Chasing Your Sound in The Studio

Posted by The Audio Hunt

Shem Allen, a musician, producer and sound recordist writes about working in the studio, choosing your mix engineer and chasing unique sound on your projects.

Chasing Your Sound in The Studio

Who is who in the stu(dio)?

Sound Recordist? Mix Engineer? Producer? Who calls the shots? Is the person setting up the mics making the decision about whether to use the sawtooth or sine wave oscillator on your synth? Is the person molding your final edits into a single masterpiece also the person agonizingly sitting through take after take of your shitty attempts at vocals? Is the person writing the string parts also deciding whether or not to compress on the way in? In some cases, with the right person, this can be the one person. But if it is the one person, how can you be sure they won’t be subject to what Tim Gunn from Project Runway calls the Monkey House Effect?

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In chasing sound similar to what they’ve heard before, an approach a lot of colleagues use is to record and do preliminary mixes, then send the final drafts off to a mixer who has worked on records they’ve liked. While this approach is effective if the ground work is done properly, the mixing process in this context shouldn’t be seen as a magic “fix all” solution to poorly recorded tracks. The simple truth is if you haven’t put in the effort to achieve the quality of sound you’re chasing, a mixing engineer isn’t going to be able to conjure it up for you after the fact.

I really like Nigel Godrich’s work as a mixer. For me, his ‘signature sound’ is far more evident when he has been involved in both the recording and mixing (e.g. Seachange by Beck). If you want the sound Godrich gets, but he didn’t personally record it, I don’t think it’s quite going to work out the way you want.

If you turbo-charge a Toyota Corolla it’ll get faster, but it won’t beat a turbo-charged Porsche. Both get faster, but what you start with is still the deciding factor in the outcome. The mix-down’s impact on your sound will always be relative to the quality of what was produced in the recording process.

Who Do You Choose?

So, now you’ve got your tracks recorded (and by god you’ve done it right), you need to choose a mix engineer. The first consideration you face is usually budget, right? I mean, that's my experience, because like most people involved in producing music, I pay my own checks in plastic bags filled with 10c pieces I’ve scrounged from providing adult services in the carparks of cheap restaurants. So who’re the worthy recipients of your (or Dad’s, or the government’s, or the label’s) hard-earned cash?

L.A.-based Maverick?

Wood chips, salad dressing and unleaded 98

NY underground genius?

Rescues vintage synths in their spare time

So-and-so whose credits include such acclaimed artists as such-and-such and what’s-their-face?

Leslie Ann Motherfuckin Jones

Mate’s rates?

protools plugins .torrent

Professionally, everyone gets set in their ways. Fresh-faced and veteran alike, some people find the buffet of abounding possibilities as distractions from their water-tight process. Whether the mixer is playing the mix through a giant speaker at one end of a church hall into a paired set of condensers, or bussing everything down through a verb, everyone’s got their process. That sound tends to set the tone for the record. The hue the individual’s mixing process brings to your recordings should inform your decision. That being the case, remember that ‘hue’ could be very dynamic depending on the mixer. Some mixers are more versatile, which is often a hallmark of their open-minded approach.

Regardless of process, some mixers just rock better gear. Those mixers are usually going to be more expensive. The premium you pay is up to your aspirations, I guess. Quality gear counts for little unless an experienced engineer is using it, though. 

If money’s not an issue, by all means, seek out the person who mixed your favourite records and hire them. Experience and professionalism will make the mixing process painless and the product pristine. The added bonus of working with one of your heroes will make you proud of the results.

What a churl wants

How do you describe your desired sound to the people you’re working with on a project?

When you’ve chosen your engineer, it’s time to collaborate and begin the process of communicating what you’re trying to achieve. This process is vital because the mix is such an important aspect of the production. It is where the elements of songs learn to play nicely with each other; where the hierarchy of the song’s elements is established. It is where your cultural hang-ups inform that complex assemblage of accoutrements that represent your ‘sound’. All the music you love has been mixed by someone. The ear; the gear so different from mixer to mixer, but you know that sound you like and you're going to mince it into words that you shovel into the ears of the poor mix engineer you hire.

Describing what you want in your desired sound is difficult, and is often miscommunicated with differing interpretations of the analogies used to describe sound.

You might be a well-read, experienced mixer with a golden ear already. I'm not. I can barely tell a compressor from a limiter. I'm getting better, but I’m not going to subject a recording to my level of expertise any time soon. You know that bit in Office Space where the guy is trying to explain what he does, “I'm a people person! I talk to the software engineers!” Yeah well I'm increasingly that guy.

Office Space I'm good with people

Some mixers are so experienced they speak ethereal-bullshit as their second language. “Oh you want the mix to be fatter? You want the sound to be edgier?” And the old classic, “You want to hear more of yourself uh huh okay.”

You’ve gotta learn some vocab, and where possible, use examples from tracks you love to illustrate what you’re trying to describe. Also, learn about what the mixing process entails. That way you’ll know that what you regard as a gold vein might be considered, in some schools, an imperfection. If you know how to assert what you want in the right language, you’ll ultimately be happier at the end of the t?te-a-t?te at final mixing time.

Here’s a great guide to a straight-forward approach to mixing with some vocab on the elements:

Work out who’s making the creative decisions surrounding the mix. Invest in someone who’ll invest in you. Make sure you clearly convey your desired sound. Ultimately, as Tom Elmhirst said in his interview with Sound on Sound, “it's not the technical side that matters, it's whether what comes out of the speakers sounds good.” And, may I add, make sure it ‘sounds good’ to an audio professional.


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