The Woodleys: our engineer treats a modern band to a vintage sound.
Many of the tracks submitted for the Mix Rescue treatment seem to have fallen down at the recording/arrangement stage — it’s no surprise that a mix doesn’t ‘work’ if the recordings are substandard in the first place, or if there’s a clash between instruments in the arrangement. And while it’s obviously useful to demonstrate what can be achieved with such recordings at the mix stage, it’s important when reading our Mix Rescue articles that you don’t take away the message that you should fix things in the mix like this. All that ‘fixing’ inevitably gets in the way of your creative decision making — which, when you know what you’re doing with your basic toolset, is really the difference between an average mix and one that’s breathtaking. With this in mind, rather than ‘rescue’ a sub-par mix this month, I thought I’d take you through my approach to mixing a track that arrived in relatively rude health. The track is ‘Sometime’ by Cambridgeshire band the Woodleys.
The first step for me in any mix is to discuss with the artists their own ideas. This can stop you wasting a lot of time second-guessing their tastes and expectations, save a lot of wasted effort later on in the process and, hopefully, inspire you to stretch yourself a little and make a better mix. Things evolve naturally once you get started, of course, but our early impressions and opinions are always worth coming back to as the objectivity we have with fresh ears quickly evaporates once we get mixing!
Dale and Tom from the band used terms like ‘vintage’ and ‘classic’ to describe their ambitions for the sonic aesthetic of this track, and offered Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac as a specific influence. But, they said, they also wanted the track to ‘stand up’ alongside the productions of more modern artists, citing Foster The People as an example.
At first, the idea of ‘vintage’ but ‘modern’ felt about as specific as the instructions I give when I sit down for a haircut. So I spent some time pondering how I could work towards their vision. Quite a few successful acts have achieved this oxymoronic feat in recent years: the Black Keys, for instance, and Adele. But that sort of aesthetic isn’t something that can be ‘injected’ by the mix engineer alone. The quality of the songwriting and the vibe contributed by the artists themselves is always at the heart of such things, and the approach to tracking is also important. And while I’ll often be responsible for the whole process of recording and mixing a project, I didn’t become involved with this track until the mix stage, which meant that such things were beyond my control.
In terms of mixing, I think of ‘vintage’ things, of the sort the band described, as sounding ‘smooth’ and a little less ‘bright’ than most contemporary tracks. Any effects are usually well-judged and effective, but pretty basic — careful use of things like an echo or tape delays on vocals and drums, for instance. Such tracks often seem to have more open dynamics, with less aggressive and less extensive use of compression. I resolved to keep these ideas in mind as I embarked on the mix.
Meanwhile, I had some housekeeping to do. As always, the first task was getting to grips with the various sources in the track and to organise things to make the job of mixing easier. For ‘Sometimes’, I had at my disposal a well-recorded drum kit with a few extra percussion tracks, one DI’d bass guitar track, an acoustic guitar, a live piano part recorded in stereo, both lead and backing vocals, and a few atmospheric electric guitars. I laid all these out in my preferred way in my DAW (Ableton Live) and performed some basic labelling and grouping. I then created a very quick and basic mix, balancing levels, checking for the best polarity on the multitrack drum channels, and establishing some rudimentary pan settings for stereo elements, including the drum overhead and piano mics. The whole mix preparation process took about 20 minutes, but it was time well spent. Not only did it make things easier, but during that time I made a few mental notes of my first impressions of the tracks — I could hear that the vocals needed a little ‘work’ and that the live piano, whilst very nice, occupied quite a chunk of the frequency spectrum.
For a long time, I used very little mix-bus processing, but recently I’ve come to the conclusion that it can help you get to the most important stage of a mix more quickly, and it can also leave you needing less processing on individual tracks. With the basic level/pan settings done, I placed three plug-ins on my master stereo channel before I started mixing, and this shaped my approach to the mix a great deal.
The first plug-in was Slate Digital’s VTM analogue tape emulation. I like the softening effect tape has on the top end, and the ability to adjust how hard the plug-in is ‘driven’ later in the mix provides an interesting degree of tonal control, particularly if you add in the different tape and machine emulations.
I also used Plugin Alliance’s Maag EQ4, mainly to add a generous top end and ‘air’ boost — like the Maag hardware on which it’s based, this plug-in allows you to set a very-high frequency boost. It’s not that you can hear much at 20kHz (it even has a 40kHz option) but it lifts the ‘air’ well below that frequency, in a very smooth way which makes it a great partner for the tape emulation. By placing EQ4 on the bus, I’d only need to use one instance, rather than deploy it on several sources. As well as the top end boost, I dialled in a slight dip at 650Hz and a tiny low-end peaking boost at 40Hz — I don’t suggest too many tweaks on a bus EQ like this but on the basic level mix this got me closer to the right result quickly.
The other plug-in was Waves’ SSL bus compressor emulation, which I like using very subtly (for no more than a couple of dB gain reduction). This amount of processing this early on in a mix might seem heavy handed, but it’s important to note that doing this at the beginning, or at the early stage of a mix, and then ‘mixing in’ and reacting to the processing is a very different proposition from slapping on EQ and processing towards the end of a mix, either to compensate for problems you should have tackled elsewhere, or to give a track a more ‘mastered’ sound.
My initial quick balancing and listening session revealed a nicely recorded drum kit. I had a pair of overheads, two kick mics, top and bottom snare, toms and a mono room track. I had in mind a drum sound with a vintage ’70s feel. That era of recording seems to be characterised by quite a dry drum sound, less compressed than today but with quite a fat snare, almost boxy-sounding toms, and perhaps a little delay or short reverb.
Counter-intuitively, a natural ‘dry’ drum sound is best captured in a large room, as this allows the room and overhead mics to be placed far enough away to ‘see’ a full image of the kit without them being washed in reflections. This kit obviously hadn’t been recorded in a large room, so to achieve the sound I wanted, I’d need a stronger contribution from the close mics than I’d normally opt for.
Tackling the kick and snare first, I experimented with gating their close mics to create a defined sound that could be used prominently in the drum mix. Gating is perhaps used less on recorded drums than it once was — strip-silence tools and automation can perform a similar function but offer more control — but I find that gating can be quite a quick and musical process once you’ve got the hang of it. For this track, I found that adjusting the release time on the gate to give a longer or shorter tail helped shape the feel of the drum sound.
In order to get a gate to work more effectively I like to do a little processing to make detection easier for the gate. A transient-shaping plug-in, such as the SPL Transient Designer, can be used to pull back the sustain a little. This almost acts like a gate in itself, by reducing the level of the sound that occurs after the initial attack. I find that this, combined with a little compression to even out the drum hits, can help a great deal. Things get a bit more complicated if you’re mixing a track with a lot of different dynamics, and for this track I multed (duplicated), the snare track so that I could fine-tune things easily for two different song sections. Another useful tip is that most gates (though not all) have a ‘floor’ or ‘range’ control, the purpose of which is to let through the full signal where the gate is open, but only attenuate rather than silence the rest. This helps create a more natural-sounding result, much more easily. If your gate doesn’t have this feature, you can create an ungated ‘mult’ of the part and blend it in to create your floor.
In terms of EQ, I added 3dB to the snare at 200Hz, to add some thickness, along with a little brightening at 3.5 and 5 kHz. I made the under-snare mic track really bright by boosting around 5kHz. It sounded horrific when soloed, but when used alongside the rest of the kit, it allowed me to blend in more brightness and ‘snare’ snap simply by nudging a fader. The processing for each snare ‘mult’ was fairly similar, the main difference being that I adjusted the gate and compressor thresholds to suit the different parts.
For the kick I decided to use just the outside mic, as I didn’t require the part to have much attack or ‘click’. The processing that I used on the kick was pretty basic apart from a sample of a 909 kick drum that I added during the verse sections. I liked the way that this sample’s long tail made the drums seem a bit richer during the more spacious verses — and it also helped add that little bit of ‘modern’ to the overall vibe, but I used it quite subtly. I then balanced my kick and snare close mics so that they sat nicely with the overheads, which were hard-panned left and right, and had a high-pass filter set at around 90Hz, to let the close kick mic take care of the low frequencies unimpeded.
Although the toms had already been recorded with quite a damped sound, it took a hefty dose of EQ to remove what was left of the resonance to create the boxiness I wanted. For the rack tom, I identified the right area via trial and error (you could use a frequency analyser, I suppose, but it’s a good idea to train your ears!), and found that removing almost as much as I could at 670Hz seemed to get me close to what I wanted. A little boost at 163Hz brought back some overall fullness to the sound, and with some fairly hard gating it sounded promising. A similar process worked for the floor tom, with the resonance removal at 470Hz and the boost at 120Hz. With a good foundation laid for the drum sound, I decided to move on to other things, rather than get bogged down in fine-tuning or effects — such decisions are better done in context, with more work done on the rest of the mix.
Although keen to get the vocal in place, I decided first to do more work on the backbone of the music, to help me make sense of things. Being a frequency hogger, both the piano and the instruments which it overlapped would take a little space management to get everything sitting together effectively. Starting with the bass guitar, this had obviously already been compressed while tracking and, tonally at least, it was doing pretty much what it needed to.
I applied a little filtering EQ (a high-pass at around 35Hz, a low-pass around 4kHz) and identified a nice area to boost (around 1.2kHz) that I suspected could help give the bass a little presence when the mix got more crowded. Soloing the bass against the drums, though, I noticed a few timing mistakes, which required attention. Using Ableton Live’s audio-warping facility, I went quickly through the track, dragging a note here and there to make things tighter. This was ridiculously easy for me, as the track was recorded to a click, but note that in such cases it’s easy to get carried away; if you’re not careful you’ll erase all the nice, natural nuances that help listeners identify a live performance.
With the bass guitar and drums sitting nicely together, I brought in the live piano and it was clear to me immediately that either the bass or piano would have to give up some of its low-frequency information. My decision was to remove some low end from the piano, as it was much more of a major player in the mid-range, and the bass guitar was operating in a range where it would be wrong to significantly remove any low frequencies. I found that a simple high-pass filter around 90Hz and a 2dB cut at 240Hz on the piano allowed them to sit together much better — and I felt that it was high time to get the vocals properly involved.
The vocals consisted of singer Dale’s lead part, which was double-tracked for parts of the chorus, and some nice harmonising backing parts towards the end of the track. Drummer Tom had also performed a lovely harmony vocal for the choruses, and I was keen to give this the prominence it deserved.
I spent a while listening to and playing with the balance of the vocals before deciding whether I was going to have to ‘improve’ the tuning — there weren’t any major problems, but in the end I felt a little tuning correction (courtesy of Melodyne), just to improve the accuracy of the note centres, was necessary in places because I planned to have the vocals quite high in the mix. It’s so easy to overdo pitch correction, even when you set out with the most honourable intentions. It’s a bit like painting just one wall in a house; when you’re done, you notice how dirty all the other walls look so you’re tempted to paint the next one, and the next, and so on. I took great care to strike the right balance — and I’d like to think that you’d struggle to notice that the vocals had been tuned at all!
I’d recently heard acclaimed mixer Tom Elmhirst (Adele, Amy Winehouse, Arcade Fire) discuss his use of very narrow peaking cuts of EQ to remove harsh frequencies on a lead vocal almost completely. It sounds like a severe way of treating a lead element in your mix, but it had worked really well for me in the not-too-distant past, and I was keen to see if it would work here. The technique involves making a very large but narrow peaking boost and sweeping it around the troublesome area until you find the most unpleasant frequency, which is normally in the 1-4kHz range. You then take the peak down to something like -20 or 30 dB. To use this technique, it’s important that you have an EQ that’s capable of very narrow notches: on the Waves EQ I used on Dale’s lead vocal (at 1207 and 2607 Hz) the Q setting was 90, which is very narrow indeed. Despite tackling the harshness, there were no unwanted audible side-effects. It’s wise to tread carefully with such dramatic EQ treatments, and I recommend careful A-B comparison to make sure you’re not losing something important in terms of diction or character.
Given my aesthetic goal, I wanted to apply some fairly bold, stylistic effects to the key elements of this track, and my next task was to try and get these in place. We have seemingly endless effects available today, but I had in mind to restrict myself to the more limited options that would have been available to previous generations of engineers. I thought sharing only one or two delays or echoes across the whole track might put me the right path. After a period of experimentation, I ended up finding the first echo effect by putting it on the snare drum. Using Soundtoys’ excellent Echoboy plug-in, I found that a really short 1/64-note delay with the feedback control turned up did something really nice to the ‘bounce’ and ‘feel’ of the drums. Things can get over the top quickly with drum effects, so I used Echoboy’s very tweakable controls to make sure that, while the delay was bold, it would not cloud things up too much. This was mainly a case of focusing the delay more on the upper mid-range of the drums with the low- and high-cut EQ controls, and turning down the ‘wobble’ knob.
Another delay plug-in I really like, for its ability to be tailored to your source, is Waves’ Manny Marroquin Delay. It does a great job of the classic slap tape-echo effect, and the reverb and distortion controls allow you to ‘open up’ the echo and make it more spacious and reverb-like. After fine-tuning a slap echo I liked for the main vocal effect, I looked for the best way of using my chosen effects to help pull all the different elements of the track together. The drum effects seemed to work best used directly on the desired tracks as an insert, whereas the tape-echo effect was used as a send, to be shared around and used on various elements.
For the acoustic guitar, the main challenges were to find a nice spot in the stereo panorama, and judging how much low end to remove to make it work with the bass guitar and piano — all fairly easy. One problem, though, was how to tackle some background ‘hiss’ that I could hear at the beginning of the track, where the guitar was played more quietly. This sounded like the sort of hiss that’s often caused by turning the preamp gain right up when using a low-output mic, and although a little of this wouldn’t hurt the vintage vibe, it was too much for me! I ended up using a Waves X-Noise restoration plug-in to bring this under control, using the ‘learn’ function on a section of the hiss before the guitar started playing. This allowed the plug-in to learn the ‘profile’ of the sound I was asking it to attenuate. You get a few wobbly artifacts with this process, but using the threshold and reduction controls I was able to find a happy medium. Although it was a definite improvement, I only applied this processing to the quiet sections. Having made ‘loud’ and ‘quiet’ mults for this purpose, I was also able to tailor the EQ and compression for the verses and choruses.
The last elements of the mix to go into place were a couple of nice, atmospheric delayed electric-guitar tracks. I edited these a little, to try and give them just a touch more structure and to create more space in the second verse — which I‘m pleased to say the band really liked.
With all the parts working nicely together, I was free to focus on fine-tuning the overall mix balance. My primary focus was getting the vocals to ‘sit’ right. I usually find this the hardest part of a mix to perfect, and often find myself making a few revisions, tweaking the level by just 1dB or so. Fresh ears are your best friend when making these critical decisions; experience has taught me to resist the urge to send a mix to a client at the end of a long mix session. The next day, with fresh ears, I’ll know within 20 seconds if it’s right or not.
Happy with my levels, having done a little automation on the vocal and guitar tracks, the final job was to subtly tweak the mix-bus processing I’d set up at the outset. This mainly entailed playing with the Slate Digital tape emulation plug-in — I found that letting the mix ‘hit’ the virtual tape a little harder did something nice to the sound, and added some pleasant ‘rounding’ to the drum transients. Changing from two-inch to half-inch tape and selecting a different tape formulation also seemed to offer some subtle yet noticeable benefits, particularly in respect of the overall brightness of the track.
The question of how much overall ‘top end’ was right for this mix triggered my last internal debate. After checking the mix in my car and on a home stereo I ended up adding just a touch more of my high-shelf boost on the Maag mix-bus EQ. This was more of a mastering process than an adjustment of the mix, I suppose, but as the EQ was already making a contribution it made sense to get it right. After applying some limiting on the last part of my mix-bus chain, to bring the volume up to something approaching commercial levels, my mix was ready to send to the band.
Writing this article afforded me the opportunity to come back and really listen to my mix after a little time away, which is always interesting. I felt that I’d arrived at something like the modern take on a vintage vibe that I’d set out to achieve. In hindsight, I think I could have been even bolder with the effects, but when it comes to the crunch it takes courage to stick your neck out with really full-on effect decisions, and the artists won’t always react as you’d hope! Being disciplined and not overdoing timing changes and tuning were really important elements in managing this production, and I found the process of instantiating my mix-bus processors at an early stage in the mix to be very useful. The band were really pleased with the balance I’d achieved, and aside from one set of very small revisions, it was all wrapped up with a minimum of fuss.
You can find several audio examples taken from this month’s mix on the SOS web site, including pre- and post-processing versions of all instruments and the final version of the mix.
The use of effects is one area you often don’t hear being discussed when people talk about using reference tracks while mixing, but it’s something that I find quite useful. I’m often surprised when, on my studio monitors, I listen to a commercial track that I like and discover just how loud and bold the use of effects is. Effects are a hugely subjective thing, of course, but if you like a delay or whatever, it’s sometimes better to not be afraid to be ‘loud and proud’ with your tastes. When played on smaller speakers, car stereo systems and the like, I often find that spatial effects like reverb and delay tend to become less noticeable, and you often also have the problem of stereo effects collapsing somewhat when played in mono, due to phase cancellation — so if your effect is an important part of the mix, and not just fairy dust, make sure you check how it works in mono. The use of EQ placed before or after a delay or reverb can help to get these effects working on just the right areas of your track, again allowing you to be bold without intruding on the rest of your mix. Even just using a high-pass filter at 100Hz, with some of the higher frequencies brought down via a gentle shelf EQ can work wonders.
The Woodleys are an acoustic folk/country band from Cambridgeshire, UK. The track ‘Sometime’ featured in this article is on their new Little Miss EP, which is available now on iTunes and CD.