Mixing ‘Splintered Instruments’ in the Reid – Matthew Collings
Between 28th May and 2nd April I spent all day everyday mixing a project I’ve been working on for around 5 years. It goes under the name ‘Splintered Instruments’ and is a 7 track record, recorded mostly at Greenhouse Studios in Reykjavik (http://greenhouse.is/), partly at home, partly in various places where kind people had interesting instruments (including Cimbaloms, theremins and dulcitones), in Studio 1 (where Pete Furniss added Clarinet and Bass Clarinet) and also the Reid Hall itself (double bass and piano was overdubbed during these sessions).
It was a beast. It had gone on for years, and frankly was getting out of control. It began with Ben Frost (http://benfrost.bandcamp.com/) at the production helm, but due to his increasingly busy schedule the final mixes fell to myself and Dan Rejmer, an extremely talented engineer and friend. Dan taught me a lot about mixing during this project, (my favourite quote from Dan being: ‘Wrestling with too much distortion…try adding MORE distortion!’). Which sounds like madness but can really be made to work.
This was a big project. One track a day was tackled. Most tracks were made up of usually between 40 – 100 tracks which were run out of Ableton Live and through the desk. To my knowledge, this had not been attempted in the Reid, neither had a large scale mix been done in Ableton live in the studio. Much to some people’s dismay, I continue to use this piece of software for almost everything I do. It’s design allows you to be extremely creative very quickly and with a flexibility which is frankly unparalleled with other DAWs, in my opinion. Technically, it can be fiddly, and is not specifically designed for doing a lot of large mix projects. It can be unwieldy, but it’s what I’m used to, and personally, speed of work is paramount for best results, so I wanted to mix everything in Live. Since the whole record had been built up within it, it also enabled us to go back to certain stems and approaches if need be, and it helped expand my working practices in an environment i’m comfortable in.
To interface with the desk Kev and I did some monkeying around. Usually you can only get a maximum of 16 channels out of Live into the desk. Although since this session Michael has told me that an aggregate device he created would have done this, Kev and I made another one to achieve the full 24 tracks on the desk. We created an aggregate device using the 2 Myteks and an external soundcard; in this case my MOTU traveler mk3. The MOTU was synced via word clock and everything was linked via AES. I should be able to include more detail on this in the near future (as i’m not in the Reid as I write this…).
We also brought in a load of outboard gear to supplement the Reid’s arsenal. Different compressors were used for different tasks during the session, including the Drawmer Mercenary, a stereo Drawmer Compressor/Gate (supplied by Sean Williams) and an RNC Compressor (supplied by Owen Green). I had also hoped to use the SPL Vitalizer which had until this point lived in the Russolo Room (which I highly recommend using in mix situations), but it has since disappeared…This gear can be seen below (pictures were taken of all the external gear per track for future reference, these are the pics from the ‘Paris is Burning’ mix). The external gear was routed into the patch bay and then assigned as need be an inserts on individual channels.
Soon we had the full 24 channels plus a load of additional compressors running seamlessly out of Live.
Another trick we used extensively was the re-micing of the Reid Hall. Certain instruments had been recorded in different spaces and very dry, and we felt that an additional layer of 3-dimensionality would be added to tracks by using the Hall upstairs as a natural reverb unit. Hardly a new idea but something I highly recommend. No reverb plugin in the world ever sounds like a real space. (Discuss). If you want real instruments to sound real, re-mic them in a real space, if they’ve been recorded dry. This enabled various takes and parts from different places (and periods of time) to be mixed together and recorded as a seamless ensemble (see ‘Routine’ example, which features Cimbalom, Midi Harp, Theremin, Strings, Piano and more to be treated as one ensemble). This is no substitute for the real thing, but I believe it sounds far better than a plugin. The process of doing so is also slower and makes you really think about why you are considering using reverb in the first place (it is in my opinion the no.1 overused effect in contemporary music and a very cheap way at trying to add ‘atmosphere’ to something…). A pair of PMC’s were taken up into the Reid Hall (after it had been booked through the appropriate sources…) and sent up as a send from the desk downstairs. Two omni Schoeps mic’s were placed around 3 metres away and used to record whatever we chose to play.
Example 1: Section from ‘Routine’ using Re-Micing in the Reid Hall (unmastered mp3):
The EMT reverb was also used on most tracks. Usually only for a subtle depth to vocals or aspects of a track, but it is highlighted particularly on this part of ‘Paris is Burning’. The little staccato piano hit benefited greatly from that lush, slightly metallic tone of the EMT (@ 2:14, 2:21 etc):
Section from ‘Paris is Buring’ (unmastered mp3):
Groups of tracks were set up and run from the software to the desk. Individual tracks could be tweaked from within the digital environment, eq’ing etc. a little, and then each group was eq’ed at the desk. Much of the music relied on the interaction of multiple layers of the same take, often re-recorded through various other means (prepared amplifiers, megaphones, plugins, different speakers), so this gives you options at a number of levels. This made it clear that, in my opinion, the studio could do with a few more higher class digital plugins to shape things a little when doing large sessions in this way. This would enable you to be surgical in the DAW, and general at the desk. Also the studio lacks options for distortion in the digital realm – installing the newly purchased Soundtoys bundle would help this significantly (as the Decimator plugin is excellent for a variety of usages). The Voxengo tape saturator is a good starting point however but doesn’t offer a variety of options. The addition of Max for Live would also enable Live users to use Max patches to DSP too (which usually need a bit of tweaking to work with Live but is well worth it!)
The Manley EQ and Vertigo Compressor were run as mix-inserts (Manley first, then into Vertigo) to shape the entire mix subtly and add…well that irreplaceable thing that this equipment adds to mixes. I would recommend just trying this – setting up the Manley and Vertigo as a mix insert and A/B’ing it. You will notice that even though the Vertigo in particular may not be compressing anything (or just the incoming level tickling the needle a little), it will add a richness to the sound. NO DOUBT. I also find this to be true with the SSL Bus compressor; even if it’s barely doing anything, it adds something sonically. Running this as a final gain stage is also useful at times, as you can give yourself tons of headroom and make up the final level by using the gain on the compressor. I know many people will shudder when I say that, but I feel it works, and it’s one way of doing things.
Another approach used was testing the mixes on different monitors. We brought in Dan’s pair of YAMAHA NS-10 M’s (industry standard for such purposes) and set them up so that we could easily switch between them and the PMC’s through the desk. Much of the mix work was actually done through these rather than the PMC’s. This highlighted, to my ears at least, the need to have an alternative set of monitors in the Reid. As good as the PMC’s are, I feel that after working in the Reid a lot, much of my music doesn’t translate well on them. Loud, nasty, distorted guitars for instance, they don’t do well. And it is an important point that so much music is listened to on terrible laptop speakers and awful headphones, that is a sad reality of much music these days. Being able to hear your mixes on something which sounds awful is pretty important, in my opinion. If it sounds great on speakers which sound awful, it can only sound better on the PMC’s. The mixes were also tested again with a pair of SONY consumer headphones (which again, sound awful), a pair of earbuds (which sound even worse) and everyone’s favourite Beyer DT 770 pros. This helped a lot for ensuring the mixes transferring well to different media.
I’ve ended up writing this fairly quickly and expressing lots of personal opinions as well as technical documentation. One thing I think I would like to get across is that the Reid Studio can be used in many different and flexible ways. In my opinion there are a few additions which would make it more flexible, which would help get even greater results. Personally I would press for an alternative set of monitors in the Reid, plus a few more plugins (in particular distortion options).
More documentation of further projects I conducted in the Reid to follow…