snare bottom, snare top, overhead, 'Elvis' mic and room mic — followed by the complete drum mix. As you can hear, the under‑snare mic was used only as a reverb feed in the final mix.
The bass guitar received some transient processing to tame the note attacks, plus compression and saturation.
The raw acoustic guitar sound combined a woofy low end with harsh high frequencies. This was tackled using EQ and a tape emulator.
As recorded, the lead vocal sound was thin and harsh. Quite a lot of processing was required to thicken it up.
This chorus of Othmar Schönafingers appears towards the end of the song. With the aim of making it sound more like a real group of singers, I rolled off a lot of the top end and applied masses of reverb.
In remixing 'Oh Boy' I made a lot of use of the Drive saturation control in Softube's Console 1. Out of curiousity I decided to see how the mix would change if I reset the Drive controls on every channel to zero... the answer is "very different indeed”, as well as being some 7 or 8 dB quieter (before limiting).