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Mixing and Mastering Advice with Dave Kutch and Chris Tabron

Dave: When I was a kid in high school, I always wanted my boom box, while I was walking to the neighborhood, to be louder than everybody else’s.

For me, every song is about kick, snare, vocal. It’s kick, snare, vocal. Like, that creates a groove in the storyline, and then everything else is candy around it.

Chris: Drums and vocals, that’s kind of, you know, that’s moving your ass and moving your heart, you’re good, right? So I think a lot of the equalization that I do tends to be on other things than the vocal to get them to work. Because no one is singing along to the snare, man. You know? So it’s about the vocal. So I kind of — that’s why I keep the vocal in there, and any equalization that I do is in an effort to be a bed for that vocal.

For me, I think referencing and understanding the audience is really important. If I can be in the room with the artist while I’m mixing, certainly while I’m producing, just watch how their body moves to their music. I think that’s really revelatory, because like, sometimes when they listen to the rough, does the song have this kind of groove? Or are they doing more one of these kind of things?

And then if they’re doing that, then I’m like, “Okay, the and of two and four are kind of what they’re — I got to make sure that — if I do a mix and they’re moving differently to it, I probably did a bad job. I want to keep that feel, because it’s embodied. It’s their music, whether the rough technically is whatever, they’re feeling the way they want to feel. We were saying this the other day. It’s about feel.

So that’s a thing that I’ve been doing for a long time too, especially if it’s a new artist I’d never worked with before, let’s just play the rough and just see how they move to it. See if they start singing along at a certain section, or kind of playing the — whatever it is, it’s a good indicator to where the blood is, where the passion is in those aspects of the song, and I’m like, “Okay, cool, three times in a row, they’ve played that fill in the air, like, I got to make sure that those toms really shine.”

To me, mixing is a collaborative process. I like to be as collaborative as possible. I want as many different opinions on the world as possible for this song. I think we all want to make music that impacts as many people as possible. You can’t do that alone.

So even if it’s the intern, and I’m just like, “What do you think of this song, man?” And he’s just like, “Um, I don’t know, I don’t remember how it goes.” That’s enough information for me. Or if he’s just like, “Great,” you know, whatever it is, it doesn’t have to be somebody that’s sort of licensed to give me their opinion.

Particularly with the artist, I like it being collaborative, and it’s not a thing where it’s like, I’m trying to get done if they’re happy with it. We’ve both got to be happy with it. I think I started out — I mean, the best way to say how I started out learning how to mix or even learning what mixing was, or constituted was, a lot of my early sessions being Hip Hop sessions, and I was the recordist, and the guy that was doing the food orders, and the guy that was also going to end up mixing it, and who knows if they were going to go to Hot 97 that night with my DAT, and I needed to make sure that it knocked.

But a Hip Hop session is also…

Dave: Rattling.

Chris: We’ll say it’s pretty populace. There’s many people in the studio.

Dave: And you’re going to get attention span for only a certain amount of time.

Chris: And there’s no soloing. There’s no, “Oh, let me just solo the snare and loop it while there’s a party and…” no, we’ve got to be on the bigs, it’s kind of a party. I’m sort of Djing while mixing, and everyone’s got to be feeling the vibe, and everyone’s got to be in a good mood, and it’s just like, if the producer’s girlfriend’s roommate is like, “What’s that weird sound?” It’s kind of — it’s part of the gig. But also, just being able to like, be fast and keep the vibe and the energy of the room. That’s the similar thing, even when I’m mixing by myself.

When I’m mixing alone, it’s like, “Am I liking this? Is it going in the right direction? Does it feel better now than it did seven minutes ago?” And I kind of similar to Dave sort of just check myself, and then it’s just like, yeah, if I’m getting to that smile phase, or I see the light at the end of the tunnel there, it’s just open up the starting session and start again. It’s going to be faster than trying to just sort of chip away at something that’s not working from that right approach.


Dave: Twice a year, I will always have my assistant just download or purchase three random new plugins. Just — as random as possible. They don’t have to be mentioning specific plugins, it could be anything. And let’s try them out. It could be a $600 plugin or a $69 plugin. You never know what’s going to give you a new color on your color palette that’s going to be very useful.

If I’ve got 15 plugins that I have that I like, and per song, I’m only going to use three or four, the one that is always at the bottom of the chain is Ozone. For whatever reason, the math is perfect on that for output gain staging, as well as if I want to add in colors. Whether I want to use the multiband compressor to capture — pull noise out, or you’re taking out an offensive snare, or if I want to do a little tonal balance. If I want to just, rather than grab a shelving EQ, let me just push the whole top up from 10kHz up, or then I can just slide it so easily, and then also I work tremendously in mid/side.

So if I want to just pull a vocal out, I’ll use the multiband compressor in mid/side, and just grab from 600 to either 2kHz or 5kHz and just push that whole thing. I have no compression going on at all, and just boost up that mid-range in the center.

Chris: I tend to use the Neutron stuff in the production phase, because it’s quick, not very DSP heavy, and I can sort of slam something on there. Very often, I end up using RX. RX has saved me many many times, and I think actually, an example that I told you, an artist, amazing vocal performance, he was really into it, and he went like this with his hand, and he hit the music stand, and it just had this huge ring, and then like, the creepy thing was that I knew immediately, I’m like, “I’m going to RX that, we’re good.”

And I opened it up, and I looked at it, and it looked — again, I feel like I shouldn’t have this much power, but I could see it clear as day, and I just did kind of a little lasso thing around it, and it was gone and it was perfect.

Also great for writing is Nectar, because it’s just vocal sounds. It’s like, immediate kind of vibe, and it’s all in one, and yeah, those are the ones that come immediately to mind that you know, you open up any of my sessions from the last six months, that smattering of things is probably all over it.

Dave: I’m going to go back to a story I tell all of the time. It’s my biggest piece of advice that I give all of the time, and I learned it when I was 19 years old assisting Phil Ramone on a recording session, and at that particular session, the tracking engineer, who I was assisting, we were cutting vocals, and he got preoccupied with the levels on the tape machine. The meter levels on the console. The meter levels on the dbx. He was constantly looking at all of the gear, looking at all of the levels, and he was constantly changing things, and he was holding up the session, and at some point, Phil goes, “What are you doing?”

He’s like, “Well this isn’t right, and that’s not reacting right, and that’s not reacting right.” He goes, “How does it sound?” And the guy goes, “It sounds pretty good.” “Then fucking press record!”

And you can edit that out or I’ll give you another cut. “Then press record!” That moment, again, it’s 25, a little bit more than 25 years later, that moment just always sticks out in my head, and when I get requests from clients or artists, or I’m sorry, new engineers, they send me a screen, and they say, “What levels do you want? Do you do it at blah blah blah LUFS minus 4, 7,” and I’m like…

“Well where are you going to put it at?” I go, “I don’t know. I don’t know where I’m going to leave it at, because there are some songs that will start breaking up and distorting at a lower level, and there are songs you can just push into infinity and it just holds together and it stays yummy.

Chris: Best compliment I’ve ever gotten on a mix of mine is, when the song’s done playing is, “Man, that’s a great song.”

Because I don’t think you should hear a great mix. Just as when I was young and listening to Stevie Wonder, or Sam Cook, or my mom’s salsa records, I didn’t know what mixing was, I just heard the song, you know? So I just think a lot of my approach to mixing is getting the song out of its own way and finding the magic and keeping that magic there. It’s not about me, I’m sort of a steward to get the song to be the best version of itself, right?

Dave: I call that the, “A-ha moment.” Any time I have a new assistant engineer, they ask me, “How do you know when you’re done with the song?” And I go, “It’s the A-ha moment.” And they go, “What do you mean?”

I said, “If I turn around and everybody on the couch is dancing and moving, or if I’m just working by myself, and all of a sudden I hit a point where I’m moving, it’s done. Just stop.” Because that’s always the goal.




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