Producers and recording engineers get much praise for how a record sounds, but much of that credit should really go to mixing engineers, who transform raw performances into the polished final product.
Two mixing engineers in particular – the brothers Chris and Tom Lord-Alge — deserve much praise for crafting the sound of hundreds of influential and chart-topping records over the last quarter century. Between the two of them, they mix an average of 70 records a year (that’s more than one a week) for everyone from pop stars like Miley Cyrus, the Jonas Brother and Pink to perennial legends like Santana, Tina Turner and Steve Winwood to today’s biggest bands like Green Day the Dave Matthews Band and U2.
The Lord-Alge brothers have remained some of the music industry’s most sought-after mixers for so long because they’re more concerned about making great sounding, timeless records than keeping up or competing with current trends. “It’s all about the music, and it has always been about the music,” says Tom. “What we do as artists and mixers is try to be creative. We can’t be creative when the only thing we’re thinking about is technology.”
“The mix has to sound awesome,” adds Chris. “Not to pat ourselves on the back, but it’s just that something has to be at a very high level of quality for us to like it. If we like it, the artist or band we’re working with almost always likes it as well because we’re way fussier than they are. We favor wearing the mixing hat because we don’t have to worry about how a recording gets there. We just have to worry about where it’s going. We’re the last guys in the creative chain, and we’re the most important part of the process. We make sure that the music gets to the consumer the way it was intended to. We take the dreams of the artist and the producer, merge it into one, make them all completely at ease and deliver to them their finished product.”
Over their long and illustrious careers Chris and Tom Lord-Alge have grown accustomed to working with the best of the best – both artists and equipment. While the studios they work in may be equipped with high-end and vintage mixing consoles, compressors, EQs, preamps and microphones, they’ve been instrumental in making these sounds accessible and affordable to aspiring engineers, producers and mixers. For example, Chris has worked closely with Waves Audio to develop the CLA Classic Compressor plug-in software packages, which were modeled from favorite classic LA-2A, LA-3A and 1176LN compressors from his personal collection and feature a variety of his own custom presets.
In fact, Waves CLA Classic Compressor software is the first thing both Chris and Tom recommend for anyone who wants to soup up their recording and mixing setup. “I use them all the time, and not just because I’m his brother,” jokes Tom. “His presets are great starting points. They are truly great plug-ins.”
“I highly recommend spending your money on a variety of good plug-ins and virtual instruments,” says Chris. “Hopefully you should already have a good audio interface to start off with. Pro Tools is an industry standard, so I would recommend the Digi 003 with Pro Tools LE software. As far as recommended plug-ins go, the Waves API Collection bundle and their LI Ultramaximizer are just a few of my go-to, everyday necessities.”
The legendary SSL 4000 console, introduced in the 1980s, is the one piece of hardware that Chris and Tom say they cannot live without. “The SSL 4000 remains the biggest tool in our arsenal today,” says Tom. “It has a very specific sound. It was the first console to have compression and dynamics built into every channel. I couldn’t do one mix without my SSL.”
While most home studio engineers don’t have the space or budget for a real SSL 4000, they can enjoy the same sounds and sonic advantages with the Waves SSL 4000 Collection bundle, which includes the SSL G-Equalizer, SSL G-Master Buss Compressor and the SSL G-Channel and E-Channel channel strip plug-ins. As an added bonus, each plug-in includes a wide variety of Chris Lord-Alge’s own presets, which he consistently uses when mixing records. His drum presets can add new life and added punch to otherwise dull and lifeless sounding drum tracks, and his vocal presets can help you achieve that elusive professional quality that will make your recordings stand out.
These plug-in packages share a lot of the mixing know-how that the Lord-Alge brothers have developed over the last 25 years, but both feel that home studio engineers would be wise to also invest in equipment that will help them capture pristine performances before trying to make mixes that compete with their seasoned experience. “You can always call one of us to mix your recording,” says Tom. “Performance is king. Music is about emotion, and most of the emotion is based on performance. Don’t let mediocre performances make your record, and don’t expect technology to fix it. Rather, use technology to enhance your recording to your advantage.” Today’s technology can perform virtual miracles when it comes to fixing things in the mix, but Chris and Tom prefer to work with recordings that sound as good as possible before they reach the mixing stage. As a result, they recommend that aspiring engineers invest in a variety of good microphones and mic preamps to help them lay down initial tracks that sound great from the start.
Because singers’ vocal styles and sounds can vary so much, the Lord-Alges suggest that vocalists audition a variety of mics before choosing the ones that are right for them. “Look at your budget,” says Chris. “Guitar Center will definitely help you select the right mic that is within your budget. There are so many new microphone companies. Use your ear to pick the mic that you think sounds the clearest. And then spend a little bit more of your money on your vocal chain – the mic preamp and the limiter. That makes just as much difference as the microphone. “The Focusrite ISA 430 MKII Producer Pack offers really good bang for the buck and the sound quality is really good,” continues Chris. “It combines a mic pre, EQ, compressor and limiter in one device, which is really helpful. It’s all in one chain so it gets you familiar with how all of that stuff works together.” “Start with one of those, and as you become more comfortable and confident making recordings you’ll be ready to step it up,” adds Tom. “Then you’ll want to do some research and demo other equipment to come up with something that sounds even better. I like individual pieces, like the mic preamps and compressors that Universal Audio makes. If you can afford to spend more I highly recommend upgrading your setup with a few pieces of their gear.” If you’re recording electric guitars, the Lord-Alges both highly recommend the Shure SM57. “It’s a workhorse that really does great things,” says Tom.
“The simplest way to start is with an SM57 pointed just off the speaker cone,” says Chris. “Use one mic, one mic preamp and record straight to tape. Find the best place in the room to place your amp and dial in your sound before you record.”
“If you can’t get the sound you want with your setup, you may want to rethink what amp or guitar you’re using,” adds Tom. “Get another guitar or amp. A lot of players use two or three amps these days, but it’s better to use just one amp and get your sound from that. Simpler is always better.”
Both also suggest using a similar approach when recording bass. “I love my bass sound,” says Chris. “Put a mic on it. Let’s hear what the bass sound is. If you get a bass sound out of your amp that you like, mic it up and see how it sounds. If you have a good microphone that can pick up the full frequency range of a bass, by all means use a mic. Using a DI along with a mic can present a few phasing problems, but Guitar Center sells all kinds of boxes that will fix that.” The Radial Engineering Phazer is a highly recommended direct box that can fix phasing problems commonly encountered when recording direct and mic’d signals at the same time.
One often overlooked but crucial element for achieving satisfactory results in a home studio environment is a good set of monitors. Chris and Tom are both big fans of the legendary and now discontinued Yamaha NS10 monitors, but since those speakers are no longer available they recommend auditioning the various sets of powered monitors offered at Guitar Center.
“Bring your favorite mix,” suggests Chris. “Bring your iPod and a cable to the store or bring a CD and make sure you’re getting a flat signal from the CD player. Listen to music that you’re really familiar with through different sets of speakers. We’ve sat in front of NS10 speakers for more than 20 years, so that’s what we know and what we like. But don’t let us force you to choose what we like. It’s a personal decision and maybe you can come up with a set of monitors that work better for you. Powered speakers are the best way to go because you don’t have to worry about using a separate power amp that can change the sound.” “Powered monitors can sound great in a small home studio,” adds Tom. “You just plug them in and go. Get a pair of good powered monitors with a powered subwoofer and you’re off to the races. I highly recommend using a subwoofer because you want to be able to reproduce the bottom end that so much music relies upon nowadays. Owning a good pair of powered monitors is a big advantage if you travel to different studios to work because your point of reference is always the same.”
Not surprisingly, the Lord-Alge brothers use their own records as points of reference when recording in unfamiliar studios and when they’re working on new mixes for other artists. Tom likes his brother’s work on Green Day’s American Idiot: “It’s a great reference point for anyone making a rock and roll record. I would want my record to sound like that.” Chris returns the favor, preferring Tom’s mixing work on Steve Winwood’s 1986 classic, Back in the High Life: “That’s still tough to beat, so I play that.”
For more information and to see the rest of the interview, go to guitarcenter.com/interview