Recording a band – part 3
In the previous two blog posts, I have talked about what I do when recording a band in the studio. My first post concentrated on technicalities before the band arrives. The second post looked at things to consider during the actual session. With this in mind, I’m going to take a look at finishing and printing the mix.
What I’m not going to do is talk in depth about mixing. I want to talk about workflow, not to mention there are so many articles online that already cover the art of mixing in detail. Instead, I am going to take a look at productivity and my thought process – and more importantly some pitfalls to try to avoid.
A working template
I have already talked in the previous posts about my Pro Tools session template. This works as my recording as well as my mixing template. I would like to stress however, that this doesn’t mean I treat every session the same. Instead, the template has different tonal options set up in order to aid in quickly getting a sound for the record.
Even though I rely on a template, what I never use is compression and EQ presets. Rather, the template has routing pathways setup for parallel compression and effects.
I try to get most of the heavy lifting taken care of while recording – by using mic positioning and EQ for instance. By and large, anything else should be broad strokes or surgical in nature. If I have to alter the actual sound of something when mixing then it wasn’t captured right to begin with!
Thank you, Andrew!
My template has various pathways pre-defined including the following:
- Parallel compression for kick and snare
- A parallel compressor for other parts of the drumkit
- Parallel vocal compression
- Slap echo, reverb and Aphex exciter for vocal
- A parallel rear bus for everything except drums
- A mix insert to the Kush Clariphonic, DR-609 and CAPI BT50 hardware units.
- Global room reverb
The template I use is an adaptation of the Andrew Scheps template from PureMix. I’ve been using this template for a while and it’s great, but I have adapted it to my tastes and workflow. I have also integrated some choice hardware that I love to use as well as some outboard effects.
Working by feel
When mixing it’s best if you can work instinctively and by feel. With this in mind, I find a control surface far better than a mouse. For one thing, you can alter several controls at once and are thus more likely to create a musical balance. The control surface I have chosen to use in the recording studio is the Avid C|24.
I have several control templates setup for my go-to plugins. As a result, this allows me to get familiar with which controls to reach for. This, in turn, allows me to stay focused on the feel. In other words, the less you have to think about what you’re doing, the more musical the result will be as you will be feeling the music.
To begin with, I can select and load all plugins and second, I can quickly navigate around the session. Markers aid me in jumping to certain parts of the song, thereby allowing me to work fast. Thirdly I can select automation modes as well as making quick changes to headphone mixes. And finally, all plugin control is from the pots and faders and I do this all without a mouse. Try it. It’s very liberating!
Too much clutter?
In Pro Tools, I use markers for song location points but also for views in the arrange page. At the press of a button, I can switch from record to mix mode and that alters what is visible.
In record mode, I can see all tracks that have audio on them. The only Aux tracks that are visible are tracking effects for vocalists such as reverb. No VCAs are visible at this point and as a result, my session is streamlined and focuses on the recording.
When I hit the mix button, however, all other tracks come into view. All VCAs, aux faders, routing busses and master faders straightaway become visible. This allows me to push up some parallel faders and quickly find a sound for the record.
Sends to parallel paths such as compression and effects are preset in the template. The parallel tracks have their faders all the way down to start with. This allows you to fade up a parallel compressor or reverb and see how it suits the record. If it doesn’t work then you fade it down and try something else. This is all for the purpose of staying focused on the feel rather than on a technicality of setting up routing.
The mix bus
The analogue world
As soon as I start to mix a record I re-patch and activate the i/o and inserts on the mix bus. The first slot is a hardware insert to the Kush Clariphonic EQ which opens up the top end in a lovely way. This is then patched straight into my DIY-Racked DR-609 stereo compressor which is a clone of a Neve 33609. Notwithstanding its ability to “glue” a mix together, this compressor has a wonderful rich tone that I love.
I set this to unlinked operation so each side compresses from its own side-chain input. In effect, this means a loud sound on the right channel won’t bring the level down on the left and vice versa. In general, I find this produces a much more musical result on the mix bus than a linked stereo compressor.
After that insert, the signal hits a trim plugin for the purpose of gain staging before another insert. This time the signal goes through my CAPI BT-50 EQs. These are clones of vintage API 550 units. I have these set to a top and bottom shelf boost so that I don’t have to use as much EQ per channel.
The digital world
Finally, I use various plugins, including some saturation, particularly Cranesong’s Phoenix. Besides this, I also use some metering from Waves to check my levels.
I have a couple of master faders setup in Pro Tools. This is another great feature which allows me to change the level hitting any outboard.
The Print Track
Finally, my mix bus gets routed through to one fader – the print track. Everything ends here and this gives me one final fader that in effect, controls the main volume. Altering this doesn’t change the gain through any plugins or hardware.
One benefit of having this setup is that it’s very easy to record the mix back into the session for instance. I can then use the Pro Tools playlist feature to record different mix revisions on the same track. This allows me to A|B between different mixes in the event that changes are necessary.
Furthermore, this allows me to alter one section without having to record the whole mix again. For example, I can record a small section before crossfading this with the previous take. In short, this saves a lot of time when going through lists of mix tweaks with the client!
I use 3 different sets of speakers in the control room. In the first place, I have a pair of Neumann KH80s which are incredible – they have a lot of bass for such a small speaker. Second I have my Yamaha NS10s, which in comparison to the KH80s, give me a good idea of the mid-range balance. Finally, I also check the balance on a mono Fostex speaker.
For the most part, I mix at low volumes because this always lets you know if something is out of balance. What’s more, you can work longer hours as it isn’t as fatiguing. It’s important to realise that listening at high volumes tires your ears out. Besides that, everything sounds great when it’s loud – which on the whole isn’t very helpful!
It’s even more important to check your mix on ear-buds or headphones. In truth, this is how most people listen to music nowadays, thus it’s important to check how it sounds. Likewise, it’s good to check on laptop or iPad speakers for a real-world test.
I have recently been using the Waves WLM loudness meter on the mix bus. Several clients have recently stipulated desired loudness levels for online streaming services. Now that Spotify, iTunes and YouTube are all now advising specific LUFS or loudness levels, It’s worth checking because if your tracks are too loud they will have their subjective level reduced.
Setting this up early in the mixing process changes how hard you hit certain compressors and EQs. With this in mind, it’s worth checking with your client as to their intended end medium. This plugin does some latency so generally I only activate it once overdubs are complete.
It’s inevitable that you need to revisit mixes from time to time to make small changes. I render my main mix back into Pro Tools in real time in order that the most current mix is saved with the session. This is partly because I use outboard hardware during the mix but also because of my version of Pro Tools HD. I use a TDM system which needs to process the audio in real-time. Overall this has never bothered me though as I prefer to listen to the final mix from start to finish.
In the event that I have to make slight changes to a mix then I can create a new playlist and re-record it. If there is only one small change, it’s easier to record that section before joining it to create a new audio file.
Any hardware settings I need to recall also get written into the track comments section. It’s then a simple matter of making sure the right hardware gets patched in when reloading the mix.
To sum up, I hope this has given you some insight into the process of recording a band in the studio. No two sessions are the same but as I have shown, there are certain things you can to do be consistent and prepared.