Jen Korte and the Loss Project Notes

Jen and I just returned from Airshow Mastering, where we had our first listening session on the newly-finished Jen Korte and the Loss album. The album was recorded at here Blue Tower, and I mixed it mostly at my home studio but checked mixes frequently at the Tower.

We spent a year on this record. We threw away a lot more stuff than we kept. We did four versions of one song before finally deciding that the song just wasn’t going to be on this record at all. We certainly could have put out a finished record six months ago. We didn't, and I’m glad. Not that it wouldn’t have been a great record, but this band was really in a nascent state when we started recording, and though we may not have realized it at the time, we hadn’t really solidified an identity yet. To be sure, that identity is still coalescing, and it’s getting clearer every time we play a show, every recording session, every time we rehearse, every time we get together for a beer.

I spent something on the order of 30 to 50 hours mixing each song that had the full ensemble. A couple songs really “mixed themselves” and were finished under 10 hours, but only a couple. This is the big difference from the commercial recordings I work on. I rarely have the luxury of spending more than 2 or 3 hours on a track. Even a complicated full band mix can sound great after 3 hours of mixing. Since this is our first album, and since we worked so hard on the songs, the arrangements and the recording, I saw an opportunity to really hunker down in my home studio and make this thing as good as it can be. I was able to structure the time such that I could take long critical breaks between working on a particular track, and the sounds on one song really started to have a bearing on the sounds I’d go for on other tracks. I never worked on the same song two days in a row, and I had the benefit of letting the “problem” mixes simmer on the back burner while I worked on other songs, then I could approach the problem children with the benefit of the perspective gained while working on everything else.

Some lessons from me to you, dear self-producing independent artist: (Much of this is timeless conventional production wisdom handed down by the gods, but some of it is specific to low/no budget self productions.):

  • Get what you want on recording day. DO NOT defer anything to post-production. NEVER decide that “it’s good enough for now, we’ll fix it in the mix”.
  • Take a lot of notes, especially on recording day. I had mislabeled the two microphones of a mid-side pair in the workstation (reversing them in the software routing), and when I went to decode the m/s pair at mix time a month later it really sounded wrong. A quick look at the hardcopy session notes confirmed my suspicion that the two channels were reversed in the DAW, crisis averted. Things that seem obvious, or things you think you won’t forget; well, they aren’t obvious, and trust me you will forget all those little details by the time it’s three months (and five sessions) later and you sit down to mix…
  • Trust your gut. Always.
  • Believe in and trust your collaborators. Even if their idea initially sounds like the worst idea you have ever heard. I honestly (and stubbornly) wanted to put out a record six months ago and I got talked out of it. Again, not that it wouldn’t have been a great record, but the last six months of work have yielded something with such gestalt; a record that covers a lot of ground, it is broad and deep yet incredibly coherent. It is the most pure expression of what this band does and who this band is that I think we could possibly create. At this point, I wouldn’t change a thing. (except to tend to Dave Glasser’s excellent mix notes from this morning’s session.)
  • Gather opinions. Play your mixes for people you trust, and listen closely to their feedback. Even non-musicians, even non-engineers… Their feedback will come from a much different perspective than feedback you’ll get from most audio or music geeks.
  • Check your mixes on as many systems as possible. Every system and every room is different. Listening to these songs on my buddy’s awesome audiophile system with the monoblocks & the tube preamps definitely helped. Listening on my JBL boom box that I’ve had since I was 12 definitely helped. Listening to it in the car definitely helped. Listening to it on many various home stereos definitely helped. Listening to it on Jen’s home theater system with its super-hyped subwoofer definitely helped. You get the point.
  • Check your mixes at different volume levels. Balances sound different, and the extreme high & low frequencies sound really different at high and low volumes.
  • Check your mixes from the other room! This is a big one for me, especially for getting levels on the rhythm section tracks. You'll hear it very differently, especially around the low frequency stuff and vocal levels. Blast it in your house, then go out on the porch. You'll be amazed at what you learn about your balances when it has bounced through your whole house and you have to listen to it over city noise... You'll suddenly realize that that guitar part is barely in there and needs to be louder.
  • Check your mixes with some mastering compression applied. Even slam it a little bit. You'll hear stuff in the background (extraneous noises, bad edits, etc..) that you might not hear otherwise. I tend not to make big mix changes with the limiter on. However, don't put anything on the stereo bus for your final mixes, you are only limiting (pun intended) what your mastering engineer can do. And he can do it way better than you can, sparky.
  • Resolve masking problems listening in mono. If you can make competing elements sit right with each other in mono, you are golden. If you can’t make it work, the problem is likely in the arrangement.
  • What can I really do to a mix in 40 hours that I can’t get done in 10 hours? A lot. Like, a whole hell of a lot. I liken it to gardening; you think you got all the weeds out but then you look closer and you really missed quite a few of them. Then you think you are done and you take another look and you can't believe you missed the one giant weed smack dab in the middle of everything... Maybe it’s because I’ve only been mixing for 20 years instead of 40, maybe it’s because my tastes change on a weekly basis, maybe it’s because I learn a new technique every time I do a session. I think it’s a stew of all of those things. I’ll tell you, the last couple hours of “putting the eyebrows” on everything is a whole lot more productive and pleasurable when the mixes are super-solid to begin with.
  • Don’t skimp on mastering. See if you can do a pre-mastering consultation with the mastering engineer. That hour I just spent with Glasser this morning will really pay off. I now have 3 days to implement his (thoughtful, unbiased, veteran) mix notes, and hearing these mixes on his system made me make a few notes of my own.
  • You can get a lot out of a little, as long as you take your time and make your decisions confidently and deliberately. This record was really done on a shoestring budget, but we all had plenty of energy and willingness to win many battles by brute force. I have to admire everyone’s patience with me on recording days: I was engineering, producing, and then somehow hitting the red button and turning in a solid bass performance. I was fortunate enough to have a second engineer on some of the sessions, but it was usually just me. We recorded most everything live, usually 16 inputs all at once. Making sure each one of those mics was well placed, managing bleed, managing phase relationships, watching levels, coaching, arranging, THEN somehow forgetting all that stuff, settling down and being a musician… that’s an intense day. Much of that intensity was around knowing that I was committing to my sonic decisions; that I could change some stuff in post, but what happened in that room on that day was going to be pretty much what the final version would sound like. Knowing that, I spent a LOT of time on setup, knowing that a studio full of musicians wouldn’t be too keen on waiting around for an hour while I chase down an extraneous noise or troubleshoot other problems. (Although I certainly did make everyone wait a couple times because I didn’t want to compromise sonics just so we could get started.) For what turned out to be the biggest couple days of recording basic tracks, I had Dan Luerhing come in the night before to set up drums. We spent 6 hours getting his little 4-piece kit dialed in. I think we spent 2 hours on the floor tom. That yielded some of the best drum sounds I’ve ever recorded. (That, and the fact that Dan is one of the baddest cats I’ve ever heard). I literally spent as much time on setup (or more!) than the length of the session in some cases. That paid off huge.
  • People will listen to your album for the rest of their lives if it’s awesome, and they have probably already forgotten that it took you 6 months longer than you said it would.