Super excited to share this with you. It’s a clip from an interview I recently did with Grammy-winning mixer Bob Power. Bob’s a mentor of mine, and also an incredible engineer. He’s taught me so much about the mixing process, but if there’s one thing I can say that Bob really has a handle on, more so than just about any other mixer out there, it’s the low end.
Now, Bob cut his teeth mixing iconic hip-hop records from artists like Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, D’Angelo, and a lot of the sound of the second wave of hip-hop—those hard hitting drums, the clear, defined separation between the kick and the bass, where you can really hear everything down there clearly—a lot that sound was really started by Bob. I mean, he really defined the sound of the second wave of hip-hop.
Now this clip is from a full interview I did with Bob. It’s almost an hour of material, and you can only get it inside my Mixing Low End course. So, if you want more details about this course and how you can enroll, go ahead and sign up for the waiting list by clicking the link in the description below or up there in the video, and I’ll let you know when another class opens.
Anyways, hope you enjoy this clip from the interview.
So, I’ve kind of given you a little bit of an intro on the course, but for those who don’t know Bob, probably, one of my favorite mixers of all time, D’Angelo, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, I mean nobody knows low end like Bob, and he’s an absolutely incredible mixer, and also a wonderful teacher. He teaches at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, where I went to school. So, thank you so much for taking the time to be here, Bob, and talking with me. I really appreciate it.
Of course man, of course, my pleasure.
So, before we get started, I just wanna say thank you really, for everything you’ve done for me, I mean, I really consider you a true mentor. I really appreciate all the time you’ve spent sharing your knowledge with me.
Thank you. You were really good before that too.
Aww, thanks, I’ll pay you later.
So, I’ve heard you say a lot of times that for many mixers, low end is kind of the final frontier, but what’s interesting about you is that it’s kind of one of the first things that you had to master. So, can you talk about your background in hip-hop, and how it has informed the way that you hear and approach the low end?
Sure. Ya know, I didn’t start engineering, for other people ‘till I was in my, well into my 30’s. I had scored television. I was a working musician. I was making a living playing every lousy gig you can, some good ones, you can imagine, TV scoring, and I was producing independent records for people, which at that time was a real unusual thing, and we’re talking like the late 70’s, early 80’s, I always asked a lot of questions of people. Ya know, I worked with some really great, like super-pro engineers, and I was always asking questions, like why you doing that, or what is it, ya know, I knew what the things did. And in the mid 80’s I started filling in for a guy who went on vacation, at the studio, that I worked at, in New York, a place called Calliope. And in fact, the gentleman who engineered for me all the time, because I didn’t do my own engineering then, went away for a couple of weeks, and the owner asked to me fill in. So, I said yeah, sure, I know how to do that, ya know, and I learned quickly.
Just as a brief history, that was about couple years before the whole Native Tongues movement, and Tribe, and De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul came to the studio, Latifa, Black Sheep, all these people. I worked with Big Daddy Kane a lot. So, it was just another gig. It wasn’t that I loved hip-hop or I hated it. It was like okay, these are nice people, and they’re doing something interesting that I’d never heard before.
When I got deeper into mixing, and I started understanding what was really going on with the music, and the frequency content, obviously, the first big records I mixed were hip-hop records, and because it was hip-hop, the low end was very, very important, and in fact, sometimes kind of messy, because you were dealing mostly with samples. Usually the kick drum was by itself, but often the bass line came from a sample, with a lot of errant frequencies in it and stuff. So, pretty quickly, I had to learn how to apportion different levels of the low end at different frequencies for different instruments.
And it was good, cause that’s usually the last thing that people get. It’s funny, early on in my career I was was trying to get the high end right. So, ya know, I wanted my recordings in a lousy, not in a lousy, but in an inexpensive studio, I wanted it to sound like the stuff that I heard, that had that crystal and open 251 top end.
And then, because of hip-hop, I had to get a handle on the low end, and it’s very funny, but just in the last 10, 12 years, I feel like I’m really delving into the midrange more.
And again, the idea with low end was it was a necessity. I had to have records not that just had different apportions of different levels of low frequency in areas, but they also had to shake the room apart, but not in a bad way, in a good way. Ya know, they had to be Jeep kind of bumping tracks. So, whatever was going on there below 90 had to really be huge in those days. Yeah. So, whether it was 808 or a bass.
So, yeah, so that’s, that’s really why I had to address the issues of low end early on.
Yeah, as a necessity of the genre, and the music that you’re working with. I think that makes a lot of sense.
And I think ya know, everybody kind of agrees, that that’s the hardest thing to get right, usually.
Absolutely. Well, it’s why I’m doing this. I mean, when I sent out this survey initially, to kind of learn about what people wanted to learn about, that was overwhelmingly the number one thing that people said they struggle with. So what’s the goal really? I mean, what do you…
What are some the things you’re thinking about when you’re mixing the low end?
It’s not even, ya know, I mean, to be honest, the low end is just a component.
Of all the other stuff. Ya know, and even the rock records I mixed, tend to be a little bit muscular in the low end anyway. You have to be careful, because depending on the genre, too much low end will detract from other areas, that should be at the forefront. For example, rock lives in the midrange.
So, if you have either a kick drum or bass that’s really honking, it’s putting the music out of proportion, that that genre.
Really needs to be.
And if I have to break it down to very simple terms, mixing is about two things. It’s about musical balances, and that’s pretty obvious, that’s genre-based, that’s music-based, and I think that anybody who has a background as a musician, which pretty much all of us do, has a leg up there, because it’s about musical balances first, and then tonal balances. Both are very important, and in a perfect world, you get the musical balances, so, they’re really nice, and then tonal balances, the different frequency areas of the different instruments, and how complementary they are to each other, and to themselves. Yeah. When you get both those things happening, the listening experience becomes magical at that point.
And you can enjoy the music for what the artist put into it, and you enjoy the music from a purely sonic perspective as well, if you get that right.
So, how does composition and arrangement play into that thinking? If you’re producing a record, I mean, cause a lot of people, they wanna hear about mixing tips and techniques, but we can take it all the way back to the notes that people are playing, and where they’re playing it on the guitar neck, and so, can you talk a little bit about that, how that plays into the kind of thought process here?
Anybody who’s done this for any period of time knows that a great arrangement will make a great mix, and we spend half of our life fighting arrangements that could have been apportioned better.
In terms of who was playing what, when they were playing it, where they were playing it, what the part was, and ya know, in the modern world, arranging even goes down to the very important choice of instruments that you use for different parts—why you would play a Strat on a certain part rather than double-coil pick up, why you would have a P-Bass rather than a jazz bass.
So, if the arrangement is together, much of the work is already done for you, because the instruments are staying out of each other’s way, both musically and tonally. Ya know, good arrangers have a timbral, have a handle on the timbral content, as much as they do the quote unquote purely musical content.
In fact, ya know arguably, this gets into that class I teach at NYU, arguably, if you’re an arranger, you could approach things from a purely timbral point of view and do quite well.
Ya know, I have a couple of music degrees, and I was taught the old school, ya know, musical way of arranging, where you have thematic development, you have harmonic development, you have relative weight of different sections, and how different instrumental sections sound against each other, and what’s gonna take up the weight on the bottom of the voice, and what’s gonna give you the high stuff, on the top of the voice. That’s very traditional, but if you think about things purely from—I’m legislating how I want people to perceive this from the brightest bright to the darkest dark—you can do pretty well.
Yeah. And, and anybody who’s been working knows if the arrangement’s great, ya kind of throw up the faders, and of course, we do what we do. So, we get crazy about it, anyway, but it’s a lot different than sort of trying to pull apart something where people were playing in the same frequency range, the parts aren’t as complementary musically to each other as they should be. So, the arrangement has a huge amount to do with how well that works.
Interestingly, the, some of the people I’ve worked with, over the years, of all people, JD, the Detroit hip-hop producer, who left us recently.
He had a, that was a match made in heaven, we worked a lot together. I mixed a lot of his stuff, and…
You’re talking about J Dilla?
J Dilla, I’m sorry. Yeah, uh huh. He had an immaculate sense, as many DJ track makers do, had an immaculate sense of frequency content, and in fact, he never really used sounds, or did any programming, that all those complementary relationships between the different frequency areas, and the different instruments wasn’t pretty spot on to being with.
It was very interesting. He had a really great sense of what’s midrange, what’s supposed to be there, what’s the bottom here, what’s supposed to be there, and what’s the high end, and what’s supposed to be where.
So, yeah. That’s awesome. So, thinking about some of the records, that you’ve ya know, worked on, I mean, a lot of them feature really complex low-end arrangements, where you have multiple kicks, and ya know, things that are, I think a lot of people would really struggle with. So, can you talk about kind of the process, that goes into sorting that out, when you’re dealing with an arrangement like that, that that has so may layers down in the bottom end?
You sort of do triage, you just ya know, you have to listen to the different parts, and pretty quickly put a picture together, in your head of saying well, this is gonna fit here. I mean, I see the range of human hearing, I see as a bunch of little, like drawers, or plateaus.
And, I have to many times pre-determine what I think is gonna work best where. Now, we know that once you get in the trenches, and once you start moving stuff around, you say, oh, you know what, this isn’t gonna work in that spot I thought it would. So, let me go at this a different way.
And ya know what, high-frequency presence is a perfect example of that. I have started to understand that there’s only so many things that want a certain amount of high frequency presence. For example, if you have too much tap on the kick drum, ya know, like 4 K, the little tick, tick part, that’s actually going to be fighting against that place in the snare.
So, and not that they’re gonna play simultaneously, and you’ll get any masking going on, but it’s like well, oh wow, wait a second, I guess the kick drum’s made to be low frequency. Well yeah, that’s why the kick evolved as it did.
So, ya know, you listen to the track, you hear the parts, and then you open up another fader, and you go oh my god, how am I gonna deal with this? Ya know, a lot of it has to do also, with compression, which can really help tighten up areas in the low end, but keep the fundamental frequency character of what you’re dealing with. I’ve always worked with compression as a low-frequency tonal shaping tool, and I do actually now, more than ever.
You can retain the fundamental character of the instrument in the low frequency, but it’s funny, many times, my dog is here hassling me.
So, I keep looking. Honey. Hey, honey. Leave me alone, leave me alone.
She’s got her favorite toy in here mouth so, anyway, it’s odd, but I’m finding that compression on low frequency stuff, or on elements that have certain frequency anomalies that pop out on different…sorry, I’m gonna plug in here.
Certain frequency anomalies that come forward on certain pitches.
Or Certain dynamic levels, I’m finding that regular old compression can actually work like a multiband.
Where, and I only, I think, and this is just my sort of uniformed way of looking at it, is that that compressor is acting on that frequency spike, at that moment, it may be compressing the whole signal, but along with the whole signal, if that frequency spike is three to five to six to eight dB ahead of the signal, it’s gonna grab that first, and tug that back into the body of the signal.
Yeah, it’s very interesting, I’ve noticed that a lot too, and I tend to like using low-ratio compression for that reason, where you don’t, you’re not really looking so much for the dynamic control, so much, as just that solidity, that kind of makes it feel like it all packs together.
Yeah, tightening it up. Yeah.
Totally. It’s funny, this is really weird, but I’ve been recording music, as a musician or an engineer, for so long, I can’t believe it’s been 40 years, longer than 40 years actually, and I feel like I’m just starting to get a handle on compression.
I’ve used it forever, I’ve used it successfully forever, but I feel like I’m just really starting to get to a place with it now, where I’m able to use it for a lot more things, and in fact, what you say is true, if you compress stuff properly, if it’s the right part, being played with the right instrument, you end up having to do a lot less fancy EQ work to carve things out, because it’s in the track already, you’re just controlling it a little bit more.
Are there any rules of thumb, or advice that you can give to people who are really looking to get a better handle on using compression, specifically in the low end?
I hope you enjoyed that clip from my interview with Bob. Now, the full interview, which is almost an hour long, is only available inside my course Mixing Low End. So, if you want more details about this course, you can go ahead and sign up for the waiting list by clicking the link in the description below or in the video, and I’ll let you know when another class opens.
Anyways, thanks so much for watching. You can check out more mixing tips at BehindTheSpeakers.com. Take care.