Psychology of a Mix Engineer: An Interview With Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is a mixing and recording engineer from Philadelphia.

Matt mixes many different genres but his roots started in hip-hop. Some hip-hop acts he has mixed for include Snoop, Gorilla Zoe, J-Son, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development, Gift of Gab, 9th Wonder, Sonny Digital, !llmind and more.

In addition to mixing records Matt has been contributing video tutorials and articles to The Pro Audio Files for a few years. There you can get tips and advice from Matt’s years of experience.

Recently Matt released Mixing Rap Vocals Part 2 alongside The Pro Audio Files which is an advanced training tutorial for aspiring producers, engineers, and rap artists.  Mixing Rap Vocals Part 2 also comes as part of the Mixing Hip-Hop Tutorial Bundle.

To get in touch with Matt you can also reach out to him on twitter.

 

How did you get started in music and then eventually end up focusing on mixing?

It’s an interesting story actually and it depends on where we’re drawing the line because my first sound “gig” was in middle school for the plays they put on [laughs].  So I’ve been doing sound for a very long time.

I guess when I really got into it was when I was about 16 or 17, still in high school and I was doing production.  Back then we didn’t have EDM but we had techno and drum & bass so I was messing around with that as well as making hip hop beats.  I was using Pro Tools 4 (or something like that), a Roland Groovemachine and some other exceptionally cheap synths to make beats while hooking up with some rappers.

krs-oneEventually my rap group and myself went on to open up for KRS-One over at Temple University.  A few years had gone by at this point and I was doing a lot of the engineering for the people that I was working with and I was really enjoying it.  I felt that I was better at that then I was at the production side of things.  At one point I happened to ask KRS (backstage), how he became so successful because that’s the question everybody wants to ask someone whose successful.  He told me that the easiest way to find success was to help somebody else find his or hers.  I sort of thought about that for a while and realized that maybe my role as an artist is actually the art of facilitating someone else’s art. Through out college I was focusing more and more on that and by the time I left I was ready to go down that path and started pursuing internships and assistant positions.

 

And when did you fully understand that the mixing side of the business was important to you and was where you wanted to focus your attention?

Well you have to understand that coming from a hip hop and electronica background, mixing actually kind of comes first because a lot of the stuff we are doing is working with already recorded and pre synthesized sounds.  There isn’t really so much of a recording process – I was mixing before I was recording.  It wasn’t until I realized that there was a bigger world to it.  I basically started backwards where I was mixing even before I had done any recording.

 

I know a lot of your work is done in hip-hop so is it fair to say that hip-hop was your biggest influence growing up?

I’m on the engineering side of things simply because I love music.  My instrument is listening.  So I would say I have a pretty diverse set of influences but at the same time, my biggest influence has been hip-hop.  One of the greatest things about having that as such a big influence is that everything else in the musical world influences hip-hop. When your cutting samples you are already listening to Bollywood music, island reggae and a lot sorts of different things.  So basically I was already being widely influenced by things before I was wild influenced by things. Make sense?

 

Totally.  So speaking of influences, was there one record that really blew you away and made you want to step your game up as a mixer?

One record?  That’s kinda tough.

 

I mean, it could be a few.

Well there was this one jazz album that I worked on, back when I was first branching out, and it was sort of a new concept to me so I was pretty nervous.  The tracking engineer on the album was a multi Grammy winning engineer so he was one of the best and I didn’t want to do the record disservice.

Dave-DouglasSo I started listening to a bunch of jazz records and I heard a lot of the predictable stuff that I was hearing on most of the albums.  Then I listened to a Dave Douglas album and I noticed that it sounded completely different then a lot of the jazz albums I heard up until that one.  It sort of was this “aha” moment for me where I thought “Oh this is almost kind of mixed like a pop record.”  The aesthetic of it was not predictable jazz at all but it still sounded great and it really worked. It also happened to be someone that the client really respected so I thought that maybe I could take my other influences and apply them to this project.  I just felt that maybe I didn’t have to fit into this pre prescribed mold.  That one was pretty influential in that respect and I landed one of my biggest clients after that.

 

Regarding engineers, maybe more on the mixing side of things, is there anyone that you feel has had a big influence on your work today?

imogen_heapThere are a lot of the regular players that I tend to look at as people that I really respect like Manny Marroquin, Serban Ghenea, Tom Elmherst (is fantastic), Tchad Blake and others.  It’s nothing but the usual suspects for the most part.

The only one that doesn’t fit into that category is probably Imogen Heap who is an artist first and foremost, not a mixing engineer.  She won a Grammy for her engineering and I thought that was pretty cool, so checking out what was going on with that album (Eclipse) was pretty impressive.

 

So moving into more of the process on mixing.  What do you feel is the number one mistake (or problem) you see when you open up a new session to mix?

The most problematic is not having finished comped takes.  That’s much more rare but if you get something that has playlist and multiple takes the assumption that I’m going to know which take is better (and why) is a huge burden and responsibility that opens up a big can of endless revisions.  It now becomes a totally different process and at that point I feel like I’m kind of playing “Producer”.  That’s the biggest mistake.

The most common is labeling, you know: audio1, audio2, audio3 etc.  I usually have the discussion with clients before hand about labeling their tracks but if it’s something complicated than I’ll switch over to an hourly fee for the organization.

 

Speaking about revisions, what’s your policy on that?

Generally I’m not charging for revisions and my reason being is that most of the clients I’m working with are indie guys.  They’re either starting up on a small label or they’ve recently just been signed so they don’t have the biggest budget in the world and they tend to be nervous about handling their budget.  When revisions come up, I don’t want there to be something inhibiting them from getting the results that they want and I don’t want the pressure on me to have to deliver it the very first time.

The mix is an extension of the production so it has to be a building concept; we’re building something together.

The only thing that I ask from people is that because I don’t charge for revisions that they please respect my time.  Don’t send me emails 3 days apart with 1 note on each email and expect me to keep track of all those emails.  Just get it all together in one email, clearly labeled and I’ll nail those revisions and it will be good.

 

So when you’re pricing out a job, do you try and give yourself a buffer to account for potential revisions?

Very loosely.  The one thing about quoting people is that at the end of the day you’re either going to like the song or your not and they’re either going to have the money or not.  I could quote all the money in the world but if they don’t have the budget for it, what difference does it truly make if I really want to work with this person?

So I do account for it to a certain extent because generally I know how long things take since I’ve been doing it for a long time.

 

Okay, sticking with the same theme.  I had someone email me the other day asking about mixing rates.  They wanted to know how I set rates and how I deal with a client who wants a lot of changes.  What would your advice be for someone who is starting out and they are trying to figure out how much to charge?

It’s all going to be very case specific.  Each person is going to be in a different scenario.  If you’re working in a studio and you’re just starting to build your own client reel, you don’t have the freedom to do endless revisions.  So you need to build in a revision rate which is tied to the studio time and that’s exactly what I was doing when I was an in house engineer.  There’s no other way around it, otherwise you end up paying the studio more then what you make and I’ve unfortunately had to do that which sucks.

If you’re working at home and you’re starting to build your own clients than it’s a part time job right now.  It’s not your gig and in reality you’re still learning as you’re building clients.  You’re going to learn more from your clients than anyone else because they’re the ones, at the end of the day, who have the vision.  You have to figure out how to make that work.

If you’re just beginning and you’re learning and getting someone with endless revisions, you have to assess the situation for what it is.  You might have to conceive the fact that what you really have to be doing is endless revisions in order to make the project happen even if you’re not making money from it because you’re not a full time engineer yet – so get over it.  That said, when you do have a full time gig and you are building new clients (as you always are) and you don’t have any other job or source of income, than it’s a different story if the revisions are getting crazy.  You might have to say “look I don’t charge for revisions but at this point you’re either telling me that you can’t come to a decision or that you don’t like what I’m doing – one or the other.  We either need to go different ways or you need to start compensating me more for these revisions because at this point, I’m back tracking.”  If you have a substantial amount of business coming in then it’s okay to tell someone that it’s wasted time and that you’re not the right person for the job and then give them their money back.  No hard feeling or anything like that.

In terms of setting your initial rate, that’s always a mind boggler.  On the one hand there’s what people are demanding for you and then on the other hand there’s the time you have.  I might mix 10 songs in a month and I could fill in that extra time with cheaper offers.  The question is, am I willing to do it?  The answer to that is usually no.  But you have to play it by ear because if you go 3 months, back-to-back, and you’re not getting enough mixes in at the rate you want then obviously you have to lower your rate and reassess where you’re at.  It’s not an easy process and there is no easy answer.

 

And how do you deal with clients who are dead set on having the mix as close to the rough as possible, even though you know you could make it sound better?

This comes down to what it is to me versus what it might be to somebody else.  I’m at a point where I don’t really need to show off my skills.  If somebody wants to hear a high quality mix that I’ve done in any kind of regard, I can point to a bunch of different songs that are all hi-fi, super glossy, big, tall and wide mixes.

So when a client gives me a rough demo and they love it, there is a reason that they love it and there’s something in there that’s working.  It’s my job to figure out what it is about it that is working. Actually, I started setting up a session today where I have a drum capture that I could make very hi-fi but when I just threw up the faders, even though there were sonic problems, there was something enchanting about it.  So having the maturity and experience to recognize when the song is more important then the mix, I think that’s an extremely valuable skill and lesson that separates the high-end mixers from the people who are aspiring.

Now if you are an aspiring mixer, that’s a tricky spot to be in because you’re still building your resume and your calling cards.  If the demo sucks balls and you just make it sound slightly less sucky but still has balls in its mouth, than it’s not going to reflect well on you unless the song becomes very successful.  The reason is because (quite frankly) the only people who can think about a mix on that level are some producers and other mixers.  Also other mixers usually have terrible taste most of the time. It’s much more difficult to be in the position of being an aspiring engineer and if you are there, my recommendation is to really dig into what the artist wants because a lot of the times the aspiring engineers are also working with the aspiring artists.

You might have to talk to the artist and say to them “Well if you like the demo, why are you hiring an engineer at all?  What do you want?  What are your expectations?  What are you trying to communicate with this demo?  What do you like about the demo so much?”  Maybe there is a way to bridge the gap.  It’s a communication thing more than anything else. Then end [Laughs].

 

Well Said! In regards to recordings, do you find that problems in the files you receive are more common today then say 10 years ago?

[Laughs] Well 10 years ago I was working in a studio and people come into a studio prepared because studios cost money.  When you do that, it forces you to have perspective on your performance and the song.

Things that have really gone out the window, that I feel are hurting my job and music in general, is preproduction.  Having vocal coaches, having a producer/engineer that isn’t playing the instruments but is objectively listening and understands emotions and performance and can direct the action of the record.  These are the things that are going out the window and that’s causing more problems and suffering than anything else because at the end of the day, I can get shitty recordings and make it work like you wouldn’t believe.  I’ve done it many time and it’s because the performance is good when that happens.

If I get something where the performance isn’t alive and it’s lacking something, I can make certain things better but it will never be great otherwise I would get paid what the big artists get paid.  There’s reason why the artists and the producers make the most money in this because their job is the most important, always.  So if you’re recording at home and your equipment sucks, that’s okay, as long as your music is amazing but you can’t make that determination by yourself – it’s very difficult.

 

Now regarding bad recordings, in your tutorial mixing rap vocals 2, you showed how you took Juicy J’s cell phone recording and turned it into something very musical and useable.  Can you maybe talk about your approach on taking a terrible recording and turning it into something useable?

Well in a way, with that particular track it was advantageous and I think I pointed that out in the video.  Because it was so bad, there was no expectation for me to make it sound like it was recorded in a high-end studio.  That’s a much easier situation to deal with then when somebody who records on a $90 condenser mic, in an untreated room, gets an okay capture and then expects me to get it to sound like it was recorded in a high-end studio.  Because it sounds okay to begin with, they think that what’s missing is the mix and there’s maybe a 50% truth to that. I mean I can take it pretty far but it ain’t the same as walking into Treehouse, Avatar or something like that.

juicy-jAs for what happened on the Juicy J track, the producer (Mr. Wilson) who is a super talented dude and very smart, he hit me up to mix this record.  He told me that the Juicy J verse had some problems [Laughs] and I was like “Uh oh”.  When the hip hop producer tells you that it’s not the greatest recording, than it’s going to be something else.  When I heard it, I called him up and was like “I’m going to have a very frank and honest discussion with you.  There’s’ no way I can defy the laws of physics and create some kind of dream reality where this is recorded well.  That said, I can think outside the box and I can make it work, if you’re willing to go along for the ride with me.”  He told me that he was absolutely willing to see what I could do.  What was more important than my ability, to make that work, was his ability to think outside the box and to allow me to do what I felt needed to be done.  His open-mindedness is what saved that record and not really my mixing because if he wasn’t down with it then all of the great mixing in the world wouldn’t have gotten approved.

 

So when you do get those $90 mic recordings and you know there is no way to make them sound like they were recorded on an $5000 condenser, what is your approach to getting them to sound good?

With rap, it’s a little bit easier because you can break some of the rules.  One of the best ways to go about it is to realize that you can mix the vocals a bit louder.  That’s going to compensate for the thinness of the mic – simply by having the vocal oddly up in the mix and rap often times likes that, so it’s okay.

It also depends exactly how the recording sounds but the mixing techniques aren’t anything out of the ordinary, you just have to know what you are listening for.  In a way it’s the hardest mixing you can do and of course, as luck would have it, it’s the mixing you will most frequently do when you are starting out.  That is another reason why hip-hop ended up being a blessing as a way of beginning because I’ve been mixing shitty recordings since day one [laughs].  I’ve been doing so many crappy recording that it’s second nature to me.

mursUsually the way a recording tends to be crappy is from odd peaks in the mic. You know were the person is swaying back and forth and I actually talk about in the Murs recording (from mixing rap vocals 2) where he’s clearly moving in and out.  Murs is an excellent rapper and he’s one of the best rappers of all time but even the way he performs, he moves back and forth.

petshopboysAs far as techniques, I can’t say there’s one way to do it because it depends on the recording.  There’s not one magical trick you know, it’s everything from DeEssing, Multiband Compression, EQ, and Compression being done in the right way.  The good thing about it is that once you deal with these crappy recordings and you do get to work with someone like Murs, you are equipped to deal with the problems when they happen.

One of the things that this tutorial demonstrates is that no matter what level you are operating on, shitty recordings happen.  My buddy Andrew Dawson, mixed the Pet Shop Boys album that came out and they recorded everything to an SM57 into an MBox.  That was their vocal chain for the whole album and that’s the Pet Shop Boys.  Because he’s so equipped to deal with these things, he can take a poor capture and make it sound great.

 

Another thing I wanted to talk about regarding your tutorials, was in Mixing Rap Vocals Part 1, you lay out a 4 part process for mixing a vocal.  Can you give a general idea of what those 4 things are so that if someone new is reading this, they can get an understanding of it?

Sure.  The first is the conceptual step in which you’re aiming at what are universally conceived as high quality.  With rap, you can mix things in a very dirty way and it can really work.  But before you can understand how that can work you need the foundation of being able to hit the objective level of super high quality.

For example, Carlos Bess who did Wutang is an excellent mix engineer.  He could have made those records sound pristine because he had the ability but he also knew that he didn’t have to.  So a good place to start is, how do I make this sound pristine?

subtractiveeqFirst step is to clean things up.  When you’re recording something, especially an acoustic sound and more so a vocal, you’re going to get all these aberrant tones and weirdness from being too close to the mix, too far from the mix, being in an untreated room, using the wrong mic, using a defective mic and God only knows what else.  So as you listen to the record, you have these tools to clean that stuff up – the primary one being EQ.  When there’s too much “whoomp, whoomp” in the sound, then you grab your EQ, you sweep it up and find that tone and you get rid of it.  You go through this process in order to get what is the essential voice to stand out and be as clear as possible.  Get rid of anything that isn’t the voice and keep everything that is.

General Effects (Compression2)The second step, is dynamic control which is the consistency of the vocals.  Consistency is something that great vocalists have but no vocalist has perfectly.  It just doesn’t exist because the human voice fluctuates naturally and in fact it needs to fluctuate.  So using volume automation and compression (the quickest tool) we can sort of smooth out the performance.  We don’t kill all the high points and low points, but we even it out and get them closer together so that when we treat the vocal, within the mix, you don’t have to treat it completely differently for every word.

Logic Channel EQFollowing those ideas of EQ and compression, we can start thinking about concept of enhancement.  Not only can we use these tools in the way that they were originally designed (cleaning and controlling dynamics), we can also use them in creative ways to make a vocal sound bigger than it naturally would in real life.  That can often mean exaggerating either the low end or the presence of a vocal using EQ.  It could also mean making the vocal sound like it has more body and fullness by increasing the amount of sustain in the words using either compression in a serial way or a parallel way (which I prefer for rap).  You end up getting a vocal that sounds a bit more magical then it would if it was heard naturally.

reverbThe last technique, which is a very controversial one in rap, is ambience.  No matter how you conceive ambience, it exists.  Space exists around a voice, it’s an acoustic instrument and that’s just what it is.  So you have to figure out what kind of a space you want and that can vary from completely dry to soaking wet if that’s how the record functions.  I think it was Jaycen Joshua who said that reverb is the enemy of rap vocals.  That’s one of things where it’s like, well that’s a fine statement to make but it’s just flat out wrong.  It’s the enemy of rap vocals that are meant to be dry but if the record calls for it then there’s nothing wrong with that on rap vocals.  So it’s about conceiving the space and then developing it to give the vocal dimension.

 

I find that over time, at least for me, I stress a lot less about how amazing each sound is and I focus more on getting the song to feel really nice, especially the chorus.  What’s your advice for new engineers that are chasing a technically “perfect” mix.

I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve wasted chasing the world’s greatest sounding records.  You know, “I have the biggest bass, I have the shiniest top end, I have the punchiest drums“.  It’s good to do that to learn techniques but at the end of the day none of it matters – NO ONE CARES! Not even a little bit.  The only people who care are other mix engineers and even they don’t truthfully care that much.  You’re basically just doing it self-servingly at the end of the day.

But again going back to aspiring engineers, you kind of need to go through that process because you develop and come to the understanding of technique.  You also start to hear the negative effects of going down that road and that’s important as well.  I would say to get through this “over doing things” phase as quickly as you can, so you can focus on the musicality of the mix and not so much the technical stuff.

 

Tell me about your setup and what you are using to get your mixes to sound the way they do.

dbx-160lOkay, so I’ll just run down the list.  I’ve got a couple of Tubetechs, Drawmer 1968 that I had modded to my own specs, I got a Drawmer punch gate which is pretty cool, Lynx Aurora convertors, Clariphonic EQ, DBX 160L which also has a mod in it, the old school 1176, Bellari exciter (which once again has been modded), Fulltec MK3A EQ’s, Avalon M5 preamp for overdubbing which is attached to my M147 here as well as a couple other microphones hanging out.  That’s my basic gear rack.

kef-103My primary speakers are Kef 103.2’s, which is sort of like “find them in a mysterious garage sale in the middle of New Jersey” kind of speakers.  But then they are chained up to a Bryston 4B SST, which is a really nice amplifier.  Then I have some crappy computer speakers, which I switch on to, as well as a pair of Event TR5, which are these little bookshelf speakers that are way old school.

Then I’m also using a souped up Mac with Pro Tools to do my ITB type of stuff.  My main software bundles are Fabfilter, Sonnox, The Waves Gold Bundle, some Slate Digital stuff and various nick nack plugins made by independent designers.

(Just want to make sure all of these models are correct)

 

What does your mix buss look like?  Are you using any plugins or hardware?

When I’m printing the mix and I don’t know who will be mastering the song, I’ll usually staple the 160sl and sometimes the Tube-Techs onto the mix buss, depending on what I’m trying to do.  That said, a lot of my stuff goes to Chris Athens and I don’t feel that I need to affect the mix buss in any way shape or form.  At this point, we’ve been working together for so long that he kind of knows what I like and I know what to expect from him so I can leave it pretty bone dry.

 

Okay and while your mixing is there anything on your 2buss?

That I’m mixing through?  No, I don’t mix through a compressor or anything like that. I know a lot of people do but it’s really just personal preference.

 

So, nothing at all on the mix buss?  100% bone dry?

My mix buss is usually pretty bone dry.  I mean in, in terms of software, only recently I got the Slate VBC compressors and the FG Grey (for software), which can work really well on the mix buss.  But until then, I hadn’t found anything that I really liked, as a piece of software compression on the mix buss.  I’ve got my $4000 Dbx 160sl; it’s going to be hard to compete with that in terms of plugins.

But on occasion I’ll use certain things like the Slate VTM or maybe the Fabfilter ProQ if I need to make any EQ tweaks.  But generally I really like my stuff to go to the mix buss as dry as possible and try to get it as right as possible.  If I have to throw something on at the end, then there’s nothing wrong with that either.  It’s going to change my perspective to mix through something so I tend not to do it.

 

What is your go to ITB compressor and EQ?

The Sonnox Oxford Dynamics is my go-to compressor and the FabFilter ProQ is my goto EQ.

 

Can you explain why those two are your favourite?

Simply because they are both very utilitarian and versatile andI don’t feel that I’m limited in any way.  I feel that I could start out with every track having both of those plugins on them and because they are perfectly transparent 1:1, I don’t have to use them.   But anything that I could imagine needing to do as a utilitarian function of dynamics or EQ, I can get that.

fabfilter-proqThe Fabfilter sounds very good, it has a very flexible Q curve setting for all the different shelves and the notch filter is really well designed.  Anytime you do any deep notch, you’re going to get all kinds of crazy phase stuff and I find the phase artifacts that come from the Fabfilter aren’t as noticeable.  It also has the different modes where you can do the linear phase or you can the regular minimal phase, depending on what you want.  Usually you’re going to use minimal phase but on occasion I like to flip into linear phase mode.  There are other great EQ’s out there but I’ve got this one here.  Also the analyzer is very useful as well. When I do use an analyzer, which is not very often, it’s nice to be using a good one that’s built in.

oxford-dynamicsWith the Oxford Dynamics plugin you can do so many things with it.  It has a very fast attack setting to a very a slow attack setting.  It also has a very flexible knee curve and release time; that’s only the compressor section.  It’s got a built in side chain where you can EQ the signal which feeds the detector, right there, so you don’t have to set up a bus.  It’s also has a built in expander, limiter and soft clipper so it’s just extremely useful in pretty much anything I can think of.  If I need to do something I can literally just pop up that plugin and do it.  That isn’t to say I won’t go and grab another EQ or compressor as a character piece, it’s just most of the time I’m trying to use something that is going to make a dedicated effect and nothing else.

 

Speaking of color and character, what are 3 plugins you would reach for to add that to your mix?

Yeah okay, well there are a good number of them because they do different things but recently the Slate VBC MU compressor, which is a model of a Fairchild and has a very nice tube saturation curve built in.  Actually it’s one of the best tube saturation curves that I’ve heard.  I will use that if I want that sort of glossy overtone.  I rarely pull it up for the compression but its there if I feel I need it.

The decapitator immediately comes to mind; that thing is awesome and has really great saturation curves.  I also bought a compression plugin recently called the Sturgis Gain Reduction Plugin and that has a really great character to it.

Before I had my Tube-Techs I used the Puigtec which is a Waves Plugin and has a nice character.  It doesn’t completely sound like a Pul-Tec to me but it still has a nice character.  The Kush Audio Clariphonic has a nice character to it.  There’s really a lot of things.  Even RVox has a really nice tone to it that bolsters up the low mid range in a really flattering way I find so I’ll use that as a character piece as well.

 

Awesome, well thanks a lot for doing the interview Matt!

Not a problem, it was fun.

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