It’s been a long time coming but we’re back, baby! Welcome to the first instalment of our ‘Week in the Life’ series for 2019.
To get the ball rolling, we’ve picked the brains of Sydney-sider Doug Clarke, a freelance audio engineer whose talent spans across television, live mixing and studio production. Doug’s extensive experience in his field rivals that of experts nationwide, making him an exceptional candidate to divulge a peek into the weekly process of a soundie.
If you’ve ever wondered what it is like to live and breathe audio, then this one might be right up your alley. Learn about the nuances of sound engineering below, and maybe even nab some tips for your own production ventures!
A Job Description in Your Own Words:
I’m a freelance Audio Engineer. I work in a variety of areas, but mostly in Music and TV. I mix live bands such as ‘The Comfort’ on Greyscale Records, mix reality TV shows like ‘Bachelor in Paradise’ for Channel 10, and produce and mix artists like Sun Heights on Pee Records. While these are all different fields of audio engineering (Recording, Live Sound, Post-Production). They all draw from the same skill-set and at times, the same tools and programs. The biggest part about my job is to be reminded that I need to service the client’s needs and help them work towards their end goal. This is probably the biggest hurdle as budgets, time, and creative differences can get in the way. But, remembering that you are there to help them with their project is a key aspect to keeping clients and have a busy schedule.
Today I start mixing the song I recorded while I was in Brisbane for the band ‘Sun Heights’. As I’ve produced this, I’ve already got the song edited and gainstaged and there is already a basic pre-mix happening. Other mixing elements such as delay throws and automation I’ve already incorporated during the producing phase of the recording so this should be a very quick mix to pull together.
The main areas I’m looking to enhance with this mix is the clarity across the song and also adding some energy to make the track sound exciting. I’ll be adding most of the energy to the track in two areas. Enhancing the drums with samples, parallel compression, transient shaping, short reverbs, and aggressive gating to give the drums more energy and aggression. Most of these will focus around the snare drum, but I will have to do similar processes to the rest of the drums for them to all fit together.
Once I’ve got a general balance I’ll put the bus compressor on and start mixing into that. I usually aim for a medium attack and fast release to not kill all the transients of the mix but help the mix pump along with the tempo of the song. As it’s a fast song, it makes sense to use a faster release to fit with this. I’ll also use a stereo EQ on my master section to do some general enhancing in the high and low end, and making small cuts in a few key areas like the 180-300 hz, 400-600 hz, and 2-4 khz. I’m not going too aggressive on these EQ moves, around -0.5-2 dB. If it requires much more, I’ll need to find the particular element in the track with these problems and solve them on the individual track rather than doing it across the master mix.
I’ve already done some rough EQ’ing and other processing on the guitars and bass as I’ve been recording. I did a little bit during the guitar tracking and then adjusted these settings once we had the drums recorded. Because of this, there isn’t much left to do.
Lastly, we have vocals. As I compressed these quite heavily during the recording process, the vocals sit really well in a mix and just need a general leveling to get them to sit. I’ll do some slight eq to clean up the mid-range to get them to fit in. These spots are usually the 200-400 hz and 600-900 hz. Other areas I’m looking at is the 1.5 khz-5 khz area. I’ll make some tight cuts around the annoying frequencies that are poking through and also a small reduction at 2.5 khz, but with a wide Q. Other processes I will use are distortion and saturation. Screaming vocals take to these processes very very well. I’ll use some saturation on the main vocal, and duplicated it and distorted it to use a parallel track.
I’ve already recorded and printed some interesting vocal effects during the recording process. The main one is the main vocal during the Pre-Chorus. I’ve added a lo-fi effect with some added distortion, filtering and using a tape delay with a short repeat. I’ll start pulling in a few more vocal fx to get the vocals to really sit in the mix with everything. Some of these effects are slap delays, plate reverbs and ping-pong delays.
At this stage, I’ve hit the 4-5 hour mark on the mix and it’s time for me to take a break on the song. I find any longer working on one particular song and you can lose focus on the bigger picture and your perception of frequencies and levels can become very skewed. I’ll make a bounce and put it on my phone for me to listen to in the car, iPod headphones and other random speakers. I’ll have a fresh listen to the song tomorrow and do another hour or two before sending it off to the band for the first round of revisions.
Today I head to the brand new studio ‘The Kiln’ in St Peters to record singer-songwriter Courtney Heaton. This is owned by Richard Lake who is also the owner of A Sharp Recording in Riverwood. I’ve known Richard for a while and I’m very excited to do a session in the new studio. There is a lot of great gear at the studio and I’m able to set up very quickly. I do a quick shoot-out between the Neumann u87, a Shure SM7B, and the Manley Reference Microphone. I go with the Manley as it suits Courtney’s voice better than the others.
I found I was having to reach for an EQ with the u87 and the SM7B to clean up some low mid’s, and add some top end to the SM7b. The Manley sounded crisp, clear and modern. We are only doing a 5-hour session today so I don’t have too much time to any more tests and I jump right into cutting the vocals. I get her to run through each section 5 times and then we have a quick break, while I do a comp of the vocals. I try to move as quickly through the songs as I can so we can lay the foundations for the final vocal. Once I have a comp, and i’ve done a little editing, we have a listen to the songs and pick out areas that could be better and take notes for other ideas. I also try to apply some light tuning during the recording process as we are recording ‘Pop’ music. My favourite plugin for this is UAD’s Real-Time Auto-Tune. I do this for a few reasons. The obvious reasons are speeding up the recording process and also being able to use great performances that are slightly off. The main reason is I find having a ‘polished’ take for the artist to listen to and to sing along with helps achieve a better performance. There is something about listening and performing to a take instead of imagining how it sounds that always gets a better final result.
We complete the main vocals for the two songs and have left the 3rd as it hasn’t struck any inspiration between the two of us. Courtney has passed on some notes musically for the two songs and has decided to take the 3rd song and try to re-work it before our session again on Saturday. I do a quick bounce for her to take home and listen to and pack up the studio before leaving.
I also spend some time listening to my mix of the Sun Heights song. It’s an important part of my mixing process to listen to my mixes on a few different sources and speaker environments to make sure the mix translates across all of them. My mixing set currently includes Yamaha NS-10’s and Audeze LCD-X Headphones, and i’ll test my mixes on iPod Headphones, laptop speakers, and bluetooth speaker. The monitors at ‘The Kiln’ are the Adam S5H monitors and it’s a great opportunity to listen to them in a great environment with something that I’ve worked on. I make some notes and head home to make some slight changes before sending off the first mix for revisions.
Today I’ll be going to see a new band at their home studio in Alexandria and start working with them to prepare some new songs for me to mix. The band has no name yet, but it comprises of 3 members from the rock band Interim. This project is not the same sound, but draws similar influences and they are taking on the task of self-producing. We met in December as they wanted my advice for songs and wanted to see if I would be interested in working with them. After listening to the songs and going over the sessions I advised them that I thought the best way I could help them was to produce the songs sonically and help them transition from self-produced recordings in their home studio to high-quality recordings that are ready for me to mix. Seeing as they are able to continually record at the home studio, it seemed ineffective for me to get involved in that aspect, and more productive for me to take on a producer role and give them feedback to help mold the sounds they were going for and to produce them at a higher standard.
As we go over the 4 songs, one of the areas that I worked on was the relationship between the kick and the bass. The group has an electronic sound for the drums and this is one of the key aspects to get right in production. For electronic productions, the key elements are the kick and bass, and the vocals. On a song we worked on I highlighted that the kick and the bass were occupying the same frequency spectrum. It was causing issues as there was a lot of energy going into one particular area and the two elements were fighting each other. We worked on choosing a different kick sound to work better with the bass sound they already had. We chose a kick sample which less low end and had more mid-range punch. This allowed the bass sub to fill out the song, with the kick drum pushing the rhythm and energy of the song.
We also have a brief chat about delivery and what I need the guys to work on before sending the files to me. The three biggest issues are file naming, splitting out the drums, and making sure all the edits are okay. As they have played the drums live with a midi controller, all the individual drums are on one instrument track. I mentioned that I would need each individual drum recorded onto its own track so I can have maximum control while mixing. We also had a chat about if I wanted them to remove any processing they had done during the writing process. My view is to provide both as an option, especially if it’s reverbs and delays. They haven’t been too heavy handed with processing, and I like having the option to use any extreme processing they have used.
I got some quick feedback from the guys in Sun Heights on Wednesday and they all loved it! They only had a couple of notes around the intro/bridge levels and bringing up some of the bass distortion. There are a few things upon fresh ears that I think could be better as well. Mainly around the vocals in the chorus. I’ve done some automation to the reverb of the group vocals and also automated the volume of the group vocals so that particular phrases are more emphasised than others. This kind of automation work can really bring a mix to life and adds a lot more emotion to the vocals during the chorus. I want the first line of the chorus vocal to jump out and bring that chorus ‘lift’ that the song needs. I’ve increased the bus volume of the group vocals and also automated the tail of the reverb to increase for the last couple of words of the group. Also, in reverse, I’ve made other sections of the group vocals slightly quieter to help create a larger dynamic range between phrases. This will also help with the repeat of the group vocal in the chorus still having the same impact as it did at the start of the chorus.
To get the bass distortion louder, I have to do a bit of work to the guitars in the midrange. I’m a bit cautious to go too heavy handed as a scooped guitar sound is not what I am after. I also don’t want the bass distortion to be occupying the upper 1-3khz range as that’s where the vocals, snare crack, kick click are sitting. Ideally, I want the bass distortion to be more of a rumble, rather than a clank sound. I apply a small Q dynamic eq to the 200-300hz and the 600-800hz area on each guitar track (Not the stereo guitar bus!) This will keep the guitars sounding as wide as possible if I treat them in dual mono. This will clean up some of mid-range in the rhythm guitars and allow the bass to fit.
Today I’m doing some editing of the vocal session I did with Courtney on Tuesday, before we go back to the studio tomorrow. As much as I like to edit and comp during the session, now I go in and make finer timing and tuning edits to get the vocal closer to finishing. I also make a pass with iZotope RX De Click to remove any unwanted mouth noises. This also gives me another chance to analyse the vocals to make sure we have everything perfect before mixing. I’ve made a few notes of where doubling, harmonies and extra vocals could work. I’m also looking at some of the musical notes Courtney made on Tuesday. We also changed the arrangement during the session, but as I was working with the stems, I have to go in and re-do the changes with the individual tracks.
This morning I start the second and final session for the 3 songs I am working on with Courtney Heaton. As its vocals again, I jump right in and set up the Manly mic before she arrives so we can jump right into the session. We’ve had time to sit on the current vocals and on a fresh listen we take some notes and aim to go over a few parts and change some melodies and harmonies. It’s also an opportunity with a final vocal to focus on any counter melodies and experiment with instruments.
It’s a 5 hour session and we wrap up in plenty of time. I start doing a rough mix while Courtney is there and we chat about the direction for each mix.
It’s been a big week, so that’s all I’m doing and it’s a nice day in Sydney, so I’m going to jump down to Coogee beach and get some sun!
Challenges and Accomplishments in Your Week:
I had my first session at the brand new ‘The Kiln’ studios in St Peters. The studios are set up very well, but it’s always a challenge to get familiar with a new space. After doing a vocal session with Courtney Heaton, we were both really happy with the outcome and I’m looking forward to taking more sessions there.
My accomplishment would be the single I mixed and mastered for Sun Heights. I am really happy with the end result (as is the band!) and I also listened to the mix on some great Adam S5H speakers in studio 1 of ‘The Kiln’. It translated very well and I was able to take a few notes for finish the mix back at my studio.
Highlights/Lowlights of the Week:
The lowlight for the week was having a session bumped to the following week. I was looking forward to heading into the studio again, but due to circumstances out of my control, it had to be pushed back to the following week. #freelancelife
My highlight for the week was listening to the new material for the ex-Interim trio that I will be mixing later in the month. It’s a new sound for the group and the 4-5 songs I heard are a collection of a year of writing and experimenting with different instruments and sounds.
Words of Wisdom for People Considering a Job in Your Field:
Any creative industry takes time for new people to get started. So don’t be disheartened if it takes a few years of hard work just to get a foot in the door. But once you do, it is a very satisfying career path. Take as many opportunities as you can, and connect with as many musicians and engineers as you can. It’s all about who you know!
There’s a way to satiate every hunger – head over to the archives for more of the industry inside scoop.