An Evening With Chris Lord-Alge - EMusician

An Evening With Chris Lord-Alge

Chris Lord-Alge, you say? Gazing at his discography is akin to reading a telephone book — one that would have only the numbers of some of the most important, genre-defining artists and albums of the past few decades. We could rattle off his credits, from Green Day to B.B. King, Eric Clapton to Bad Religion, and The Black Eyed Peas to H.I.M., for the rest of this article. And while we could give just the laundry list of doings, maybe drop a gear sheet or three on you, we figured it a much better use of our resources to catch up with him, pick his brain, and run off with a proverbial boatload of cool tips ranging from throwing huge drum tracks around to breaking into the business the right way. He was only too happy to oblige us, so read on as the man himself gives you an exclusive EQ tutorial on mixing for the masses.
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EQ: So, when starting a mix, how do you initially approach a project?

Chris Lord-Alge: The most important thing is laying out your console properly. It doesn’t matter if you do a lot of mixing, or if you’re just some guy trying to get a quick mix of what you’ve been working on, it’s all about how you lay your stuff out, level-wise, to get optimum control. It’s all about organization: Setting up clear areas on the console that are all guitars, drums, or vocals — looking at the arrangement of the song and organizing accordingly. I know that, for all the drums, I have to comp down to have it on 16 or 20 faders. For guitars, I go through the song; put all of the guitars up and see which way they’re going to work in terms of panning and, if there are 16 or 20 of them, I have to really decide which way I can comp them down.

EQ: You’re mixing everything, an incredibly diverse array of stuff. How ready are the files when you get them?

CLA: I have two assistants, Keith Armstrong and Dim-e. They get the files on whatever format — DVD-R, hard drive, CD, or even a hard drive that’s in 17 different pieces! That usually comes in a box with a power cord with a case that’s falling apart. About half the time there are files missing, or the session file won’t open, even when we’ve sent out a letter to make sure all the files are good. That’s why we like to get them as soon as possible. Face it, if you’re picking Mario Andretti to drive your race car, you let him see the car way in advance — let him test drive it, let him make sure that he has everything he needs in that car before you send him out to race, or you will lose. . . .

My guys have a template — whether it’s screaming punk, rock, hip hop, R&B, or country — our guys know where to park the audio on my Sony PCM-3348 digital 48-track. Before I even start the mix, they prep the files. They know what I like. They go in and clean it up as best as possible, prepare the drums the way I like them, then go through the vocals and erase all the crud. The audio maid comes in and gets out her duster. Sometimes it takes her an hour; sometimes it takes her six. They prep it, transfer to the 48, we make a comp master, and I mix from that. No matter how large the file is, we get it comped down to 46 tracks.

We always have the rough mix in sync for reference. My guys know how I’m going to want the tracks to be comped — I train them very well, and give them plenty of leeway on making comps that work. If it’s over 100 tracks, then I will end up getting involved in the comping process. Sgt. Peppers may have been done on a couple of four-track machines, but there’s no one trying to make a record in that fashion anymore. If we have to do a little comping, it’s probably going to help the big picture. Manageability of the mix is way more important than spreading it out over some 112-input console. It all goes through the same funnel — and the smaller the funnel, the punchier the sound. The less you have to worry about reaching and grabbing, the more you can worry about important things like the record’s overall vibe. Because that’s all that really matters.

EQ: How long does it take you to mix the average song?

CLA: I usually do one or two a day. That doesn’t take into account the time my guys spend doing the prep work.

EQ: Where are you doing most of your work?

CLA: We just built a new studio in Burbank called Resonate Music. It has a completely open architecture. Very modern — it’s a big, giant, open space. The control rooms are like pods inside an open landscape. Real clean lines, lots of windows, and lots of light. You can actually tell what time of day it is. We’re here usually during the days only. We’re not really night guys. Generally, when you’re doing a couple of mixes a day, or even one, you’re rolling out like a banker. You hear how our origination skills work? All of the guesswork has been taken out by that point. The only hitch is when a band guy comes in wanting to take a little time, to get used to everything, to get the vibe.

EQ: I was up until 4:30AM with a band last night working on a mix. I know, at that point, there’s no way that they could have had any kind of a positive input. By then, it’s so late. Everyone is so burnt out. . . .

CLA: If the stuff comes in prepared, and you have the rough mix for direction, then you eliminate all of the questions. Here’s your big problem, and why you were there until 4:30AM: If they are ready to mix, then they are ready. All of their arrangement questions need to be answered, to be addressed, prior to the mixing.

If not, what’s the point? You’re not hiring me to arrange your song. That kills my creativity. You’re hiring me to put my spin on it. I don’t want to have to put my spin on it while you’re still deciding what parts I should spin.

EQ: So how do you get that out of the way before. . . ?

CLA: That’s one of the rules. If you are not ready to mix, I am not ready either.

EQ: You ever had an instance come up where you had to do some arranging?

CLA: Very minor things will come up from time to time, “Mute that one part, or mute this part,” or I will get a song that is in total disarray, arrangement-wise, and I will just put my fist to it and make the arrangement work. There are times that my clients go, “you just pick what you think works.” It’s not as if I’m going to discard half of what they put on there, but I’m going to weed it out, make it grow — to make it do what it’s supposed to do. It’s all for them [the client] to win. They always win. You’re not going to want me to come to bat unless you really have it together. If you don’t — you’re wasting the spark. The spark happens when it’s ready. It’s on the console and it’s like, “here we go.” Then, we should only be worrying about fixing the audio quality in the mix. That’s the only thing to fix in the mix.

EQ: So let’s dig a little deeper and talk about drum tones. Are you triggering a lot of the drums?

CLA: We’ve been known to have some snare and kick drum “helpers” to bring it all together. It’s all about character.

EQ: When you say “helper,” do you mean that you’re having the real and triggered tracks playing at the same time, and using the trigger as an addition to the original sound?

CLA: Yeah. Give me the original drums, and then let me help the snare drum. If you’re replacing the snare drum completely then it’s a drum machine, or it’s a BFD [Fxpansion’s drum sound software module]. They’re fine if the song is the kind to use a BFD sound. They kind of sound like live drums because they have the leakage and everything, but it doesn’t take long to figure out that they’re not. If it’s BFD, let us know so that we can think along the BFD lines not only with EQing but also with prepping. The BFD thing has like zero character — it’s so hard to make them feel right. It’s fake. I don’t care how you sample it. It’s the same deal with plug-ins: Certain gear cannot be recreated well by a plug-in. It may look like it, it may have a big old meter on it, it may move around the same way, but it’s generally not going to have the character.

EQ: I work on an old Neve 8108. That’s what I’ve learned to appreciate about it. All the inconsistencies give it character.

CLA: Yeah, it’s not about kHz and bits — it’s about distortion, bending and rounding, and character and . . . tinted windows.

EQ: So what types of gear are you using to get your drum tones?

CLA: As far as gear goes, I’ve got the old [Universal Audio] 1176s, 1178s, and I’ve got a whole rack of Neve limiters. I’ve got two to four of them since the 2252s. The drums are getting a lot of Neve action and Pultec for the EQing. It’s tubes and Class A Neve limiters, then Neve EQs, then even adding some plug-ins. A lot of stuff comes in a little too dark, so we used plug-ins for the EQ department — just to get the tracks a little brighter on the way in.

EQ: How do you get the drum tones to sound so “wide”?

CLA: It’s all about the balance. I’m not pummeling the tracks with compression. Use the compression for character, not pummeling. Like guys that pummel with Distressors on the tracks, I’ll turn them back. Don’t do that to me! Make your nuked room tracks and then leave them on the side — give me the un-nuked room tracks so maybe I can do my own thing with my $8,000 limiter. I think the biggest problem that I run into with drums is that tracking engineers get heavy-handed. They build it in, it’s too late to make changes, and it’s not good. I would rather have 16 extra tracks where you didn’t mangle it so I can maybe use your mangling with my mangling and make it all work together. I came across an instance where there was only one drum room track and it was nuked, when the chorus hits it drops in level, and I have one mono drum room that you nuked. What do you want me to do with that? Thanks! Where’s the original? Oh, we consolidated it?

Occasionally I’ll run the snare drum through the half-inch machine and back, then just slide it in Pro Tools and fix it. We use that to take the front end off. We do experiment with that a lot.

EQ: When you’re mixing overheads, how much are you riding the faders?

CLA: Well, you know, you’re going to have to do it. You can’t get away with it; you’re going to have to ride the faders. If the drummer doesn’t balance well, or you’re missing cymbals . . . you have to do something.

EQ: So are you using compression on the overheads?

CLA: It all depends. If it’s already come to me mangled, I have no choice but to use the console [SSL compressors] a little bit. If it’s completely un-mangled, I might use the 1178s and then use the line trims to adjust how much spank I’m getting. If the cymbals start going away too easy, then I’ll just back it off. It’s all about how much character I need and how much control I’m going to lose. Once you start compressing the overheads too much, you loose the crashes — they just fold right in. It’s tricky, and it does vary widely from album to album.

EQ: What are your favorite compressors and tricks for the bass tracks?

CLA: The [Universal Audio] 1176. I have various years of them, and some are more aggressive than others. The biggest problem with bass is the amp, phase, or delay. It’s all about the phase and delay issues. If I can’t get the amp phase to feel right with the DI, and if the DI sounds really good, the amps are gone. I’ll bring the DI up on two faders for level.

EQ: What do you mean two faders for level?

CLA: Well . . . just bring it up on two faders. Why push the fader through the roof? Put it on two channels. The guy who trained me, Steve Jerome, he’d print the kick on channel one and two, and the bass on 23 and 24, and then he made me listen to the difference. The two faders just sounded better. It’s just two parking spots. If you have an open fader on the console, put the bass on two channels and the faders at 0, not +5. The fader sounds better at 0 than +5. The problem with the bass phase is that some guys get it, and some guys don’t. Sometimes I can’t get the phase right between the amp and the DI tracks, or the sub and the SansAmp tracks. I think they should just put a sync pop at the beginning. When you’re recording the bass, make sure you record the guy plugging in. You know, that snappy sound or transient? When you line it up, it will be perfect. Makes too much sense, doesn’t it? All you gotta do is plug the cable in.

EQ: Kind of like old movie clapboard. . . .

CLA: Well they did that for a reason. It’s right there in your file: Just move the audio file, or whatever it is, and then check it out. You might like it, or it might suck, but it gives you a shot.

EQ: Back to time alignment. How much time do you, or your guys, spend getting the drums in time and phased correctly?

CLA: I don’t have them touch that at all. Let me deal with that. I’ll hit mono and start phasing myself out. I’ll have a phase festival. It’s just force of habit from years and years of doing this. You know what it is? You just put the whole drum kit in mono and start listening, flip the kick and snare out of phase on the console and say, “OK, does the snare have more bottom now? Does the kick feel louder? Did the toms vanish all of the sudden during a tom roll?” Another thing is: So you have the kick and snare in the room mics, right? Flip the phase. Did the room just get more kick or more snare? I’ll always lean toward the snare popping more. Sometimes it’s just the snare you have to flip out of phase. Then you have the snare top and snare bottom . . . well that’s obvious, that’s the real easy one to pick. Generally it just takes a phase button on a console. Time alignment only really comes into play with audience mics on live recordings. On the Woodstock show in ’94, the freaking crowd mics were like 800 milliseconds late! It was cool, but when I aligned them I could use the roar from the back and it wasn’t this big echo.

EQ: What about guitars? What’s your favorite gear and what problems do you run into the most?

CLA: [Universal Audio] LA-3s or some old tube inward connection limiters. They’re kind of like old Fairchilds. They have two knobs and one setting: stun. You just insert and go. They are tube limiters. I run into acoustic guitars having the fret slide louder than the guitar.

EQ: So do you still compress as normal, then automate? What do you do?

CLA: The sound of the guitar is more important than the artifacts coming from it. It just means you’ve got your hand on it, riding those tracks. Or sometimes we just have to get rid of some of the crud in Pro Tools. Also, with the amount of tracks that guys are using, there will be a guitar chord that just hangs over to the next section as the song changes and that’s really bad — you have to get rid of that overlapping. By getting rid of that, you just make it sound like it was one part. It’s intuitive musical knowledge. Just think about the song, and use the tools in front of you.

EQ: What dB range are you mixing at?

CLA: I don’t have an exact range, but it’s quiet enough that I can hear the fans in the hard drives. I use a boom box a lot of times, and that’s pretty quiet.

EQ: Do you use a stereo bus compressor on your two-bus?

CLA: I use a Focusrite Red 3. I’m not pounding it all — just breathing on it. It’s more for the color, and to compact it a little bit. When mastering engineers get mixes that are L1’d [“over-finalized” by the Waves L1], it’s a real drag. When a client leaves here with a mix CD, it’s exactly what came off the console — no bumping or tricking. It is a good device. Look, it’s an effect. I think guys who make CDs with that are tricking the client. You have to stand by your mix file. What you deliver should be a flat copy. Now you can normalize it, so that your peak is the roof (or zero.)

EQ: Are you mixing down to half-inch?

CLA: Yeah, we use half-inch. Ampex at +6 . . . and we’re hitting the needles usually one or two dB over zero, depending on the song. Then it all goes on the HD file at 96kHz, 24-bit. We have one Pro Tools rig just for the two-track. I want all my versions in sync with the master so that you can go between any of them and they are all in sync.

EQ: So do you A/B them?

CLA: You could do that, but the purpose is to have all of the versions and edits in sync. Here’s an example: You’re like, “ah crap, a clean version. I forgot that song has [a non radio-friendly word] in it, you gotta make a clean version.” Well, the instrumentals are in perfect sync — just flip it in, and flip it out. Everybody wins. Or here’s another example: Your favorite limiter made a crunchy noise at the beginning of the song. Well, since it was first pass, it had cleared its throat by the second pass. You can fix it — all of the different versions are in sync, so just use the intro from the vocal up version. You can’t guarantee that 100% of your files leave without a speck of crud on them, because of an old piece of gear. It’s tough enough getting the files in and out of here in perfect order.

The whole key is in documenting. I learned that from Bob Clearmountain — he documents everything perfectly. He came up with this great program called “Session Tools.” Our track sheets are typed, every CD is printed on, we have backups upon backups. It’s audio. It’s our lives. Sure, no one’s gonna die if a mix is lost, but it won’t if you’re into the discipline of organization. . . .

EQ: So . . . vocals. Do you have any standard gear or tricks that you use?

CLA: I have a couple old blue face 1176s, one in particular that’s all wired wrong inside. It’s perfect! The key to vocals is prepping the track before it hits that limiter. We pre-EQ it. We will cut up the audio files sometimes to levelize it. We’ll use a couple of plug-ins. We’ll always experiment with vocals ’cause, hell, even transferring to analog doesn’t work sometimes.

EQ: How much are you compressing and automating the vocals?

CLA: Oh, we’re hitting them with a baseball bat like three or four times over. I’m not using the compression to save myself from having to ride the fader; I’m trying to put some character into it. I want it to sound like it was recorded on a 16 track, with a Fairchild, hitting the tape nice and hard, adding all of that color and character into it — making that in your face sound. We’re trying to pull together a rack mount 2" machine that we just XLR in and out and to use as an effect. The half-inch doesn’t emulate a 24-track vocal sound, and that’s what I’m after . . . like a 30 or 15 ips Dolby vocal track sound. The half-inch is too clean; it distorts before it bends. Well, what’s the tape width of a 24-track? It’s like a 12th of an inch per track with the gap. There’s not much room there. You just can’t emulate that.

EQ: You’re immensely successful in this field. How do you recommend that people break out of the hobbyist stage and into the big business?

CLA: There’s only one way to get in the business, I believe. Find the nearest recording studio that has somebody cool in it, and beg, beg, beg to make the guy behind the board coffee. Beg to clean the toilet, beg to work there. Be a fly on the wall, be in the room with the guys who make hits like Bob Clearmountain, or Tom Lord-Alge. Be in the room with Andy Wallace. Do whatever you can do to get in the room. Take note of everything they do, and find a way that you can do it for yourself. And do it better. Learn the techniques of the vanishing art of recording from the guys that really know how to do it.

When you are starting out you are in the prime time to absorb, to discipline yourself. If you’re a slob, it’s not going to work for you. Be ready to work 15 or 16 hours a day. Make friends, and do it all for nothing. Get up off your ass and put down the bong; get your hands out of your pants and head to the studio. I was 12 years old when my mom took me to the studio and I wanted to be there every single day. That’s the love for it. All the stuff you need to learn, you really need to learn while you’re young. Listen to the music — don’t just look at it. Nobody cares what the impedance is; all they care about is when you can walk into the room, set up a mic, turn the knobs, hit record, and make everybody go “wow.”