You want THE ULTIMATE MIX?
Something that’s going to make the young boys sob and the girls all weep? You want the unending adulation of the masses?
Well people in hell want ice water.
But for the rest of us there’s four-time Grammy-nominated mixing and producing icon Jack Joseph Puig and his continuing insistence that getting The Ultimate Mix isn’t about making the snare drum, guitar or bass sound stellar. Nooooo. Getting a great mix, he insists, is more about understanding the very fabric of what the song is about—what the person is trying to make you feel. And that’s centered on sonically communicating the content of the lyrics across the entire mix by making the vocal—the voice—sound “engaging, honest, real, believable and credible.”
No matter whether it’s a hair band, or if it’s ska, pop, punk, country or trance ambient, Puig insists that, “You really have to empower the song to make the vocals great.”
And having mixed award-winning and platinum-selling tracks for vocally intense artists like John Mayer, Green Day, The Goo Goo Dolls, No Doubt, 311, Rancid and others, Puig definitely knows how to finesse the mojo when it comes to mixing vocal tracks. You see when it comes to getting the ultimate vocal mix, Puig none-too-slowly cites four essential components: the way the voice is equalized, the way it’s compressed, how the perspective (reverbs and delays) is deployed, and how the overall balance of these sonic elements is achieved.
Believe it you better, grasshopper.
THE FOUR SISTERS: HANDMAIDENS OF HIT-MAKING WONDER
Once when Puig mixed a record for No Doubt, Gwen Stefani came to him and asked him how they could create a vocal sound she heard in her head. “I sat and I listened to her talk about it and I imagined how I would get it,” says Puig. “And it ended up being that I got it using a Joe Meek compressor I had, which has a function called ‘Enhance’ that creates this very, very hyper top end that — for the most part — is pretty useless, but lots of times can also be great. It’s almost an aphex built into a compressor.
“When she went through the description about the vocal sound, I thought, ‘Maybe if I take the Joe Meek and actually use it wrong and way enhance the track in a way that you’d never want to use, then add it in as a side chain to the voice, then maybe I’ll get this top end presence thing she hears in her head,’” he says. “So then I did it, and it was great. Since then, it’s lived on my console, and on my console it says, ‘The Gwen Sound.’”
Moreover, to put a finer point on it…
Equalization and Compression
The most important part of equalizing vocals, to Puig, is getting at the mid-range detail. “The mid-range is where the attitude and the soul is,” he says. “It’s not at 15K and it’s not at 20Hz. In that mid-range area, you’ll find the very core of a person’s voice. And when you EQ, you really want to go for finding the passion and the attitude in their voice — the mood — that’s what you want to get.”
Compression is also important and sometimes Puig, using two or three compressors on a track, blends the best of both worlds by combining one that’s really fast with one that’s really slow. “Compression is important for making sure that you get the nuances of what the voice is doing,” says Puig. “Sometimes there are little nuances that, if you get them up in the right perspective, you can feel what the person is emoting. You know, the feeling that you get when you’re standing right next to them? That’s what compression is supposed to do for you.”
Balance and Perspective
Another part of the mix puzzle, for Puig, is making sure that the track and the perspective are well met. “The perspective has to match the song,” he says. And then there’s the balance of all of these aspects — equalization, compression, perspective — that needs to bring together the mix.
“There’s balance between equalization, there’s balance between left or right perspective, or panning, and there’s balance between the perspective of the depth generally created by delays and reverbs and modulation,” explains Puig. “But balance is extremely complicated because you have to factor all of those different elements in when you’re thinking about the balance.
“So maybe you can have a mix where the snare drum is too bright and you’ll think the mix is really bright when in actual fact the mix is really dull,” he says. “But if you took the top end off of the snare drum, all of a sudden you’d realize that the other elements are not that bright. So that’s why you need to balance the frequencies and the levels.”
THE GEAR GRABBAG
Gear, gear everywhere and not a break to think. No prob. Puig’s studio at Ocean way is not only a cinematic collection of antiques and other collectibles, back-lit and positioned to emulate the movie-set like atmosphere of another world, but also conveniently offers an immense collection of both analog and digital gear…all slaved to their master’s dictates.
Different Trix for Different Tones
Regularly working with all kinds of equalizers and compressors from different manufacturers, from SSL to Neve, to Trident, to EMI, to API, to Helios, Puig says, “I like using them all because they all do certain things really great.”
Puig prefers using Neves for his lead vocal track mixes, while he uses Avalons for the background vocals. But when he gets a vocal track that’s soft, he’ll quickly turn to the SSL. “With the SSL, I can really go in and get that mid-range detail,” says Puig. “When vocals are too soft sometimes it’s tough to make them sound convincing. But with the SSL, I can make them convincing.”
Of all of his mixes, Puig is particularly proud of the sound that he got out of John Mayer’s voice on the “Daughters” track. “I love the Neve for recording vocals,” he says. “One of my practices is to have the Pro Tools track automatically feed straight through a 1073. From there, it goes to my console. That way, I can pick up the sound of the Neve initially, before it even gets to the console.
“On that track, I also used the LA3 combined with the Fairchild,” he adds. “The LA3 and the Fairchild’s ballistics together create that smooth vocal sound that John Mayer has on ‘Daughters.’ I’m really happy about how that came out because I can hear him — I can hear his heart and his soul.”
Pro Tools and Waves In The Mix
Puig also deploys several powerful software compressors and EQs within his mixes. “I really enjoy mixing with Pro Tools HD because of the amount of creative choices that exist — being able to change EQ at a given moment, frequency level, reverb, and so on, has allowed me to do many things I’ve always wanted to do effortlessly,” attests Puig. “I love Pro Tools automation, and I’m excited about seeing where they go with the digital consoles in the future.”
“I absolutely love analog equipment like everyone else on the planet,” he says. “But the digital compressors are amazing. I love the Renaissance package of EQs from Waves. And the Waves De-esser might be one of the best de-essers that I’ve ever used.”
Multiple Mix Monitors and Subwoofing It
When it comes to monitoring his mixes, Puig relies on several types of monitors. “I use NS-10s, some Genelecs and the mains here at Ocean Way,” he says. “Then I’ve got two different ghetto blasters, the car, some Tannoys in the other rooms, and a couple of JBLs that I like to listen through.
“A lot of people get fooled by the listening environment that they’re in,” says Puig. “They think they have X… but they truly have Z. You really need to put yourself in a listening environment that you can relate to. Not one that fits your style, but one that fits your ears. That’s important.”
Problems in a mixing environment can also result from excesses or deficits in room reflection, or in the power-level of the monitors you’re using for your mix. Further, massive-powered subwoofer systems can also distort your perception on what your final mixes will really sound like.
“To use too much of a subwoofer can be dangerous, because it can cause juicy stereo — a three-point perspective that really isn’t real,” says Puig. “And it can give you a false sense of how big your record is or what the bottom end is like. So a subwoofer should be used very carefully.”
ULTIMATE MIX TIP-MANIA
Puig essentials for getting the most out of your mix? Outside of two air-cooled Black & Deckers? Try the Big Three: finding your own mixing style, creating cool systems and figuring out what’s the best level to mix at. Got it? Not yet you don’t…
Learning to Mix
If you’re just getting into mixing or producing, Puig suggests that you pick out a couple of people that you like, listen to their work and then set out to emulate it. “As a kid growing up, you emulate your parents,” says Puig. “Then a therapist comes along and helps you undo the things that weren’t good and helps you see the things that were great. And I think that’s the kind of state you have to go through when you’re learning to mix. You have to listen to those records and go, ‘How did they do that?’ and ‘I’m going to try to copy that.’ And then gradually you start to do your own thing and you end up with your own style.”
Puig also suggests that you decide what area you want to work in — whether you’re going to be an artist, mixer, producer or engineer — and then go for it. “That’s very important,” he says. “And so is being honest with yourself about what you’re good at and what works for you.”
Creating Your Own System
Another thing Puig recommends for a better mixing environment is to create systems. “For me, my drums always start at 33 and will go all the way as high as 46, my voice always comes down 32, my bass always comes down 25 and 26, my guitars always come down 30 and 31, and my backing voices always come down 17 and 18.
“The reason why is that when you have a system like that, the technical part of your brain isn’t engaged, only the creative side is because your hands automatically go to those places,” explains Puig. “So you stay in that euphoric creative place, which also starts to become something instinctual. You know where you’re going and you’re listening, you’re moving and creating as opposed to stopping and going, ‘What channel is the bass on?’
“So the more you let go of the technical acrobatics, the more you can allow your brain to function creatively,” he adds. He also recommends creating similar systems for your reverb sends, delay sends and other effects returns.
Keeping It On the DL
When it comes to monitoring mixes, The Puig advises: listening at lower volume levels is a much better strategy than cranking it up. “I find it very useful to listen at a very low level for the very extreme sensitive balancing,” he says. “At a very low level you can hear pitch, time, feel and balance much better than you can at a very loud level — even at 96spl.
“The louder you turn it up, the more the other factors begin to become involved—the power amp, the speakers, the acoustics of the room—and all of a sudden there are all these things working that are not real,” says Puig. “If you don’t have it pumping and sounding great at a low level, you probably don’t have it.”