Psychology of a Mix Engineer: An Interview With Marc McClusky

Marc McClusky is a Platinum selling Mixer and Producer from New York City.

Marc has worked with artists such as:  Weezer, Social Distortion, Bad Religion, Ludo, Everclear, Motion City Soundtrack, William Beckett, LetLive and many others.

Contact information for Marc:
Email: Johnny@selftitledmgmt.com
Twitter: @Marcmcclusky
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/marcmccluskyproducer

 

How did you get your start in the world of mixing and engineering?

It’s probably similar to every other engineer [laughs].  I played in bands ever since I was a kid and we would go to the studio to record our songs.  I would end up telling the engineer that the song wasn’t sounding like it did my head and to let me play with it for a little bit.  Through out that process, I probably pissed off a bunch of people.  Then I said to myself “Why should I pay these people when I can learn it myself?”

So I started recording on a boom box and I would try to figure out the best placement in the room to record my band. And since Pro Tools wasn’t available when I was younger I eventually graduated to a 4-track – a Tascam 4-track.  I had a couple of Radio Shack mics and our band PA.  I would put the mics into the PA and route the stereo out of the PA into 2 of the tracks from the Tascam.  I would sort of mix the drums like that; I would play a little bit and see what it sounded like and then go back and make some tweaks if I had to.

From there it became an obsession you know?

My band eventually got popular in my area so other bands started to ask if I would record them because my recordings sounded better then their studio recordings.  That’s when I thought, “Man I could probably charge for this”.  So I did just that.  I would record these bands , then some of them eventually got signed to labels and the labels would ask if I would work on other projects they had.  It was an organic thing that just really happened and I never planned on becoming a producer or a mixer.  I was lucky enough that other people enjoyed the sounds that I made.

 

You touched on building up and buying equipment but did you ever get to the point of interning at a studio or even working out of a big studio?

I never interned at a studio, I just kind of figured it out myself.  By the time I was getting hired by local bands or even labels, I would record probably 90% of it out of my apartment or house and the rest I would record at a studio (like drums).

I opened a studio for a short time when I was in Atlanta called FireBall Studios.  I didn’t really like owning a studio because at that point you have to be a businessman and I’m not really a business guy, I just like to make records.  I don’t like stuff like bookkeeping or general business activities so it didn’t really appeal to me.

Really, I just tried to keep everything as simple as possible to achieve the sounds that I wanted. I also like to keep it compact so I could go anywhere I need to go.  For example, I’ve recorded drums in peoples garages before [Laughs], whatever’s comfortable I guess.  Studios always feel really corporate, almost like you can’t touch anything. Creativity usually flows when your just hanging out and there’s no pressure of a clock.

I also moved to LA for a couple years where I had my own spot at Sound City, which was cool but even that space didn’t feel like a studio. It was more like a place that was an apartment where we would hang out and record songs.

SOUND CITY STUDIOS

 

You mentioned that you like to be mobile and keep your set up simple but do you have a home base or a main mixing set up? What are you working with?

I used to have a ton of gear.  I had a 33609 [Neve Compressor] serial #3 that I sold to Jeff Juliano years ago [Laughs].  I used to have a lot of gear but the plugins have gotten so good that to me its not worth keeping most of the gear around.  You don’t have to worry about repairs or maintenance and the plugins, to me, sound just as good.

So the set up I have now is a Pro Tools Native HD Rig with an iMac, a pair of ProAc 100 speakers, a Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor, a pair of Pultec EQP1s3, an SSL Sigma, a Purple Audio MC77 and some Neve 1073’s.  I feel like with that set up I can really get what I need to get out of the recording and then once I’m in the computer, I can just manipulate however I want.

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And when you’re in the box, which tools do you prefer to “get the job done”?

I guess I ‘m just like everybody else in the sense that we all have different tastes, it’s the same as real gear.  For example, I prefer the Waves CLA-76 over the UAD ones.  It’s not that it’s better or worse, it’s just I prefer whatever they used to model it and the distortion characteristics.  Like when I’m using the blue stripe, it sounds like everything up in that 16k range is getting rolled off so it sounds a little nicer and warm (I hate to use that word).  It does something and I don’t hear that in the UAD version.

But I love the UAD stuff for other things.  I also use a lot of their compressors like the 33609, the LA2A model, the Pultec they have, and I use their SSL channel strip a lot.

I also use Filterbank [McDSP] so I guess I’m sort of all over the place.

 

As far as creating/adding life to a track, I know there is a fair amount of experience involved, but what are some of your go-to methods for achieving that?

I’m a really visual person and I think I rely on that a lot.  I love Bugs Bunny cartoons [Laughs] and ridiculous over the top surreal movies so everything to me is either at the bottom or at the top; there’s very little middle ground with me.  I have to be able to see what’s happening.  To give you an example, you know when a tiny creature in a cartoon walks, there’s like a bell sound?  It’s the same with music, if the lyric is saying a certain thing, I have to try and make the music sound like what he’s talking about.  Just as a quick example, if the lyric mentions oceans or something that’s very liquid, then I try to mimic that sound.  Like liquid is not very precise so I might smear things with reverb, delays or EQ you know where it sounds more fluid.  But if the bridge is talking about something more precise, I might tighten up everything.  I really try to make the song a picture, at least in my head, and then when I can see it that’s when I know it’s done.  That’s kind of my method and hopefully it’s not too abstract [Laughs].

 

No, that’s cool, it’s art right?  It’s interesting that you mention that because sometime I feel like I’m going through the motions and maybe don’t pay as much attention to the lyric as I probably should.

Yeah, one of the people I look up to is Michael Brauer and I try to read as much as I can.  I remember reading one time where he said that nobody cares what it sounds like and I agree with that.  I’m married and my wife has never walked into the room and said “Holy shit, that’s the best 10k you’ve ever put into a snare drum”.  But she will say whether she likes the song or not.  So I try not to concentrate on the technicalities because nobody else hears it.  I just try to find the connection and then amplify the connection.  That’s really what it’s all about.  You need to take what you got and make it fucking move somebody however it may be and that’s how I visualize.

 

Great!  One thing I really wanted to know about was Weezer.  I remember when I first heard “Say it Ain’t So”, I thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread.  How did that gig come about?  What was it like working with them?

So I’m in the same boat as you.  I’m 36, so Weezer came out when I was about 15-16 years old and I can remember the day I heard the Blue Album.  I bought the tape and put it in my friend’s car.  I heard the acoustic guitar from My Name is Jonas and then this roaring fucking guitar thing happens that I’ve never heard before.  I was like “Oh my god, this is amazing!”  So being a fan of Weezer is really cool.

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I moved to Los Angeles, had done a lot of records for Epitaph Records and became good friends with Brett Gurewitz who is the owner of Epitaph.  The first two weeks I was in LA, he called me and said “Hey, I think I’m about to sign Weezer and we need someone to mix the record, would you be interested in doing a test?”  Of I course I say yes and I would love to but never in a million years did I think I would get the gig.  They sent me a song called “Hang on” as well as a few other guys and they picked mine, which was very flattering.  Then they told me that they wanted me to keep going so they kept sending songs over and I kept delivering them exactly what they wanted.

Rivers and I met a couple times down at the Red Bull Studios just for some mix notes, you know, little things.  So that’s how we started to build our relationship.  Then they put out Death From False Metal like 6 months after the first project.  They were just burning through records at that time.  Then they gave me a Blue Album (Mykel and Carli) and it had never been released before, which was cool.  Then they gave me another one, which Rick Rubin produced and I was blown away [Laughs].  Rick Rubin sent me this email that was like “Sounds amazing, you’re doing great” and that was mind blowing for me.

Weezer

So the whole process was organic, Brett just kind of gave me a shot.  And that’s a Testament to Brett who is a really great guy and saw something in me.  He’s such a nice dude! He’s given me lots of opportunity and I can’t talk about him highly enough.  I was in the right place at the right time but most importantly I was ready.

Some advice to younger engineers, if you get an opportunity, you have to deliver because you may never get that opportunity again.

 

Since Weezer is a well-established band in the music business, did that have a positive effect on your rate per mix?

For me, $1500 is usually my standard mix rate for label work at this point in my career and that’s what they paid.  So I wasn’t going to ask for more just because it was Weezer.  That would be kind of like a big Fuck You, you know what I mean?  I approached it more like “Thank you, this is an awesome opportunity, and this is my rate.”

I have no ego.  If I get an email from a band that’s like “Dude I love this record you worked on, we only have $500 for a couple songs”, I’ll do it.  I mean, why not?  I’m helping these kids out, getting them pumped and that’s what it’s all about.  For me it’s not about money, you know?   Ya, I love my job and I’m so grateful that I get to wake up every day and make music but I also want to help people too. My manager Johnny Minardi who is an amazing guy and manager shares the same philosophy. I was in a band and I was broke so I understand.  I just want people to make great stuff and be proud of it.  We were all there at some point.

 

You do a lot of rock music.  Is that because those are the gigs that keep presenting themselves or is that because you prefer the genre?

That’s a good question.  I think it’s more because that’s what keeps coming to me.  I started in punk rock bands so that’s where my roots are but I grew up listening to Huey Lewis, Michael Jackson, Genesis and Peter Gabriel.  So for me, I like doing other genres like pop.  I work on pop records but most of my bigger credits are for rock based music.

But yeah, I’d love to do everything.  That’s what I like about Muse records or Coldplay records, they’re kind of a bit of everything.  You can put some hip hop flare in a song that has a piano, bass, and is atmospheric [Laughs].

 

Since you’ve had a lot of experience working with those screaming type of vocal tracks, what are your tips for both recording and mixing those types of vocals?

Screaming, from a tracking side of things, you have to let the singer do their process to get that tone because it’s not natural to sound like that.  So whatever they have to do, I’ll work with that.  I remember one band [Laughs] where the singer would drink warm coke.  So he would have a 2 litre of coke that was kind of warm, fizzy and really sugary.  He would drink that entire bottle in a session and his screams sounded great.   That’s how I would approach the production aspect – don’t try to inhibit the singer because they have to deliver the performance.

For the mixing, I like to distort them often.  I like the Decapitator for that and actually I’m using it on a lot of vocals right now.  Or I might get into some parallel processing where I’ll have one super distorted scream.

Also anyone whose screaming doesn’t want to be screaming in a closet because when you think of a scream, it should be loud with ricochet’s.  So for me, I tend to lean toward using reverbs and delays on screams, regardless if it’s audible or not.   I want to get that feeling where the vocalist is so loud that’s it’s bouncing off of everything in the room and the room has to be pretty big.  So that’s kind of how I handle it.

 

Cool, and what about depth?  What are some of the things that you are doing to add to create depth or even add to it?

I have basic template set up with some of the UAD reverbs.  They’re really top notch.  I usually have the EMT250 plate emulation, I have the 224 set up on the room, I have the EMT 140, and also the AMS RMX16. Then for dealys, I have a slap delay, an 1/8th note delay, a 1/4 note delay, a chorus and also a doubler.  So all of that will be set up and essentially whatever space I’m trying to create I will send something to all of those or some of them to create a sound.  I don’t know how to exactly describe that process but I just try to make everything feel like it was recorded in some kind of space.

Marc McClusky Mixing Template

Marc’s mixing template starting point.

Really dry recordings never sound right to me.  Even just a really short room reverb that you can’t even tell is there, makes it sound real.   Chris Lorde Alge is known for compression but really he’s amazing at reverb and delay.  You can’t really hear his reverbs but they’re everywhere.  A good recording is one that’s believable and that’s what reverb does, is turn it into a believable performance.

 

So you’re saying, if you get a recording that sounds “flat”, your process to getting it to sound 3D is to add some reverb?  What about character pieces that add some distortion?

Yeah, I guess its situation dependent because sometimes I won’t compress or EQ something.  A perfect example is a snare drum.  If you just throw on some reverb before you compress or EQ, it might fill in the information that you are trying to achieve.  Like what are you trying to do with a compressor?  You’re trying to make it longer or stick out more.  But time based effects also add length, so you can put a reverb on it and that has it’s own tonal character as well.  That combined with the dry source might do exactly what you’re looking for.  Then you don’t have to compress it.

So reverbs are adding tone for me just as much as they are adding dimension.  Sometimes you just put a reverb on and you’re like “Ohh that’s exactly what I need right there.”

I always thought of distortion as something to add a bit more grime or harmonics to make it jump on small speakers.  I also think of it like a character thing but not really as something that’s going to add depth, personally.

 

Let’s get into plugins shall we?

Sure.

 

Name one plugin that you feel is good for creating “vibe” to a track.  You can interpret the word “vibe” any way you like because I know it’s different for everyone.

Oh man, probably the UAD SSL emulation because I can get some of that SSL compression and I can also EQ it [Laughs].

 

Okay, cool.  And what about for color?

The decapitator probably.

Marc Vocal Setting

Steve from Punchline – Lead vocal setting on a song called Sleep (“on Steve I liked the UAD Blue Stripe over the Waves” – Marc)

 

And what about warmth?

Probably the UAD Studer and I’ll mess with the bias.

 

What is currently your favorite ITB compressor?

Oh, the CLA-76 for sure.

 

What is currently your favorite ITB EQ?

The Filterbank EQ [McDSP]

 

Do you have any mixing prep that you ask your clients to do before they send you a mix?

Yeah.  I ask them to do typical things like label everything properly.  Like if it’s labelled “John Guitar” to rename it to “Lead” or “Rhythm” depending on what the role of it is in the song.

Then I have them color code all the drums pink, all the percussion a light purple, any basses (synth or electric) orange, any guitars are red, any auxillary synthesizers/pads/pianos dark purple, lead vocals are yellow and then background vocals which would be blue.  I also prefer them in that exact same order as well.  I also ask them to zero out all the automation, and if they like any effects, I ask them to put into a playlist and make a note of it in the comments section.

 

And what about songs that weren’t recorded in Pro Tools?

Oh, if that’s the case I just ask them to clearly label everything and then I’ll just import it and color code it myself.  But in labelling, I ask them to keep everything together (like the drums) so that things like the snare or kick drum are not on their own.  An example would be “Drums – Kick” or “Drums – Snare”.  Now all the drum parts will show up together, alphabetically, in the folder.  This way I don’t have to search through 100 tracks to find all the different drum parts.

 

Where do you usually like to start your mixes?

I start at the last chorus [Laughs], or whatever the biggest part of the song is and I work backwards.  Because I have a tendency to go, go, go, I would rather put the kitchen sink in the biggest part of the song so that I can just peal things away after that.  So I’m creating the moment first and then I’m figuring out the journey of how to get there.

 

Do you have anything on your mix bus and are you mixing through it?

I always go with the mentality of “it’s always in” and I mix into it.  I have the SSL signma, which sums, then that goes into the shadow hills mastering compressor and then into a pair of Pultec EQP1S3’s.  The Pultecs are the ones with the 10k high shelf.

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And your settings?  Do they change or do you have a base line?

I just kind of keep it engaged and mix into it.  My whole family is really scientific, my sister has a doctorate in Mechanical Engineering and she used to work for NASA [Laughs] and my Dad grew up around Die Casting and solving problems other people couldn’t so I’m going to get a bit techy with this answer.  If the gear is my control then the music is the variable.  If I can get my variable to sound a certain way or hit things a certain way then I know it will get “x” results because the control is always a constant. The trick is you can’t keep changing your constant otherwise it becomes a second variable.  hopefully that makes sense.

 

Totally.  And when your mixing through it, how do you have your headroom set up?

Yeah, I have my meters in Pro Tools set up to the to the Bob Katz system and I use the K14.  It’s the “sweet spot” so -18dBFS is like 0dB going out. I try to get it as close to that sweet spot and maintain a really good RMS level from there.

If I could give a piece of advice too for Buss Compression: When people would talk about pushing into compressors I would always think “What are they talking about?”.  It might mean one thing to them but what I’ve learned is that if your compressing the whole time, like your verses and choruses are compressing the same amount, there’s not much of a jump in energy.  So I almost look at it as if I’m trying to build that moment and when I get to that moment that’s where I want to be hitting the meters.  But building up to that moment, they’re very gently touching the meters.  So if I get to the point where the compressor starts to push back as I’m pushing into it, it’s almost as if the compressor is trying to whole back all the energy that wants to explode, it gives you a certain feeling.  But if it’s there the whole time, you don’t ever get that feeling.  Without black, there is no white.  There has to be a moment where nothing is being compressed or being pushed into that color zone so that when it doesn’t get there, you have that moment.

 

When you send your tracks off for mastering how much headroom do you leave for the mastering engineer?

I don’t really pay attention to it exactly but it’s probably around -6 to -9 dB’s on the peaks.  So the RMS value is probably around -12dB’s or something like that.

 

And what about when you send it to a client?  Do you give them a pseudo master?

UAD precision

Yeah I do, for sure.  More times then not, I’ll just use the UAD Precision Limiter and there’s no trick settings.  It’s pretty useful because it starts to go red when you’re limiting too hard.  So it let’s you not completely kill the transients and still give an accurate representation of what it will sound like when it’s really loud.  That way you’re not completely destroying your mix. I use Chris Athens to master my mixes 90% of the time. That dude is a genius he makes me sound like I know what I’m doing!

 

Is there any new projects you’re working on that you’d like to share?

Yeah, there’s two Motion City Soundtrack records that I just finished mixing. William Beckett from The Academy Is has a whole new project he is starting we’ve been writing some songs for that and Punchline has a new album coming out I produced and mixed called Thrill. It is an unbelievable record.   We really got out of their comfort zone on it which is a good thing!

[EDIT: (June 17, 2015) Since the release of this article Motion City Soundwork has released their single that Marc Mixed.  Please have a listen below.]

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Great, Thanks so much for being apart of this interview, I really appreciate it.

No problem, Thank you!

  • Great interview. Any more planned for the near future?

    • Justin Smith

      Of course. More to come.

  • Carl

    Man, I love that series. Keep them coming!
    You really ask the right questions 🙂
    Carl

    • Justin Smith

      Thanks Carl, you’re too kind

  • Ric Zarro

    Marc, Thanks for taking the time for this interview, great info there. Some of the things I was desperately looking for. Justin perfect questions, just what I needed.

    • Justin Smith

      Glad to hear Ric. Thanks for commenting.

    • Marc McClusky

      No problem thanks for reading!

  • sjc

    awesome !!!

    • Justin Smith

      Thanks.