A Conversation with Mixer Matthew Weiss

If you’ve spent any stretch of time scouring YouTube for mixing tutorials, you’ve likely encountered the work of Matthew Weiss.

Besides being a Grammy-nominated and Spellemann Award–winning mixer, Matthew is an eminent thought leader on the process of modern record-making. He’s written over 200 articles that demystify a remarkably diverse range of topics – from compressing vocals to clipping kicks. His premium mixing tutorials are among the finest available.

We sat down recently to discuss the craft and business behind mixing records.

You grew up in Philly. Did that influence the sound of your records? What does a Matthew Weiss record sound like?

Philly is a jazz town. When you’re involved in that scene on any level, you start to hear music as a conversation between players, as opposed to notes on a page or lyrics with a beat. I think of music conversationally. I would attribute that to my upbringing.

As for my sound, I gravitate towards whatever the song calls for. Sometimes it’s big and glossy. Other times it’s dirty and weird, and the drums are panned off to one speaker. It really depends.

Some mixers, like Chris Lord-Alge, are known for having a characteristic sonic footprint. Others pride themselves on being chameleons. It sounds like you gravitate towards the latter.

I’m in between. I think I do have a distinct sound – it’s just hard to put into words. Chris’ sound is a little easier to define, because he’s such an indulgent mixer. He turns his visual blinders on and his ear blinders completely off. He fucking cranks those knobs. More power to him – that’s an awesome way to mix. But he’s a bit easier to put a finger on. I think someone could pick my mix out of a lineup, but I don’t think it’d be easy to say what gave it away.

I hear a lot of subtle saturation and distortion in your mixes. How do you approach adding character?

When I was coming up as an assistant and intern, I spent a lot of time mixing on an API console. That thing had tone. The further you pushed a fader up, the more the midrange changed. If you clicked an EQ in, the lower midrange changed and the top end changed. You didn’t even have to do any EQing.

Today I mix in the box with a hybrid setup, and the distortion isn’t there. So I’ve started experimenting along those lines. I’ve found that adding some subtle saturation can really bring a sound to life. It gives things tone or character, similar to the way a console would naturally. Except now I have much more control over exactly what that sound is.

Do you have any tips for using saturation in a mix?

Try adding it first in the chain, before your EQ. Saturation is going to create a tonal shift, no matter what you do. Sometimes that shift is subtle, so you don’t necessarily pick up on it right away. For example, let’s say you add some FET-style saturation to a vocal. You might find a certain glowiness starts to show up around 800 Hz. If you add the saturation at the end of your chain, the vocal might lift forward in a less than pleasant way. But if you add it first, you can EQ out that extra bit of tonal shift. Then you get a nicely balanced vocal, with some added harmonic juice.

That makes a lot of sense.

Yeah. Also, a lot of people are no longer tracking with compression or EQ. They’re doing it all in the mix. So these stages of saturation that would normally exist before your EQ are no longer there. But up until about 5 years ago, that wasn’t the case. Since music existed the other way for decades, I think we’ve become accustomed to that sound.

You mention that a lot more is being left to the mix. Do you find yourself using more processing today than you did 5 or 10 years ago?

Two things are happening. On the one hand, acoustic instruments and sources are getting less treatment up front, and generally need to be sculpted more in the mix. But also, more of the instrumentation is being created with soft synths and samples that are carefully designed by the producer. So while acoustic elements are requiring more work and more sound design, programmed elements are requiring less.

I was just working on this pop mix. The vocal has six instances of processing – EQ, compression, reverb…I don’t even remember what else. And then you’ve got the synths, where there’s literally no processing at all. It’s interesting to see that happen.

Let’s talk about your mentors. You give a lot of credit to Mark Marshall, Bobby Eli, and Denise Barbarita. What are some of the things you learned from them? For someone starting out today, is mentorship still relevant?

Mentorship is more relevant today than it ever was. I don’t believe there’s any real way to learn this business without guidance. If you’re doing it on your own, you don’t even know what’s important to learn. And then you still have to learn it.

Mark is an amazing producer, and he’s actually deaf in one ear. He only listens to the performance and arrangement. The performances he gets, the things he chooses to highlight from those performances, and the way he places things level-wise in his arrangements are all spot on. A lot of my sensibility about addressing the song came from Mark.

As mix engineers, it’s important to remember that the sonics are actually secondary. Our real job is to take a performance, whether programmed or live, and make it translate across the speakers the way it was intended to. To do that, we need to get in touch with the song itself.

I think that’s so important to remember. As engineers, we often get so caught up in the technical side of things that we forget what we’re really doing.

It’s not just engineers. Artists, A&Rs, producers…they get caught up in it too. We’re all so obsessed with achieving this perfect sound. We forget that the music itself is a unique living organism.

What is the biggest challenge of mixing a record today?

Sometimes a rough mix shows up and your client falls in love with it. They become so obsessed with it that you can only get there if your own natural tastes happen to coincidentally align with the rough. Which is not going to happen all that often.

It’s funny…this just happened to me last week.

Because the decisions that needed to be made weren’t committed to before the track got to you. So the decisions, which are subjective, end up in your ballpark. And it becomes a matter of what you want. And that’s not always going to be in line with what the artist wants.

If you go about it that way, you end up having to hire a different mixer for each song. Otherwise, you’re never going to have the better version of the rough that you’re looking for.

Unless you start committing to stuff up front. That’s what producers and artists really need to start doing.

When you’re listening to the rough, what’s going through your head?

I’m asking myself – what’s the purpose of this record? What’s it supposed to make the listener do? I’m trying to determine feeling and emotion.

Then I might start tuning in to things like where the levels are set. That might tell me what the lead instrument is, or what ambience they’re thinking. Or it might not. Everybody’s got different concepts of what a rough mix is. It might have been thrown together by somebody who had no idea what to do with it. Sometimes they love the rough. It could be either.

I’m more interested in what the artist is trying to communicate than what the rough mix sounds like. I’m trying to understand what the feelings and intentions of the record are. Then I can formulate my own opinions on how to best translate these through the mix.

So you’re guided more by the emotion and intention of the rough than any specific choices that were made.

Exactly. The people making those choices are probably not mix engineers. Why get married to a mix that was done by someone who doesn’t mix?

I struggle with this. Sometimes I’ll take a mix in a direction that ends up being different than what the client wants. Then you end up making so many changes in the revisions process that it loses its soul.

Oh man, I hate that. I call it “death by revisions.” You can really lose the essence of the record.

The key is to do some detective work beforehand. Figure out by listening to the rough and communicating with the client – how accurate is this? How much do we need to stick to it? How much can we stick to it? Can we make it sound like this in a good way? Maybe we can’t. Maybe it’s not even worth giving it a go. Maybe we’re not the right mixer for the job.

There are certain places where I draw the line and say – if that’s what you want, I know a lot of guys who do this well, and I’d be happy to put you in touch with them.

Would you preach the same advice to someone who’s just starting out?

No. When you’re starting out, you need experience. That includes bad experiences. Don’t pass on work when you’re just starting out. Figure out the client’s expectations and meet them. Period.

When you do that, it gives you the tools you need to move forward. It allows you to face the challenges of working with tougher clients in higher pressure situations. It also makes you more versatile, because it forces you to do things that you wouldn’t naturally be inclined to do.

I want to switch gears for a second. I’ve learned so much from your articles and videos on mixing. I noticed you often focus more on your thought process than the specific decisions you make. Why?

I started becoming active online around 2008, when most of the online discourse in audio was “here’s how you mix a kick…here’s how you mix a snare.” This wasn’t because the engineers explaining it weren’t exceptional. They were just terrible at explaining things. Because they never had to. They weren’t teachers.

So when I started writing, I thought more along the lines of – so we can do all these things, but why? For example, why add sub to a kick? Maybe we’re trying to make the listener feel the kick physically. Maybe that physical movement…that impact that they feel will prompt them to move in response. Maybe that’s how dancing works. Or maybe it’s actually the connection between the instruments that will make them dance. Maybe it’s got nothing to do with the kick. Being able to identify that and make sense of it is very important.

If you listen to records from the 70’s, you didn’t need much of a kick drum. The conversation between the bass and guitars and the pocket of the drums was what made people dance. You wouldn’t process the kick the same way you would in an EDM track today, because it wasn’t the heart of the song. And that’s when it dawned on me – there isn’t one correct way to process a kick drum. There are only contexts in which a kick lives. It’s more important to talk about these contexts and how they influence the choices we make. If we can start looking at things through this lens, we can make more successful records.

When I first started writing, this wasn’t something I consciously focused on. It was more of an unconscious reaction to what I didn’t like. Down the line, I started realizing, wait a minute…there actually is something to be taught here. The how and the why, as opposed to the what, is vastly more important. And now, in 2016, it has become much more of the norm to explain the thought process. Which I think is fantastic.

What advice would you give someone who’s hoping to make a career out of recording?

The world of music is a people business. You need to meet people. If you’re just creating stuff by yourself, you’re missing out. You’re going to fall behind the times. Your stuff won’t be as good as it could be to everyone else. It will just be good to you.

Find the people that work, that get things done. Labels, A&R reps, music supervisors for TV stations and films…you don’t even need to know the music editor personally. Just figure out who their assistant is.

You’ve got to go out and meet people. You have to. Otherwise you’re just going to make music, share it with your 300 friends on Facebook, and go back to your day job.

You’re moving to LA in September. Where do you see this transition taking you?

There are a lot of people who move to LA and then leave like a tumbleweed rolling in the wind. I don’t want that to happen to me. I want to make an impression. I think that’s done by forming alliances. I don’t think that’s done in the old school sense, where there’s competition over gigs and people are being sneaky and shady. That’s what toppled the whole record industry to begin with – more so than pirating. It’s just bad business. I want to form positive connections and genuine friendships that help everyone. My whole career has been founded on the idea that if you surround yourself with success, you become successful.

In terms of what tangibly needs to happen, I need to find a commercial space. I want to be somewhere where there are other people. I don’t want to do this by myself anymore. I want to find a junior engineer and an assistant. I want to be surrounded by people that are making me and what I do bigger and better. I want it to be a business. I want it to be a team.

That’s refreshing to hear. I spent five years in New York, and it often felt like everyone was out for themselves. I haven’t experienced that since moving to LA.

That’s why New York has had so much trouble. A lot of studios have closed down, and a lot of engineers have left.

I’m very competitive. I want to win every gig that I play my hand at. But I don’t want to win because of politics, or because I know so-and-so’s sister. None of that stuff. I want to win because I did a better job than the other person. If the other person wins, and they’re the one who gets the rest of the record, I want it to be because they worked for it and achieved it. In that process, even though we all might play a bit of gig roulette, the overall field becomes better. It becomes a better environment for us to exist in. Does it mean I might get a smaller piece of the pie sometimes? Maybe.

But a bigger pie? That’s something we’re all after.

For more on Matthew Weiss, visit his website, check out his articles on The Pro Audio Files, or order one of his premium mixing tutorials.

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