Once I had everything recorded and touched-up, I was ready to take it into the studio to have a professional mix and master the songs. Incidentally, that first clause is deceptively difficult: finishing recording and touching-up. The advantage of recording at home, that you can record at any time you want, is also a curse. How do you know when you’re done? I fell into this trap after I rerecorded the vocals. I started listening to the new vocals and hearing imperfections or things I could improve upon. I realized that I could prolong this process indefinitely, especially because this album is important to me; I want it to be perfect. At some point, though, I have to let go and let the form that it has taken be its final form. When I was in the studio, there were things I heard where my first impulse was to try to get another take. It took everything I had in me to let it go and trust that what I had at that moment possessed quality enough.
On Tuesday, in the mid-afternoon, I walked into a bar and grill, and found the stairs leading to the basement where Studio 4 was located. I found myself in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike, that housed the various rooms of the studio. I’d be in the mixing studio for what I needed to do, so I made my way through the various soundproof double doors to where Phil was waiting for me. The room was filled with gold records from various artists such as Boyz 2 Men, Amy Grant, and Cyprus Hill. Right above the station we would be working at was a certificate stating that the album River of Dreams by Billy Joel was nominated for album of the year in 1993 and that Phil Nicolo was Associate Producer.
As impressive as this was, the real excitement was in the equipment the room housed. There was a massive mixing board, complete with faders, knobs, and buttons; 3 racks filled with preamps, compressors, and reverb processors; a board of plugs with patch cables running from channel to channel; and a reel-to-reel tape machine with 1/2 inch tape threaded on the spools. Phil had a Mac set up with Protools where we’d be working with the files I created, and we quickly got down to business plugging my hard drive into his computer and bringing the files up.
For each song we mixed, we had a similar process. First Phil opened the file and assigned each of the tracks I had recorded to a channel on the mixing board. Then, starting with the percussion, he started to bring up each track into the mix, making sure it sounded good on its own before bringing in the next sound and balancing it with the first. The board was right across from the computer, so he rolled his chair back and forth between the two of them adjusting the sound first in Protools, then on the board. I’m trying not to make this too much of an exercise in creative writing, but his fingers really did fly across the board, making miniscule adjustments to the tone quality, adding in a touch of reverb or equalization along the way. It was really impressive to see a professional in action.
Once the percussion was in place, he moved to the rhythm instruments, the backbone of the song. Often this was accordion, but sometimes it was a toy piano or an electronic instrument. When that was sounding good, he went back and balanced it with the percussion. Each track was added in one by one. Once all the instrumental parts were in, he added the vocals in, first lead vocals, then background. The whole process took about 10 minutes or so to get all the parts into the board.
At this point when we were mixing the first song, he invited me to play with the faders and knobs over on the board at any point. My knowledge of audio amplification is limited, so it was a scary thought at first, but as the day went on, I became more comfortable making adjustments. For example, in the first track we mixed, Ladies, he had a heavier reverb than I wanted, so he showed me the knobs to adjust and then I started tweaking it until I got the right level of intimacy and warmth (with the reverb, the reverb, not with Phil!).
There was also a great moment when he stopped concentrating on the sound qualities of the individual tracks and started listening to the lyrics to Ladies. At that point, he turned to me, smiled, and said, “Oh, I like it already.”
After all the parts were in, he made a few other minor adjustments to the track such as panning tracks to the left or right channel, and then moved to the automation portion. This was not something I expected, as I hadn’t seen it done in other mixing sessions I had. Phil is not just a recording engineer, but a live sound technician. If you ever watch the people who sit at the mixing boards at big concerts, they’re constantly moving faders and making adjustments to react to the live performance. When automating, he played the song from the beginning and adjusted the faders and settings in real time. His adjustments were recorded on the board and built into the track so they would always play back that way. This gives a sense of human response to the song; an evolving and responsive touch. It was amazing to see.
Once this was done, we listened once or twice more to the track to make sure it was where I wanted it to be, and then we made a finished version of the track. Actually, we made two. The first was sent through a digital processor, while the second was sent through an analog processor (the reel-to-reel tape machine). This was another thing I hadn’t expected. Phil explained that he liked to output it to each of them, and then we could decide which I wanted to use. The digital was a crisp and clean rendering of my song, while the analog was a little warmer and a little fuzzier. Phil said that sometimes the analog version gives a song a more cohesive quality than the digital, and that we could decide after they were all finished. Truthfully, I could only hear the slightest shade of difference between them. I haven’t decided which to use yet, so when it’s done, try and guess which I used!
On Tuesday, we finished the mixing on 8 of the 14 tracks. I’m going back this afternoon to finish up the remaining six and have him master the tracks. Since I don’t really know what that entails yet, I’ll save that for the exciting Part Three!