Unne Liljeblad is a Mix Engineer/Producer based out of Sweden.
When he’s not mixing records, Unne likes to go on road trips and check out new hamburger joints. He’s a pretty hardcore Apple fanboy, meddles with Bitcoin and Litecoin, and will never buy a car until he can afford a Tesla. He is also a member of alt-pop project Be The Bear and co-owner of a music production/licensing firm called The Music Agency.
I moved from Sweden to New York in 2000 to attend the Sonic Arts Program at the City College of New York. At that point I was already into making music and I was also a bit of a computer geek. I grew up playing the piano and tinkering with computers. At some point I heard of MIDI and realized I could hook up my neighbor’s keyboard to my computer [Laughs] so it was fun to combine those two interests.
Throughout my years at the Sonic Arts Center, I was more into the music production side of the business and working with different artists. After some time I realized that it often became frustrating to work on a project for so long that when the time came to finishing it, I was already tired of it, had lost perspective, and couldn’t do a great job with the mixing. Mixing was actually the part that I enjoyed the most and it seemed such a shame to do it under non-ideal circumstances.
I was involved with an album project for a client where many of the tracks came from different producers and I mostly focused on vocal recording and production. When we started mixing, I realized how much easier and smoother it was to mix the songs that I had not produced. This seems obvious looking back, but at the time it was quite the revelation. If it was much harder for me to mix my own music, the same must be true for many other producers and artist. So I decided to start focusing on that. I put a website together to get more jobs while also angling more towards mixing with my existing clients.
That being said, even though I like the mixing aspect the best, I still enjoy recording and working with bands as a producer, so I still do some of that. I try to be more selective with those projects though.
There are many things that made me decide to move back. For one, I was gone a long time, a little over 10 years. I also wanted to reconnect with my family and old friends because it felt like I had been slowly drifting away. I was a little afraid that if I stayed away longer, I might lose touch with my roots.
But I didn’t just decide one day that I wanted to move back. It had been something that was always in the back of my mind. Plus the time kept creeping up on my Visa situation. I started off with a student Visa. For the last two years of college I was running sound in the Great Hall, this amazing cathedral like building that was used both for school activities and many outside events. In fact, I “mixed” for some famous “clients” such as Bill and Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell, John Kerry, Magic Johnson and Arnold Schwarzenegger. None of my music clients are very famous, (yet) so for namedropping this is the best I can do [Laughs]. But I digress, sorry. Upon graduation, the college sponsored me for a work Visa which allowed me to stay for a total of six years. After that, the only reasonable option was to apply for an artist Visa which would have been a long shot, and an expensive one at that. So I decided to move back home and I’m very happy I did.
I don’t think it was affected that much except for maybe some New York clients that I worked with in person. Even before I left, most of my mixing clients came through the website; they would send me stuff and we would communicate via email or phone and we would send things back and forth.
I was fortunate in the fact that I was living very cheaply in New York. I had a room in a rent controlled apartment and so my living situation was pretty good. I would say the difference in coming to Sweden was that since the dollar rate was pretty low compared to the Swedish currency and many of my clients were American, my rates were actually worth less to me. That was a bit of a transition and I actually had to start pushing my prices upwards in order to make it work.
A little bit. Some people were already paying the maximum that they were comfortable paying. So that meant that either they just couldn’t afford me anymore, or, if I had a period where I needed the work, I would be like “Okay I can do it for a little cheaper but the turnaround won’t be as fast because I’ll have to prioritize full paying gigs”. As far as the clients in Sweden, it was okay because they weren’t affected by the currency differences.
These days, I’d say mixing is pretty much all online, at least as far as new clients go. But I don’t only do mixing. I also do some production work, mainly for commercials. And recently I’ve been focusing a lot on a music project, Be The Bear, that I am a member of.
Oh yeah. I would say the first few months were quite tricky. I mean it wasn’t that different because it was the same speakers and it was a similar set up, but the room was different which definitely changed the sound. My speakers (Dynaudio Air 15’s) have digital inputs and onboard processing which lets me do some EQ’ing to compensate and tame the room modes. In the beginning, I had the microphone and a frequency analyzer set up trying to tweak things to be more optimal. I came up with a preset that got me close to what I had been working with in New York and I was feeling better about the room the more I got familiar with it. I realized later on though that at some point, that preset had gotten turned off without me noticing [Laughs], so I was like “Okay, I guess I don’t need it” because things just worked and I had adapted.
It’s not that bad actually, it’s just not perfect. It has a lot of natural diffusion because it’s an attic space with lots of beams and angles. I also have a bunch of acoustic panels to tame reflections and so on. It’s basically just the low frequency response that is a little tricky. Pretty much all rooms have some level of low frequency unevenness even if they are well treated. Each room has it in different places and it’s just up to you to get used to it. Even if you’re willing to spend serious money on tweaking a room, it’s hard to know in advance if it will be worth it. If you have a big room, you could build a new room inside of it and start with perfect dimensions. That would definitely give you a head start. With my next studio I am going to do that, or at least that’s what I keep telling myself [Laughs]. Right now I’m also fortunate to have a second room right next to mine with other speakers to go and check my mixes in. And of course checking on headphones is always a great help too, especially the white iPhone earbuds since such a huge part of the audience listen on those.
Thank you. Well, in a way it is, because it provides variation which helps keep me fresh. If you’re only doing one type of music, you might start to lose it after a while because you are doing the same thing over and over and perhaps not challenging yourself very much. Switching it up can be just as helpful as like taking breaks all the time. That being said, whenever I dig into a genre that I haven’t done in a while and don’t feel completely on top of, it requires me to listen to whatever else is out there. Production and mixing are much like fashion; how dry something is, what kind of drum sounds or whatever cool effects people are using changes constantly. There are trends to be aware of and hopefully stay slightly ahead of. In that sense, mixing in many genres means there is a lot more music to stay on top of. But that’s part of the fun!
Most of the time I’ll ask the client for a rough mix and I’ll also ask them to name three songs that they feel are similar to what they are going for. Not that I always end up with what they’re after because it’s hard to not do your own thing, but it’s usually a good start. If it’s a genre that I listen to a lot myself then obviously I’ll be more up to date and there will less of a need for that. I try to get that discussion and process going with the client before I get the session.
Right. Of course what can be done varies a lot with the type of song and how everything was recorded. For example, if it’s a song that’s going to have an effect heavy vocal, then it’s easier to get away with a lesser quality recording. Effects can cover up a lot. But if you are going for something that’s heavily dependent on the vocal and perhaps calls for an intimate and detailed sound, then short comings in the recording are going to be much harder to deal with. And then we have pitch and timing tweaks. This overlaps with production, but even so, I often do such tweaks to vocals when needed. I’m not a big fan of Autotune and other pitch correction plugins that work in realtime unless it’s for very slight tweaks to backup vocals or if the client is after that pitch-processed sound. I do love Melodyne though. Used right, it can make a world of a difference without having to sacrifice the natural feel of a performance.
Of course not everything is fixable in the mix, but I do want to stress that a whole lot more is fixable during mixing than can ever be fixed during the mastering process. Many musicians seem to have this almost magical idea of how amazing their song will be once it’s mastered. Not to diminish the hard work of good mastering engineers – mastering a song is very important – but think about it: Working with only the two-channel stereo mix comes with a lot of limitations. During mixing, all the elements of the a song are available to be tweaked separately and most engineers work on one mix for at least a full day whereas most mastering engineers will complete a whole album in a day. I like the analogy of comparing mastering a song to color correcting a movie and mixing a song to editing a movie.
Yeah, I might tell them something like “This is going to have limitations if we go with it” or I’ll ask “Do you have the opportunity to re-record it?” Sometimes it’s what the producer received from the singer who is located somewhere else and it’s all we’ve got to work with. At that point I would just do as good of a job as I can and hope for the best. Sometimes it turns out surprisingly well, sometimes not. Also, if a client wants to cut the vocals again, I don’t have a problem going back to that session, plugging in the new vocal and adjust accordingly. The ease with which I can do that is a major advantage of working completely in-the-box.
It’s pretty much the same that it’s been for a long time now. As I said, I’m completely in the box and I’m using Logic 9. I do have Logic 10 installed though and am about to start transitioning over. Right now I’m in that whole process of updating plug-ins and making sure that what I need still works in the new version. I’m using an old Mac Pro from 2007 [Laughs] but it’s still pretty powerful. It’s an 8-core 3Ghz Xeon machine with 13GB of ram so it still has more processing than most consumer Macs. And I just updated it with a new graphics card (so it can run Mavericks, Apple’s latest operating system) and three SSD Drives.
For mixing in stereo I have the pair of Dynaudio Air 15’s that I mentioned earlier. I also have three Air 6’s for the center and rear channels as well as an Air Base 10 Subwoofer for when I do surround work. I sit at a normal office desk that’s a bit curved so it surrounds me slightly. On it are 3 screens so I can fit a lot of plug-in windows and such at once. On the desk is the controller for the speaker system, a tiny two octave keyboard, a Rupert Neve Portico 5015 Mic Pre/Compressor that I record vocals with, and a PreSonus FaderPort that I never use. I bought it to be able to do manual volume automation but it really just sits there and looks cool [Laughs]. So the setup is pretty simple. It’s powerful though and looks a bit like some sort of hacker command station from a Hollywood movie [Laughs].
Plug-in wise I have all the Waves Plugins, the DUY bundle, the Lexicon Native bundle and a bunch of other stuff. And to be honest, I use a lot of the stock plug-ins inside Logic, especially the EQ’s and the compressor. DUY has a really nice tape emulation plug-in, DAD-Tape, that I like a lot.
Mostly I start with just listening to stuff and making sure that everything is there. After that I label things and move them around so that I feel comfortable. I try to do that kind of work on a different day from when I’ll be mixing because when I do start mixing, I don’t want to get stuck and not be able to find my way around or have non-creative things drag me down.
I tend to divide things up into different sections of the song, so if there’s a kick drum, I might have it on separate tracks for the chorus and the verse and so on. A 20 track session could easily end up becoming a 50 or 60 track session just because I spread things out. Part of the reason for that is that I like to keep the session simpler and avoid automation until I’m getting close to finishing the mix. That lets me keep adjusting the faders without worrying about automation modes erasing what I just did as soon as I press play.
But back to what I start with; a lot of times I would say just the kick and the bass. I’ll bring them up and start listening to them, play around with EQ and perhaps a transient plugin for the kick. I’ll also bring a few other things up with them just to set a good basic level, to make sure I start with a reasonable amount of headroom and I’m not clipping the mix buss. It’s easy to keep adding things, slowly making the mix louder and louder, so it’s important to start with a fair amount of headroom. So yeah the kick and bass but that’s also very general because it depends on what kind of song it is.
It’s more that I want to set some sort of volume frame for the mix. If the kick and the bass are at a certain level, that tells me how loud everything else has to be around that – you have to start somewhere. As I get further into the mix I keep going back and forth, adjusting any and all things until I’m happy with the end result.
There is a bunch of different plug-ins for messing with transients that I like. Logic’s Enveloper, Native Instruments Transient Master and a few other ones that I can’t remember off the top of my head. I can’t say that one is better than the others. It’s hit or miss. I’ll try one after the other until I get what I’m after.
Sometimes I layer in samples, even though that’s technically not a mixer’s job [Laughs] but if it feels like the sound needs something more, then it’s easy enough for me to just trigger something.
If it’s a real drum kit, a lot can be done with compressors; on individual tracks, on busses, on more busses that the first busses went through [Laughs]. Parallel compression can also be very useful. Logic’s built in compressor features a very useful wet/dry slider, something that’s usually not associated with compressors. It’s hidden in a section that can be activated at the bottom of the plug-in window.
Checking phase also helps with punch and it’s something that I am guilty of sometimes forgetting myself. Recently I was mixing a metal album with live drums that were recorded well. At some point while mixing the 2nd or 3rd song on the album I realized that I forgot to do a thorough job of checking the phase [Laughs]. It’s not just the phase of the top snare mic and the bottom snare mic or between the different kick mics and the overheads, it’s about the whole kit being in phase. For example, it can be the phase relationship between the snare through the snare mics and how it bleeds into the tom mics. And you can’t just flip the toms and be done, because then they might be out of phase with the overheads. It takes some playing around. When you’re done though, it’s definitely worth it. The frequencies suddenly feel right. They’re not being cancelled out anymore. They just somehow, almost magically get punchier. I had to go back to those first two mixes of the album because it made things so much better.
I would definitely start with just the phase buttons and see what happens. Sometimes I nudge tracks a little bit but I won’t do that unless I really have to. When I try to work that way it usually takes me longer than I wish and I keep changing my mind.
There’s a company called Soundr Radix which I came across because I was looking for ways to make older 32-bit only plugins work under Logic X and they make this thing called 32-Lives (Very useful by the way). They also make a plug-in called Auto-Align which deals with phase issues. Basically what you do is you insert the plug-in on a bunch of different tracks, and inside of the plug-in you can assign each track that has it to a group. Its processing engine will be aware of what’s going on between all the instances on other tracks and it will adjust the phase between them in real time. I’ve only just started playing around with that thing but I have a feeling it is going to make my life a lot simpler [Laughs].
One day and then some. As a rule I will make sure that I have an extra day where I come back with fresh ears because if I’ve been working on it for a whole day, even if I take lots of small breaks, I start to lose perspective. So unless you really have to, don’t send that mix out even if you feel done with it at the end of the day. Just wait until the day after. Trust me, that is good advice. That first half hour when you come in the next day is when you’ll fix everything. You’ll do more in that half hour than you did during the last three hours the night before [Laughs].
I could definitely start the next one because it’s a new song and if I’m starting from scratch, I’m in another headspace from the previous mix. Most of the time, I take the rest of that day and prepare for other sessions or do admin work or whatever though.
No I don’t. Except for maybe when I’m working on an album like that metal album I talked about earlier. I knew that the drums for all the songs were recorded the same way because they were all done in two days at the same studio. So after mixing the first song, I would use those drum settings as a template for the next one. Of course I would still make a lot of adjustments. No two songs are alike. For everything else I would start from scratch.
No. There are some reverbs where I should just have a preset, but getting there takes about 5 seconds so I don’t bother and I just do it [Laughs]. I’m always going to be tweaking them anyway.
It can be a bit of a dilemma because you often want the sound of a reverb and the spaciousness that it provides, yet you also want the vocal to sound intimate and close [Laughs]. One way to try and marry these two is delaying a reverb in time with the music. This can be done easily inside most reverb plugins with the pre-delay slider. But if I know that I want a certain kind of delay effect, timed with the music, it can be cool to add the reverb to that and make it 80-100% wet. And I’ll leave no or very little reverb on the dry signal. It achieves the same thing as having a really long pre-delay but you have it locked into the time signature of the song. What you get is still quite close and dry sounding but you still get the effect of a reverb. I also might use very short delays panned out to the sides combined with some early reflections on a vocal to make it feel a little wider and larger than life without sounding like a lot of reverb was used.
Over time I go through phases of using certain things a lot and then I tire of them a bit, but I always come back to this one technique: Let’s say you have a mono source, like a shaker or guitar, and you want to pan it pretty far out to one side. It can feel almost too precise and a bit unnatural. So instead what I’ll do is insert the Waves SuperTap Delay and use that to do my panning. I’ll pan the instrument out to one side and then add a very short delay, take the high end out of it and pan that to the opposite side. Then I bring up the delay slightly, not really to hear it but just so that it gives a touch of ambience. When the ambiance isn’t there and it’s just panned to the one side, it doesn’t sound natural to me. It would never sound like that out in the real world. If you were standing in the middle of the room and a person is all the way to one side, you’re not going to hear him/her through only your right ear, there’s still ambiance that will come into the left ear. Our brains do not interpret location based solely on level differences. It uses arrival time differences and frequency differences between what your two ears are receiving as well. Your head and your nose affect the EQ curve of what you hear. That’s why panning with only volume level is inadequate.
It depends on how it was recorded and what the song calls for. If I’m mixing drums that include really nice room mics, then obviously I’m not going to need to use very much reverb. But things that are close mic’d usually need something, otherwise they sound unnatural. But of course I might leave something dry if that’s the effect I am going for.
The sense of space in a mix I would say is very much related to the symmetry between left and right. Going back to the Waves Supertap, I use the same technique for time signature based delays as well. For example, if you have something like a guitar and you want it panned hard left, then there needs to be another element over on the right to compensate so that the mix doesn’t feel tilted. It can be another instrument with a function that relates to the first one. If something is too tilted, subconsciously it bugs the hell out of me [Laughs] and I have OCD about that sort of thing. So if I do want it way out to one side but I don’t have another instrument to compensate with, then that’s a perfect opportunity to use a tap delay on the opposite side to even things out while still getting that wide feeling to the mix.
If it has ambience attached, has a nice wide stereo feel to it and it sounds good, then I’ll leave it as is. What I might do in that case, instead of trying to pan it with a pan knob (which I don’t like), is use something like the Waves S1-imager. That’s definitely one of my favorite plugins. I’ll use it to make things a little wider if needed, or more narrow and slightly tilted off to one side if that works better in the mix. As I mentioned earlier, pan knobs are limited and it’s important to have alternative ways to locate things in a mix. Logic’s built in Direction Mixer plug-in is another tool I use to deal with such things. It’s pretty much like a normal panner but it deals with stereo tracks much better than the regular mixer pan-knob.
Thank you! Sure. I would attribute that more to how I work with the symmetry of the mix, but of course balance plays a big part too. Balance is actually something that I feel like I’m constantly getting better at. I was not that great at it if you go back a few years [Laughs], I mean it takes time. Ultimately, setting the right levels are very much musical decisions, and in the final stages of mixing, if there’s any back and forth with the client, it’s usually about something coming up and down because they feel it’s more or less important musically. That’s why it’s important to listen to the client’s rough mix because if there’s anything that even a crappy rough mix might tell you, it’s what importance the client has put on the different instruments. That being said, sometimes the client is just wrong, and it’s important to pick your battles if you feel strongly that you are right and they’re just not seeing things clearly. Yes, you’re there to serve the client, but the way you do that best is by making the song sound as good as possible. You’re supposed to be that voice of reason since they have worked on their music for a long time and might have lost perspective. Ultimately, they will decide of course, but there’s often a third way out of a disagreement where you can have the cookie and eat it too. You just got to stay open minded and talk about why they want what they want and you’ll figure out a way around it.
Something else interesting about levels is that an instrument can be good at a certain level but then you bring it up or down slightly and then it doesn’t sit right in the mix. But then if you bring it down a lot or up a lot, maybe it’s good again. There’s not just one right or wrong level setting but more like a lot of wrong areas in between so you have to find those right spots, and they depend on what the producer or musician was after when they chose that sound.
I always use the built in Logic compressor. Rarely with the legacy Platinum algorithm though. I think it was around the time of Logic 8 where they introduced options for the algorithm. There’s the legacy Platinum that lets you choose between peak or RMS, the Class A_R and Class A_U, the VCA, FET and Opto. I usually use the FET or the Opto. But I despise the stupid “auto make up gain” [Laughs]. I really hate it when compressors try to make up the gain automatically for you. It just never works as expected so I’d rather keep track of making up for gain reduction myself. So yeah, that’s my go-to compressor.
Right [Laughs]. I mean years ago I was using the Waves RCompressor because it was simple and it reminded me of the 1176/1178 which was probably the one I used the most when I was in school. But when Apple updated those new algorithms I found they sounded better and I had more options available at my fingertips without having to insert different plug-ins.
Maybe this will be another first then because I use Logic’s channel EQ a lot. It’s not really that it sounds that amazing but more the fact that I like the interface and that it has a very nice frequency analyzer. It makes it easy to see how I’m affecting a sound. Also, if I feel that it’s affecting the sound in a way that I don’t like, I can easily switch it over to the linear phase version of the same EQ and it will keep the same settings but give me a slightly different sound.
EQ-wise I can’t think of anything in particular, I use other things to add color. The DAD-Tape that I mentioned earlier works great for that sometimes. DUY also makes two plug-ins called Wide and Valve which do interesting things color-wise. For compressors, Waves has their version of the SSL Buss compressor which I’ve used a few times. It does something that is kind of hard to describe. Sometimes it’s just the thing I need and at other times it just doesn’t work at all.
I use the Voxengo Elephant. Before I found that one, I was using the Waves L2 and and later on the L3. Not so much for the sound but because of how they worked. All you have to do is drag the centre part down in order to lower the threshold and the output ceiling simultaneously. That means you’re not changing the volume at all, just basically giving the signal a haircut [Laughs]. First you get it to the point where it starts to sound bad. Then if it’s the L2, you can play around with the release times and with the L3, you can try the different multi-band characters/algorithms as well to see which one make it sound better. Then finally you back off a little bit until it sounds good again.
Unfortunately, the Elephant does not have that feature – It’s a much better limiter though. Sometimes I’ll start with putting on the L2 to see how hard I can hit the mix before it craps out. Then I switch to the Elephant and start by pushing it the same amount. Usually I can hit the Elephant at least three or four dB’s harder without it breaking a sweat. It also has a bunch of features in regards to how the algorithm works. It allows you to control the amount of separation between the left and the right channel. The more the two channels can work independently, the more you can push it without crunching. You do make a tradeoff with the integrity of the stereo image though so you got to pay attention to that. You can also decide how close to actual clipping versus soft limiting it should be. And there are a number of different algorithms that I can’t get into here. You really need to play around with it. It can also be great to use different settings for different parts of a song. I mentioned earlier that I usually spread the same instruments out on multiple tracks for different sections of the song. That comes very handy during the mastering process because it allows me to have all the chorus tracks grouped to one bus and the verse tracks to another, so I can use a different instance of Elephant for each. So yeah, I like to use that for the final limiting stage.
Thanks so much, it was my pleasure.