Ask Abbey Road: Chris Bolster shares tips on mixing
Abbey Road Studios in-house engineer Chris Bolster tells us how to get great mixes, his essential hardware mixing rack and more.
Taken in 1970, this picture shows the TG MK4 console in action in Studio Three
We’re proud to partner with Abbey Road Studios to present Ask Abbey Road, a brand-new series where you get to put your pressing production questions to the experts at what is almost without question the world’s most famous studio.
In part one of our first instalment, Abbey Road Studios in-house engineer Chris Bolster runs through his essential recording tips and techniques, with advice on tracking orchestras and kick drums. Here, we discuss all things mixing.
Ash Hall asks: I’m trying to achieve what might be the impossible – a low, weighty bass drum and a big-sounding octave-bass guitar. Do you have any tips on how I can make this more achievable, please?
Chris Bolster: It is completely dependent upon the programme material. Ideally, try and have source recordings as close to a final desired sound as possible. When tracking, you should be defining this somewhat and not thinking that everything can be fixed in the mix. Think about players’ parts, tones and their interactions between one another. This is an essential, key point in helping things balance well.
Also, I mostly feel if something’s not there when tracking, it’s never really going to be. If something is missing when you’re mixing, then you just have to dig deep and find a way to keep the excitement constant. So try some crazy things that help excite the elements that are missing from the mix. If you can describe what’s missing, you just have to find where and how to excite those elements with the tools you have to hand.
Andres Martinez asks: What is your ‘essential’ mixing hardware rack?
CB: How big can my rack be? There’s just so much to choose from, and I would definitely change a few items depending on projects, but most-used are as follows: compression: Urei 1176, Teletronix LA-2A, LA-4A, Fairchild 660, Smart Research C1 or C2, ADL 1000, EMI TG12413, dbx 160X. EQ: Neve, SSL, Pultec, Helios, API, Prism. Effects: EMT plate, Lexicon 224 and 480 or Bricasti M7, AMS RMX-16 and DMX, Eventide H3000, a good tape delay and spring reverb unit and definitely some guitar stomp pedals. See, that’s more than a rack already!
Chiaoyun Yung asks: Even if I have just a few plug-ins, can I mix music as well as engineers in studios that have lots of outboard gear?
CB: I would hope so. A great mix should not be about where and how it’s mixed. It’s about presenting the audio in an exciting and sympathetic manner. Believe me, though, a great desk, good outboard in a good studio does make obtaining some exciting sounds faster and more organic than working in the box! Not as much scrolling involved.
Two mixers will have different interpretations of a mix, both having elements that are more appealing than the other. But, the best mix is one that represents the song in the most satisfying way to the artist and production team.
Clay Blair asks: How often do you guys use the REDD desks and the RS124s?
CB: They do get used – the REDD is mostly used on mix sessions along with our TG desks. The RS124s are requested a lot, a bit like a Fairchild 660 or a Neumann U 47/48 in this place. It’s all ‘time and place’ with the equipment at Abbey Road, good for some sessions and not others.
They all have their own unique tone and character that people want to hear. It’s always nice to have happy clients recording through a recording chain they’ve always dreamt of. It helps the creative flow when you are comfortable with the recording process, just listen to the smiles and joy.
Michael Zaremba asks: Do you create different mixes for YouTube and for CD? Do you compensate for the way low-frequency instruments react on laptops?
CB: No, I have only ever provided one version of the mix for different formats, sometimes adjusting the low end for internet-only use. But, with so many different possible formats and the possibility of that platform being able to adjust supplied audio, it seems less of an issue. Or, at least, a problem that hasn’t arisen for me. I mostly feel that a good mix, of a great song, is going to stand out well on any system because of these achievements.
Next up on Ask Abbey Road, we have the studio’s Senior Recording Engineer Andrew Dudman to field your questions.