Experience the Mixing Process at Manifold Recording

Last year, John Heitzenrater and the band Hindugrass came to Manifold Recording to track their new album.  John used crowd-funding to help defray the costs of the tracking session, and to use his home studio to edit and mix the resulting tracks.  The theory was that by going “all in” on the quality of the recorded material, he would wouldn’t need all the firepower of a high-end studio to produce a good result.  But as good as the tracks were, he began to realize that his artistic vision for the album was way more complicated than just selecting the right takes, putting the faders at zero, and letting the songs mix themselves.  He began to inquire about mixing dates toward the end of the year, and we agreed to do a joint project.  We would mix the album, but he would let us produce video of the process.  We are proud to present the first fruits of that collaboration:

To elaborate on the description text for the above video, the mixing schedule called for dedicating one day of mixing per song, but we spent two days on Sandhya Prakash because it was the first song we mixed.  As is explained early on in the video, the Sarod is the centerpiece of the ensemble and its acoustic signature will have as much influence on the final result as would the choice of whether to paint with oils, watercolor, pastels, or light itself.  Moreover, the choices made for the Sarod influence how it will sit and fit together with the Tabla, the Kenjira, the Udu, the Cajone, the guitars (acoustic and electric), and the string ensemble.  Similarly, the Tabla, the Kenjira, and the Udu have to all groove together, especially when the Sarod takes a rest.  And the guitars need to relate both to the Sarod (especially when played jugalbandi), as well as the percussion and also the strings.  And the strings themselves must also speak well–not only as individual instruments but also in ensemble.  Each of these choices–how the instrument represents itself, how it relates one-to-one with other instruments, how it fits inside its ensemble, how the ensembles relate–have to be evaluated both with respect to the signature of the band and with respect to the nature of the song.  If that sounds like a lot of choices, itis!  And it’s not nearly half, because each instrument was recorded with multiple microphones, capturing various facets of the instrument as well as the room in which they were recorded.  So there really is no fixed starting point for any of the instruments: it is all multidimensional and highly combinatoric.

Prior to the tracking session, John’s role was as the composer.  When he was tracking, he was the artist.  In these mixing sessions, he plays the role of producer.  And what becomes evident very quickly is that when the producer and engineer work together, they can divide the work very efficiently.  The producer can focus on the “what”–the goal of what the work should actually sound like, while the engineer focuses on the “how”.  Most of us believe we are inherently good at multitasking, but science teaches us (1) that we much, much worse than we think we are, and (2) not very good at all.  Apollo Robbins, an ethical pickpocket, reinforces this point brilliantly in his TED Talk.  (Don’t be distracted by his TED talk!  Follow the thread…)  When the producer can remain focused on they “what”, they spend a lot less time being distracted by the many alternative that a room full of “hows” can present.  And when the engineer can remain focused on the “how”, they automatically protect the integrity of the “what”.

The video of the first day covers explores the sonic palette of the tracks, starting with percussion (Tabla, Kanjira, Udu), dialing in the sound of the Sarod, and then some work on Guitars (acoustic and electric, as captured and re-amped).  It condenses 6 hours of session time down to 26 minutes, and provides an opportunity to see how myriad possible choices are filtered until the best choices remain.  Along the way one can observe how various microphone techniques come into play when dialing in an instrument’s sound, the application of EQ, filtering, phase relationships, delay, dynamics (including compression, expansion, and transient shaping), and reverb each have their effects on the final fit. On the second day, John and Ian began the process of putting together that final mix–a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.  This video condenses 5 hours of session time down to a little less than an hour:

In this video you can see how some of the initial assumptions needed to be adjusted, rethought, scrapped, or just tweaked as John and Ian run through increasingly complete versions of the new Hindugrass song Sandhya Prakash.  See how EQ, compression, reverb work to glue things together later in the process, as well as the importance of fader moves.  See also how the careful ear of the engineer is constantly listening for problems–and fixing them–so that the mix always moves in the right direction.

The result: an exciting, exotic sound befitting an exciting, exotic composition.

To facilitate evaluation of the audio and an understanding of the decisions made in the control room, the principal audio of this recording is coming straight from the console–no volume knobs are being applied and it is not compressed.  It is best, therefore, to listen to this in a controlled listening environment.  Enjoy!

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