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In The Studio: An Interview With Mix Engineer Dave Pensado
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At what point do you say “I’m done” with a mix? What’s the feel?

I started mixing 35 years ago and I’m still waiting to finish a couple of those mixes. You don’t finish, you just run out of time. In classical and jazz, it may be possible to finish a mix. Currently with the internet, by the time you finish, by the end of the night, it’s obsolete.

I enjoy staying ahead of trends, and contributing to the advancement of trends. But these trends always change. And really, you can hear a song a million different ways. I’ve actually recently gone and redone some mixes from a few months ago.

What trends have you stayed on the cutting edge of?

Two years ago I was predicting a shift and trend toward euro dance invading hip hop.

Another trend, rock – just to stir the pot – I don’t think there is any rock anymore, at least not that’s easily accessible. Rock is now pop music with turned down guitars and sweet effects. The last great rock record was Queens of The Stone Age. Rock is now pop with guitars instead of synthesizers. The drums aren’t even live.

Do you see more sample replacement or programming in rock?

What’s the difference? When you change out the drums and make the drum timing so perfect, all you’ve done is create a programmed part. With live drums, you get the drummer, and you don’t dick with it. Maybe a couple nudges – but perfectly timed drum tracks is an anathema to Rock.

With R&B you have a steady drum track. We don’t rely on the drums to create the rhythm, we play against the perfect rhythm. You have things that move around it, that make it pocket.

In rock, the drum track should move. The drums on the Rolling Stones music, everybody’s following Keith – and that works. Had you quantized Charlies’ drums, then, Keith would have been out of time. The argument is not live or programmed, it’s perfect or emotional.

I once got the idea that ambiance is about one third of a mix. I have yet to feel otherwise. To me, room, reverb, delay makes or breaks a mix. Where does it fall along your scale? How long do you spend crafting ambiance?

I spend an inordinate amount of time making ambiances. There’s two pan pots, there’s left and right and front to rear. The front to rear is imaginary – a person is at the other end of a gymnasium, and they yell – the initial sound hits my ear and my brain calculates where they are, 50-100 ms. I get that early reflection, which cues my ear to the location and size of the space. With careful manipulation of reverb, echo, pre-delay, early reflections, you can place things pretty accurately.

In the world of recordings – the sound is already fictitious in a sense. How important is accuracy when designing ambience?

Accuracy is important to a mix. If everything is in the same audio plane, it’s hard to distinguish things. You can’t really hear two sounds at the same time, so process is to direct the listener’s ear where and when you want it. Sometimes you want the groove, sometimes the singer.

Much like a great painting, the artist directs your eye around the canvas, you don’t see the whole thing at the same time. Ambiance allows me to do things like place the singer up front, or the bass behind the kick.

You need the singer up front to make her commanding like we did for Christina Aguilera in Beautiful. Through the production, performance, and my mixing, we crafted something that takes your ear where we wanted it to go – which in this case was the vocal. That vocal was usually the first take. I would put that up against everything – and I needed it to absorb the listener’s attention.

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