3/25/99 Keane Studio Mixdown by Dave Schools

by Dave Schools

March 25, 1999 Keane Studio, Ltd. Athens, GA


I know, I know, it's been so long since my last installment that you
thought I had fallen prey to the appetites of the angry studio gods
(madness for many, absolution for the lucky) or perhaps fallen off the
face of the earth. I have, for your information, been hanging out
leisurely at John Keane's studio and been constantly amazed by the
performances he was able to coax out of a willing group of singers and
players. What began with my former description of being put under the
microscope of John Keane for hyper-scrutinization and possible humiliation
was weathered gracefully by members Houser, Bell, Herman, and Ortiz. JB,
Jojo, and Mike all took turns as they worked out new guitar, keyboard, and
harmony parts. Alternating half days and days to avoid the burnout and the
dreaded studio tan these guys really laid down some emotional and burning
hot parts. I watched JB compose and sing some of his best lines ever.

Not being a true vocalist I have never appreciated how hard it must be for
someone like John Bell to "get into" the singing of the words in that
glass booth. He is a man who likes to sing from his heart and sing with
the truth behind every word. He also relies on his environment to help to
fuel the emotion of his performance. It's one thing to emote and convey
that emotion to an arena full of kind folks wanting to soak it up but it's
a completely different thing to capture those feelings with only an
expensive microphone staring at you. Your reward, rather than an encore or
round of applause, is a rare compliment from John. And believe me, we live
for words of praise that come from his mouth. Somehow John attains a
delicate balance of control and confidence that encourages the performer
to take chances (where the really good stuff comes from) and reign in
those evil thoughts of doing the "correct" thing that crush the feeling
right out of a take.

It's difficult for us as a band to relinquish control of our tunes and
arrangements, but years of working with John have enabled a real trust of
his sensibility when it comes to vocal harmonies and guitar parts. You
see, John can play and sing any part better than any of us (you will hear
his crystal clear and always-in-tune pedal steel and bubbling banjo on a
few tunes) and this can be intimidating. But like I said earlier, he does
indeed inspire the confidence to pull off the right feeling performance.
This recording will prove that he is the man who understands Widespread
Panic well enough to produce more than just a recording of our music. He
makes sure that this snapshot is one that you will treasure and we will be
proud of. I would like to hope that the resulting document is also
something that John will be proud of as well.

So, after finally getting everybody's parts laid down on tape it is time
to suss them all out and put them in a form that is fat, happy, and in
your face. This is called mixdown and is arguably the most crucial part of
the entire recording process. There are folks who make their living
engineering the mixdown of recordings. These people have golden ears and
are kind of like surgical specialists. For our two previous studio
recordings we had utilized the extraordinary talents of Clif Norrell and
had been most happy with the results. We decided to go with someone
different for this project but at first we didn't know whom. For awhile it
looked like longtime REM producer Scott Litt would be brought in to do the
mix, then it was going to be Susan Rogers who has worked on many projects
for that purple wearing symbol loving guy who now refers to himself as
"The Artist." Finally it was decided that Jim Scott would get the honor.
Jim's resume reads like a top ten list of great records and he earned
himself a Grammy for his work on Tom Petty's Wildflowers album. Jim is a
great guy who we had met before in New York after one of those infamous
Irving Plaza gigs. He listened to the demos of the material that
eventually became Ain't Life Grand while "hanging out" in the back lounge
of the bus and had wanted to produce that record. Scheduling conflicts
wrecked those plans so we very happy to welcome him into this project.

Jim arrived with a bunch of archaic outboard gear like Altec compressors
that had only one big knob and one dancing VU meter. He burned an
incredible amount of Nag Champa in a little dish with a fortune cookie
message "Be Patient, it will benefit you" pasted to it. And patience is
one thing a mix engineer must have if he is going to help rather than
sabotage a project. Here's how a mix works: the musicians have laid down
all the parts and they are scattered all over 48 tracks of digital tape.
It is his job to set the levels of each of those instruments and add
effects like reverb or echo to them. This ability is what makes mixdown so
critical. You can bury a vocal behind a screaming guitar or you can put
the vocal out on front, you can put reverb on the snare or make it sound
like it's right in front of your face, you can pan Mikey's lead guitar way
over to the left side and JB's rhythm over to the right or vice versa. The
question is which option do you choose? Once all of these decisions have
been made those 48 tracks are distilled down to a two track tape (either
digital audio tape or quarter inch reel to reel tape) to be sent to the
mastering lab and then to the pressing plant where they are made into
those clever shiny discs we all so love.

Patience is indeed a virtue as in order to create a mix many, sometimes
hundreds, of passes will be made on a song. A mix can be gotten on a four-
minute song in about a day. Imagine how long it took to mix the nearly
eight minute Rebirtha on the last album. In the old days each fader move
to set the level of volume for each voice or instrument had to be made by
hand. If the mix was a complicated one there are too many moves for just
one pair of hands and additional hands are required. This is how band
members can get involved in the mix. I remember nearly all of us with our
hands on the console for the mix of "Stop/Go" on Space Wrangler. These
days that situation is resolved by a technical marvel known as
"automation." This means that the whole console is hooked up to a computer
that remembers each little fader move so that each time a pass is made on
the tune the fader moves are set and on the next pass you can watch those
little things move all by themselves. After a mix is printed to quarter
inch and DAT formats it is Rob Haddock's job to mark all the settings of
everything (sometimes hundreds of little knobs, buttons, and blinking
lights) down on paper. Actually, these days, all the settings are
videotaped and then archived with the multi-track master reels in case a
remix is wanted or needed.

Delicate edits are also performed on the songs at this stage. For example
we had decided to cut a few measures out of a tune and this had to be
performed on the quarter inch machine. This requires a steady hand with
the razor blade as cutting one thousandth of an inch in the wrong
direction of the tape can destroy a once in a lifetime take. This is where
Jim's surgical skill came into play. These talents are rare and Jim really
turned out to be a master of mixology and an entertaining guy as well. His
most recent project is the new Red Hot Chili Peppers' CD and it sounded
great. We had a little listening party of our stuff two nights ago and let
me tell you, his mixes blew our minds. Brown Cat family members who had
not heard any of these tunes at any stage of their recording were amazed
and could be seen dancing down the halls of the studio with wine glasses
in hand.

There were many photos taken and high fives given and when it was all said
and done we realized that with the help of professionals like John and Jim
and the recording engineer Brad we have made the best record of our
career. You will be pleased we are sure. There are many surprises to be
had in listening to this recording and I personally haven't gotten tired
of it yet. I discover new sounds hiding beneath others in Jim and John's
powerful and layered mixes. It seems as if John's plan of being a more
"hands-on" producer paid off. All that is left now is for the CD to be

Mastering is the final stage before the discs are actually pressed and
inserted into their jewel boxes or Eco-friendly cardboard sleeves (which
we obviously prefer but record shops don't because they usually don't fit
into their shelving system). In the mastering process all the elements are
unified in three simple but very important ways, the first of which is
making sure that the peak volume level of each song is the same. There is
nothing more annoying than a poorly mastered recording where you have to
get up and change the volume of your amplifier from song to song. The
other things that occur in mastering are giving the recording a "unifying"
sheen with a small amount of treble and bass equalization if needed and
compressing certain songs to give them a peak ceiling that is the same
from song to song. If you have ever bought an older disc that was recorded
in the seventies (for example Led Zep's Houses of the Holy) you may
discover that it simply doesn't sound as good as your more recently
recorded discs. It may sound dull and muffled by comparison and not as hot
as others may. But then you might go out and purchase a boxed set that
claims to be "remastered by Jimmy Page" and you will find that by
remastering these older recordings they have been brought up to par with
the way things sound these days thanks to the miracle of digital audio.
Mastering can really make or break a recording.

So what happens next? We wait for the whole manufacturing process and the
release of the CD and then our work will begin anew with publicity
interviews as the folks at Capricorn Records get their marketing strategy
into gear. There may be in-store appearances and special promotions.
Perhaps I will write another one of these telling journals from summer
tour as all the dominoes are lined up for the release of this disc. It's
been fun writing for you; I hope you have enjoyed it and maybe learned
something about recording as well. Take care, and we will see you from the
stage somewhere out there on the road.