My workflow

 

A Day To Remember – ‘Right Back At It Again’

reamping _ mixing _ mastering

Thomas Ramone @ St. Jospeh Studio

Should we really favor musical quality over technical perfection?

In my quest for heavy and powerful sound, the work of sound engineer Andy Wallace with ADTR on the album “Bad Vibration” has always been a gold standard. If I manage to produce a sound at least as good as the one on this album, I consider my work to be successful.

However that sound was not present at all on their previous album “Common Courtesy”. The group had composed excellent songs, and the performance of each musician on the recording was assured. But on the technical side they seem to have accumulated the wrong decisions, which ended up in the lack of impact and precision of the final sound.

So when I heard that the original tracks for one of the singles on this album were available, I took the opportunity to test my skills, as well as the promise to make your music sound as good as the music of any worldwide renowned band.

Here is the result of the remix of “Right Back At It Again”:

Spotting

Andrew Wade did the recording sessions and supplied all of the tracks to the mixer. So I get exactly the same 70 raw tracks produced by the band.

Among them, I count 10 drum tracks of which 3 tracks are the bass drum, the high tom and the low tom in midi files (so no sound inside). 8 other tracks of various effects and percussions: swells, drops, tambourine, whistle, explosion… I also find a DI bass track (which is not amplified), 4 DI rhythm guitar tracks, 4 DI tracks of lead guitars, a harp track 😳, and a massive group of 42 vocal tracks!

Raght Back At It Again LUNA session screenshot

Contrary to what I would have thought for punk rock music, the session clearly shows that a particular attention has been placed on vocal production!

The first step for me is to sort and organize all these tracks so that I can find my bearings and be responsive throughout the production. By the way I listen to each of the tracks to fully understand what I’m dealing with. Then I put together some groups of tracks with a similar purpose and sound to make the session more practical to handle.

 

Drum postproduction

As I mentioned earlier, 12 tracks were provided raw. No work has been done on it. So I’ll have to produce these tracks to make them ready to mix, starting with the bass drum.

In order to be able to work precisely, the drums were actually recorded without a bass drum. Instead, a simple pedal has been placed to transcribe the hits with their intensity into digital midi information. In turn, I will use his information to trigger a real bass drum sound.

To get a rich and powerful sound, I’m going to triple the midi of the bass drum and I will assign each one a different sound pickup: inside mic (Shure Beta 91A), outside (AKG D112) and sub (Yamaha SubKick) from the same bass drum (Yamaha Recording Custom 14×24″ birch with wood hoops). My goal here is to recreate the most realistic acoustic drum sound possible, while being consistent with the style of this music.

Right Back At It Again drum samples screenshots

I choose to use Kurt Ballou’s samples recorded with the Room Sound library.

Then for consistency the same sample bank is used for the high tom tracks (Tempus 10×10″ in fiberglass with triple flange hoops, Josephsen e22s mic) and low tom (Tempus 16×18″ in fiberglass with triple flanges hoops, Josephsen e22s mic).

Now that the drum acoustics are realistic and complete, for this particular style of music where the drums need to be intense and to come out of the mix, I will add 2 triggers to the kick drum and 2 others to the snare drum. These are sounds that I have developed and extended over time. On one hand that will give me a clean and constant attack throughout the song. And on the other hand that will give me a very exaggerated room atmosphere. This will make sure that I can sustain the presence and control the impact of the kick and the snare at any time.

In order to finish the drums postproduction, and after a quick level balance, I move on to phase control and alignment of each track. Since drums are a collection of instruments recorded with multiple microphones, each mic will pick up not only its own element, but also a bit of the others. This means that each element of the battery will be picked up by all the microphones which are themselves placed at a different distance from each other. This generates phase issues that can greatly decrease the impact of sound if left uncorrected.

Right Back At It Again auto-align trick

As a solution I use Sound Radix’s Auto-Align processing which avoids manual track realignment and allows precise and automatic phase adjustments that is usually very tricky to achieve by ear.

Reamping

As bass and guitars came in unamplified direct tracks, they are also not ready to be mixed. So I will have to reamp each of these 9 tracks. I start with electric guitars because for me it will be easier to define the bass sound to be complementary to the guitars.

As I have to start from scratch to define the tone of the guitars, I will be careful not to stray too far from the artistic choices made by the group overall. Then to have fullness in the final sound, I’m going to make sure that none of the tones are the same, while giving the sound perspective with some tracks more forward than others. Then I also keep in mind to limit myself on the amount of saturation in order to preserve the attack and the precision of the guitar playing.

So I set up my Little Labs Redeye 3D Phantom reamp box. It will be used to convert the signal in order to respect the original impedance of the guitars. Cumulated with Vovox Link Protect cables and Vovox Sonorus Protect patch cables, I will thus faithfully recreate the circuit of a guitar in an amp to capture all the harmonic richness and dynamics of the instrument.

With the first rhythm guitar track, I decided to go for a heavy sound with an ENGL Savage 120 amp and a Mesa Boogie Rectifier 4×12 cabinet with Vintage 30 speakers. I refocus the signal to put more emphasis on the mids with a Ibanez Tube Screamer TS808 placed upfront, and I end with a Pultec MEQ-5 equalizer to refine the work on the mids. This rhythm guitar sound is going to be the basis of all the decisions I make to define other guitars.

For the complementary rhythm guitar to this last one, I’ll go through a 1959 Marshall Plexi Super Lead amp with a 1960 BHW cabinet. I do the balance between 3 microphones in front of this cabinet: a Shure SM57 and a Sennheiser e609 nearby, then a Neumann U87 as ambience mic. After getting the most out of it, I place again a TS808 upfront to refocus the sound in the midrange and a Pultec to refine the sound.

For the other guitars, the Friedman Buxom Betty amplifier with Friedman Buxom Betty 1×12 open-back cabinet containing a G12M-65 Creamback speaker will be used on one hand. And on the other hand I use the Marshall Siver Jubilee 2555 amplifier with 2551AV cabinet by mixing the Neumann U67, U87 proximity microphones, and an SE Electronics RNR-1 ambient microphone.

Once the balance is worked out, it’s the bass’s turn. The recorded direct track is really clean. Too much ! I decide to pass it through an Ampeg SVT-VR amplifier and 2 cabinets: a 4×10 and a 1×15. Then, I rework the impact of the sub using a Little Labs Voice Of God. And finally, as with electric guitars, I improve the perception of midrange with a Pultec MEQ-5.

Superposition of the different amps used with their Pultec equalizer.

Premix

Before moving onto mixing process, I still have 3 preparation steps to do: importing my template, gain staging and balance.

I’m working on the Universal Audio software called LUNA. I see it as an instrument. It is deeply designed to be used creatively and to be interpreted. And to stay creative in the mixing phase, I need to be sure that my instrument is properly tuned so that I can get the most out of it. In my case this settings should be done for the input gain and output level of each track. And all the tracks then go into my template which is the general setup of my studio (buses assignment, treatments, effects, and general routing).

Raght Back At It Again LUNA session screenshot

I am very keen on using analog processes that have been successfully proven with modern digital techniques. LUNA does exactly that by integrating several models of consoles and tape machines within its system.

In this case each audio track will go through a different channel of the same Studer A800 multitrack tape machine. It will soften the transients and patina the sound. And each bus receives sound in a Neve Series 80 console with 1272 amp and outputs to an Ampex ATR-102 stereo tape machine of its own. So, just with the right volume settings controlled with the VU meter, I am able to control the saturation, which will already define and characterize the sound in terms of frequencies and dynamics even before mixing.

Finally I also have several effect buses already assigned on my template. Their settings will be fine-tuned according to the song, but their already ready assignment will allow me to save a lot of time afterwards by avoiding distracting myself on routing issues. This will allow me to send any track to any effect very quickly.

I always have on hand:

  • a distortion bus processed by a Neve 1290A preamp and a Thermionic Culture Vulture rack.
  • a chorus bus containing a Roland Dimension D rack.
  • 3 Lexicon 480L reverb buses with 3 different durations: short, medium and long.
  • 2 AMS RMX-16 Expended reverb buses with one inverted and one non-linear reverb.
  • 2 Soundtoys Echoboy delay buses including a short slap type delay, and a long one based on the session tempo.
  • finally, 2 Korg SDD-3000 doubler buses are preconfigured: one set for guitars, and the other for vocals.
Right Back At It Again_St. Joseph Studio FX rack

Superposition of the effects present by default on buses in my template.

The whole is routed on a general summing bus on which several processes are activated by default. I systematically find:

  • the 1272 line level amplification stage of the Neve 80 series console,
  • Vertigo VSM-3 harmonic treatment,
  • a Dangerous BAX EQ equalizer,
  • a Pultec MEQ-5 to control the mediums,
  • a Massenburg MDWEQ5 centered on the different low frequency ranges,
  • a Nugen Stereoizer for managing general stereo spatialization,
  • a Nugen Monofilter to concentrate all the low frequencies in the center and to compensate the phase by frequency range over the entire spectrum to ensure perfect mono compatibility,
  • and finally an SSL 4000G Bus Compressor, an Ampex ATR-102 2-channel tape machine and a Dangerous Convert-AD + with transformer emphasis to contain the whole mix and glue the sound.
Right Back At It Again_St. Joseph Studio summing rack

General summing bus processing rack.

The premix ends with a general balance through which I fine-tune the volume and the panning of each track. At this stage, I try to get the best possible balance with what I already have. This is what will condition the rest of the operations during mixing.

Mix

I always follow the same operating mode in the mixing phase. It is a system that allows me to achieve the best possible results consistently. At this stage I know exactly how each track sounds in detail, how the song sounds as a whole, and I know exactly which musical direction I want to follow.

I’ll start with very quick and instinctive track-by-track treatments. The basic tool that I use absolutely everywhere is the SSL 4000 E EQ 242 “black knobs” channel strip. I know it perfectly and I know exactly which knob to turn to get the result I want. By not looking for other tools, I save a lot of time, I stay efficient, focused on sound and creative.

Right Back At It Again_St. Joseph Studio SSL 4000 E snare up channel strip

SSL 4000 E channel strip with EQ 242 “black knobs” set for the top mic of the snare.

On the first settings I will pay attention to the dynamics, the frequencies and the spatialization in stereo and depth. I start by treating each of the 5 bass drum tracks in compression, gate, filters and EQ. I then set each volume fader to zero in LUNA to facilitate automation at the end of the mix. Then I compensate with the SSL fader to keep all the tone of the console. Then I assign 3 of my reverbs to the ambient trigger: the Lexicon 480L short, the AMS RMX-16 inverted and the AMS RMX-16 nonlinear. The same process is then repeated for all 4 snare tracks.

By the way, as you can see in the channel strip photo, for the kick drum and snare drum, I particularly like an 8 kHz “bell” boost to define the attack sounds.

Then I can adjust the saturation of the console, the tape machine and the compressor of the master bus. It’ll make all the mixing decisions easy. For the rest I decrease my listening volume in order to have a better general perception. And I go back and forth between my ProAc Studio SM100 and Avantone MixCube (mono) monitoring systems regularly to check the relevance of my actions with a different listening point. Then I go successively, but always quickly, on hi-hat, overhead, room, toms, guitars, bass and vocals tracks.

Right Back At It Again_St. Joseph Studio additional treatment

The only treatments I can possibly add are the Massenburg MDWEQ5 equalizers to clarify and take my work further when I reach the end of the possibilities of the SSL channel strip. Or very specific treatments like the Sonnox Oxford Supresser DS de-esser on the vocals, or in this specific case a Thermionic Culture Vulture distortion on the bass.

Then I fine-tune my master SSL bus compressor as well as the harmonic tuning of the console and master tape. One by one I go through the settings of all the other processing operations on the same bus.

At this point I’ve done 80% of the job, and the mix looks pretty much like it’ll be in its final version. The rest will be very meticulous detail. I’ll listen to how each track interacts with the others. Do some tracks need to be present and showcased? Or, on the contrary, is it better to integrate them and glue them more to the whole? In short, each track must find its place. So I will go over each processing done so far to precisely define the artistic orientation of all the components of sound: dynamics, frequency spectrum and spatialization.

This is the time when I also do the automations. I’ll usually spend an extra hour or two on this phase because for me, this is where the mix comes to life. It’s that 20% of the detailled work that’s going to make the song sound really professional. The automations will accompany every nuance, every intention, and they will accentuate every musical realization decision to increase the impact and character of the sound. This is where I take manual control of the faders and knobs, and record all my movements on each setting of each track throughout the song when needed.

Right Back At It Again_St. Joseph Studio final mixing stage with Convert AD+

As the mix is finalized out by the Dangerous Convert-AD+, I make sure there is no clipping on this device and take the time to fine-tune the transformer emphasis.

Finally I record my mix in real time in the session. The file produced will be used to check various listening environments the next day: car, telephone, headphones, hi-fi system, etc. It is only after these checks that I make any necessary corrections and move on to mastering.

For example, during this phase of checking in my car I found that the guitar solo did not stand out enough and that it lacked fullness compared to the original. So back in the studio, I pushed 1kHz and 3kHz frequencies further, and cranked up the reverb and delay just on that track. But by then the sound had become too shrill, and the excess reverb and delay had in fact “drowned” and moved the sound away. So I had to look for an alternative.

To increase the presence, I had the idea to double the track of the guitar solo and pitch it to the octave. By filtering it well properly, I ended up integrating it into the mix and making it barely noticeable. Just what was needed to make the solo come out better. And for the fullness I had the idea to dose the sound in the chorus effect of the Roland Dimension D, and add a slightly different delay on the left and right to double the sound very quickly. With stereo widening processing on this effects track, additional saturation, and well-positioned filters, I finally got the fullness I was looking for while controlling the sound in the mix.

 

Mastering

I never go into the mastering phase immediately after mixing. I need my ears to be fresh and get out of the extreme concentration developed previously. In general I let several days of rest pass, in the middle of which I take the opportunity to listen to other music.

Right Back At It Again_St. Joseph Studio mastering LUNA session

As with mixing, my mastering sessions are basically all organized the same way. The first track in blue is where I integrate the mixed song. It is on this track that the treatments will be inserted.

On all my mastering sessions I always find the following treatments:

  • a Manley Massive Passive for corrective precision equalization,
  • Shadow Hills Industries mastering compressor,
  • a Sonnox Oxford Inflator,
  • another equalizer to manipulate the timbre in a more global way with the Chandler Limited Curve Bender,
  • a Massenburg MDWEQ5, third equalizer solely focused on the correction of low frequencies,
  • a Nugen Monofilter for bass centering and phase correction by frequency band,
  • and a Nugen Stereoizer for stereo broadening by frequency band.

I also have a parallel bus available for extreme situations, but I didn’t use it here. The whole thing feed the summing bus on which I will finalize the sound dynamics thanks to the Brainworx bx_masterdesk and Sonnox Oxford Limiter processors.

Right Back At It Again_St. Joseph Studio mastering rack

Treatments carried out throughout the mastering chain.

Apart from the processing that I will deem necessary to do, I also do not hesitate at this stage to perform automations so that the music retains a certain dynamic. Regardless of what system it will be listened to, my goal for the sound is to produce movement through the speakers so that the listener is impacted. By the way, the red curve you could see above in the session screenshot is the automation of the Oxford Limiter’s emphasis boost throughout the song. This setting will directly contribute to the overall power of the sound.

The last two tracks are used only for listening control: either one or more reference tracks in the first track, or a particular listening calibration in the last track. For the latter, I use either high-pass and low-pass filters to focus on a particular part of the spectrum, or a controlled calibration with the Sonarworks Reference system. This allows me to have a different listening perspective and perspective from the mixing phase, while ensuring a faithful and complete reproduction of the sound spectrum.

In addition, in the studio I also have two visual references: an analog with the Crookwood VU Meter Panel, and a digital with the TC Electronic Clarity M Stereo. I make sure that these two measurement tools are responding correctly to what I hear. Because if it doesn’t, I can prevent hearing fatigue by taking a break and avoid any misinterpretation.

Finally, the last crucial phase of mastering, especially for this aggressive style of music, is to go clip the output transformer of my Dangerous Convert-AD+ converter. The goal here is to limit the signal in a more musical way. I find the result much more natural than pushing the previous processors (bx_masterdesk and Oxford Limiter) to their limits.

 

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