Self Examination – Michael James as the Artist:
My new album, titled Marchesano to honor my family name, was very personal in that I endeavored to make my guitar sing as if it were a human voice having conversations with one’s closest friend or most trusted confidante.
All eleven songs are instrumentals and every tune has an improvised solo, but they are not jazz. They might be described as rock songs with blues or jazz-inspired solos.
Jim Aschow, president of Mesa/Boogie, planted the seed and firmly encouraged me to record the album, so I decided to feature various Mesa amplifiers to ensure a win-win with respect to cross promotion.
My self-imposed rules were: 1) the songs must come straight from the heart; 2) the improvised solos must be soulful; 3) my guitar tones would “sing” without relying on effects such as reverb and delay; 4) the arrangements would be raw and organic, with minimal layering; and 5) there would be no gratuitous pyrotechnics or shredding.
I love the album because it sounds and feels like I made it for myself instead of someone else. People seem to like it. Robben Ford gave me a terrific meaningful quote, saying that it’s inspired and he can feel the soul in it, which makes all the difference to him. He totally got it, so I was thrilled when he said I could quote him in the marketing materials.
Even though I make my living mixing other artists’ records, I actually decided against mixing my album because, after I played my guitar parts, I felt that artistically I said everything that I wanted to say. I really wanted somebody else to mix the album, but everybody said my rough mixes sounded like masters.
Fortunately my two co-producers — David Kahne and Urban Olsson — had enough perspective to know that I was the one who should mix. I knew all the parts and I didn’t overplay. It’s very difficult to mix your own recordings because you have only your perspective and nobody else’s fresh ideas. I also had Rob Chiarelli and Matt Forger, two of the best mixers in the business, on my team. They were both ready to jump in and do some mixes, but at the end of the day, they contributed by making comments.
The biggest challenge for me was finding the time to record — and then mix — the songs. We mix engineers tend to be booked weeks or months in advance, and we are generally reluctant to pass on a good job in favor of non-paying labor of love. I averaged a day per song to record, and another day to mix. That’s three weeks net, over the course of three years.
The second biggest challenge was mixing the tunes because I felt that I needed to give them the same attention that I give to other artists’ creations. A big part of that is the fresh perspective I bring. By definition, it’s nearly impossible to have perspective when you’re immersed in your own artistic vortex.
So You Want To Be A Better Mixer: If you want to improve your mixing skills, learn as many techniques as you can, and then resist the urge to use them unless there’s a good reason to do so.
Always listen carefully to make sure that your manipulation of the song is actually improving the listening experience rather than hurting it. A great example of this is present on a couple other Kalimba tunes, “Nada Puede Herirte” and “No Volveré”–entire sections of the vocal are 100% dry, without any time based effects, to create an “up close and personal” intimate vibe that blooms into lush ambience during the choruses.
Kalimba was nervous because he felt naked without reverb. Rather than fight him, I added reverb, and then he said, “Take it off! I feel the emotion more without it.” Everybody know that you’re supposed to add effects, right? Well, it ain’t necessarily so. Let the music lead you down the right unique path for each unique song!
Q: Why do I share my techniques rather than keep them closely guarded secrets?
A: Because I want to listen to great-sounding records. Many new records sound strident — they hurt my ears when I turn them up loud. By sharing what I’ve learned, all boats might float higher with the rising tide.
Plus, teaching is a great way to learn and to meet new people. The more I serve others, the more abundant and fulfilling my life is. It’s a recurring and proven pattern in my life.
To this end, my blog is a great place to pick up some techniques and, more importantly, learn about what a producer/mixer’s daily life really looks like. There’s no posturing–it’s all real stuff.
For now, here are a few general, but powerful, mix tips:
1) Create hardware and software templates to be efficient with your time and energy. Focus on making music, not on patching cables.
2) EQ as little as possible. Do it with purpose, and hear the final sound in your head before you twist any knobs.
3) Start with balances, not EQs!
4) Tell the story to the listener by directing their attention to focus on the right things at the right times.
5) Don’t make the track so big that there is no room for the vocals.
– Michael James, Producer/Mixer at michaeljamesproducer.com
But wait, there’s more! Next month, Michael James will return to SonicScoop with a complete breakdown of his rig, hardware and software. See what he’s using, and why – all of which should give you a few ideas of your own.