Psychology of a Mix Engineer: An Interview With Gary Noble

Gary Noble is a multiple Grammy nominated Mix Engineer/Producer with the ear that inspires magic. He is known for his knack of ” bringing the artists’ & producers’ visions to light.”

His ear is attuned to many genres of sound and music as reflected in his expansive catalog of award winning songs. His philosophy on life…”MUSIC IS LIFE. MIXING IS HOW I MEDITATE ON LIFE,” inspires him and motivates the focus he shares within each body of work.

Major record labels like Atlantic Records and Universal Music summon Mr. Noble regularly to give the music of artists like Jessie J and Abd Al Malik (which won 2 French Grammys} enhancements that can only be described as hypnotic. Movie studios know him as well, turning to him to mix songs for the soundtrack of blockbusters like “Sex in the City: The Movie” and “After The Sunset.” His work is also reflected in the commercial world. An example of his most recent work is the Crystal Light campaign featuring Estelle‘s smash “Star”.

Today Noble’s talents are known by artists worldwide. Most recently, his skills helped British songstress Amy Winehouse‘s “Back To Black” snag a dominating 5 Grammys in 2008. He  also mixed the Grammy nominated Nas single “Cherry Wine” featuring Amy Winehouse and produced by Salaam Remi.

Artists he has worked with have earned all of the top accolades including American Music Awards, Billboard Music Awards,the MOBO(U.K.) Awards and The Grammys.

And with each recognition, the artists themselves credit Gary with making it all possible.

Gary Noble’s Discography
Gary Noble’s Blog

 

How did you get into the music business and engineering?

I’ve been listening to music ever since I was a little kid.  I’ve always been into music and I was exposed to a lot of different genres of music from early on. I even remember getting into trouble when I was 5 years old when my father came home and found me playing records on his stereo system. Every day, when I came home from school, I would go and play records on his system and I got in trouble for it.  I didn’t break anything and I knew how to operate the records but that was his pride and joy and he would always tell me not to touch it.

I became a DJ when I was about 15 years old and I would do parties with my friends.  Then one day when I was about 20, I went to a studio with a friend of mine and that was the first time that I ever went to a real studio.  As soon as I walked in, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.  I ended up staying the whole night and listened to everything that was going on and watching everyone.

At the end of the session I approached the engineer and told him that I wanted to learn how to be an engineer.  What he told me was that a lot of people say they want to do it but aren’t that serious.  He said that if I was really serious that I should check out a new school (at the time) called the Institute Of Audio Research (IAR for short) in New York and take the Modern Recording Technology Course.  He told me that once I finished the course that I could come and see him.

So I took a leave of absence from college to go take the engineering course because I just knew that was what I wanted to do and I had the passion for it.  I’ve been doing it ever since.

 

And how/when did you transition into the mixing side of things?

salaam-remi

Salaam Remi (photo – neosoulcafe.com)

The mixing came organically.  I met Salaam Remi, who I still work with today, when I was still in my infancy stages as an engineer.  I met him around Christmas of ‘89 and I started working with him on various projects.  I was doing the recording, assisting Edison Sainsbury his partner/engineer at the time and around 1993, I became his main guy.

I didn’t plan on being a mixing engineer and in my mind all I wanted to do was be the best engineer that I could be.  It was always about the sound that was coming out of the speakers and what I needed to do to get that sound.  That was and still is my focus to this day.

 

1989? So you started strictly on analog?

Yes. When I first started engineering, there was no Pro Tools and we did edits on half inch tape.  We would put down different sections and splice them together.  We were working on SSL’s, Neve’s, Studer, Tascam, Otari and then we graduated from that to working on a mixture of 2 inch tape with digital machines.  Of course we then moved onto using Pro Tools and Digital Performer and other things like that.

 

And today you are mostly in the box or out the box?

Today I actually mix 90% of the time in the box and I do it with either Pro Tools or Logic.  The technology and the plugins have become that good that I’m able to get the sound I want from mixing in the box.  My preferred choice for mixing is still a hybrid set up but the budget doesn’t always allow for it.  I like using a mixture of Pro Tools and an SSL or a Neve and mix that way but a lot of times I’m not afforded that luxury so I’ve learned how to mix completely in the box with plugins.  I actually did an album last year that was mixed completely in the box and it received a Grammy Nomination.

 

Which record was that?

He’s a new artist but he’s known as an actor.  His name is Tristan Wilds and his artist name is Mack Wilds.  He’s from the HBO series “The Wire” and he’s also been on other shows like 90210 plus the movie “Red Tails”. He’s young and in his early 20’s but he’s a very talented guy and was really cool to work with. The album was called “Mack Wilds: A New York Love Story”

 

I’m fascinated by the fact that you got to work with one of the best vocalists of our time, Amy Winehouse. How did you get involved in working with her?

At the time, Amy (R.I.P.) was with (19 Entertainment) which is Simon Cowell’s group.  Working with Amy came from working with Salaam.  Salaam has worked with many artists from the UK and was well known to a lot of the record labels.  They were developing Amy as an artist and they wanted Salaam to do some songs with her to see what would happen.

She came to Miami to visit and when she was about 18.  She came to the studio and walked in with a guitar and a bag.  We talked about music and what she liked.  She had a bag full of CDs which were mostly old school stuff like (Sarah Vaughn) and Ella Fitzgerald which I thought was great.

amy-winehouse-frank

I was hooking up some gear to the board, so I was behind the console, and Salaam asked her if she had anything that she was working on that he could hear.  She was like “Yeah I have a lot of songs, let me play one for you that I’m working on right now”.  I thought she was going to pull out a CD or something but instead she pulled out the guitar and she started singing.  When she started singing, I stopped what I was doing and stood up staring with my mouth open.  I was like “Wow, that’s coming out of her?”

Salaam and I looked at each other and we were like “Yeah, we’re going to work with her” [Laughs].  So that’s how her first album came together.  We did that whole album here in Miami.

I never punched in on her recordings; I would just hit record and let her sing the songs.  We’d do like 2 or 3 takes and then go back we’d decide which take we liked the best. She was a performing artist, she didn’t like to punch in.  She wanted to perform the song, even when she was in the booth.  I think that carried over into her singing live and that’s why she was able to perform like that.

Another thing we didn’t do was use Autotune or Melodyne on her vocals so what your hearing is all her. I added in all the other effects like reverb, chorusing or delays but no pitch correction.

 

So when you first heard her sing you knew it was going to be something special?

Yeah, I didn’t know she was going to become a big star but I knew she had something special.  You could hear it and feel it.

 

And the Grammy you won for working with her, that was on the Back to Black Album?

Yeah.  She won 6 or 8 (MOBO Awards) which is similar to the Grammy’s in the UK.  She won those for her album Frank but she hadn’t yet crossed over to the US so she didn’t get nominated.  Once Back to Black took off and she became famous, it made more people aware of Frank so they went out and bought it thinking it was her second album.

 

And when you heard that you won the Grammy, was it a feeling of satisfaction?

Yeah it definitely felt good but I was more celebrating for everyone involved with the project.  We did something and it was recognized by our peers and it felt good but it was more of a team thing than “I” won a Grammy.

I was actually there at the Grammy’s; everyone was.  Anyone that worked on the project with Salaam was there at the Grammy’s.  Due to Visa issues, Amy wasn’t there so she accepted the award via satellite with her Mom.

 

I’m sure at that point you must have had a feeling of validation.  Like “Maybe I did make the right career choice”?

G_Brm_1[Laughs] Yeah, I mean that was definitely icing on the cake but I decided that years before because of other things that I had done.

My discography reflects only about a third of what I’ve worked on.  There’s a lot more projects that I did overseas that didn’t show up on the charts here or I didn’t get credit for.  We’ve done entire projects where the label was like, “We don’t know what to do with this.  It’s amazing but where do we put it?  It doesn’t fit into what’s going on right now.”  So they’d shelf it and that’s happened more than once.

But when we did certain projects and people told us that it was amazing or that they really felt it when they heard it, those are the times that make it worth it all.  For instance, I had someone message me online and he told me that almost half of the songs on his itunes playlist were songs that we [Salaam and I] worked on.  I was amazed at that.  He said that they cut across genres from hip hop to reggae to R&B and he was really impressed with that.  It felt good to know that even one person appreciated the work.

I’m still a bit naive because I think that the music should matter the most and I know it’s not like that but that’s the way I approach it anyway.  I think that’s why certain people will consistently reach out to me to work on projects because they know that’s my mind set.

 

You mentioned the diversity between genres and that’s something I wanted to ask you.  Is there any advice you could offer to someone who wants to be able to be as diverse as you are and make it look seamless?

One of the important things to do is listen to many different styles of music and to be exposed to it.  That way you can get a genuine feel for that particular style of music.

I like to keep an open mind and I think that’s just the way I grew up and like I said, I was exposed to a lot of different music.  I would listen to artists such as Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Sam Cook, Bob Marley, Patty Paige, George Benson and early hip hop.

I was always curious to how they would achieve their sound and I noticed the sonic disparities in the genres.  Horns in jazz doesn’t sound like horns in calypso you know, it’s a different texture.  I knew it was the same instrument, I mean a sax is a sax but in jazz it feels a certain way and in pop music it feels another way.  Then when a hip hop guy would sample it, it would have a totally new feel to it.  So I zoned in on that type of stuff and since I’m a genuine listener and a consumer of music I guess I’m basically mixing on feel.

 

So for anyone on the come up, do you feel like being diverse is important for survival?

Yes definitely because it goes in cycles like a rollercoaster.  Nowadays, and I’m sure you’ve noticed, a lot of the music that’s top 40 is a fusion of multiple styles.  If you don’t have any knowledge of where that’s coming from or how it’s supposed to fit together than you might have issues.  For instance, last week I was working on different projects.  One project I was doing was rock, another one was pop, I did a Brazilian hip hop record and also an R&B project.  All in the same week. So just be tuned into what’s going on, not just what’s in your corner.

 

Oh, interesting. Can you talk about working on foreign projects? How do you get around the language barrier?

Abd Al MalikI’ve worked on a lot of foreign language albums.  I worked with an artist from France named Abd Al Malik and he does spoken word, he just finished a movie and he writes books.  I did two albums with him between 2008 and 2011 and both albums won French Grammy’s.  He’s doing these in french but when were in the studio he speaks to me in English; he’s fluent in multiple languages.

If I’m working with a group or artist that doesn’t speak English I’ll find someone in their group that can and then ask them what each song is trying to say.  I’ll listen to the song and find the thing that I like about it and ask them what it means.  Then I’ll make some notes about what they told me and when I get into the mixing I’ll try to figure out a way to bring out that feeling that they told me.  Instead of going by the numbers like how much a kick drum should be EQ’d, I’ll just go by how it needs to feel and then try to capture that.  Once I’m finished I’ll listen to it and see if I get the feeling that I’m looking for.  If it gives me that feeling than I know that I am done, if it doesn’t than I’ll keep working on it until I get it.

 

Can you maybe talk about the importance of having great sounds and great recordings?

Whenever you get sounds that have been poorly recorded and you have to do major surgery, then it’s hard to get a good mix out of them.  There are some records in the past that I’ve done where I had to really work on every sound to get them to sound decent.  People were happy with the mix but I knew it wasn’t my best.  I knew it was because the sounds required so much work just to get them to a certain level for them to be able to sit in the mix properly.  It took a lot of time to get the sounds to a point where they sound good enough that I could actually start mixing.

When a song is well recorded and arranged it makes it easier for the mixing engineer to do his magic where he can just focus on the sonics, enhance it and really bring it to life.  When it’s poorly recorded, you have to do a lot of fixing.  If I have to spend an entire day doing sonic surgery than it kind of takes the fun out of it.

I find that with people having set ups in their houses and recording in hotel rooms, I get more and more session that I have to fix.  Before people wouldn’t do anything without going into a professional studio and I’d say about 10% of the sessions would have issues but now like 75% of them have issues.

I’ll get session where I have to pull all the faders down because it’s already slamming the mix buss. I mean I’ve had sessions where all the faders where above 0 dB and the master fader was down -20dB [Laughs].  I see you’re laughing.  So what I do is reverse it and reduce the faders to -20 dB and bring the Master Fader back up to 0 dB.  Without doing anything else but that, the song already sounds 10 times better.

 

Now I noticed that you still do some recording and maybe you do more than I know about, but do you feel that it makes your job (as a mixer) easier when you get to record the project?

Yeah because I know what the end product is supposed to sound like.  While I’m listening to it, I’ll say “Okay the kick needs this, the snare needs this, the strings need this” and I’ll just sit there and tweak it.  I don’t go overboard but I have a certain reference in my mind that I’m aiming for.

But you’re right I don’t do much recording anymore.  I only get called in for certain projects because nowadays recording budgets are almost non existant which I feel is a problem in itself.  They’re trying to save money so they’ll have people recording that don’t really know how to record.  Recording’s not just hitting the record button, you also have to know how to set a mic up properly or if an artist has problems with sibilance, you need to figure out how to adjust for that.

 

I know you’ve already touched on this a little but can you tell me what your mixing set up consists of these days?

UAD SatelitteI have two rigs.  I have a Pro Tools HD Rig that I’ve been using for many years but these days, I’d say for the last two years or so, I’ve basically been running just a MacBook Pro with Pro Tools HD software on it.  I have a UAD satellite, a Metric Halo interface and I just travel around with that.  Whether I’m in New York, L.A. or across the border, I’ll just carry that with me.  The Mack Wilds album, which received a Grammy Nomination, was mixed all in the box on the Macbook Pro.

I’ll take the output of my Mackbook and hook it up to a larger monitor and I’ll also use a standard keyboard with a trackball.  I have a cheap Logic trackball that cost like $20 and I just use that.  I’ve mixed only with the Mackbook but if I have to mix for extended periods of time, I like to have the keyboard and trackball.

I have these Truth Audio speakers that a guy sent me years ago and I just kept them.  I use those because the imaging on them is really good.  A lot people don’t like them because they don’t have hyped highs that a lot of other speakers have but I like them.

 

So if you’re going from studio to studio, does that mean that your speakers change?

Yeah the speakers will change.  What I’ve learned to do is carry a pair of headphones that I’m comfortable with.  A lot of producers have the Beats (by Dre) so I’ll listen on those for reference but the monitors will change from studio to studio.

But what I do when I go into a room that I’ve never worked in before is spent the first 20-30 mins just listening to music in the room.  I’ll listen to songs that I’m very familiar with, especially stuff that I’ve mixed that I like and that other people like.  I’ll listen to see what the room is doing to the song and then I’ll have an idea of where to go when I start mixing.  I always get myself familiarized with the room.

 

A lot of engineers take time to get familiar with the rooms they work in and the speakers they work on.  So how can you go into a room you’ve never worked in, use speakers you aren’t used to, then listen for 30 mins and mix a great sounding record?

G_bw 2[Laughs] It’s 20 years of experience.  But seriously sometimes you have no choice because the label wants something done or it’s the budget and you don’t have the leisure of sitting in the room for two weeks to get to know it.  You have to just use something as a reference point and work off of that.

But here’s the thing, even if you take your own speakers and put them into a different room then they are going to sound different.  It will help you to have the same speakers all the time but unless each room is built and tuned the same way, they are going to sound different anyway.  What I try to do is just activate my ears to what’s going on. But I do take frequent breaks when I’m mixing.  I’ll go outside and walk around and come back.  Another thing I do is I’ll leave the speakers on at a decent level, leave the control door open and listen to the song in the lounge.

By taking frequent breaks I can go away, come back and press play and immediately know what’s wrong and be able to correct it.  Sometimes it might need less reverb or the mix might need to sound softer but as soon as I come back from a break, it will become evident to me.  That’s because our brains have a way of becoming acclimated to things.  If you listen to the same thing over and over again (for an hour or more) you’ll start to think that what you are doing doesn’t sound bad anymore.  That’s exactly where demoitis comes from and back in the day we never used to give a copy of the song to anyone until it was finished.  The reason is because they didn’t want anyone to hear it unfinished.  But now you give demos to people and sometimes the vocals are too loud or it was recorded over a beat that was L2’d to death.

 

So if you know you have to give the track out before it’s finished and you know that demoitis is most likely to occur, would you purposely give out a version that isn’t mixed well or the volume is bumped down so that the mixed version sounds way better?

No because then they’ll get stuck on that.  I’ll get a decent sounding rough to give to them. The label usually wants to hear the song to know if they want to include it on the album or not.  I’ll just tell them that it’s not the final version but it’s so they can hear if they like the song or not and that it’s going to need a proper mix.  But a lot of times what happens is that they will end up getting stuck on the rough [Laughs].  I tell them to just listen to the mix for a couple of days so they can get used to it and they’ll come back and tell me how much better the mix sounds.

 

How long, on average, would you spend on a mix until you felt like it was good to go?

If it’s well recorded, everything is labeled and I don’t really have to do any edits or arranging to the song than I can get a good sounding mix in 4-6 hours.  If it’s something that I have to do a lot of surgery to the sounds, than you’re talking usually a full studio day which is about 10-12 hours.  So it all depends.

 

And how would you start a mix?  Where would you go to first?

It depends on the song.  Most songs I start off by just listening to it.  I might focus on the drums and find out what they need and then get them to a certain point.  After the drums I’ll unmute the vocal and listen to it against the main instrument and the bass.  I won’t do anything to them, I’ll just put them in to see how they work with everything else.  Then listen to everything together to see what the songs doing.  Once I do that and I have an idea of what’s going on, I’ll solo the kick and bass and get them to work well together because that’s the foundation of the whole mix.

When I’m choosing reverbs, I’ll solo the snare and the lead vocal and the main instrument.  Then I’ll find reverbs that work well with them but also that work well together.  It’s easy to have something in solo sound good with a reverb but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to work with everything else.  A lot of times I’ll end up using the same reverb just to unify everything.

 

In regards to in the box processing, what’s on your mixbuss?

A lot of times, I don’t use anything but when I do I like to use things like the ATR 102 from UAD, which is an emulation of the Ampex Tape Machine.  Every now and then, I might put on a multiband EQ like a Pultec but usually it’s just the ATR 102.  I don’t really go crazy with the master bus.  Even when I was mixing strictly analog, I hardly ever put anything on the output of the console.

 

And when you do put these plugins on, do you mix through them?

Yeah, and I find it works better that way when I put it on at the beginning of the mix than if I finish the mix and feed it through it.  So what I do with the master bus is I’ll get a rough balance going and get it to the point where all the levels are relatively balanced and then I’ll put it on.  Then I do all the tweaking and fine tuning from then on.  If I did the mix where it sounded good to me and then I put it on, it would change the spectral balance.  I know this term has been over used but it gives it a “glue” or sonic sheen to the sound.

 

What kind of plugins are you using for saturation or distortion?  Something to get the sound to pop a little bit.

For that I like to use the API vision channel strip from UAD; I used that a lot.  I also use the SSL channel strip.  For the vocals I use the UAD 1073 and the Metric Halo Channel Strip (which I’ve been using since day one).  Sometimes if the vocal is over compressed I’ll use the Waves RComp which has an uncompressor mode that works really well.  So if the vocals were recorded with too much compression, I’ll use that to open them back up and then smoothen them out with an La2a or something similar.

 

Okay, so now for the question that I like to ask every engineer.  What’s your favorite ITB compressor and EQ?

neve_88rs_hqUAD also makes a Neve 88rs plugin which I’ve been using from the UAD-1 days and that plugin you can basically do anything with.  It sounds great on vocals, drums, bass, strings and pianos; it sounds great on everything.  It’s emulated off of a Neve Flagship console which a lot of people aren’t that familiar with but anyone whose heard it says how amazing it is.  It wasn’t very popular because it cost like a million dollars [laughs] so not very many people ended up purchasing it but it really does sound good.

It has a function called hysteresis where you set the gate really tight and you just the hysteresis so the gate opens up slightly before the sound so you don’t clip the attack but it still has the tightness that you want from the sound.  That’s a function that not many dynamic sections have.

If I was to be stuck somewhere and all I had was my Macbook Pro and my UAD Satellite, then I’m good.  But yeah, the 88rs would be my favorite for compression and EQ.

 

One thing I feel like I am still getting better at is automation, what are your concepts about it and how are you using it in your mixes?

For me, I don’t do any automation until I have the relative levels of all my sounds.  I try to get the sounds to work well with each other before I do anything related to automation.  Once I get to that point I will start adding some automation.  The guitar might need to come up, the drums might need to be raised on the hook or I might need to correct discrepancies in a sound.

I also use automation to even out a performance before compression.  Some people like to use compression to level things out but I prefer the automation.  I use the compression to keep everything gelled and sitting a certain way but the main big discrepancies are fixed with automation.

I also like to use automation to create dramatics; ride certain sections to make it feel like it’s flowing.  Certain genres I may not do that to like when I’m mixing hip hop drums.  I would normally compress and EQ the drums aggressively to get them to hit hard.

I also like to use automation for creative panning.

 

Any advice for young or new engineers?

What I would suggest is to find a studio in your city or town and go and learn as much as you can about sound.  Learn about recording, editing and see if you can get to work with engineers that have experience.  It’s cool to go through the YouTube videos online and it’s cool to fool around with the software but I feel like a lot of people are missing the foundations and basic stuff.  So either you need to go to a school to learn that stuff or get an internship at a studio.  Even way back, I was interning in a recording studio and once or twice a week I was going to (VP Mastering LABS) so I could see how they mastered the songs for vinyl.  I wanted to learn how the whole process worked from stepping into the booth all the way to the end.

School did help me because when I went into the studio I was able to figure out the signal flow pretty quickly.  I learned that the patch bay was the heart of the studio and if you removed that, then it’s almost impossible to work.  They gave me the studio log with all the gear on it and I memorized the entire patch bay so when they needed something I didn’t even have to look it was just there.

The hands on experience is important but so is dealing with clients which school doesn’t teach you.  When I started they use to tell me that the engineer has 3 eyes on his head.  You have one on the meters, one on the producer and one on the artist.  I was there to make sure I captured what they were doing and to get the vision onto tape.  No one is supposed to see you or hear from you unless they are looking directly at you. You don’t have to be quiet but basically you shouldn’t be disturbing the creative vibe.  You need to be an asset and help them realize their creative visions.  School can help you with the technical but they can’t teach you how to deal with people like that.

As far as some technical stuff, I tell young engineers all the time that everything that you learn, whether it’s online or someone directly teaching you in school, it will not make sense to you until you make that connection between what your hands are doing, what your ears are hearing and what your brain is telling you.  When you make that connection and it clicks than that’s when you know you’re on the path to becoming a good engineer.  I could tell you all day to do this or do that but until you actually sit down and do it, where you’re turning the knobs and listening, then you’ll understand.

 

Thanks a lot for giving your time to do the interview and also for mentioning the Trap Drum samples, it really does help out a lot.

Not a problem, glad I could help.  With the blog post and the samples, I was just trying to share information and that’s something that I’m passionate about.

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