“Recording and mixing is just like playing an instrument: you have to really know how to play without thinking about it so that you can focus on the music. Creativity is an extension of performance, and recording is an art.” Jonathan James of Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin
Making a performance on the album
Jonathan James is a freelance audio engineer and plays drums and bass for Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin.
Jonathan – thank you for talking with us and for helping everyone gain a deeper understanding of the technical side of the music industry. Every one of us loves music but few of us understand all the intricacies of how it gets made. So with that said – let’s start with the basics. What exactly does a recording engineer do and how did you get started with this?
A recording engineer is meant to articulately capture sounds in a way that is in line with the artist’s and/or producer’s vision, professionally speaking. In more general terms, the engineer is the person responsible for knowing what all those knobs do, or at least some of them (the important ones.) If you or someone in your band is constantly fiddling with the bass, treble, balance, and fade on a car stereo to find the sweet spot, then they would probably love audio engineering. My high school girlfriend was constantly berating me for fussing with the stereo in her car when we’d change out CDs.
I got into recording because of my very first band. I was in middle school and wanted to hear what we sounded like without having to play it at the same time. I had found an old reel-to-reel player in my father’s basement about a year prior—a Realistic two-speed stereo machine— with a bunch of old reels from bands from the 60s, a couple blank take-up reels, a shiny polished steel Realistic dynamic microphone, and one totally clean, completely new tape. So I hauled it over. I learned two things pretty quickly: 1)recording a whole band with one mic for one take is pretty difficult and 2) we sucked. But both of these setbacks were, in fact, utterly priceless motivations to practice, learn, and improve. Well, the band never did, but I took it to heart! I essentially learned the fundamentals of audio engineering without knowing it: mic placement, relativity / proximity, contrast, the importance and impact of the room, the source quality, and the inherent limitations of the artist and/or gear.
What is the difference between recording and mixing?
A good buddy of mine is constantly comparing recording and mixing to cooking. He says that recording is like getting out all of your ingredients and preparing them — measuring out your flour and salt, making sure you have enough milk and chocolate chips, separating the eggs — and that mixing is like combining all of those ingredients to make your dough because you have to get the right balance and know when to add what and how it needs to look and feel before you shove it in the oven. With a little heat and pressure it will rise, and you’ll have cookies! If you want to take it one step further, mastering would be like knowing when to take them out of the oven… “it’s done!” This guy loves to cook, obviously, and it’s nice to indulge his comparative ideologies come dinner time.
If I were to put it my way, recording is simply getting sounds to tape — or whatever recording medium you employ — in an organized fashion. Mixing is making those recorded elements work together in a meaningful and musical way by adjusting those prerecorded sounds via level, left/right balance, and tonal or even time-based shifting. That’s pretty blunt. The hairy side of this question comes when you realize that the way you record (or what you record) can have a direct and fundamental impact on how the song or element gets mixed down the line. For instance, if you record a vocal with compression, EQ, and reverb/delay on input, then you’re pretty much tying the hands of the mixer on how it’s going to sound in the final mix. This is why there is often a non-committal approach to many home-recordists’ methods for tracking; they’ll track pretty much everything dry and without EQ or compression. Perhaps this is a necessity derived from a lack of gear, but I tend to think it more of a lack of resolve… the “fix it in the mix” attitude. The only reason that I bring this up is that as I gain more experience with engineering the more I know exactly what I need sonically out of a track (not to mention from a performance) from the get-go, so all of these decisions get made on the fly and without hesitation which, in turn, leads to a faster mix and alleviates what people call “option anxiety.” In fact, this is exactly the intersection between recording and mixing. But my point is this: having the song in mind, the end result of your work as a recordist, can have a huge impact on how effectively you record and mix. In fact, the better understanding you have of the final product, the more you can blur the line between recording and mixing as you go. If it sounds good, do it!
So how different do songs sound before they are “mixed”?
Oh I hate having to say this, but it just depends on the song. The other confounding factor is that mixing is often synonymous with comping* and arrangement** decisions, which should decidedly fall in the “recording” portion of a track’s life but are often not. This can dramatically alter the perception of a song before and after “mix.” But for our purposes let’s say that all of that stuff is done. If the recordist did a great job at achieving the artist’s and producer’s vision, then it probably won’t take much to mix and won’t sound too different. Personally, when I don’t have to struggle through arrangement choices and poor tracking, then I can focus more clearly on things like depth, space, and clarity in a mix which, hopefully, should churn out a mix that still sounds like the rough mix but more open and cohesive. But if those arrangement and sonic choices weren’t made for me, then the sky’s the limit, to be honest. It takes an inordinate amount of work and can lead some songs into areas that weren’t intended, but it’s often an interesting ride. That’s part of the artistry of audio engineering, right?
This goes back to what I was saying before, but as I get better at this job my final mixes are closer and closer to the roughs. That is to say that the roughs are closer and closer to the final. There have been many, many of my recordings that have been entirely shifted from the roughs, though, especially early on in my career. I’m talking here about stuff that I personally recorded and mixed, not one or the other. I’m guessing this is generally the case with most people starting out in the craft.
I guess when I think about it I would categorize un-mixed tracks as being instantly labeled with something derogatory like “it’s muddy,” or “it’s really busy sounding,” or “it’s too dry and up front,” whereas a finished mix always just sounds like a song — nothing jumps out when it shouldn’t, it’s sonically cohesive and coherent, there’s impact, and the song makes you want to sing along. Was that even the question? Nope. Lovely.
*Comping is when you have multiple takes of a single element, like a vocal, and go through each of them to choose the best verses, lines, words, or even syllables and splice it all together. This is when you’re glad you’re not using a tape machine, and probably the only time.
**An arrangement, from a mixing standpoint, can include editing in/out instruments that were recorded “because it might sound cool” or “might fill a gap” that may end up being superfluous to the final song. This can even extend to entire sections of a song like a secondary bridge or the third repeat of an outro chorus or something. I call these types of edits “trimming the fat,” if you’ll excuse yet another food reference. Sometimes the mute button is the best button. Seriously. Try it. Try it a lot. Be ruthless.
How long does it typically take to record 1 song? How long to mix the same song?
In a perfect world, one day or less. Generally it’s one day for recording if one were able to string together all of the little events that tend to happen over two actual days of sussing out arrangement ideas, tuning and general instrument problems or altogether malfunctions, and not-so-perfect technique. As for mixing, if I don’t have to comp or do time-alignment, then mixing usually takes between four and eight hours depending on the scope of the song and arrangement. If I have to comp, and especially if I have to do any time-alignment, then I always take at least a day per song. This could be anywhere from ten to sixteen hours, which is definitely beyond the point of sanity when listening to a single song on repeat, and often small portions of a single song on repeat.
Let me derail this question and make a suggestion to anyone out there on a marathon run of mixing: take breaks and often! Resetting yourself with a little walk around the neighborhood can do wonders not only for your hearing but for your state of mind and body as well. There comes a point in the night when you simply can’t hear anything. Literally nothing. And you aren’t doing anyone a favor if you keep going. Just stop. Take whatever break your body says you need. If you can’t focus, then the mix won’t have focus.
Is the goal of a studio album to sound like a concert or do fans want concerts to sound like mixed albums?
I have no clue. I think fans want the album to sound like the band and the concert to sound like fun. I think bands want their album to sound huge and the concert to sound HUGER. That isn’t a word, I know, but it’s true. Personally, I want the album to sound like it came from the band’s skulls and the concert to sound like it came from their bodies. As always, that depends on the band. Obviously you don’t want a punk record to sound cerebral — unless you’re Fugazi. Oh man I’d love to record Fugazi… dream job.
How does mixing an album differ from mixing a live show?
One is war, one is diplomacy. Pick your poison; you choose.
Really they’re just about the same. It’s all about focus and control. What do you want the listener to focus on? What do you have to fight against? Only the variables change, not the process. I suppose you can generally be more aggressive at a live show in terms of what is actually under your control, literally under your fingers. So yeah, that’s the difference just there: control. There is a distinct lack of control at a live show that simply doesn’t exist in the studio. Biggest difference: the room. Everyone is in one room nestled onto one side playing through one instrument usually close to a big wall or three. It’s all jumbled always, whereas sometimes in the studio everything is too separated, too discrete.
Before constantly touring with SSLYBY, you owned your own studio right? What was that like?
That’s not how it went, actually. I more or less cut my professional teeth with Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin (SSLYBY). I had done a fair amount of home recording before hooking up with them but only on my own projects. I actually joined the band because I had mixed their first full-length, Broom, in my house and they asked me to play keyboard and some guitar during the CD-release show. This was an earlier incarnation of the band that included a bassist who is no longer playing with the group (which is a shame, great musician, great guy). I didn’t start working from my own studio until just before the second SSLYBY album, Pershing, in 2007. It was a pretty cramped basement facility beneath downtown Springfield’s best coffee shop. Terrible acoustics, the worst, requiring lots of acoustic treatment and nothing but figure 8 polar patterns for room mics and overheads (usually underheads, actually) to help reject flutter echo. It was great, though, to learn how to overcome that kind of adversity and, more importantly, how to identify those sorts of problems.
Since then I moved the studio to one other location. Much, much better. More professional — three rooms, a lounge, and a big control surface. It wasn’t a battle every day like the basement, and the rooms allowed for tracking a full band with good separation while maintaining line of sight. Believe the internet when it says that the room can have a gigantic impact on how a record sounds, especially when it’s a bad room. There is loads of information on DIY acoustic treatment out there; use it to your advantage. Another engineer and I built bass traps for what ended up to be about thirty bucks per trap, and they are worth every single penny.
The biggest difference, though, between the two studios was having partners this time. We were four young engineers sharing a space, and I defaulted to being the studio manager. There were many bumps and hurdles in dealing with this situation. I’ll have to spare you the details, but suffice it to say that it ultimately led to the dissolution of that studio. But other than that side of the story, working in my own place was fantastic. It was great to pretty much have everything where I wanted it and be able to leave it there for a week. The workflow was streamlined, and everything just became very comfortable.
On a side-note, or not-so-side-note, the addition of a large control surface had a profound impact on the way I approached mixing in particular. It’s not like mixing on a real desk with gobs of outboard compressors and the like, but it gets closer, and let me say that it’s simply more musical. It’s like playing an instrument. It’s music again. I found myself actually listening to the music much more than before when I was constantly watching the music and mousing around. Fader rides are simply more natural and, believe it or not, actually fun to do because you’re performing. You, the mixer, are making a performance on the album. Not that this isn’t true with clicking in automation dots, but it feels more like a performance, and I think this is key to providing a fantastic mix because you become bodily connected to the music. Just an errant thought.
Do you mix your own albums?
Yes, sadly. It’s always a budget constraint. With anything that I consider my own music, there is always a terrible budget constraint. Such is life. If you were referring to “my own albums” as albums that I record and then mix, then that’s also a yes. Haha. Again, I tend to think of tracking and mixing as one and the same now, or at least I try to. This actually came up recently with a band I’m recording. To save time they wanted to hand off the tracks to another person to mix, but I felt surprisingly protective of my work and didn’t want to comply in this instance. Either they didn’t feel like arguing or were moved by my dedication to see a project through to the end because they agreed. Honestly, I don’t care which. Because I have been tracking with the end song in mind, I want to ensure that it gets there unsullied. It’s an artistic conceit, but I truly feel that recording and mixing is an art form that must be practiced and perfected. I guess I don’t want to sound too controlling here. I actually am quite interested in having other people work on a project with me, including mixing something I’ve recorded. I suppose I’d see it as a more personalized critique and definitely a learning experience. Scary and fun.
How does that affect how you play?
Mixing my own albums has been a great boon to my playing, believe it or not. The process of mixing enables you to listen in very holistic terms, so I’m constantly thinking about how my part affects everything else instead of just coming up with something because I don’t want to be standing on stage doing nothing come show time. Writing parts in a song shouldn’t be a tug of war but something more akin to everyone lifting at the same time. Does that make sense?
Who are some of your favorite engineers and why?
Steve Albini, of course. He’s credited on so many of my favorite albums growing up. Albini has a very distinct vision and follows through with it, which is something that I admire deeply and think is a great work ethic for recording. Sylvia Massey. Butch Vig is another name that comes up a lot on the backs of albums that I love. SSLYBY actually got to record at his Smart Studios in Madison, WI, with Chris Walla and Beau Sorenson for our latest album, Let It Sway. They both did amazing work.
I suppose I find it a little difficult to dissociate engineers from the bands that I love, because it’s quite difficult to decide if you like what you think the engineer did or if that’s just a product of the band at the time and under those circumstances. Like I said before, it’s all holistic, a gestalt. That’s a cop-out of an answer kind of.
And lastly, what advice can you give to engineers who are just starting out on their career paths?
Recording and mixing is just like playing an instrument: you have to really know how to play without thinking about it so that you can focus on the music rather than how you’re playing it. So read manuals, or don’t read manuals and just twist knobs until you understand it. But understand your equipment and signal flow intimately, like second nature, because creativity is an extension of performance, and recording is an art. Beyond that, don’t be afraid to seek the guidance and critique of professionals around you. I’m from a fairly small city, and pretty much every one of the engineers I’ve approached has been helpful in some way, even if it was just to enumerate the dangers and pitfalls of running my own studio. Everyone has something to teach, some little thing to impart that can help you on your way.
Thank you! Thank you very much!!!
This interview was originally published by Mike Dias for Ultimate Ears