In The Mix
Studio wiz Russ Long reveals his secrets to maximize your mix
All the instruments and vocals have been recorded, and now it’s time to turn those tracks into a finished record: You’re ready for the mixing process. But you know the mix can make or break even the best recordings. How do you ensure you’re crafting the perfect mix?
Mixing is as much art as science, and the pros rely on hard-earned experience to transform great tracks into award-winning mixes. Russ Long, a Nashville-based engineer, producer, composer and author, has been a go-to mix guru for decades. His studio credits range from Wilco and Lincoln Brewster to Jim Brickman and Dolly Parton, and many more. “A successful mix is one that I’m pleased with and proud of,” he says, “one that’s artistically satisfying for me, the artist and the producer—and something the label can have success with.”
What does a good mix achieve?
A good mix communicates the passion of a song. It communicates the emotion the songwriter or performer has captured in a performance. The mix is the final step in communicating that to an audience. At the very least, it’s documenting the source material and often enhancing it. Sometimes it’s tricky—you can create a mix that makes an artist and a producer happy and is an artistic statement, but perhaps the label can’t achieve commercial success with it. As a mixer, I have to address both of those elements and create something that’s artistically fulfilling yet still commercially viable.
What’s your approach?
If it’s something I wasn’t involved with from the beginning, first I’ll listen to a rough mix of the song to familiarize myself with what the artist and the producer have been listening to. That usually captures the basic direction of the song. As I jump in and start working on a mix, I spend a lot of time listening to the vocals and where they’re sitting in the mix. I’ve found that if I don’t address vocals early, I’ll end up mixing guitars or other instruments so they’re competing with the vocals. The vocal is the primary element of the mix. It’s what communicates the whole idea of the song, so I want to ensure nothing gets in the way of that. Then I’ll start working with the drums and build the rhythm section. A lot of times, I’ll pull the vocals back out at that point and then add them back in at the end.
What if you’re involved from the start?
It’s totally different, because I will already have a good feel for what’s happening. If I’ve tracked the entire project, the mixes are already 75 percent of the way there before final mixing starts. I’ve already done rough mixes and I’ve started figuring out which effects and plug-ins to use. We’ll have already been discussing the song and adding overdubs, and that “big picture” is already there. It’s just a matter of finessing the mix, putting some details in at the end, and maybe adding some effects.
How do you know when to stop?
I generally do a song a day, and I stop when it feels done and ready to put on the radio. I’ll send a mix off to the artist, and they may want to live with it for a few days before making comments. Then we’ll usually come back and tweak things a bit. It’s usually a few minor things: “I wish I’d mixed the guitar in the bridge a little hotter” or “That harmony vocal is a little bit too loud in the outro,” or something like that. I might do two or three rounds of small tweaks like that.
Pitfalls to avoid?
It’s really important to make sure you don’t rush things. There’s nothing wrong with taking a break and coming back to a song the next day. You can get ear fatigue or just lose perspective from working too long. You may chase your tail for two hours on something that, if you just give it a break and come back to it the next day, you’ll figure it out in five minutes. Also, make sure you listen at different volume levels. Many try to make their mixes too loud using compression. It’s easy to do, and sometimes people will try to make something loud enough to compete with a finished CD. I might make a reference mix that’s louder but tell the client, “Hey, I mixed this louder, but when we send it off to be mastered, I’m going to back off the compression.” This gives the mastering engineer a better opportunity to make it great, if the mix isn’t squashed to death before it gets to that stage.
Is the listening environment important?
Referencing your mix in a familiar environment is important. If you have a boombox you listen to all the time, it’s good to listen to a mix on that. Even though it’s not the best reference system, it is something you’re familiar with. I also think it’s a good idea to listen to mixes on computer speakers, because these days many listen to music that way.
How has technology impacted mixing?
It’s changed things completely. It offers you the ability to go from one project to another without spending any time at all recalling settings. I still incorporate plenty of analog outboard gear into my mixes, but the time spent dealing with settings between songs or projects is minimal. Fifteen years ago, I couldn’t change any settings before I got the OK on the mix from the band or the producer. Now I can send a mix off to the band and dive into a different song or even a different project without worrying about settings.
Gear you’d recommend?
In the studio, I like to use a Euphonix control surface with the computer. It’s become a great option for somebody who is using Pro Tools or Nuendo or other recording software. It has a really good layout—the faders and the scroll wheel feel amazing. Also, PreSonus makes affordable gear that feels like it should cost a lot more than it does. For live work, the Yamaha TF Series digital mixers are amazing. They have an “intelligent” EQ that lets you tell the console what type of mic you’re using and what you’re using it for—say, vocals—then it lets you shape the EQ the way a high-end professional would. It doesn’t sound like it would work, but it does. It really lets you get extremely high-quality sounds in a matter of a few seconds.
How does your approach extend to live mixing?
In many ways, it’s a completely different thing, because in the studio, you’re in a completely controlled environment. Live, you have no ability to control the space you’re in. But the end result you’re trying to attain in both situations is the same—creating a fantastic mix that’s going to connect emotionally with listeners. To me, the excitement of a live show is unequaled.