Psychology of a Mix Engineer: An Interview With Ghislain Brind’Amour

Ghislain “Gee” Brind’Amour (born Ottawa, Canada) is a mix engineer based out of Montreal, Canada.  Gee has recorded and mixed for such artists as Rihanna, Young Avz, Anjulie, Karl Wolf, Victoria Duffield, Ricky J and Kristina Maria.

Logo Gee finalStarting at just 6 years old, Gee recalls learning his first instrument at his local church.  There was a music teacher at the church who would teach him to play the organ giving him his first musical experience.  At about 14 years old Gee started playing the guitar and “singing horribly” he admits.  It was at this time when he and a friend won a song writing contest for an anti drug youth program.  The prize for winning the competition was to get the song professionally recorded and mixed at CBC studios.

“We cut the track and that was fun” says Brind’Amour, ” but in the mixing process I tried telling the guy (the mix engineer) that it wasn’t sounding right”.

Leaving the studio and disappointed with the final product, Gee decided at that point he didn’t want to go through that experience again.  So at only 15 years old Gee decides that he wants to learn more about mixing.  Having no experience Gee would solicit the local studios in Ottawa, offering his time for free in order to hang out at the studio.  He then moved from Ottawa to Montreal because he felt like there was more action as far as the music scene was concerned. He got to assist at some of the bigger studios in the city and eventually the studios needed help with some of their client sessions and Gee was ready and willing.  All this assisting eventually lead to getting calls to engineer and it was at this point where he truly earned his stripes but more importantly his experience.  Whilst improving his recording skills he would try and get his hands on any mix session he could.  Through trial and error and a lot of practise, Gee would learn the ins and outs of mixing a record.

“The main goal was always to mix and even produce to an extent,” admits Brind’Amour “but mixing I’d say was always number one in my heart.  I’d try and get the mix gig by offering my time for free and then it eventually got to a point where people really liked what I was doing.”

After building experience and gaining his own clients, Gee was able to branch out and set up a mixing room for himself.  This is where he would make the move out of the analog world, where he started, and move into the digital realm.

Contact GEE

check out his Website or find him on Twitter

 

What are some of your musical influences, past or present?

FrankSinatra9I grew up in a household where my dad was a crazy music buff so I heard anything from Frank Sinatra to MC Hammer [laughs].  My dad’s a sucker for whatever’s popular and obviously when you’re a kid you kind of just listen anything that’s being played.  Now I mainly listen to whatever’s on the radio to be honest, just to see what’s happening as far as musical trends and styles.  It could be hip hop, crazy techno, country and even the folk stuff that’s becoming pretty popular nowadays.  If it’s new and happening, I want to hear it.  Lately I’ve been into bands like Imagine Dragons, Atlas Genius and The Neighborhood, Indy rock stuff really, I would love to mix stuff like that!

 

So these indie rock records, even though you don’t get to work on them, do you feel they help shape your sound when you are mixing?

I would say yes, absolutely but probably more subconsciously.  There’s elements that I appreciate in that type of music because it’s a bit raw, even though they are well produced, they’re just not plastic sounding.  Although a lot of stuff I do nowadays is very pop oriented, I try to keep it a little bit raw, but I’m not sure how successful I am at that.  But definitely everything I hear influences me because if I like it I’m going to play it about a hundred times [laughs].

 

Interesting.  Do you remember the very first record you heard and thought to yourself “Wow, I really need to learn how to become a mix engineer”?

Yeah the first mix was probably Still D.R.E by Dr Dre.   At that point I was already doing the music thing and when I heard that and compared it to what I had done or what other people had done and there was just such a large gap sonically.  I was like wow, that’s a level that we have to reach now.  I mean I know that today that song won’t be as wow compared to everything else but back then it was pretty impressive I have to say.  It sounded big, everything cut through perfectly.  I remember that hi hat was just perfect, like the tone and the grain of it, I know it sounds silly but I was like yeah this is where it’s at.

[youtube id=”_CL6n0FJZpk” autoplay=”no” mode=”lazyload”]

 

Do you think at that moment in time that record was a game changer for hip hop?

To be honest, I would go as far as saying it changed music.  Especially with how music is now with a lot programmed stuff incorporated with the live stuff and the fullness, I think it influenced a lot of things.  Also back then, there wasn’t anything really that sounded like that so yeah I would definitely have to say a game changer.  And for me, personally, I thought it was a crazy mix.  Even when you play that record today, it still holds up to everything else that outs there.

 

So now on the flip side,  have you ever listened to a record from the past and thought that it sounded much different or not as good as you remembered?

Probably 95% of the time I listen back I’m like wow, that’s not that great [laughs].  My memory towards those songs was that they were great because I loved them, but they didn’t sound like I remembered.   There’s some older hip hop records that I loved back then, but with how mixing has come along in the last 20 years it just doesn’t hold up sonically.   A recent hip hop album that really impressed me sonically was Kendrick Lamar’s latest and when you compare it to something like Biggie’s first album, they’re on different planets.

 

If you could be a fly on the wall in any mixing session, who would be the engineer? and why?

serban_gheneaProbably Serban [Ghenea] just because he seems so elusive.  I’m a big fan of his work in general and he’s very a low key individual.  It’s very hard to find stuff on him and his body of work is huge man, its crazy all the stuff you hear and wouldn’t even know its him until you search it.  So yeah probably him because he doesn’t talk a lot and you don’t hear about him so yeah, he would be one of them.  But also maybe Manny [Marroquin] or Phil Tan.  I’m a big fan of Phil Tan, I like the way his mixes come out.

 

And Serban is from MTL, I think.

Yeah! I believe he’s from the west island, just a little outside the city (Dollard des Ormeaux).

 

What is it about Serban’s mixes in particular that you find intriguing?

Well the one thing is just how his mixes translate to the radio so damn well, it’s mind blowing to me.  I mean I pop his tracks on my Ns-10’s and they sound very cool.  But then when I hear it on the radio I’m like wow that is killer you know, and I’m just like how does he do that?  Does it have to do with the frequencies? Is he focusing on the mids?  But that’s the one element of his, that radio translation that’s very impressive to me.  But other than that, I mean his drums, his vocals, pretty much everything he does [laughs] sounds right to me you know, it just feels right.

 

You mentioned earlier about singing and playing guitar at an earlier age.  Do you still play any instruments today and if so do you think that helps you mix?

Definitely a horrible singer, I don’t consider myself a singer.  But yeah I’m more of a musician in that sense and I can play a couple instruments, just not very well.  The discipline of practising was never my thing, I always wanted to create and try things.  So practising your basics was never really something I did.  But to answer the question I can play keyboards, guitar, drums, bass.  Does that help me as a mixer?  I’d say maybe my musical instinct helps me more as a mixer than the fact that I can play a G Chord on the guitar.  I mean I never really saw mixing as technical even though there are technical aspects to it.   As long as you feel the music in you and you have the instinct I think you can apply that to mixing quite well.  The main thing in mixing is trusting yourself but it does take a while to get there.

 

If someone has no prior knowledge of playing an instrument, do you think they could make a really good mixing engineer?

Yeah! Eventually you can get there but if you don’t get music than you might have a harder time.  I would never say it’s impossible because if you really want something, you can get there.  Though most people who have musical instincts have probably picked up a musical instrument at some point in their life. But if you don’t have that opportunity, I still don’t think it’s impossible to become a mixing engineer, I just think you need to lean on your musical instincts.  It’s something that you definitely have to spend time on, you have to be willing to fail a bit before you can succeed.

 

Let’s move into the process a bit.  I want to get an understanding of how you work.

Perfect.

 

What does your mixing set up currently consist of?

Pro_Tools-9_Elevate_Your_Sound_TourSo I’m on Pro Tools HD Native.  I’m still on 9 I haven’t changed yet, I’m just lazy about upgrades I guess.  The interface I’m running is a Rosetta with an XHD card and that’s connected to my Native card.  I had two sets of speakers but right now I’m only using my [Yamaha] NS-10’s actually.  I had a pair of Genelec 1031’s but I got rid of them and like 97% of the time I using my Ns-10’s anyway.

 

I understand why people use the NS-10’s and I do own a pair but I could never work on them for a long period of time.  I find them annoying after a while.  I’m Just curious as to why you like them?

yamaha_ns10m_mainThey were just always in the studio.  The one constant in going from studio to studio was that they had the NS-10’s so you just develop a comfort level with them.  Personally I love how they sound, it sounds weird to say but it’s like 15 years of using them that it’s my comfort blanket.  It’s how you drive them too – I have a good Bryston 4B amp.   My technician modded an old Bryston amp because I liked the way it sounded.  He put some Jensen transformers at the end of it to balance out the signal.  So yeah it has a bit of colour to it and its nice.  And it is possible to get bottom out of them, you just have to know what you’re listening for.

 

When you first open up a session, what’s your process in getting started?

If it’s a Pro Tools session, that’s great.  I’m always super happy to receive Pro Tools sessions because it makes my life a little easier.  I’ll start organizing the tracks, colour coding them, arranging and grouping them.  Drums go first, then bass, guitars or synths, Lead Vocals , then backing vocals and harmonies after that.  That sort a stuff I like to have set up.   I’m usually listening to the rough mix while I’m doing this organizational process to get in the mood.  Also the rough mix helps you to find out if your missing anything.  And once everything ‘s organized, grouped and colour coded I try to get a static mix up that’s decent.  That’ll usually take a few hours for sure.

 

You say you prefer a Pro Tools session but let’s say that’s not possible and a client’s working in another daw…

…Oh yeah that’s half the time, or more than half the time anyway.  I guess people down here don’t want to use Pro Tools, but I’ll just get the raw tracks.

 

Yeah, so you get the WAV files from them but do you prefer they leave the processing on, take it off or a mixture of both?

Well here’s the thing.  That’s a touchy question, I guess it will vary from project to project.  There’s producers I work with a lot and I sort of know that what they are going to do is pretty good so I’ll just tell them to give me the track the way they want it.   I mean I usually tell people that if there’s something that they’re really dead set on and that’s how it’s supposed to sound, then I’ll just take the track the way it is.  If it’s really bad and I can’t do anything with it, I’ll touch base with them.  And the vocals dry for sure, like no delay, reverb and even EQ I can do without.  Unless they wanted a specific filter effect or something like that.

 

What do you do if a client gives you tracks and there is a bunch of editing that has to be done?  Like fixing room noise, pops and clicks, background noise etc.  You know the kind of stuff that takes you away from mixing.

Depends who it is [laughs] that’s for sure.  That happens a lot too.  If it’s crazy and I’m going to waste like half the day editing stuff, I’ll let them [the client] know.   A lot of times what shocks me is when there’s live drums with programmed drums and the live drums just aren’t on the grid with the programmed stuff.  Unfortunately that’s major, major problems you know.  Your stuff’s going to phase, your going to loose the kick and your just not going to get the impact that you want.   Then you gotta go in and chop it up and make sure everything’s phase aligned and not just to the grid but with respect to the programmed stuff.   But if it’s something like just cleaning up vocals, that’s okay, it’s not the end of the world.  If I have to tune vocals that’s a whole other can of worms, but its essential for certain types of music, so I do it.

 

Okay, so given the world we are living in where everyone has a home studio, is it fair to say that there’s a lot more problems with recordings now than maybe 10-15 years ago?

I would say yes, especially for vocals.  When I get tracks I can tell right away if it was recorded by a professional who cares.  Because I track a lot too and am fortunate enough to work in studios with a lot of different gear, I can instantly tell the difference.   You know the reality is that most people record at home into their budget microphone and interface.  Not that recording vocals is a complicated thing but it require a bit of attention to detail, like knowing where the capsule’s placed and where the singer is located in front of the mic.  It’s also rare that they’re sculpting their sound with some sort of compressor.  So there’s a little bit of a lack of tone from most stuff that I get and that just means I got to work a bit harder in the mix, maybe use a bit more plugins.   But we’re lucky because we have some pretty cool stuff available to us, the kinda stuff that we weren’t able to do with hardware so that’s cool.   But it does sort of derail me from the mix where I’m now fixing before I’m mixing.

 

That kind of leads me into my next question.  Do you think today’s mixing engineer has to also be a problem solver and not just an artist themselves?

100%.  Most people will spend you know $2000 on a home set up, never go to a studio and never hire an engineer again.  It’s a bit unfortunate but at the same time you have a lot more creative possibilities because you’re not under the gun for recording time.  But at the end of the day as long as the performance is good, there’s a vibe to the song, it’s enjoyable to listen to and as long as I work it properly to sound good then you know, we’ll get away with it.   For sure though, if we went to a nice studio, cut the vocals and got the right performace, it probably could come out better.  People expect us to pull rabbits out of hats sometimes but it’s not always that easy you know.

 

I know.  I’m pretty optimistic though.  With more and more knowledge that is being shared, home recordings will continue to improve.

For sure and what’s cool about technology, is that the lower end mic (as far as price) is getting better.  They’re able to tweak the technology to where you can get something pretty decent for a fraction of what it used to cost.  But recording vocals is an art and I guess people don’t think of it like that.  It’s not as simple as putting the mic up and hitting record.  Any serious engineer knows that you gotta take the time.  You have to try more than one mic on the singer and maybe the backing vocals are different so it would be cool to use a different mic to get a different tone.  Theirs just a whole thing to it you know.  The only draw back I see with all the home studios is that people don’t get the opportunity to see how other people work and get experience from experience.

 

How do you deal with a client who wants a mix pretty close to their rough but you know that you could make it sound much better?

Most of the time I try to meet them half way.  I’m always going to be honest with people and I think that’s why they work with me – I’m pretty straight forward.  I’ll tell them, “your mix is distorting” or if it isn’t delivering that impact, I’ll show them other records as references.   I get that there’s a vibe and we want to keep that vibe but at the same time you can’t have your track distorting because it’s not going to work.  Plus once the song gets mastered, forget about it.  But for the most part people are receptive and like I said, I try to meet them half way because at the end of the day they are paying, we are service providers and you want them to leave happy.  On the rare occasion you come to the realization that maybe we aren’t meant to work together and that’s it.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it just wasn’t the right fit.  You want to get all the gigs and you want to destroy every mix but sometimes it just wasn’t meant to be.

 

What about revisions?  How many would you do before you realized that it could go on forever?

I wouldn’t necessarily say that there is an “x” amount of revisions.  I’m not sure if this happens to you but a lot of times its produciton stuff like muting out a section or trying an effect.  The kind of stuff that maybe they thought about after.  But I would say it’s just a general vibe.  If I’m submitting mix revisions and I’m not getting any sort of thumbs up to let me know we are getting somewhere then it’s probably never going to be “it”.  They might not know what they want or I might not be the right person for it.  So I do’t have a fixed amount but if at a point I feel like we are spinning our tires and not moving forward then I’ll usually tell them we’re not getting anywhere.  And from there we decide what to do

 

As far as digital plugins are concerned, What is your favourite compressor for vocals?  Give us some psychology on why you use it.

isThis will vary between the type of vocal that I get.   But I guess because Ive been using the Waves Plugins for so long, they would be my favorite compressors. I like the CLA 76.  Part of it is habitual though because I grew up with an 1176 by my side all the time so I  know how it reacts.  I like it on vocals because I have the flexibility of getting pretty fast with it, like if I need to handle peaks.  Or I might want to take the whole vocal in and give it that 1176 tone which is also something that is pretty essential to me.  I usually combine the 1176 with the Waves RVox which I really like too.  I find it’s pretty efficient at levelling of the rest of the sound which is pretty important in today’s music.  Everyone wants that up front, in your face, vocal sound.

 

So same question as the last one, but this time your favourite digital EQ.

Maag-EQ4_1I like the Maag EQ4 a lot, not sure if you are familiar with it.  I like this one because for some reason the fixed frequencies that come with it sound very musical on a lot of sources.  They sound good on a mix for sure and on a vocal they sound killer.  Since I’ve bought it, it’s pretty much been on every vocal, from a little bit to a lot.  I usually have another EQ in my signal chain but that varies and is usually for fixing things.  It might be the SSL Black EQ or the Metric Halo Channel Strip, which sounds great.

 

I spoke with you about automation before and you mentioned that you use a lot of it.  Can you give an explanation of of how you use it and why?

Yeah sure.  With the automation the main thing would be vocals for sure. I’m going to go through the majority of the words just to help like the end of a syllable.  It helps with what the compressor’s doing, it’s the final touch to make sure it’s as clear as possible.  When I say clear I don’t mean on a frequency level, I just mean I wanna hear all the words clearly.  For Backing vocals certain words might have to be emphasized more than the others, so I’ll use automation to create some sort of dynamic aspect for that.   Now with something like a synth I’ll use automation for an EQ or a compressor.  You may want the Synth to be more spacey and open in the verse but when the chorus comes in you want it to be fuller and less dynamic.  You would just write in the compressor at that point for the chorus and then let it go in the next verse.  It’s pretty endless like for drums you may want to accentuate a groove a little bit like adding a splash of reverb on the 4, so you just automate that.  Although the whole mixing process is long, the automation part can take a good while to sort of know that it feels good and I’m ready to print.  It’s also usually the last part of my mix.

 

Is there anything about the mixing process that you don’t like?

Wow, that’s a good one [laughs].  There’s always a point that I feel like I spent a lot of time but I didn’t get anywhere.  That’s on every track, I get to a point where I’m not overwhelmed but I’m like Fuck, What happened?  I’ve been working for like 8 hours or whatever and I feel like I haven’t gotten anywhere.  That’s usually a cue for a break [laughs].  I know I have to get it done, so I just sit down, plug away and get through it and then start having fun again.  But yeah every mix has a point where I’m like, What’s going on here?  That’s probably the part where I dis like it the most.  There isn’t anything specific but I just get a feeling at some point that I’m not doing anything.  I mean it’s probably not true, I guess when you work on something for so long you sort of doubt it.

 

So at that point would you maybe start over?

Sometimes I might start over but usually that’s my cue that I need to take a break from it for maybe like a half hour or something.  I might go grab a coffee or a bite to eat to just do something else for a little bit.  And If I come back to it and I still have that same feeling that it just not right, then I might pull all the faders down and start over.  But I might also listen and hear what needs to be done and just do it.

  • kirata

    Thank you very much for posting this. Very interesting stuff.

  • smurf

    Very nice interview, Thank You Both for taking the time to share your knowledge, it is SO appreciated!

Still Struggling with EQ?