A legend explains his approach to mixing and shares insight on some of his projects...
March 22, 2014, by Bobby Owsinski
Here’s an excerpt of an interview with Elliot Scheiner from The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook.
Elliot has long been recognized as one of the finest engineers working today and has a shelf full of industry awards (five Grammys, four Surround Music Awards, Surround Pioneer Award, TEC Awards Hall Of Fame and too many total award nominations to count) from his work with The Eagles, Beck, Steely Dan, Fleetwood Mac, Sting, John Fogerty, Van Morrison, Toto, Queen, Faith Hill, Lenny Kravitz, Natalie Cole, Doobie Brothers, Aerosmith, Phil Collins, Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand and many, many others to prove it.
He’s also one of the nicest guys in the business.
In this interview, Elliot talks not only about his approach to mixing but about some of his projects as well.
Bobby Owskinski: Do you have a philosophy about mixing?
Elliot Scheiner: I’ve always believed that if someone has recorded all this information, then they want it to be heard, so my philosophy is to be able to hear everything that was recorded.
It’s not about burying everything in there and getting a wall of sound. I’ve never been into that whole concept. It was more about whatever part was played, if it was the subtleties of a drummer playing off beats on the snare drum next to the backbeat, obviously he wants that heard. So I always want to make sure that everything that’s in that record gets heard.
If you were able to accomplish hearing every single instrument in the mix, that was a huge achievement. Granted, maybe there wasn’t as much information when I started as there is now. I myself have come across files that have been a hundred and some odd tracks, so it’s not as easy to do that today.
I have to admit that the way some people record things today is a bit peculiar. All of a sudden you’ll be dealing with 7 or 8 different mics on the same instrument. Like, for example, an acoustic guitar will all of a sudden have 7 different viewpoints of where this guitar’s being recorded.
It’s mind boggling that you have to go and make a determination and listen to every single channel to decide which one you want to use. And if you pick the wrong ones they come back at you and say, “Oh, we had a different combination” or “It doesn’t sound quite right to us”, but they don’t tell you what they did! So granted, it is a little more difficult to deal with those issues today, but I still take the same approach with every mix.
If you have a hundred tracks, will you try to have them all heard? Or do you go in and do some subtractive mixing?
Elliott: Well, it depends if that’s necessary. I don’t usually get those kind of calls where they say “Here’s a hundred tracks. Delete what you want.” It’s usually not about that. And I have to say that I’ll usually get between 24 and 48 tracks in most cases and hardly ever am I given the liberty to take some of them out.
I mean if something is glaringly bad I’ll do that, but to make a judgment call as to whether background vocals should be in here or there, I generally don’t do that. I just assume that whatever an artist and producer sends me is kind of written in stone. They’ve recorded it, and unless they tell me otherwise, I usually don’t do subtractive mixing.
How long does it take you to do a mix on average?
Elliot: Depending on how complicated it is, it usually takes anywhere from 3 hours to a day.
3 hours is really fast!
Elliot: Yeah, well a lot of time you just get a vibe and a feel for something and it just comes together. Then you look at it and say “How much am I actually going to improve this mix.” I mean if it feels great and sounds great I’m a little reluctant to beat it into the ground.
For me it’s still about a vibe and if I can get things to sound good and have a vibe, that’s all I really care about. I still put Al Schmitt on a pedestal. Look at how quickly he gets things done. He can do three songs in a day and they’ll be perfect and amazing sounding and have the right vibe. So it’s not like it can’t be done. Some people say that you can’t get a mix in a short time and that’s just not true and Al’s my proof.
Where do you usually start your mix from?
Elliot: Out of force of habit, if there’s a rhythm section I’ll usually start with the drums and then move to the bass and just work it up. Once the rhythm section is set I’ll move on to everything else and end with vocals.
How much EQ do you use?
Elliot: I can’t say that there are any rules for that. I can’t say that I’ve ever mixed anything that Al has recorded, but if I did I probably wouldn’t have any on it. With some of the stuff done by some of the younger kids, I get it and go, “What were they listening to when they recorded this.”
So in some cases I use drastic amounts where I’ll be double compressing and double EQing; all kinds of stuff in order to get something to sound good. I never did that until maybe the last 5 years. Obviously those mixes are the ones that take a day or more.
When you’re setting up a mix, do you always have a certain set of outboard gear, like a couple of reverbs and delays, ready to use or do you patch it as you go?
Elliot: Usually I don’t start out with any reverbs. I’m not one for processing. I’d like to believe that music can survive without reverbs and without delays and without effects. Obviously when it’s called for I’ll use it, but the stuff I do is pretty dry. The 70’s were a pretty dry time and then the 80’s effects became overused. There was just tons of reverb on everything.
Most of your Steely Dan stuff is pretty dry, isn’t it?
Elliot: It’s pretty much dry. What we used were plates usually.
Real short ones?
Elliot: Not necessarily. In the days when I was working at A&R [studios in New York city] we had no remotes on any of our plates there. Phil [Ramone - producer and owner of A&R] wanted to make changing them difficult because he tuned them himself and he really didn’t want anybody to screw with them.
There would be at least 4 plates in every room. Some of them might be a little shorter than another but generally they were in the 2 to 2 1/2 second area. There was always an analog tape pre-delay, usually at 15 ips, going into the plates. The plates were tuned so brilliantly that it didn’t become a noticeable effect. It was just a part of the instrument or part of the music. You could actually have a fair amount on an instrument and you just wouldn’t notice it.
Is the sound of the A&R plates something that you try to get today?
Elliot: Oh, I’m always trying to get that reverb sound If I’m using plates either at Right Track or Capital, I’ll still use an analog tape delay going into it.
For more of this interview, check out The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook
Bobby Owsinski is an author, producer, music industry veteran and technical consultant who has written numerous books covering all aspects of audio recording. For more information be sure to check out his website and blog.