Psychology of a Mix Engineer: An Interview With Adam Barber

Adam Barber is a recording/mixing engineer with over 18 years experience and is currently working out of 3 Peace Studios located in Sarasota FL.

Adam relocated Sarasota FL. when YouTube stars, the three Manzano brothers of Boyce Avenue, hired him as chief engineer at their recording studio.

While specializing in rock music, Adam has experience in multiple genres and has worked with some of the top producers and engineers including: Ben Grosse, James Paul Wisner, Mutt Lange, Ron St. Germain, Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins, John Kurtzweg, Denniz Pop, Max Martin, Timmy Allen, Veit Renn and many more.

Not only has Adam worked with some great producers and engineers, some of the artists he has work with include: Boyce AvenueAlter Bridge, Sevendust, CreedLimp Bizkit, Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync, Deep Purple, Tamia, O-Town plus many more.

Here’s how you can contact Adam:  
Website: www.adambarber.net
Twitter: @adaMbarberR
Email: adam@adambarber.net

 

So how did you get into the engineering side of the music business?

When I was about 19 years old, I was going to Ferris State University, which is in Michigan and that was about 1992/93.  I was playing guitar in bands but I wasn’t the greatest player and I knew that I was never really going to be.  It was at that time that a friend told me about Full Sail Recording School down here in Florida so I flew down and checked it out.  After my first year of school in Michigan, I decided to drop out and enroll at Full Sail to get a degree in recording.

But it blew my mind because I had no idea how anything was done from multitrack recording to the mixing.  I guess you could say I was a big newbie but I found it fascinating and I loved it.  It quickly became an instant passion for me and that’s really how it kind of started.

 

Okay, since you have experience with going to a school; with the knowledge you have now, would you choose a different route if you were just getting started today?

With the knowledge I have now, of course going back would be a different story.  I mean I don’t regret it because I had no knowledge what so ever about anything.  I think going to Full Sail at the time was probably the best decision.  I mean there were probably other schools I could have went to but I don’t think it really matters because you’re just learning  the fundamental basics anyways.  However, the fact was that it allowed me to get my foot in the door and learn a little bit more about what was going on; I would have had no idea otherwise.

That being said, with the cost of school now (Full Sail in particular) and the amount of students that are coming out,  I would recommend taking the approach of going to a studio and intern if you have some fundamental knowledge on the process.   Plus nowadays it’s a little bit easier with all the software, you can learn and figure out how things are done.  So yeah, I would call an engineer, producer or studio first and see what kind of knowledge you can gain from doing an internship before dropping all that money on school. I would also rather see someone get a bachelor’s or masters degree from a better university and take courses in audio while pursuing a different degree they are interested in. They will receive a better education, likely cheaper, and a degree that means more in the world outside audio. If I were hiring someone for our studio, I would be just as inclined to hire someone from a standard university, regardless of what they majored in, provided they had some fundamental knowledge of audio.

 

Is there one mentor that you feel made the biggest impact on your career and helped get you to where you are now?

Do you mean somebody that I worked with or just someone’s work that I admire?

 

I guess I’ll let you decide that.

Mark and Myles (Alter Bridge) with Adam BarberMark and Myles (Alter Bridge) with Adam BarberMark and Myles (Alter Bridge) with Adam Barber[Laughs] Well I mean I had some engineers that I worked under so I grabbed something from all of them by working with them.  Not to get too far off track but that’s the thing that sucks today; you’ve got so many engineers that are able to do this at home that it’s tough to learn from their experience of being in the studio.  Sometimes you can learn things off YouTube or other places but I definitely wouldn’t have gotten the knowledge that I have today had I not been exposed to other producers and engineers.

But some of the engineers from the bigger projects like Ben Grosse was a huge deal for me.  To be able to work with him on a SevenDust record and Alter Bridge Record was great.  Aside from being amazing projects to work on, it was cool to be able to hang out and learn from Ben Gross since I really admired his work even before I met him.  He was a really cool and I still keep in contact with him today.

There’s also some guys from the early 90’s whose work I really admired and had a huge impact on me like Andy Wallace, Terry Date, Brendon O’Brian, GGGarth and a few other guys like that.

 

You literally came up in the golden era of boy bands, what was it like to be involved with that and was there any memorable moments from being in the studio with any of these guys?

Yeah it was interesting and I fully believe that sometimes it’s important to be in the right place at the right time in this business.  With the pop thing it was one of those moments where I had been assisting at a studio in Orlando for a couple years and then The Backstreet boys and N’sync came through so I was lucky that I was in a position to first assist and then move to engineering a lot of those records.

Adam Barber with Aj McLean and Kevin Richardson (BackStreet Boys)Adam Barber with Aj McLean and Kevin Richardson (BackStreet Boys)It’s funny because at the time, during The Backstreet boys first record I didn’t think it would do well at all [Laughs].  So now anytime I say a record won’t do well, it probably will and if I say it will do well, it probably won’t.

It was an interesting experience since I never really worked on pop music before.  It was interesting to watch the producers and how they did things, especially since we were doing everything on 2 inch tape and no real ability to tune anything.    To be able to watch these guys, see how good of an ear they had and their ability to produce the vocals was great.  There were songs where we spent like 100 hours on background vocals alone.  It was an amazing amount of time put into it.

As far as memorable moments there isn’t anything that comes to mind.  Everybody was always really cool.  I had a really good time working with the N’sync guys, they were really classy and very funny, we always had fun.

 

I know a lot of people think that pop music is basically just throw away music but when you saw how much time the producers spent on perfecting things like the background vocals, did you gain a new respect for the genre?

Yeah for sure, I mean they basically had an unlimited budget so they didn’t really care about the time and we would put serious hours every week on that stuff.  They would just do take, after take, after take until they thought it sounded good.  It’s funny because I never really had an OCD issue about cleanliness and detail before I worked on those projects.  If I feel like there’s something wrong with the performance I’ll either speak up or redo it.  You can’t let things slide, you have to be diligent about everything.

So it was interesting to see how these guys spent an insane amount of time on little things.  Nowadays you don’t really have to spend that amount of time on certain things like vocals – thank God [Laughs].  You had to use your ears a lot more back then and this is why I think a lot of the older guys have abilities that a lot of people nowadays lack somewhat.

 

I have to ask you this only because of the limited amount of articles and interviews on him but what was it like working with Max Martin?

[Laughs] When I had the pleasure of working with him it was a time when I was just assisting and I think it was just one song.  He was working with his partner at the time, Dennis Pop who is now deceased.  When I first saw those guys I didn’t know who they were.  They were these blonde, long haired guys from Sweden who looked like bums [Laughs] and it was funny.  I was like “Who the hell are these guys?” But they were really cool and really great guys.

They brought the tracks with them so everything was already set up and they were just doing the vocals.  Everything was already done in their head, they even had the scratch vocals laid down – they just wanted the performance.  They didn’t really work any different from any of the other producers; it was just the performance that they got out of the singer.  Unfortunately I couldn’t experience a start to finish project with those guys so I don’t really have stories that you’d probably want to hear about.

 

That’s pretty interesting still.  Okay, maybe we can fast forward a little bit.  You’re now working with Boyce Avenue who blew up on YouTube and are amassing millions of views from all over the world.  How did you end up getting involved with them?

We first got introduced from working on their first record, which we started in the 2008 timeframe.  I was working at a studio that they came to work at and I started doing their project.   We ended up clicking really well.  At the time they were looking at getting signed by Universal and they stopped doing YouTube covers when they eventually did get signed.  They ended up leaving Universal a short time later and decided they wanted to get back into the cover songs.

Boyce Avenue (Daniel, Alejandro) and Megan Nicole with Adam Barber

Boyce Avenue (Daniel, Alejandro) and Megan Nicole with Adam Barber

That’s when they came to me and expressed interest in working with me on their cover material.  We talked about doing the stuff at my house and working out of the Pro Tools system I had at home so we started doing the covers at my place.  From there they started blowing up again with the covers, we were doing quite a bit every year and it just kept snowballing and the growth kept happening for them.

Then about a couple years ago they approached me and wanted me to move to Sarasota and put me on a full time salary.  That’s basically how it got set up.  It was just a really good working relationship to begin with.  They’re super great guys to work with and super talented so when they approached me to exclusively work full time for them, I was happy to have the opportunity.  Being in this business, I’ve always been freelance and I’ve never had a salary position for over 20 years now.  So it was really nice to have a steady paycheck [Laughs] and work with very talented people, which is always a pleasure.

 

Now since you are exclusively working with them, are there any advantages or disadvantages to working with just one act?

I enjoy doing full band stuff and heavy rock music was really my forte.  I do miss doing stuff like that but at the same time I don’t mind giving that up just because I love working with the guys.  Plus I really love their original music and what they do with the cover songs .  I knew that working with these guys I would never grow bored of it because of the talent involved.  I consider Alejandro Manzano, from Boyce Avenue, to be in the top 5 most talented people I’ve ever worked with.  I think that’s a big deal considering some of the people that I’ve worked with.  So when you work with someone at that level you just don’t get bored because of the talent involved.  It really makes my job easy and a lot more fun [Laughs].

 

Since you work with Boyce Avenue on a daily basis, have you developed a technique for mixing their vocals that you find works consistently?

It honestly changes a lot and I don’t always do the same thing.  Just to keep it interesting for myself, every couple of months I’ll change around some of the plug-ins that I’m using.  Obviously working with the same singer over and over, his voice doesn’t change a lot.  I mean if the key of the song is higher, I might have to go in and do a little bit different selective EQ compression on the midrange frequencies.  But it doesn’t change too much.

I could probably keep the same plug-ins that I always use if I wanted to and just change around how I EQ or compress, depending on the song, but I like to change it up.  I like to go through some different EQ’s and compressors to see how it works but I don’t think anyone really notices but me.

 

I really love the fact that Boyce Avenue credits you on the YouTube videos.  I think that’s a huge step forward for engineering credits as well as anyone else involved with a record.  Do you feel digital credits will be a big part of the future for engineers, especially in regards to sustaining a career?

I think if you work on any project that’s going to be on YouTube, you should try and ask the artist (or whoever is involved) to give the proper credits and they should.  I don’t even know if I really asked Boyce Avenue to begin with, I think they just did that because that’s just the kind of guys they are.

It’s tough in regards to itunes because you have no idea who was involved in a project until maybe it goes on Allmusic.com or something.   That definitely is what sucks about itunes.   With YouTube, hopefully people will start getting credits on there and there’s no reason why people shouldn’t.

The good news is with YouTube you have that space to put credits down. I think their is a big future for YouTube, I mean the growth of YouTube is phenomenal and I think it’s only going to get better.  Not just for music but for everything else too.

 

I’ve noticed on a lot of videos you are co-credited for mixing/mastering.  I just wanted to know how involved the artist is in the mixing process and how the co-credit works?

Well with Boyce Avenue they usually take some co-mixing and mastering.   I’ll do the mix and send it to them through email and we’ll go back and forth a half dozen times or so with minor level changes.  That’s pretty much the just of the co-mixing credit.  Usually the first 90% of the mix is just me sitting down by myself and doing it.  But with the notes that they give me on that last 10% that cleans up the mix, it makes a huge difference.  So I don’t mind them taking any co-credits.

 

Do you plan out the mix as your recording their stuff?  Does your recording set up make a huge difference on how your mixes will turn out?

Obviously I prefer to track everything I mix.  We do have another artist on our label named Hanna Trigwell and I mix and master the songs for her, but I would prefer to record the tracks myself because I know how I track and what I need to do for the mix.  When I’m tracking, I’m sort of mixing at the same time.  Like with Boyce Avenue, since we’ve already done so many acoustic covers, I map out what to do before I even start.  I don’t really deviate a whole lot from the way I track and with the acoustic covers there are only a few acoustic instruments.  The only thing that really changes is maybe the way I compress or EQ something or when we get into their original stuff which has more production.

 

What does your current mixing set up consist of?

I use Neve 1073 Preamps for tracking and for vocals I have this custom made 1176 that I use for going into Pro Tools.   We have a Distressor that I usually route as an insert afterwards and a Tubetech that I’ll use in certain situations.  Usually I’ll bounce from Melodyne into a new track with the distressor and from there I’ll go completely in-the-box.   I’m a little limited because we don’t have a tonne of gear but it’s slowly changing as we build out the studio a little bit more so I hope to have some more pieces of gear.  I want to get a summing box to use and a couple of outboard EQ’s that I want to get.  But a lot of that will probably be used for tracking and not really as inserts in the mix.

SSL Duende Native ChannelWhen I’m inside of Pro Tools I’m a huge fan of the SSL Native Plug-in (Duende).  I use that pretty much all the time and their reverb (X-Verb) is probably the only reverb that I use a lot of.  When I first pulled up that reverb a couple years ago I was like “Holy Shit, this is awesome!”  I don’t know if it’s all in my head but it’s worked really well for me.   It’s probably the only reverb I really use or at least 95%  of the time anyway and then I may use a couple others like Trueverb or Avid’s stock reverb.  But that X-verb is really good and I don’t know if SSL is going to port their stuff to AAX; I may never go to Pro Tools 11[Laughs].

WaveArts TrackplugThere’s also a couple of Waves Plug-ins that I use a lot and the Massey DeEsser I use on everything.  I’m a big DeEsser fan so I use a couple of DeEssers on vocals.  Actually, usually I’ll have 2 deEssers and then a 3rd one just to hit some mid-range stuff around 2k to 3.5k I prefer to use a lot of selective narrow band compression, instead of EQ’ing.

There’s also a plug-in called TrackPlug 5 by WaveArts and I use that plug-in for notch filtering.  I’d say the majority of EQing that I’m doing is notch or selective compression EQ, except for high end, I add massive amounts of high end eq to everything, or so it seems [laughs]. A great engineer named Dana Cornock, once told me, mixing is the process of adding high-end to everything [laughs].

 

You came from an analog world so do you prefer the sound of the analog or do you think that digital has finally come to a point where you could care less?

[Laughs] Well since I’ve been mixing in the box now for several years I don’t mind digital at all.  I don’t think the analog gear components are going to go away anytime soon.   You obviously need outboard gear to go from the microphone into Pro Tools.  So that signal chain process is going to stay analog for a long time anyway.   With some the old outboard compressors like the 1176 and the Distressor, the plug-in still can’t replace those.  There’s always a place for that analog stuff right now.

I don’t mind mixing in-the-box and since digital audio has taken over in the last 15 years or so, the music has evolved to sound that way.   You can still do great projects on 2 inch tape but when you listen to anything nowadays it’s evolved and just has that sound.  I don’t think it’s bad, it’s just subjective like anything else in the business.  Plus the way digital is, it allows you to work easier and faster.  I love digital, I definitely wouldn’t trade it back in for analog.

As much as I love SSL consoles I would never really want one, especially in dealing with the maintenance nightmare.  Plus with all the recalls that we do, we can’t do it on a board like we do now.  It’s more of a pain sometimes than anything and at the end of the day, does it really make a big difference to the consumer? A great console can definitely help create and bring out more vibe in the song but if it sounds great and the emotion and vibe is being accurately represented in the music, I don’t think it has a giant impact to the listener. Nowadays, engineers are really figuring out how to blend the in-the-box mixing with analog gear, like summing boxes, and are really starting to get the best of both worlds.

 

As far as the mix buss is concerned, do you have a chain?  Do you start with it on and do you mix through it?

Slate VCCI use the Steven Slate VCC on pretty much every channel so that’s usually like my first one on the main buss and I’ll have that on from the beginning.  But I don’t really have anything set on there until I get rolling and then I’ll throw a stereo buss compressor on there.  Then when I’m about 80% into the mix, I’ll start mastering a little bit just to see where things are sitting.  Sometimes it changes things so I want to hear what it’s doing.  I’ll usually have an EQ or 2 on the mix buss as well.  I like the Waves H-EQ  or the Waves API EQ and I’ll use one of those on a lot of stuff specifically the vocals and the mix buss.  Sometimes I put it on halfway through the mix if I feel like I need to add some top end; which I usually do.

 

So with the VCC, do you put it on every track plus your busses?

Yes, I usually use that on everything.   If it’s going through a sub group like for instance some acoustic guitars going into a bus then I won’t put it on the individual channels but I will put it on the sub group.   I also do have one on the main buss.  You can adjust the settings on it to determine how much system resources you want to use and with the covers I can usually crank it up all the way without my computer crapping out on me.  I’ll bypass it several times to see what it’s doing.  It’s obviously adding something but how much “console sound” it’s adding to the overall mix, I’m not sure.  It is subjective but I like what it does.

 

Nice, so speaking of bussing/sub grouping do you use a lot of it in your mixes?

Anything with more than a couple of tracks, I’ll buss.   I don’t usually track acoustic guitars as a stereo instrument because I like to have them on separate channels so if it’s two channels, I’ll try to subgroup it.  So usually everything but sometimes lead guitars, bass and lead vocals won’t get a sub group, unless I use more than one microphone or input.  Sometimes I’ll subgroup overheads which will end up in the drum buss.  I’m a big fan of the sub groups.

 

You’ve already eluded to the fact that you’re doing some mastering in your mixes but can you share some tips on how you get your records loud without destroying the record?

Steven Slate makes a mastering plug-in (FG-X) which is pretty cool and there’s another one by PSP Audio that I use.  I find I use those two a lot but I end up using the PSP probably the most.  Using that allows me to get a pretty good level without completely destroying a lot of the transients.  With the acoustic stuff it works really well because there’s not a lot of transient stuff going on.  On records that are produced more, The PSP plug-in can really crush the transients of (let’s say) the snare drum for example.  At that point I might switch over to the FG-X because it’s more forgiving in that respect.  It has some controls on their where it allows you to manipulate the transients.  The FG-X doesn’t get quite as loud as the PSP but if I need the transients, it doesn’t bother me that much.  I guess if I had one gripe about it, it would be that it doesn’t go quite as loud as say the PSP plug-in but other than that it’s a really great plug-in.

 

You work on a lot of live guitars (acoustic and electric), what’s your process for mixing those?

I think it starts with the guitar player first.  We also have a lot of Taylor guitars we can choose from so sometimes one may sound better on a song over another.  We may end up switching the two to get a different sonic characteristic on the track.

For the cover songs, I usually use a stereo mic’ing technique that has changed over the years but now I’ve got it to a point where it doesn’t really change that often.

With the electric guitars we usually go direct with that stuff because it’s a lot quicker and easier for the covers plus we don’t do a lot of heavy distorted guitars.  I still think that for heavy distorted guitars a guitar amp is hands down the winner.  So if there’s something where we need a good distorted guitar, I always try to go for the real amp and mic up a cabinet.  But for the cleaner sounding guitars, there are so many good plug-ins out there to use.

For the acoustic stuff, the Waves Puigchild is the first thing in my chain and I hit it pretty hard.  Then I’ll usually use the waves C1-sc and some notch EQ.  I usually have 2 or 3 EQ’s to manipulate what I want out of it.  With reverb I’ll use like a really small room reverb and turn it up pretty loud.  But since it’s such a small room you don’t really notice it but it does give space to the guitar.

 

What’s your favourite in-the-box compressor?

For mixing vocals, I like to use the Puigchild 660, hitting a few dB’s.  I also like it on guitars where I’ll usually hit it pretty hard.  I think it sounds pretty cool.  It’s transparent enough that I can hit it pretty hard and it doesn’t sound awkward but it still does the job that it needs to do especially with the acoustic guitar.  I would say besides the Waves C1-sc Compressor, I use that one the most.

Waves puigchild 660

 

What’s your favourite in-the-box EQ?

For EQ, it’s probably that Waves API EQ, Waves H-EQ, the SSL channel EQ (Duende) and then Wave Arts TrackPlug 5.   Those are the 4 EQ’s I use the most.

 

From start to finish, how long does it normally take to finish a mix?

Anywhere from a day or two but it depends.  The Boyce Avenue cover songs are a bit quicker and I can have them pretty much done in a day.

Usually when you start getting into revisions and the back and forth email notes, it can take a couple of days for people to respond and then I have to do the changes and send something back.  But to the point where I get the first or second pass finished, it usually takes a day or two, depending on what’s going on in the song.  I don’t mind taking my time on it though, if I’m allowed to [Laughs].

 

One thing I’m always curious about is other engineer’s approach on effects.  I know you’ve already mentioned some uses but can you explain how you approach adding effects to a record?

With the Boyce Avenue stuff (but I guess this could apply to anything) I usually always have a few different reverbs that I’m going to reach for.  I’ll always set up a small room reverb, a longer tail reverb and also a delay.  I’ll set those 3 things up for each instrument.  So I’ll set up 3 for the vocals, I’ll set up another 3 for the acoustic guitar, another 3 for the electric guitar and then for drums.  So everyone kind of gets their own reverb but I may not use everything.  I do have them set up though in case I just want to add some automated reverb or delay into the track.  For vocals I’ll usually have a lot of the small room in there to give it space and then I’ll add in just a little bit of the longer tail reverb, a little of the delay and then I’ll automate those depending on what’s happening in the song.  That’s generally how I approach it.

 

Wow, that’s interesting.  So you’re saying that everything gets it’s own set of effects?  Basically you could have 20 (or more) effects set up just for a few instruments?

Yeah, like I said a lot of times I won’t use all those tracks.  Like for instance the drums won’t have a delay on them and the acoustic might not have a long tail reverb or delay but yeah I’ll generally have a lot of effects going on.

 

So would you ever put an effect on an insert or just through a send and return?

I do that every once in a while too.  Sometimes with the cajon, I’ll put the reverb in directly as an insert but it really depends.  If I put it as an insert, it tends to dampen the transients of the drum which may be desirable to get a warmer tone.  If I want the punch from the drums, then I’ll take it off and just use it as a send.

For certain percussive things where I want that ambiance to come out, I’ll just put the reverb on as an insert, like for instance a tambourine hit, and just play with the dry/wet mix.  There’s definitely times when I do it but most of the time it’s just a send.

 

Is there one particular cover that you mixed where you were really proud with how the mix turned out?

There’s a few older ones from a couple years that Alejandro and I will go back and talk about how they just worked out really well.

Not too long ago, we did a Justin Timberlake “Mirrors” cover with the group 5th harmony and I’m really happy with how that mix sounds and the song “A-Team” by Ed Sheeran  came out really great.  Just recently we submitted the One direction song “Story of My Life” and I’m really tickled over that mix.  I mean there’s also some that I’m not too happy with but I think it’s really just me that hears these issues, especially when most people are listening back on laptop speakers or ear buds.

[youtube id=”j6XSBt043S8″ width=”690″ height=”388″ autoplay=”no” api_params=””]

 

Since you work so closely with a group whose done very well on YouTube, is there any advice you can give to other people who are trying to achieve similar success?

It’s tough because the market is so saturated especially with people doing cover songs now.  Besides being extremely talented, I think Boyce Avenue were one of the first ones to really start doing this.  They were sort of like the founders of this whole YouTube movement and a lot of the big YouTubers credit them for that.

I see so many artists out there now on YouTube and a lot of them are great so it’s tough for anybody.  Although I do think that at the end of the day, the people with the talent will be the ones who come through and allow themselves to have a career in music.

From an engineering stand point, if you see an artist out there that you like and you want to try and get some exposure, you might want to try and contact them to try and do some work for them.  Maybe do a mix and master for them.

I mean I like what you’re doing, it’s a pretty cool way to get exposure as well.  Obviously you have talent to be able to do a lot of these tutorials that you do and the ones I have watched are really great and informative.

 

Thanks Man!  Anyways I really appreciate you taking time out of your day to answer the questions and do this interview.

Awesome man.  I really appreciate you hitting me up to do this interview, it’s very flattering.  Keep in touch

  • jonboy5

    Loved hearing all this! Awesome job…
    -Jon

  • Great article!!

Still Struggling with EQ?