An Evening With Mike Shipley

If you want to hear what Mike Shipley’s been doing lately, just turn on the closest radio or change the channel to MTV. A 30-year-plus music industry veteran, Shipley has been behind the board applying his mixing wizardry to some of the most widely regarded pop, rock, and country albums of our time. From his early years working at the famed Wessex studios in London, to his career-boosting stint with Joni Mitchell in the mid-’80s, this Melbourne native has spent recent years working with the likes of Aerosmith, AC/DC, Faith Hill, and Maroon 5. As the go-to man for everyone from Michael Beinhorn to Mutt Lange, Shipley has become a truly invaluable mainstay in the recording industry.We decided to catch up with Shipley and wax in-depth about subjects from outboard compressor applications to those pesky modern mastering engineers that like to choke the life out of your mixes, and everything in-between. So sit back, relax, throw a bag of popcorn in the microwave, put the children t

EQ: I understand that you’re doing a good portion of your work these days in your home studio. What’s the facility like?

Mike Shipley: It’s fantastic. We turned the whole house into a studio and, since it’s my studio, if I want to spend a bit of extra time on a mix, I don’t have to go to the studio manager and beg for hours. To me, it’s much more relaxed than being in a big studio. I’m working on an ICON — bypassing the whole SSL deal. About a year and a half ago I got sick of how big the projects were getting; it was maddening jumping from one side of a 100-channel console to another. We were doing lots of A-B mixing on a SSL 9000 J and an ICON, comparing the two. If you read some of the forums on the Net there’s so much discussion about the pros and cons of recording either digital or analog, and a lot of that discussion is focused on the ICON, but I’ve found my own way to work. I really enjoy it and it seems to be okay with my clients. For example, we recently did a mix here, the Nickelback song “Photograph,” which was a big hit for them. Everyone was happy with the results.

People call the ICON a big mouse, but to me it’s an amazing piece of equipment. I’m 110% convinced that I can do a better mix on this system than I can going into a big studio and wasting a lot of time and money.

EQ: As your studio is based around the ICON, what’s your Pro Tools system like?

MS: I’m a beta tester for a lot of stuff, so fortunately we get a lot of plug-ins early. We basically just have an HD system with six or seven XL cards, and the ICON with 32 faders.

EQ: Did it take a long time to get used to the ICON, switching banks for example?

MS: Not at all. It’s so easy to do things on the ICON that you can’t actually do in Pro Tools, like make custom faders so that you can rearrange the board however you want internally. What they’ve done for the automation is quite phenomenal; they’ve really made it feel like it should.

Mixing on the ICON, I use a new incredible plug-in that works brilliantly with Pro Tools called Source Connect. It’s kind of like an ISDN line, but not. I can be listening at my studio in L.A. while someone is working in Nashville or the Holiday Inn in the Bahamas, anywhere with a Pro Tools rig, and everything can be heard in real time. I like to stay at home where I know I can get my sound; however with ISDN you have to work with a studio that has ISDN lines, and it gets very expensive. But with this plug I can send what I’m doing anywhere there’s some version of Pro Tools, even to an A&R guy with an Mbox in his office, and he can say, “That’s great, but can you make the kick sound a little different?” and we can solve the issues in real time.

EQ: Tell me about your running outboard. I hear you use a lot of vintage outboard compressors to compensate for the “cleanliness” of a rather digital-based rig. . . .

MS: The outboard gear is pretty much just compressors, as I’m not a huge fan of “in-the-box” compressors in Pro Tools. I have two Gates Sta-Levels, which I love, an RCA BA6A, a Crane Song STC-8, a couple of Empirical Labs Distressors and a FATSO, a Federal, a Euphonix, and a pair of dbx 160s. I like the fullness of the vintage compressors, especially for drum tracks, and the Sta-Levels in particular are great for treating bass, or even vocals.

EQ: When you are compressing bass, are you always relying on that Sta-Level?

MS: I always go for the Sta-Level; I love what it does for the bass, it’s a magic box — it keeps the track beautifully solid with a tight bottom end. So many compressors will choke a bass out, but the Sta-Level doesn’t do that. I find that if the player’s pickup is sub-standard, one note will “out-boom” another, and though I’ll first try to fix it with a dynamic EQ, it rarely works. So I’ll just automate the track, dig in and find the frequency, and smooth the bass out. I can’t stand it when bass notes pop out real loud, and it’s not always about compression, the problem often times lies in the bass itself. But as far as compression goes, I’m using the Sta-Level for the color — holding the bass “straight,” and keeping it dynamically solid.

EQ: What bass tracks are generally provided to you? A DI, an amp, or a combination of both?

MS: At least a DI and an amp. There are usually a lot of phase issues with the tracks. You’ll get a session where the bass sounds hollow, and you’ll put both tracks up and mess with the phase to make the sound right, but generally I use both tracks in the end. If the chorus comes in and the bass needs a bit more grit, I might whack up the amp sound, but it depends on the sound they are going for, and which tracks sound best. Yesterday, the amp sounded right, the day before it was an equal combination of both, but it really comes down to “what’s going to get the fattest sound?”

EQ: On to guitars. Are there any personal standards, in terms of approach, by which you abide?

MS: Nothing is standard — I’ll tend to try them through any number of my outboard components before settling, as the only tactic for guitars is to carve out a space for them, EQ-wise, and make them sit well in the mix. I’ll put the fader up and figure out why the guitar is masking another instrument and then isolate the problematic frequency and pull it out, because if everything gets bunched in the middle you get a very un-defined, two-dimensional mix.

EQ: Especially in your case, where you work with so many different types of music, this is probably a tough conversation in the making but . . . generally speaking, how do you approach drum tracks in the mixing stage? How many tracks do you prefer to have them on to play with? Is less more, or vice-versa?

MS: It really is different depending on the occasion, though, these days, it seems it’s more than less. A project I’m working on now was engineered by Michael Beinhorn, and he’s quite unconventional in the way he tracks drums. In this case, it was almost all room mics — six matched pairs of ambient mics and very little close miking, distorted to analog tape on 2" eight-track and a DSD system, to really get that classic ’70s sound. It’s one of those things that you just need to rip the faders up and get total sound, and that was really refreshing to me.

EQ: I can relate to that feeling. I’ve spent the last two weeks on a Latin Jazz project, and it’s been a very different experience than recording most rock bands. What was, at first, a stressful nightmare got real cool the second I pushed the faders up and said, “Well, that’s it!”

MS: Sometimes you push the faders up and go [gulp] “Okay, here we go, we’re going to have to dig deep into this one to get the energy and depth of field that it needs.” Sometimes you’ll have to go for the blend — drop some samples in to complement what’s been captured with the ambient mics, and just mix it until it sounds natural.

EQ: As you are working in Pro Tools, do you spend a lot of time working on phase and time alignment in the box?

MS: I always check the phase of what’s recorded, and then flip the phase until it feels right. In most of the tracks that I get, I’ll find something that needs to be flipped or else the ambiance is out. I’ll put up the kick and snare and check all of the elements and the phase, because nine times out of ten there is a phasing issue in there somewhere.

EQ: I’m wondering about the recall in your studio — I take it most of your outboard gear is plugged into Digi interfaces, so you can have a true recall of even your analog gear without patching?

MS: I print all of the processed tracks back into Pro Tools. We always print whatever we’re using so that we can use a true recall.

EQ: I see . . . so you must be using hundreds of tracks, or have hundreds of tracks in your session anyway, even if they’re on or off?

MS: Even if they’re off.

EQ: How do you approach a mix? What are your first steps?

MS: I’ll start by building the rhythm section, putting up the faders to see what individual tracks sound like so that I know what’s ahead of me. Quite often what’s on the rough mix is very different than what’s on tape, and once I have a feel for what’s on the tape as opposed to the rough mix, I will have made my mind up as to where I want to go with it. I’ll start with the drums, but I’ll only spend a certain amount of time with that before I pull up the rest of the rhythm section to ensure that the drums are being mixed in a way that’s relevant to the other instruments.

EQ: When does automation come into play?

MS: Very early on, almost instantly, as there are almost instantly flaws — frequencies that need equalizing out right away so that I can build with the right feel. I’m getting sounds and automating simultaneously, from the get-go.

EQ: What format are you mixing down to?

MS: If I need to, I get a two-track [analog] machine, but for the most part I mix 96kHz into a separate Pro Tools rig using Crane Song converters, such as the HEDD.

We do summing outside of Pro Tools with a line mixer; I’ve got different mic pres at the end of the chain. If the signal is passive, it needs to be bumped up to around 40dB, so I have a choice of a Crane Song Flamingo or a pair of Calrec EQs. Of all the records I worked on in England in the early days, the Calrec consoles are by far my favorite. They have a really fat sound to them, a way of changing the color again. Because depending on the source material, or what the sound is, [that] has almost as much to do with what mic pre you use, or how much you push it. . . .

EQ: Do you apply compression pre-mastering, when you’re mixing down?

MS: I’ll use the STC-8s. A lot of people smack the crap out of the stereo bus, but the way I was brought up we never compressed the two-track mix — we compressed individual channels and rode [levels]. I know with all the stuff I worked on with Mutt Lange, for example, if we reached for the compressor at that stage it would change the bottom end too much. So why bother? There are enough people down the line that are going to do that anyways!

EQ: I think the standard for “smashing” during mastering is getting a little better. . . .

MS: I hope so. It’s not much fun these days to get a record back that you’ve mixed. . . .

EQ: A mix where you’ve built in all of these beautiful dynamics, and then they’re gone.

MS: Okay, maybe they need to put some peak limiting on the mix — that makes sense to me in certain situations, but I can only put it down to the fact that so many clients want their music so damn loud, they are saying “more level, more level” so the engineers are just used to smashing instead of talking them down. I don’t care if it’s a dB overall volume less, I’ll just turn the volume up in my car like everyone else does. It’s not a competition.