Michael James is music. It’s at the center of absolutely everything he does.
The LA-based mix engineer has been riding high all year, thanks to a double #1 hit via his mix of the song “Estrellas Rotas” from the brilliant recording artist Kalimba’s latest record, Cena Para Desayunar (Sony Music). The record topped both the Monitor Latino’s “Plays” and “Audience Reach” charts for seven consecutive weeks in 2015.
It’s one small part of a distinguished mix discography which includes New Radicals, Hole, Far, L7, Robben Ford, Edwin McCain, Maia Sharp, A.J. Croce, Chicago, Jawbreaker, and Mario Guerrero, and many, many more.
As you’ll see in this “Making the Mix Room,” James holds nothing back. Not in his devoted striving for excellence as he works, or in how he shares his knowledge with other mixers.
And also with other artists. James is an accomplished guitarist, who has just released his new album Marchesano. So did he mix it himself, or not? Discover his complex decision below.
Along the way, you’ll learn the true importance of clean power in your rig; how his novel multi-buss submixing technique works; what it is about modern mixing that makes his ears hurt; and the one activity he depends on most of all to stay sharp.
And absolutely indispensable: his 5 can’t-miss mix tips.
There’s a lot below, and you should read every word of it. So let’s get started, shall we?
Mixer Name: Michael James
Location: Simi Valley, California
Mix Philosophy: My mission is always the same for every mix: ensure that the song emotionally resonates with listeners while preserving the artists’ integrity.
How do I do this? Simply remove the distractions that interfere with the message or feel of the song. This became easier to do when I stopped trying to impress my engineer friends, and instead focused on making listeners, myself included, feel a connection to the song.
Fans buy music and support artists because a piece of music can be the soundtrack to an important time in their lives. Music is an emotional purchase, not an intellectual one. Nobody cares if I deploy parallel compression to the drum subgroup or modulation to the lead guitar echo. People only care about whether or not they like the song.
From a philosophical point of view, I guess you could say that my philosophy boils down to removing the obstacles that prevent emotional resonance, and enhancing the special parts that make the story more interesting. I listen to the reference mix before having a conversation with the artist and/or producer, and I make mental or written notes about what I can do to make the record special. Everything I do in the mix room is driven by the trust that the artist places in me to make the song resonate with listeners. After the meeting of the minds, I have a clear vision of what needs to be accomplished, and I hear the finished mix in my head before ever touching a fader or turning a knob.
I have a large collection of badass boutique recording gear, and I know how to use it. From a technical perspective, you could say that I’m a minimalist because I only add devices to the signal path when I need to do so. If a part is recorded well and speaks as it should in the mix, I won’t do anything to it other than volume automation.
Having said that, I will do whatever it takes to achieve the sound I hear in my head. If that sound requires three limiters in series on the lead vocal, I’ll do it. It’s such a great feeling when the lead vocalist is blown away by the sound of his or her voice. So many great rock singers, even John Lennon, are or were very self-conscious about their voices. A great mix can inspire renewed confidence in the singer, which ultimately makes the band even better.
Clients/Credits: New Radicals, Hole, L7, Edwin McCain, Robben Ford, Maia Sharp, A.J. Croce, Chicago, Far, Jawbreaker, Mario Guerrero, Too Much Joy, Cathedrals, The Coronas, et al.
My mix of Kalimba’s “Estrellas Rotas” was the biggest pop radio hit of the summer in Mexico, tenaciously locked at #1 on Mexico’s Pop Radio charts for seven consecutive weeks.
Mix Room Hunters: After spending more than 10 years working primarily out of the wonderful (and highly recommended!) Westlake Audio studios in Hollywood, I found myself doing less production and more mixing. I already owned all of the gear that I needed, but I didn’t have my own space.
As I was approaching 40 years of age back in 2001, I became aware of how much time I was spending commuting. The most important considerations for me in finding a room were location, fresh air and natural light. I didn’t want to spend my precious time driving anymore.
While I was working on the East Coast, my wife found a suitable place in Simi Valley, so we bought it and never looked back. It’s small, but it’s very comfortable and has a cool vibe. I love spending my time here.
Sound/Design: My room is small, with lots of acoustic treatment. I have a bunch of Ready Acoustics and Pelonis bass traps, which I placed in the corners and at the points of first reflection on the side walls and ceiling.
The treatment is ad hoc, but the room sounds good, and there are no surprises at mastering. Beyond low cut filtering at 20 Hz, and sometimes notching a half dB at 180-200 Hz, the mastering engineers with whom I work don’t EQ or compress my mixes, so I guess the room is working out okay.
The gear, however, is anything but ad hoc. I carefully chose every piece in my collection. I tend to go for modern boutique equivalents rather than genuine vintage gear because I nurture close personal relationships with the designers. They can send me a replacement item if one of my pieces breaks. Plus I actually prefer the sound of the newer reissues and clones. They are consistent, and they probably sound like the vintage pieces actually sounded fifty years ago.
When I bought my place, I planned to purchase an SSL9072J and build out a larger control room to house it. I ultimately decided to buy an empty 72RU Sterling Modular Plan B mastering console, and fill it with some of my “sweet spot”, mission-critical outboard gear. It’s about as acoustically transparent as you can get. Short cable runs, low noise floor, modular setup, smaller air conditioning requirements, etc.
My workflow? It’s described pretty well on my website, so I’ll simply copy and paste it here:
What about your workflow?
Tech geek alert!
My mix room has been described as “modern hybrid,” where classic analog and state-of-the-art digital technologies coexist. The path to this began in 2001, when I planned to purchase an SSL 9000 console (despite being a Neve guy at heart). I ultimately chose a modular approach so I could mix and match various sonic “flavors” instead of being married to one predominant sound. My unique console utilizes three Dangerous 2-Busses and a Chandler Mini Rack Mixer for analog summing. This allows me to choose between pristine mastering quality tone and thick warm Neve-ish juiciness.
The console (technically a 72-space Sterling Modular Plan B mastering console plus 3 x 20-space producer racks in ATA flight cases) contains 24 channels of Tonelux EQs plus a few Dangerous Bax and Avalon 2055 EQs to give me 32 analog channel strips — the dynamics processing is handled by 32+ channels of limiters and compressors from Manley Labs, Dangerous Music, Avalon Design, Universal Audio, Tonelux and Empirical Labs.