Psychology of a Mix Engineer: An Interview With Chris Bell

Chris Bell is a Producer/Engineer/Mixer currently working out of Blade Studios in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Chris has developed his talents through years of experience in the recording industry, bringing musicians the masterful chemistry necessary to attract and enduring audience. He honed his skills on tape machines and analog mixing desks working on recordings like Erykah Badu’s “Mammas Gun”. His resume also includes studio time with U2, Everclear, Destiny’s Child, Fuel, The Polyphonic Spree, Earth, Wind, and Fire, along with remixes for Peter Gabriel and Death in Vegas. His most recent projects include The Eagles number 1 record “Long Road Out of Eden”, Erykah Badu’s upcoming release, Red Monroe, Jonathan Tyler, Little Brian, Forjak, and Cas Haley.

Chris was nominated for a Grammy award in 1998 for “Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical” as well as working on several Grammy winning projects. He continues to be active in the growth and development of the industry. Elected to the Texas Chapter Board of Governors of the Recording Academy, Chris has served in many roles from Governor, 1st Vice President, President, and Trustee. A skilled mixing engineer, recording engineer and producer Bell’s experience infuse his projects with a foundation for success.

To find out more about Chris or to contact him, please visit www.proaudioengineer.com
You can also follow him on Twitter @mixengineer

 

So how did you get into the engineering side of making music?  Did you play any instruments?

That’s pretty much how I started; playing guitar when I was like 13 or 14.  My grandfather used to give me his old reel to reels, he was kind of an audiophile type of guy.  So when he would get a new 1/4 inch reel to reel he would give me his old one.  So I started playing with them and I would record myself playing guitar. After I could only do so much with the reel to reel, I went out and got a 4 track and started learning about multi-track recording.  Eventually I found myself more involved with the recording side of things which led me to pursue it as a career.

I took a couple courses at a community college, just to get the basics.  That recording program was the first year that they offered it at the college and I actually took the second class twice so that I could bring in bands and use their gear. The teacher who taught the class saw that I was into it and offered me an internship at his studio called Sound Logic, so I dropped out of school and just went for it.  That studio was actually the first 24 track room in Texas.

And how long were you interning at Sound Logic before you started getting your own gigs?

At least one year.  I started out doing cassette duplications, wiring up the sessions, helping the techs get the tape machines going and just a lot of the other grunt work.  Then one day, during a session I was assisting on, the studio owner had to leave to deal with some personal issues as he was going through a divorce at the time.  Since the band was still working and the lead singer was cutting vocals, he [the owner] put me on the tape machine to punch vocals and that was really the first time I got my hands on the gear.  The band liked what I was doing and they liked working with me so they started recommending me to other bands and musicians.  After that I was really starting to get my own projects to work on.

 

So that was your departure from assistant engineer to lead engineer?

I wasn’t the chief engineer there, I was just an engineer.  There were two other guys there – The owner and his partner.  They were both engineers and they were the head guys because they owned the studio.  I still did assistant duties but I would also engineer the late night sessions when they didn’t want to do them.

 

Was there any stand out records, in the beginning of your career, that really inspired you to become a better engineer?

Led Zeppelin II CoverI liked the drums from Led Zeppelin and I liked The Beatles but really I was listening to all kinds of music back then to tell you the truth.  As far as one record in particular, I don’t know, I mean I was big into vinyl back then.  I had a weekly spending habit of going to the record store and buying records so I was listening to a lot of different music.  I’ve listened to so many records that it’s hard to pin point one thing but maybe Led Zeppelin II.

Are there any mentors or engineers that had a big impact on how your records sound today?

I think I took a little bit from each engineer.  I didn’t really have one guy that influenced me the most.  I do remember that I would always pay attention when an older engineer would come in.  I’d kind of be like ‘Oh that’s cool what’s he’s doing there, I’m going to use that’.  I would take all these little things from each person I was assisting for so all my stuff is from like 50 engineers .  To this day, I still use stuff that I learned from those guys.

Anything in particular that you want to share?

A session with Kenny Wayne Shepherd

A session with Kenny Wayne Shepherd

Well, I’m big into how you mic things up and I like getting all my sounds up front.  I used one thing the other day on a Kenny Wayne Shepherd record.  We recorded him up here about 3 or 4 months ago and the drummer decided to shut the snares off on the drum kit because he liked the way it sounded.  When we had the track up, later on, it sounded real dead and Kenny didn’t like it.  One thing that an engineer showed me how to do was to put an NS-10 on top of the snare, mic the bottom of the snare, then run the recorded snare sound through the speaker. Every time the recorded snare hits, it thumps the live snare, the mic picks up the sound and now you have a newly recorded snare drum.  It’s little things like that plus microphones and microphone techniques are kind of my thing.  That’s the key, I think, to getting good sounds.

So would you say that sound selection and mic technique account for the majority of how your mixes sound?

Absolutely!  I don’t mind mixing other peoples stuff and I do a lot of it but man, I’m telling you, it’s so much easier when I’ve recorded the session because I’m already planning ahead.  When we’re working, I get a rough mix going and that can be really close to the finished product because all the sounds are already there.  I make sure that we get all the sounds just like I would while I’m mixing it.

The room I’m in now, Blade Studios, in Louisiana, is big enough to track a full band live so that’s kind of our thing; we do records like they used to do records.  Everyone’s playing at the same time with minimal overdubs and the records actually go really fast.

Cool!  You say you’re always planning ahead so when you get to the mix you don’t have to do a lot of work but when you’re mixing other peoples records how do you get them to where you want hear them?

SSL DualityFirst thing I do is ask the artist or the producer what they’re looking for.  Sometimes it might not be about what I want or what I hear.  Sometimes they have a direction of where they are trying to take the record and the kind of sound they are going for.  They might give me some examples of stuff to listen to but hopefully the record is already kind of close so I don’t have to do any kind of major surgery on it.

Most of my stuff is all analog gear; I have an SSL duality (the newest one).  I used to work on an 80 channel J Series and now I’m on a smaller 48 channel but it works really well.  I have tons of outboard gear to patch into so I can usually pull something out of the record.  I mean if it’s really bad I might just say ‘Man you need to re record this’.

When you were just starting out, learning how to mix, was there one thing that maybe you obsessed about too much about like EQ or compression etc.?

Trying to get the kick drum right I guess, I don’t know [Laughs].  I used to spend a lot of time on that but that was so long ago and I’m trying to think what I did do.

First of all we didn’t have automation and the console we were on at the time was a Soundtracs, which is kind of like a poor man’s Neve.  We ended up getting one of those first Mac’s which was really small with a small screen built into it and the way the automation worked is through VCA.  We would insert the snake into the patch bay, on the insert sends and  returns, and the signal would go to this rack but you’d have to use a mouse and it was just aweful.  So most of those mixes back then didn’t have any automation on them, I’d actually have the band help me if there were moves happening at the same time.

And when you were asking them to do the moves for you, would they mess it all up [Laughs]?

Exactly!  What you don’t do is give the guitar player his part to do or the drummer his part.  I would give the drummer the guitar players part so that the guitar isn’t being pushed up too loud.  But yeah, if you mess up, you have to do it again.

So how long did it take with all that manual automation?

Honestly I think things take longer now with all the options.  We have so many options now to do things and we spend more time messing with stuff that doesn’t really matter.  Once the musicians find out what you can do, it can be your worst enemy because sometimes you’ll sit their tweaking it until there’s no life left in the sound.

So recalls back then, was that a nightmare too?

That was almost nonexistent.  You just had to listen and try to get it back because with the desk we had you couldn’t recall it unless you wrote it down.  But we didn’t do a lot of re mixing because it was like, when it’s done, it’s done!  Most of the bands new that because they would see the process.  Plus back then we were all on 2 inch analog so the bands knew about committing to stuff.  When the parts were committed, they were committed!  It wasn’t on a computer and they didn’t have 50 playlists to choose from.

Are recalls a lot more common for you today?

Yeah, I would say so.  Usually what I do is mix the record to where I’m happy with it and get it into the ball park.  Then I’ll let the artist listen to it, expecting to go back and make changes to it and I’ll probably want to go back and make changes as well.  I usually always go back to the first song and do a recall because once I get into about song 3 or 4, I finally develop a sound for the album.  So I will usually go back to songs 1 and 2 to reshape them to be more in-line with what I’m doing later on.

One thing that took me a while to develop was confidence in my work, so my questions is, do you remember how long it took you to feel comfortable with the quality of your mixes?

Shit man I still have a problem with that [Laughs].  I’m very critical of myself and probably the first 10 years I didn’t like anything I did.  There was always one thing in the mix that I was like ‘That sucks’.  I’ll still hear things on records that are released now (pretty big records) and I’ll be like ‘I don’t know it could be better’.

If I can’t spend like a day working on a mix, take my time and get a lot of breaks it’s very hard for me to get something where I’m like super happy with.  Although I’ve had some mixes where they were done really fast and I didn’t have enough time to think about it; they came out really good.  Sometimes being under pressure and working in a short amount of time, can work out for the best.

Can you talk about your setup?  What gear are you using? How much of the analog and digital world are you using?

Blade-003This studio was kind of a fluke.  I was over in Stockholm, Sweden with an ex girlfriend of mine.  She was over there writing songs with other writers.  I just kind of went over to scope it out.  While I was there a friend of mine, Doyle Bramhall II, who’s a guitar player, messaged me on iChat wondering what I was doing in Stockholm.  I told him I was there with my girlfriend and that I was kind of bored actually.  He suggested that I hook up with his friend Brady Blade, who I didn’t know, but I had nothing better to do so I was like ‘Cool’.  We ended up meeting, became really good friends and it turned out that he was a really great drummer.  After that I started flying him over to play on sessions that I produced in Dallas; he became my go-to drummer.

A year goes by and he tells me that he’s going to build a studio in his home town of Shreveport, Louisiana.  I gave him 3 budgets (small, medium and large) to put a room together and they went with big.  Then they told me to pick out the gear that I would want to make good records with so I dropped $600k in here.  The thing that helped us and the reason we’re here is because of the Louisiana tax incentives.  If you record in the state of Louisiana and you spend over $15,000 on your budget, including hotels, food, car etc. the state will cover 25% of your expenses.  Well we were one of the last studios to get in on the infrastructure credit so we got 25% back from the build out, which was very expensive.  They actually helped pay for almost all of our equipment.  We also have some investors involved in the studio as well, who helped fund the build out.

Blade-006Anyways I got to choose all the equipment that I wanted to buy and I put a lot of thought into it and how I work.  I’ve never been able to make records this fast in my life because I have everything I need right at my disposal.

The centre of the room is an SSL Duality which is a cool console.  I’ve been on SSL’s for about 15 years and the Duality is probably the most functional and best sounding console for mixing, as far as I’m concerned.  It’s analog but it also acts as a HUI controller so you can flip the “Focus” button on it to control Pro Tools and that way you don’t need 80 channels.  Half the time, studios with 80 channels are probably only using 30 of those channels anyway.

I’m trying to think of digital stuff…

Photography by:  Jake HarshWe have a Pro Tools TDM HD rig running Pro-Tools 10 with 32 in and 64 out and it’s clocked by a Big Ben Word Clock.  My mixes go through an Apogee Rosetta Converter and I print back into Pro Tools.  So it comes off the SSL and goes into a Rosetta A/D converter which is also clocked off the Big Ben.  Basically all my digital stuff is clocked off the Big Ben. Also I’m tracking at 32 bit, 96 kHz.

We also have a half inch Studer A80 which I’ll occasionally mix to, if the band can afford the tape.  Another cool thing we have is CLASP which allows me to connect my Studer 827, to run in the background of my Pro Tools rig, when I’m recording.  So everything hits tape before it goes into the computer.  We’re still going digital but we’re at such a high sample rate that, to me, it really doesn’t affect it that much.  I get that great compression and tape sound off the Studer 827.  I can record as many takes as I want and I only need one reel of tape because all it is, is a giant plugin that sits in between the desk and the Pro Tools rig.  When I hit record on Pro Tools the tape machine drops into record and it goes into the Studer A 827computer.  The software knows where to time stamp it to compensate for the delay because there is a space between the record head and the playback head.  So the client literally hears no delay at all from the computer when listening through their headphones.  But you do have to listen back because you don’t know what it recorded off the tape.  You have to make sure there isn’t any distortion or that you didn’t hit something to hot.  But that’s the way it used to be, back in the day, when you worked off of tape machines.  I can do a whole record with one reel of tape so that saves the band a lot of money.

And when you’re mixing, do you use any plugins at all?

Mostly outboard.  I do use a deEsser inside of Pro Tools and I use delays like the Soundtoys Echoboy, so I guess it’s like a hybrid of everything when I mix.  I like the Waves SSL stuff and I think the Altiverb is a nice ITB reverb which I use sometimes.  I have a TC 6000 reverb unit so I use that mostly but when I do some classical music or something with strings I like to go to the Altiverb occasionally.  It’s cool because they have the rooms that they’ve modelled all around the world in that one plugin.  You can put a cello in the middle of Albert Hall and it sounds pretty realistic.

And your monitors of choice?

Adams S3X-HI have NS-10’s for balancing because I’ve been on those forever.  I have Adam S3X-H’s up front and then my big monitors are Ocean Way Monitors designed by Allen Sides.  They’re 60 grand, I mean they pump.  Allen came out here and put the monitors in and helped me tune the room.  What he does is use the Ocean Way Curve which is the same curve they use at Ocean Way Studios in Los Angeles.  They start at that base point and he tweaks it from there to get your room more accurate.  They sound amazing, I mean you could mix on them they sound so accurate.

I’m also set up for 5.1 in this room.  For a while I was into mixing surround on records and what’s cool about it is that you can leave the entire low end in that you normally shave out, so it just sounds gigantic.   I used to do free 5.1 mixes for the band, to show them what it was like and to get them excited about it.  I would do all my stereo mixes and then I would spend about an hour per song, breaking out a 5.1 mix for them.  But none of those 5.1 records have ever been released; they all have them on hard drives somewhere.  I guess it went by the way side because the iPod took over and now everyone’s listening to MP3’s.

I know you just explained your entire analog set up but I still have to ask this question.  Do you ever see yourself going ITB one day?

Erykah Badu singingWell before I came out here I was in a transition and I was freelancing.  I was working out of my loft in Dallas and I had a bunch of gear set up in there.  It was a cross between my gear and Erykah Badu’s gear, who I was working with at the time.  We finished a record and she was like ‘Hang on to this gear and you can use the Pro Tools rig’.  I was starting to do mixes in the box but I had a Neve summing bus and I had an API 2500 compressor for my 2 buss and it sounded really good.  I was really surprised with the mixes that I got out of there.  Going from an 80 channel mixing desk to working out of my loft, I could honestly achieve almost the same thing.  It just wasn’t as fast at first and I just didn’t trust my ears in my loft.

I could definitely see myself working in the box at some point but I would probably still use a summing bus.  The Neve summing bus I have, has an A/D convertor in it which actually sounds really frigging good.  I was really surprised, and to me it sounds better than a lot of these boxes that cost like 3-4 thousand dollars.

Assuming everything’s been recorded and edited, how long would it take for you to do a mix?

[Laughs] Well that depends who it’s for and how much money they have.  Honestly, it could be anywhere from 3 hours to a full day, for one song.  I try to figure everything out up front because I have to know how much time I have to mix the record.  So if they tell me they have 5 days, then I come up with a schedule and I stick to it and move at the speed I have to, to get it all done.  Sometimes I’m not always happy with everything but with budgets we have to adjust accordingly.

But when you were doing stuff for labels back in the day, you’d pretty much get one day per mix and you could sit on it over night.  You would come back the next day and instantly hear a couple of changes which you could fix.  Then you’d print, send it off and they’d be happy with it.  Now, we might have to mix 3 or 4 songs a day but my average is like 2-3 with 2 being the ideal amount.

Are you satisfied with the results by doing that many in one day?

I could do 2 songs in a day and be happy with them because I’m in a room that I can trust.  It makes it easier when you’re in a great room with $100,000 worth of monitoring.  I can pretty much hear what I need to be hearing.  Not to mention, if I record it, all the hard work has been done up front.

What about ear fatigue?  After mixing 4-5 hours, the second record isn’t a challenge because of that?

Well you have to be really careful about your listening levels.  If you know you’re going to be in a room for 10 hours mixing than you better take breaks and not jam it at ear bleeding levels. But honestly I’m guilty of that sometimes.  Also there are times when I have to quit early because my ears are tired so I print and don’t commit to it until the next day.  That’s what I normally do on the second song, I finish it and then the next day I take a second listen before I start my other song.

In regards to mixing, if you could only have 5 pieces of gear, what would they be?

[Laughs] Oh man, well an SSL duality would be one and I use the EQ on that for mostly everything.  I would say a good word clock would be the next piece of equipment.  One record I was on, we had like $10,000 worth of word clocks which is just nuts to me but it does help.  In fact I think that a good word clock, for digital stuff, is essential.  Next would be my Adam S3X-H’s monitors.  I’m also a big fan of the Manley Vari Mu for stereo bus compression.  I don’t even know what the 5th one would be.  I use 2 Tube Techs PE 1C’s (kind of like Pultec’s) and that would be the EQ I would choose to have, especially for vocals.  I guess that would be it.

Manley Vari Mu

Normally I ask every engineer what they’re favourite In the Box compressor and EQ are but since you mostly use outboard for that, I thought I would generalize.  What’s your favourite In the Box tool?

FinalAESVocalRiderOne thing I use in the box a lot is the Vocal Rider from Waves Audio, it’s the best.  I used to do that on the console and if you get it set right, it’s really good.  What I used to do is send the key input of everything else but the vocals to a bus, off the console.  That bus goes to ‘key in’ on the vocal rider, so it will automatically set the level of where everything is supposed to be around, where the vocal should sit.  Then I’ll compress after the vocal rider so you’re compressor isn’t taking really heavy hits from the vocal.  You can set your compressor really nice so you’re not burying it or anything.  Everything that’s getting sent to your compressor is being sent evenly.

You prefer the vocal rider over manual automation adjustments?

You still might have to ride a few things on your own.  I don’t just chunk it on there and go ‘its done’ because it’s not perfect but it does help.  And if I didn’t have a compressor for the vocal, I would be fine with just using that because the vocal still sounds nice and airy.

How do you treat your Mix Bus?

My master bus usually has the Manley Vari Mu on it.

And you mix through it?

Oh yeah!  I insert it on my mix bus.  The setting are normally the same but I’ll probably have to change the threshold or the drive going into it.  Sometimes I might even add the SSL compressor on top of that.  But none of this gets hit very hard and sometimes I’ll take it off too.  It just depends on the type of music it is and what’s going on.  Usually it’s adding a certain fatness to everything that I like.  If I’m sending it to a client, I’ll print them a mix with an L2 or L3 on it and sometimes I’ll add the PE 1C’s for air (15k).

What’s your approach on reverbs and creating space in the mix so that it sounds natural and pleasing to the ear.

Right.  A lot of that depends on the tempo of the song, the style of the song and the size of the reverbs you’re using.  You just want to apply a certain amount that’s tasteful and usually a tasteful amount is where you’ll hear it in the open spaces but you don’t really hear it all the time.

So that’s pretty much it?

There’s no magic to that.  Sometimes I’ll add some top end to the reverb itself or sometimes I’ll send a reverb to a delay or a delay to the reverb.  But like I said, it depends on the style of music.

Would you say effects are the biggest proponent in helping you create a sense space in your mix?

Have you ever used the Eventide Micro Pitch Shifter?

Not the real unit, but I like the Waves Doubler and the Soundtoys Little Microshift.

Okay, well back in the day a lot of people use to put that on the vocals because it makes the vocal wider.  It almost sounds chorusy but you don’t want to add that much where you hear it working.  I have a phase meter right in front of my face the whole time so I can see, for example, if the vocal is a sliver the whole time.  I might add some of that Eventide Micro Pitch Shift on the vocals, just a tiny bit, to make it wider and fuller.

But as for Reverbs, I use those for depth.  So if there is an instrument that isn’t very critical and I don’t want to hear it right in front of my face, I’ll put a reverb on it to push it back.  You can use level and reverb to push it even farther back.

Cool, I think that pretty much does it.  But before you go is there any advice you can give a younger engineer who wants to get into this full time?

Man, I would just say do it as much as you can and record as much as possible.  When I started out, I had a morning job working from 7-11, ate lunch then went to the studio and worked from 1 pm to 1 am.  So I had no life for about 10 years and even now I don’t have a life.  I mean even in this room I’ve put in 70 hour work weeks a lot.  That’s how you get good and once you get good people are going to find you.

Starting out, I would go to clubs to find bands because I wanted to record them.  I would say ‘Hey I’ll give you free studio time if I can work with you guys’.  Then when you get a record out, you can play it for other bands and if they like it you can give them a good rate.  Pretty soon, after you have a bunch of records under your belt, you can start charging what your worth.

The problem is all these musicians want to record themselves now.  I’ve had a few people finally figure out that it isn’t worth their time and that they should just let an engineer record them because it takes away from their musicianship.  Instead of learning how to record, they should be practicing licks or something.  It’s a whole catch 22.

Awesome!  Well thanks for being part of this, I really appreciate it.

No problem, it’s cool to see somebody doing this and taking an interest in what we do.

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