Mixing with Mack

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Not many mixers can say that they were around for the birth of quad, but esteemed producer/engineer Mack, with a Who’s Who list of credits such as Queen, Led Zepplin, Deep Purple, The Stones, Black Sabbath, and a host of other seminal rock acts, actually mixed in that format. So, after his abbreviated run at multichannel music some 25 years ago, Mack has once again immersed himself in the surround waters, this time with 5.1 mixes for Billy Squier, Sparks, and Freddie Mercury. Now with his sons Julian (sound design, music composition, and programming) and Felix (graphics and animation), Mack’s Nightjar LLC has all the creative aspects of DVD covered, and he’ll be the first to admit that there’s no turning back to stereo.

What do you think the difference is between stereo and surround?

Stereo is like in being in a sausage factory where you have to pack a pound of meat into a half-pound sausage. Then you have surround, which is actually easier than it used to be when I started mixing quad. We thought that if you’d just get a couple more speakers in the back then it would be rockin’, but it really didn’t translate too well. Now with five speakers and a subwoofer, it’s a little bit more stable.

What projects did you do in Quad?

I did some Deep Purple remixes in ’75 or ’76, but I don’t know if they ever saw the light of day. These days, companies are a little bit more conservative about shelling out money for those types of “experimental” projects than they were at the time. Then it was, “Great, we got a new format so let’s go for it.”

What’s your philosophy in mixing surround? Is your approach different from stereo?

Ideally, if you record something from the ground up, it would be entirely different from doing stereo because you’re thinking a lot more about placement in the first place. When you’re remixing something you have to create all of that space and positioning artificially. You can do a certain amount by sending the sound back into the room and setting up some mics, but that’s a little makeshift because you just can’t simply send some sound to any given speaker. There are a few machines out there that will help, but it’s still not the same as if you had done it when you were recording.

Do you start any differently in surround than you do in stereo?

No, I still start with my normal effects setup, which is the most tedious and long-winded part of the process. I set up the effects returns so that they create proper soundfields for the particular instruments or give the feeling that something is coming out in-between speakers rather than point sources, unless that’s what you’re going for.

Do you set your soundfields up so that there’s a separate one in the front and rear, or do you set it up side-to-side?

I usually have a couple that are for all five speakers with something like a TC or Lexicon. Then I have a whole bunch of shorter delays that might be criss-crossed left-front to right-rear and vice versa so I can actually move something into the room by creating some first reflections. Do you set up the same number of delays before you start?

I have a bunch of standard setups that would require maybe eight sends and 24 returns. These are all different delays that are short (between 16 to 60 milliseconds) and timed to the track. I hate nothing more than starting a mix and then deciding that I need something different because then I start fiddling with that and I tend to loose my train of thought of what I wanted to do. Essentially it’s having your toolbag right next to your side so you have it when you need it. That’s very similar to stereo.

Do you treat the center speaker any differently?

I use it with caution. I like to put in a vocal just to anchor the soundfield. Looking at a home theater system, people are used to having the entire dialog coming out of the center. Since most home setups aren’t perfect, it’s handy to have something anchored there.

Are you using anything special for reverbs or treating them specially?

I’m using multiple reverbs that have the times adjusted. As a rule of thumb – a little longer in the back and a little shorter in the front and EQ’d so that it’s a little darker in the rear and a little more sparkling in the front.

How different is your setup from stereo? Is it the same standard setup that you use?

As a starting point, essentially it’s the same as working in stereo, although it might change drastically for any given track.

What are you using for dynamics? Are you treating anything differently?

I’m treating lead instruments like vocals essentially the same as in a stereo situation. If you have a rock-solid bass and vocal for music, it’s easier. If it’s instrumental, you hardly have to do anything because there’s so many more positions to put things so there’s a lot less fighting. How does mixing to picture affect the mix?

In the case of the Billy Squier DVD, it’s more like being at the concert. If you have a cut to the keyboards, then you give it a little nudge. It helps a great deal to have the picture because you get all your visual cues.

I don’t think that you should be totally ruled by the picture. Even in a concert you hear things coming from all around you. I just go by if it sounds right. If something sounds contrived, then obviously I wouldn’t do it.

Did you mix off the 24-track, or did you transfer it to a workstation?

I transferred it 24-bit at 48k because I knew that it was going to be a video DVD, so I couldn’t use a higher sampling rate. It’s so much easier in a workstation because you don’t have to listen all the way through to make automation notes. I can just look and see where the toms are playing, for instance, and turn them on at that point.

Are you doing all your automation in the workstation?

Yes, I do all the mutes there. The EQ I do mostly on the console [a Yamaha 02R]. For dynamics, I use analog outboard gear. For rock music, you have to stick to stuff that’s proven and works. I don’t think that the digital dynamics have the same feel, although the Waves stuff is pretty clever. The extra conversions that you have to go through still don’t outweigh the benefits that you get from the tube gear.

You designed your room for surround. Anybody that dedicates their room to 5.1 has mentally made the leap to not work in stereo any more.

Yeah, my basic setup is definitely for surround, but I still use the Tannoys with Manley crossovers for left and right, which are my favorite speakers for stereo. The other three speakers are the Tannoy System1000’s, which are basically the same except for the material that the cones are made of. For subs, I’m using two Tannoy PS-110’s that are mounted above the main monitors. I control the system with a Studio Technologies monitor controller and bass manager.

I also have a Studer A-80 16-track that I bought from Jeff Lynne who bought it from the studio that I worked at in Munich. It was the one that we did Marc Bolan, The Stones, and Deep Purple on. I spent a tremendous amount of time fixing it up, but it’s in good shape now, and it’s definitely a great asset to have around. It gets used a lot, but in a different way than most people use an analog multitrack. I use it for spikey things like drums and percussion that I record onto the machine, then load it into the workstation. So we have the best of three worlds here – workstation, digital console and analog.

What are you delivering your surround mixes on?

I try to get them on hard drive or CD-R if possible so they can just load it into their workstation. I want to avoid any tape (like DA-98) if possible because then you avoid all the timecode problems that can happen. Since we’re doing a lot of DVD menus and menu music, in the beginning I had some problems because they were used to getting that stuff on DA-88, so it took a bit of convincing that this was actually more convenient for them. Everybody that I’ve convinced so far has come back and said, “Why didn’t we do that in the first place?”

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