The day began at 4 a.m. with much anticipation as the alarm clock blares through our dark and silent house. The suitcase had been previously packed and loaded in the Jeep the night before. All that remained was to perform the necessary three “S”’s, (I’ll leave that up to you to figure out), get dressed, and hit the road, heading to the great music city of Nashville, Tennessee.
Thats where this year’s MixCoach Experience Weekend was being held. In just a little over 24 hours I would find myself inside the control room of OmniSound Studios, where music greats such as Taylor Swift, Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan, Lady Antebellum, Miranda Lambert, Beyonce, Hank Williams jr., Allison Krauss (well the list goes on and on) recorded some of their best work.
I would also find myself amongst some of the most talented and experienced recording/mixing engineers, and singer/songwriters. Not to mention, four of Nashville’s top session players, who are primarily responsible for shaping that distinctive “Nashville” sound.
Being somewhat of a newbie to the recording and mixing engineer community, I must admit that I was somewhat apprehensive about making the trip. Knowing in advance that the plans were to set-up and record two songs from start to finish had me questioning, with my limited knowledge and experience as a recording/mixing engineer, if I would truly have something to contribute? I will tell you upon arriving that afternoon, I immediately felt welcomed and accepted into the fold as one of the guys and gals. The rest of the afternoon and evening was spent mingling and getting to know in person, Kevin, Jon, Daniel and the rest of my great MixCoach teammates of whom, I can’t say enough good things about.
First on the list was a stop at one of Jon’s favorite coffee shops, “Frothy Monkey”, where I indulge in a cup of Monkey Mocha while having breakfast with my MixCoach teammates. The table was overflowing with various knowledgable conversations pertaining to sound engineering. Once finished, it was a short hop to OmniSound Studios where the planned day’s events quickly unfolded.
First Kevin took us all through the main tracking room, as well as the separate piano, guitar and vocal booths, while showing and explaining to us how each instrument type was miked. A Yamaha C7 Grand, Wurlitzer, and Rhodes graced one room while a Hammond B3 was positioned in the main tracking room. We viewed the microphone lockers and the physically large Lawson Plate Reverb hidden away in a back room. I was surprised how physically large but simple in concept that a commercially made plate reverb can actually be. A long gated plywood box, housing a steel bar that runs from one end to the other. A panel with guitar pick-up controls on one end and on top, a steel rod that when moved actually places a damper pad, much like a piano damper, against the steel bar to manually reduce the overall reverb time.
When we entered the control room it was absolutely amazing. Behind the large double windows separating the main tracking room from the control room, sat a 48*26 Split Monitor API Legacy Console. Two large Genelec 1037B studio monitors, and sitting ahead of them, a pair of trusty Yamaha NS-10’s. A Lexicon 480 control unit was resting on the top of the console above the main busses. Above and to the right, a video monitor that allows the tracking engineer visibility of the artist inside the four individual recording booths.
To the left of the console stood an oak cabinet filled with hardware units that I personally have only seen pictures of on the web and magazines. Encased were multiple units of 1176, LA-2 & 3As, DBX 160 compressors and so on.
I remember leaning down and touching the various hardware units thinking to myself that nobody can now say to me that I’ve never saw or touched the real unit
I remember leaning down and touching the various hardware units thinking to myself that nobody can now say to me that I’ve never saw or touched the real unit. Next to the cabinet was a 24-track Studer A800 tape machine and to the right of the console, a Pro Tools rig that was charged in capturing the day’s recordings.
Just around the corner we indulged in lunch at the famous “Taqueria Del Sol”. This provided another great opportunity to discuss Sound Engineering topics not only with the experienced members of MixCoach but to also include an in-depth discussion with OmniSound Studio’s excellent staff engineer, Lee Unfried about the ins and out of music publishing in Nashville. Denny and Brittany Livingston from the famous Southern Gospel group, “The Livingstons” also joined us. In fact, Brittany (a beautiful singer in her own right) and her husband Jason hung with us during the entire weekend, film documenting the entire 3-day event while providing a great hospitable environment.
Upon returning to the studio, we found in our presence, four of the best session players that Nashville has to offer. These are individuals who have worked with some of the greatest artist ever heard on the radio, both past and present.
Jason Webb (Keyboards):
Keith Urban, Sheryl Crow, Mary J. Blige, Rascal Flats, Little Big Town, Luke Bryan, Jennifer Nettles. John Legend, Steven Tyler, Vince Gill, Amy Grant, — the list is endless…
Gary Lunn (Bassist):
John Anderson, Montgomery Gentry, Collin Raye, Toby Keith, Tracy Lawrence, Peter Cetera, Joe Diffie, Roy Clark, Glen Campbell, Ernie Haase, Randy Scruggs — the list is endless…
Kelly Back (Guitarist):
Shenandoah, The Oak Ridge Boys, Wayne Haun, Ernie Haase, & Signature Sound, The Perrys, Aaron Tippin, Gene Watson, Jessica King, Keith Perry — the list is endless…
Garth Justice (Drums/Percussion):
Doug Anderson, Selah, Karyn Williams, Keith & Kristyn Getty, Drake Jensen, Mandisa, Mark Harris, Shelia Romero, Engelbert Humperdinck, Petra, Phil Driscoll — the list is endless…
The recording session began by listening to a work tape of a song Co-written by our fabulous leader and mentor, Kevin Ward (Co-written with Holly Winter) entitled, “I’m So Over You Again”. The track consisted of a single guitar strumming with Holly singing the vocal. Kevin handed out the charts and within a few minutes the four session players and Holly were jamming to what sounded like a completed song ready for radio play. Lee was there running the console the whole time while capturing everything on Pro Tools. A few arrangement teaks here and there combined with a couple of over-dub takes and the session was complete.
The second song written by Kevin Ward and Carrie Moellor entitled, “Crazy Faith”. The second session’s process was identical to the first except this time, Carrie covered the vocals. I found it absolutely amazing how quickly, when you have the level of talent that was in the studio that day, a session will come together.
The evening was spent relaxing with each other while having pizza combined with an assortment of locally brewed librations. Oh yes, there was plenty tech discussions while everyone reminisced over what we each experience during the days events.
At the beginning of a third and final day, we actually recorded one additional song that was written by Kevin Ward. Only this time, Kevin only had the work tape. In a very short time, Kevin and the session players wrote the chart. Kevin handled the vocals and within an hour, the song was ready for mix.
After having lunch where we were blessed with the presence of MixCoach member and studio owner, Joe Carrell (Michael W. Smith, T-bone, Out of Eden, George Jones, Calvin Hunt, Cuba Gooding, the list goes on and on…). We then took a short walk over to his beautiful studio where he gave us an in-depth look at the control room and his tracking/mixing process.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any better, Kevin comes up with a challenge for all of us to participate in. This to me was the highlight of the weekend! Each one of us had the opportunity to sit at the API Console and create a rough mix of “I’m So Over You Again”, the song we tracked the day before, with a timer set at 10 minutes.
Every participant’s mix was printed to Pro Tools, so that each of us could receive a copy of our mix to take home. For a guy with only DAW mixing experience, it was a real treat to sit and actually mix a song on a real hardware console, running through actual hardware compressors and the Studer Tape Machine’s transformers for added colorization. The 10 Minute Rough Mix Challenge was a great success with everyone creating wonderful sounding mixes.
As the day began wrapping up, we were blessed with a visit from one of Nashville great singer-songwriter’s Donna and her husband, Zane King. As MixCoach members, we all have had the opportunity on several occasions to mix her great song productions and it was a really a pleasure to finally meet both of them in person.
The day ended with saying our goodbyes. Some of the team had a short night before leaving early morning to catch their flights. I choose to jump into the Jeep and take the 7 1/2 hour ride back to the Chicago area during the evening hours while the traffic was lite. For me, I felt like a sponge during the entire experience weekend, absorbing everything I possible could. There were so many new things that I hadn’t experienced in my lifetime up to this point. I utilized the quiet moonlit night and lite traffic, to process and decompress everything I had taken in during the past fabulous three days. I took away six major points for increasing the probability of achieving a great recording.
Obtain top-notch tracks. It is absolutely necessary to obtain or produce well recorded tracks. The old sane, “Garbage In equals Garbage Out” applies when creating a sound recording. It’s not so much about the cost of the software or hardware as it is about the experience and knowing how to use the tools. If working in a recording studio, leverage the knowledge from the engineering staff that is there to assist you and the session players of whom combined, will have an amplitude of experience that will make your end product great.
Secure the best musicians possible. Most session players are not only very talented but have a wealth of experience that can contribute to your project. Obtain session players that are willing to work with you, are willing to try options, and are efficient at their craft. Find those session players who are willing to play multiple instruments (i.e. Piano/Organ/Synth, El Gtr./Ac Gtr, etc.). Don’t try to be the know-it-all in the room just because it is your project. Leverage the experience and advice from the session players, regardless if it has to do with song structure or microphone placement. Remember, most session players have worked and experienced many scenarios. Utilize their talent and expertise that in the end, will only improve your project’s quality and personal satisfaction.
Keep the signal chain simple. So often as a new mixing engineer, one finds him or herself overwhelmed with the numerous plug-ins available in today’s market. There is something out there that promises to solve any mixing issue or produce the greatest sound ever. During the three days of recording, other than running the final output through the Studer Tape deck’s transformers for colorization, only basic EQ and Compression was being use. This approach resulted in an outstanding recording with excellent sound quality. Don’t get bogged down in thinking “If I only had this plug-in” my mixes would sound better. Choose an EQ and Compressor and learn both of them inside and out. Yes there are times where a special tool (i.e. de-esser/auto-tune, reverb for example) may be required, but for the most part, the majority of tracks can be successfully mixed utilizing basic EQ and Compression.
When writing a song, keep it simple. Too often producers want to fill up a session with hundreds of tracks. Remember, the less tracks a session has, the more space there is available in the sound spectrum for things to be heard. Use only enough instruments/tracks that will send the intended message. Don’t use ten guitar tracks when you can get away with five. Remember, if writing a country song, it’s about the story telling. The vocal has the primary focus.
Use your ears rather than your eyes. With the abundance of tactical displays available on the market today, one can get bogged down when mixing, convincing their brain what one is seeing is actually the best decision for the mix. When performing the 10-minute Rough Mix Challenge, the first thing that Engineer Lee Unfried did was remove the monitor that was in front of the console. So often, new mix engineers rely on their sight instead of listening and making mixing decisions using only their ears. The next time you mix a song, try closing your eyes and listen before making any mix adjustments. I believe you will be surprised using this approach at how your mixes will improve over time.
Tackle the big rocks first. When your setting up a recording session or preparing for your next mix, always consider tackling the big rocks first (80/20 rule). Performing the task of gain staging and balancing tracks before reaching for the EQ/ Compression knob or loading that first plug-in will provide you the most milage. As the mixing process continues, you will then begin to see what tracks require additional tweaking whether it is applying EQ, Compression or some other type of treatment. Get the mix close first then and only then, spend your time making small tweaks in order to bring the mix to the highest quality possible.
I was very impressed by the amount of talent and experience that was present during the MixCoach experience weekend. The staff at OmniSound Studios, the outstanding session players, the artist, and of course, Kevin, Jon, Daniel and the MixCoach family, of whom all very talented and experienced engineers were a joy to be around. Just a great friendly bunch of guys and gals of whom, I’m very blessed to be associated with and of whom, I can call my friends.
As for myself, I primary work from my home production studio in the Chicago area, composing instrumentals utilizing a vast array of virtual instruments, arranging, orchestration and mixing tracks for MixCoach. What I quickly realized from this weekend, is that no matter what type of studio you have, how large or small, the genre of music you write or how experience you may be, there was something to be gained for everyone who attends. I strongly encourage any of you, no matter of your experience, if your looking to raise your game in your music career or just hang out with some of the best people in the industry, to consider attending the MixCoach Experience Weekend in 2017. You will not be disappointed.