GRAMMY SoundTable Examines The Ingredients Of The Mix

October 26, 2009 -- 2:40 pm PDT

Mixers Chuck Ainlay, Chris Lord-Alge and Tony Maserati share their inside stories

A packed schedule of events, seminars and workshops captivated audiences at the 127th AES Convention in New York on Oct. 9–12, including the 21st annual GRAMMY SoundTable, MWA! — Mixing With Attitude on Oct. 10. The SoundTable brought noted mixers Chuck Ainlay (Sheryl Crow, Mark Knopfler, Lee Ann Womack), Chris Lord-Alge (Green Day, My Chemical Romance, Paramore) and Tony Maserati (Marc Anthony, Beyoncé, Keri Hilson featuring Akon) together to discuss their mixing approaches and philosophies, with esteemed producer/musician Nile Rodgers serving as moderator.

The conversation moved energetically from the mixers' technical preferences to workflow and creative ownership, and segued into a listening session with behind-the-scenes details provided by each mixer on selected tracks. Between Ainlay, Lord-Alge and Maserati, and with Rodgers' priceless insights, the session spanned musical genres, mixing styles and current technical and industry challenges.

Each participant revealed how he approaches a mix. "I like to think that I mix in the same way that a fan listens to music," Maserati said. "I listen to the rough mix, put the tracks up and start pulling things down, as I'm A/B-ing against the rough. Then, I'll grab elements that I think are the highlights of the song. And, it could be a part that's a total afterthought. The 'mistakes' or afterthoughts are so often the magic."

At the beginning of a project, Lord-Alge revealed that he asks himself, "What kinds of problems do I have to solve? And, how much time do I have?" Lord-Alge noted the most important thing, given his experience, is preserving a fresh perspective throughout: "I don't even want to know the song. I want to learn it when I print it because with music the biggest problem is the more you hear it, the more it solidifies in that form. So I put everything up at once and I start automating immediately. The real excitement happens just by going after it right away, and mixing it almost in one pass. It's totally artistic, like painting — it's a reckless abandonment."

To a large extent, the approach and mixing technique employed by these mixers is client- and time-driven. Often from his studio in the Berkshires in Massachusetts, Maserati works with clients from all over the world at all hours, allowing clients to participate in the mixing process remotely. "My clients are very involved through live streaming, and their comments help me find new directions on issues I might be having," said Maserati. "They're out there listening on headphones, which may not be the best way to work, but we're getting work done."

Meanwhile, Ainlay invites clients in regularly during mix sessions at his facility on Music Row in Nashville, and believes their presence helps get the job done. "One of the reasons I like working on an analog console is because you have to commit," he notes. "When you know the artist will be showing up, the mix always seems to come together in that last half-hour before they do."

When Rodgers posed the question, "Do you think you have a sound?" Lord-Alge answered, "Your first big record, your team effort with Bob Clearmountain on [Chic's] 'Good Times,' was a transitional record for me — it's where I first heard the difference between okay sound and great sound. That's really when I caught the [mixing] bug. I always use that as a benchmark. If I can sound like that, then I have a sound."

The group agreed that the effort spent trying to emulate the work of mixes they admire results in uniquely successful work of their own. "I think my sound comes from listening to Chris' and Chuck's and [Nile's] records and wanting my snare to sound as good," Maserati explained. "And I could work on it for days and months and it may never sound that good, but it would sound different. It would sound like me."

Ainlay also acknowledged the influences at work in his mixes. "Al Schmitt was my idol when I was coming up, and Clearmountain and you guys," he said to the group, "So all that stuff is in me."

Lee Ann Womack's "Solitary Thinkin'," mixed by Ainlay; Green Day's "East Jesus Nowhere," mixed by Lord-Alge; and Keri Hilson's "Change Me" featuring Akon, mixed by Maserati, showcased recent work by each mixer. Lord-Alge recounted his particularly punk-rock approach on "East Jesus Nowhere," perhaps the most attitude-exemplifying account of the day.

"After the success of American Idiot, [Green Day] really wanted to follow-up strong and were feeling a little nervous," Lord-Alge shared. "In two weeks of mixing, we'd gotten through like 13–14 of 20-plus songs and here it was, back on Monday morning, heading into the last week. I got there late and the band was coming in 45 minutes. I really wanted to knock one out of the park, totally blow them away, and 'East Jesus Nowhere' was one of [producer] Butch Vig's favorite songs.

"We already had a template up, and when I made my first move, I reached for eight knobs at a time and just Marshall stacked it all the way across. I pushed it really hard and automated it really quick. As they were coming into the control room, I didn't want to give away the surprise so I'm riding it with the volume turned all the way down. I couldn't even hear it. It was that excitement, kind of like when you track a band live and just print it, that kind of experience, and they loved it."