The Double Edged Sword Of “Fix It In The Mix”

Recently, while working on some mix downs of the Rough Hewn Trio improvisations we found a track that we all really liked had some nasty digital distortion on the take.

So as a workaround we decided to see if we could salvage it  by reamping the track through the Atomic Amp.  Craig and I sent the signal through the Duet out into the amp and then threw a 57 on it to see what happened. (From a technical standpoint there was a noticable difference. I’d like to think that the tubes smoothed it out a bit  but I don’t know if it was really a huge sonic improvement over just reamping it in POD Farm.  I’ll have an excerpt online soon.)

“Let’s fix it in the mix” in general is an act of desperation but it’s one that can be rooted in prgamatism (and one that is encouraged in recordings made by the music industry).

DIY Recording

When a new band records something they typically don’t have a lot of cash.  But they have a computer, some recording software (or worse warez) and some USB audio interfaces and think, “Oh hell I got all those great plug ins the pros use, we can record our cd here and it’s going to be amazing.” (and to be fair – sometimes it is and (in general) I’d say the overall quality of sounds people are getting at home is the highest it’s ever been largely due to the quality of samples and processing available –  but if you’re recording everything from scratch you’re usually in for a world of pain.

If said band is a live act with a live drummer then they either buy a bunch of mikes and stands and track it home OR go to a studio and track it there.  If they do it at home – they probably don’t have very good quality microphones, headphones or monitors – and will go to the studio to try to try to fix the problem.  This is the tip of the sonic iceberg.  There will often be a lot of other mix problems and it will either be a sub par recording OR at the bite the bullet point – they will get a professional to come in to fix it.

This is typically expensive (to get it fixed properly) or unsatisfying (if heavily compromised).  Fixing something that has gone horribly wrong is usually very time consuming and therefore very expensive.  With solutions of either have to spend money trying to fix what exists or re-record parts of it, at a certain point new bands simply run out of money and then make the most of what they have.  Again – usually with mixed results.

Let’s look at a major release for a moment.

Another Story Time With Scott

Again, the following has been altered to protect the guilty.

A very good friend of mine is a world class engineer/producer.  Super cool guy.  He was telling me once about a major label session that he did when he first went to NYC with a well known band.  The recording he worked on with them was a multi-platinum release.

“I can’t listen to that cd”, he once told me, “there’s not 4 bars of anyone playing at the same time on it.”

See (it used to be that) when you’re signed to a major label – you got the sweet sweet advance.  On the surface, it’s an intoxicating dollar number and the band is thinking they’re going to be able to live off of it for years!

But then the manager gets a cut, and the agent, and the producer (picked by the label and either working a flat rate or percentage or both), and then there’s the studio with the sweet sweet gear.  Even with the block book rate it’s still costing a pretty penny and it’s all recoupable against media sales.

So the gear gets all set up.  And scratch tracks are recorded and the first track is played down.

Repeat 30 times.

Move to next song

Repeat as necessary

Then the producer and the engineer go through the recording of the drums – meticulously for a LONG time (think days, or weeks versus hours) .  The producer starts making notes like – “Okay for track 1.  I like the intro from take 6.  The first verse from take 10, the chorus from take 2,” etc. and frankenstein a drum track together.  Then beats are corrected.  Drop fills, etc.  Until they have the perfect drum track.

For a moment – think about how long that would take someone to do.  Even if they knew Pro Tools really really well.

Now imagine this process repeated with bass, guitars, vocals, etc.

Now imagine mixing it.  With this same attention to detail.  With mutiple mixes run by multiple people.  Until (finally) everyone signs off on the mix and it gets sent for mastering.

If you’re imagining time as money, you can see why a new release might cost $250,000 or more.  Since this money is all advanced  based on sales you can imagine how long it takes for a band to get their money back.

It is essentially  a brilliant type of loan sharking.  Money is loaned to an act at an impossible point of payback with the full knowledge that they will never be able to pay the money back to get paid for their work – BUT in the meantime -the actual work they’ve done (said recording) would still be raking in money for the label that they weren’t entitled to.

It’s kind of like if a loan shark had you paying money back – but somehow was able to deposit 90% of your paycheck before it got to you.  As you were getting full taxes deducted on that amount and drowning in debt – you ask when you’re going to see some money and are met with a response of , “What do you mean get paid?  You’re still paying the interest.  We’ll let you know when you get some money.  I understand it’s hard.  Why don’t you borrow some more money and go on tour?That will bring in money.”  The touring expenses are also recoupable, and so it continues like indentured servitude.

As a contrast – Poison’s debut was done in a weekend.  Not a brilliant sonic document – but I heard that they spent something like 30k on the recording and actually made money off it.  (think about that as a cost for a weekend record for a second next time you budget going into the studio).

For a more musically satisfying example – Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Texas Flood was recorded in an afternoon.  They set up their PA in the studio.  Played their set.  Went to lunch.  Came back and played the set again.  Then John Hammond took the best takes and mixed it down.

It’s important to be able to perform at a high level without having to rely on digital editing to get a useable take.

Because there’s no second take when you’re playing in front of an audience.

The double edged sword of “fix it in he mix” – is that it’s also important to know when to stop.

When you’re on take 100 of the verse vocal and it’s not working – you may have to call it a day and edit it together later.  Metalocalypse, has a brilliant moment involving this idea with  “One Take Willy” that, unfortunately, is truer than it is comfortable.

When spending time in a studio tracking, there’s a constant balance of the cost/performance/time ratio. (i.e. getting the recording with a minimal number of takes). If you’re (insert major label super over produced auto tune vocal act here), this is not really an issue – but if you’re not rolling in money – “fix it in the mix” always has a certain degree of uncertainty to it and a general loss of money.

I’m not saying, “don’t be experimental” but it’s important to realize that ‘experimental” usually has a high cost either economically in a studio or in time if done at home.  And it’s important to keep your eye on the bill so you don’t get stuck with the full tab.

Thanks for reading!

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