I recently spent a big chunk of my days working on a record by my friend Luther Russell. We decided it would benefit the record to mix at a different studio, Supernatural Sound. I've spent most of the last three and one half years cooped up in my own studio, Jackpot!, making records and hadn't ventured into other studios to work on stuff. I was worried — Would I figure out how to set all the compressors? Would the monitors mislead me? How does the automation work? Would I like the board's EQ? How do I program all the stupid digital reverbs?
When we got there, we had to learn the automation. This wasn't too bad but took getting used to. Then there were all of the new compressors, EQs and reverbs. What should I do? I'd developed ways of working at Jackpot! that were almost rote. I found myself in a new environment. I started pushing the sounds around with all these compressors and EQs and felt like I was battling the mix through to completion. Then it hit me — all I had to do was listen. We took more time to listen to Byrds CDs to get used to the speakers. I would put up a new song and start bringing up the faders before I inserted compression, EQ or added effects. When I had to set a compressor I would try not to look at my hands, the knob settings or the gain reduction meters. On the EQ I would turn the knobs around until sounds worked better. I tried to only listen to the differences in the sound.
We look at meters and lights — we look at where the faders and knobs are set — and from these things sometimes we assume a lot. I recently hooked up some older Quad-Eight mic pres at my studio. They don't have meters or peak lights and the controls are minimal. I set them by turning the dial until the sound is loud without distorting. That's all. Sometimes I've found distortion on a vocal track when I solo it later. The distortion created harmonics which helped push it through the mix. It is fine-stop worrying so much!
On the third day of mixing, we talked about how the mixes were going while on the way out to the studio. Luther and I expressed our concerns and fears. When we got there, we took out the automation and everything we'd patched in and started fresh. What was on the tape was good, and we trusted it and let it come through the board. I got more comfortable and the mixes started flying out onto the 1/2" tape. Sometimes they ended up only on DAT. We listened to both and decided both sounded fine — whatever it took to get the record done in the best way possible.
Then we spent a day back at Jackpot!, mixing some songs for the third time. Did jumping from a Trident console to an Allen and Heath Saber bum us out? No. For some songs it sounded better, which was a surprise. Maybe we had tailored the sounds to the board when we tracked through it. I don't know, but we just trusted our ears and I think it all worked out okay.