Mix Bus: The Country Road To A Great Mix

Lately I’ve been concentrating my songwriting efforts in the country area, and, like any smart producer, I reference my mixes off great-sounding major releases. My CD of choice for country has been the latest release from Rodney Atkins, If You’re Going Through Hell [Curb].

Why this album? Well, country albums are usually the combination of stellar producers, state-of-the-art studios, and Nashville’s A-list session players. I recently had the honor of chatting with producer Ted Hewitt and engineer Billy Decker, and they shared some insights about mixing Atkins’ recent big hit.

I heard Rodney did a lot of recording at his home studio.

Hewitt: This freaks out a lot of the engineers in town, but Rodney did all the lead vocals at his house with a Digidesign Mbox. He had a great mic—a Manley Gold—which has a lot of high mids. That mic really works for his voice.

Decker: He used the actual Mbox preamps with no compression. I usually use four compressors on his vocals, along with a de-esser and an EQ. I use a lot of compressors, but I just use a little bit of each one. One will catch the peaks, one will bring up the bottom, one will emphasize the voice, and one will really make the vocal pop to the front.

The CD has quite a bit of subtle layers and textures.

Hewitt: I try to make sure nothing is competing with Rodney’s vocal in the midrange frequencies, so we tend to put a lot of things up high. On “If You’re Going Through Hell,” the Ullian bagpipes, the fiddle, and the B3 are all up above where the vocal is. The layering really comes about from keeping things out of Rodney’s way.

I know a few engineers who have trouble getting the vocal up front and the snare right behind it. Are there any tricks you do to get them both sitting well in the mix?

Hewitt: One of the things we constantly battle with is getting something we think sounds great, and then hearing how different radio stations treat the mix.

Decker: On the last couple of mixes, we thought we were losing the snare on the radio. So I actually called about three radio stations, and asked the techs what they were doing as far as processing. As a result, we readjusted our radio mix for “Cleaning this Gun,” coming up with a real obnoxious snare crack between 1kHz and 2kHz—as opposed to our usual boost between 5kHz and 6kHz—and we took the bass down about 2dB from the album mix. We also boosted the vocal by 2dB.

Hewitt: The main thing we agonize over is the level of the lead vocal. Rodney likes the vocals really loud, and, sometimes, I’m like, “Wow, that’s too loud!” But he is the artist, so he has to be happy with it. Also, I’m really big on not being timid if you have a cool guitar lick. A lot of engineers go to a default move where you can hear the lick, but it’s tucked into the background. But I say, “If you’ve got something great, turn it up!”

Do you go with the view that you should monitor at low levels to make sure everything is balanced?

Decker: I don’t monitor real quiet. I monitor at a medium volume, and then I crank it up so I can feel the low end. I have a set of 18-inch Quested subs hooked up to Mackie 824 monitors. I’m a firm Mackie user. I’ve had everything in here, and I always go back to these Mackies. I also wired in a cruddy boom box, so we could easily reference that “lowest-common denominator” playback system. If it sounds good on the boom box, then we’re probably okay.

How do you approach EQ?

Decker: There’s an old saying I adhere to: “Find the pain, reduce the gain.” So I jam the EQ at 24dB, find where a frequency sounds the nastiest, and then I cut it back. I cut way more than I boost. In fact, hardly boost at all—it’s all cut. The main EQ plug-in I use is the Metric Halo Channel Strip. I pretty much use a lot of presets, and kind of change them from there. Everything I do is 100 percent in the box. No outboard gear, no summing—nothing like that.

What about compression?

Decker: I don’t use stereo-bus compressors. I just compress the individual channels.

Do you think about the mastering phase when you’re mixing?

Hewitt: The main thing I do is try to get Billy to leave us some headroom! Billy will mix things really hot sometimes, and if you give the mastering guy a mix that’s too loud, there’s not much he can do except compress the stereo mix and make it sound smaller.

Do you tend to agonize over the individual elements of the mix?

Decker: I mix really fast. Most of my mixes are finished in between two and three-and-a-half hours. To be able to do this, I use a lot of templates in Pro Tools. Instead of spending two hours EQing a kick drum, I can do it in 30 seconds, because I’ve set up templates for the album that outline all the basic parameters for each instrument. Then, I can focus on fine-tuning and bringing levels up and down—working on the entire mix, rather than focusing on individual adjustments. It’s a good way to work. It’s real fast, efficient, and, most importantly, it’s fun.