...

This is the final part of a three-part series. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.

...

Mixing
Now it’s time to do the aural equivalent of cooking. Before you turn on the stove however, the ingredients need to be prepared.

Similarly with music, the mix engineer has to prep their tracks before getting to the fun part. Drum tracks need to be corrected for duff hits, phase or excess microphone bleed, and every track needs to be sonically manipulated to slot well in the mix with the others. Then when the tracks are ready, then the engineer can mix every instrument to their desired volume and location in the song. The tools to accomplish that are nearly endless, and the less the mix engineer has to “fix” the tracks they’re working with, the more time they have to be creative and have fun.

Like the tracking process, studios can implement a hybrid of analog and digital methodologies to get the mixing job done. Rack-mount hardware units are often emulated by digital plugins to varying degrees of success and quality, and DAWs like Pro Tools allows engineers to dial in and automate parameters such as stereo panning and volume automation to precise degrees. Light Rail and Vhöl went with a left-field tactic, mixing the record on a digitally controlled analog console called the Gamble DCX-90.

“This DCX console that we have here was designed to be a touring console that is controlled digitally. Every parameter: panning, EQ, compression, gating, sends, and returns have full recall,” engineer Nick Dumitriu explains. “It’s just really brilliantly designed. They were expensive, probably more than a quarter million. It’s not the most user-friendly interface and it’s quirky, so now they’re unreasonably cheap. It just sounds so head-blowing. To control it, we use this software that runs on Windows 2000 called VACS. We have an old Windows box just to run this thing with a single Ethernet cable.”

...

The Gamble
Photo by Cobbett

...

Dumitriu kept the mixing stage plugin-free, opting to patch in hardware units instead. These units included 8’x8’ plate reverbs, an Echoplex tape delay and classic compressors like the SSL G384 and the Urei 1176. By making smart equalization decisions on the Trident A-Range console while tracking and overdubbing, Dumitriu allowed himself and John Cobbett the freedom to be creative while mixing instead of having to spend time sonically sculpting the tracks. With drums and bass laid down and remaining steady, the two could focus on the trickiest aspect of the mix, the guitars.

Cobbett took the extra time to make use of every tone committed to tape. “We sorted through something like 24 to 32 guitar tracks for each song. We would go through every part and pick two or three guitars, figure out panning etc,” he recalls. “‘Let’s have these two guitars here, and when the next riff comes in, we’ll take these other two guitars hard panned with this other one up the middle.’ You can hear it on the record. It might sound like overkill, but I wanted to make sure that I got really awesome guitar tones, one way or another. If I’ve got three guitars going through these amps, somewhere in this big pile of guitar tracks, there’s going to be really good sounding guitars.” In the title track, listeners can hear tones shift and fly about the stereo field, seemingly every eight bars or so. “It’s a pretty indulgent way to make a record, but John wanted frequent changes of the sonic palette, and the only way to achieve that is to get a whole bunch of different guitars through different amps,” Dumitriu says. “You could use plugins these days, but the sound of an amp pushing speakers is just too good.”

...

Amps used for reamping
Photo by Cobbett

...

Since Mike Scheidt recorded multiple vocal takes to pick from, incorporating his tracks into the mix proved to be its own challenge. “You’ve a bunch of vocal tracks, and then the effect tracks next to those. We’d only use a few of these tracks in any given part, but we wanted them to choose from later. Most of the work in mixing was deciding what to leave out,” Cobbett explains. It isn’t a particularly efficient way of mixing. For most bands, making these decisions earlier in the process, even as far back as deciding on parts during pre-production and rehearsal, will be of utmost help and will save ample time and money during mixing. By this point however, Cobbett is well aware of what works best for himself as an artist. “If I’m writing material and making records, it’s really hard for me to keep things simple. I can’t help layering harmonies, layering vocals, layering guitars. I just can’t help it, I love it,” he admits. “With the new record we had no illusions about trying to be simple.”

Mastering

Now it’s time to finish the job and master your record. Mastering is often the most misunderstood step of the production cycle; in short, mastering is the process of taking a set of final mixes and assembling a single source (or “master”) that all copies of the music will be created from. That process includes increasing the apparent loudness of the songs to your desired level, enhancing the tone of the music, applying EQ, dynamic compression and/or multi-band compression to have the tracks sonically match and translate to a variety of real-world playback environments, removing excess noise, sequencing the songs to the your desired running order, incorporating fade-ins and fade-outs if needed, setting the space between songs and printing a final master that can be used to press CD’s, vinyl or be distributed digitally. The tools and methods of manipulation that mastering engineers have at their disposal are enormous; they can completely change the sonic identity of a track or do almost nothing depending on your specifications or their own instincts.

For Deeper than Sky, Vhöl enlisted Justin Weis at Trakworx Studio, with whom John Cobbett had once made records with Hammers of Misfortune, Ludicra and Slough Feg [Full disclosure: Avinash Mittur interned with Justin Weis-Ed.]. Cobbett knew what to expect from Weis as a mastering engineer; Weis is also among the few individuals outside the band that Cobbett will accept input from. “It was nice to be back at Trakworx. There’s a lot of things about that place that I miss, and it’s always nice to get Justin’s take on things,” he says. “Mastering the Vhöl record at Justin’s, there was never any question. Everything I do, I just get it mastered at Justin’s. Black magic. He doesn’t crush his master, so many people do that man.”

...

Justin Weis working at Trakworx
Photo by Trakworx

...

The “crushing” that Cobbett references is the process of drastically reducing the dynamic range, the difference between the quiet and loud parts of a song or album. Some mastering engineers rely on dynamic range compression and peak limiting to increase the apparent loudness of a track, while others like Weis employ additional techniques, tools and weapons to increase the perceived loudness while retaining more punch in the music. The loudness of a track and the associated competition known as the “loudness war” is an issue that the vinyl format is mostly free from. Mastering engineers often provide a separate vinyl master—with compression and peak limiting eased off—for clients that want it. Vhöl fans can expect to hear Weis’ high resolution master on the vinyl version of Deeper than Sky.

You’re Done

You’ve done it. The band has made a record, and you’re ready to release it into the world [ A topic upcoming in a “Damage Done” piece-Ed.]. The method detailed here is just one among many possibilities when it comes to making an album but for patient bands with a modest budget, the path Cobbett and Vhöl took can result in a great sounding record without breaking the bank.

—Avinash Mittur

...