Mixerman: It's All About the Music
Brian Marshak, January 2016

Eric Sarafin. Mixerman. Whether as a recording engineer, mix engineer, musician, producer, or author, he is anything but subtle. He is opinionated, talented, honest and direct. His work with Ben Harper, Foreigner, Lifehouse, Hilary Duff, Days of the New, The Pharcyde and many others speaks for itself. Having just released his new book, he took some time to do this interview for Softube.

Eric Sarafin is not only one of the most sought after mix engineers around. To a wide audience of recordists, mixers and musicians, he's also well known for his skills as an author. It all began with The Daily Adventures of Mixerman, a hilariously funny diary of a high budget recording session where Mixerman himself seems to be the only reasonably sane person around. It was first published online, but is now available as a physical book. In case anyone would still like be working in the recording industry after having read that, Mixerman released three fantastic tutorial books that go deep into the process of mixing, producing and recording. Highly recommended.

It was such an atrocious song that no one would be impressed with my work on it. That was a crushing blow. It was also one of the most important lessons of my budding career.

On your website (mixerman.net), I saw the following quote. "The moment you start to think in musical terms, your recordings will improve a hundredfold." I agree with this quote, but would love for you to expand and comment on it.

Young recordists and mixers often attempt to separate sound from music. I remember a time as I was developing when I was finishing up a mix, and I was so proud of it because it was the first mix I'd ever done where I really felt like I had control over the sound. But when I played it for my peer, who was also learning how to mix, his response was that the song sucked, so who cares how good the mix was? I argued with him over that, but then realized that he was absolutely right.

Not only did the song suck, but also more importantly it made my good work rather irrelevant. Although the client was ecstatic, I wasn't there to judge his music, but to do the best job I could. But for purposes of advancing my career, that song and mix would do nothing for me. It was such an atrocious song that no one would be impressed with my work on it. That was a crushing blow. It was also one of the most important lessons of my budding career. Sound and music are inextricably attached, and a great sounding mix is irrelevant to a listener if they find the song terrible. So, why worry about sound, when all that matters to the listener is the music? And yeah, that may seem kind of weird coming from someone who is often in charge of the sound, but then that's the point. Even the mixer should be more concerned with the music than the sound, because one doesn't exist without the other when it comes to a song. And if you make your decisions in a mix based on the music, then you are always benefitting the song, and you will be a badass mixer because of it. If you think about sound in the context of the music, in particular how the music makes you feel and move, then you are manipulating the sound for all the right reasons. Sound does not live in a vacuum. There is no such thing as good sound, unless the sound has a purpose. There is only good sound as it relates to the music. Therefore, you should try to always think musically.

These days, guitars are often delivered with inadequate drive for the nature of the part. My first choice for fixing that sort of problem is Vintage Amp Room, Metal Amp Room and Bass Amp Room. All of which distort great and give me a plethora of options and flexibility in terms of tone.

I notice you mention speed as an ally while mixing, and that if you get to a second day of mixing, you will most likely have to do a third day as well. Would you say mixing is as much or more feel and musicality, than technical ability?

I'm not even sure what technical ability is as it relates to mixing. Your ability to hear, and how you hear are far more important than anything technical. I mean, plugging in an EQ or a compressor, whether hardware or plug-in really doesn't require much technical ability. You can learn how these tools work by rote, just by turning the knobs. I suppose gain staging might be important to know a little about, but you don't have to go to school to hear distortion or to recognize that the red overage lights are indicating a problem. Certainly after two decades of mixing, I can solve problems quickly because I recognize patterns, and have developed tricks for dealing with all sorts of common problems. Some of these tricks are musical, and some are technical. At the end of the day, you need to use technical adjustments to make the mix, so there's no getting around that. But the more you focus on technical fixes the more you're missing the point of why you're there.

What are some common issues or problems you encountered during your formative studio years in Boston?

That's a whole different era. The digital tools of today put way more control at the fingertips of today's mixer and engineer, but I'm not sure that's a good thing when you're first learning. It's difficult to be disciplined when you have so much processing at your disposal at all times. When you have a limited collection of compressors as I did, you had to be far more meticulous about how you recorded, and you had to sometimes make difficult choices. Today, you can put a compressor on everything, and surely that has its advantages. On the other hand, it's also very easy to kill a mix that way. At Dimension Sound in Boston, I had access to two 1176s, a Valley People Gain Brain limiter, a Valley People Dyna-mite compressor, two Pultec EQs, an EMT 140, and then of course there was EQ on the board. There was also an MCI JH-24 and two Ampex analog 2-track machines with 1/4" headstocks. At one point the studio got a Yamaha SPX-90, just so we could sound modern. That was it. That's all we had available as far as processing was concerned. We did, however, have an excellent and reasonably substantial mic collection there. Because of the processing limitations, I was forced to learn how to use mic placement to my advantage and to reduce my need for compressors and EQ. Today, you can rely on your tools over placement because the tools are abundant and time limited. Unfortunately, fixing issues from poor mic placement is often more time consuming than taking the time to get it right in the first place.

TSAR-1 Reverb is one of the best sounding verbs out there at the moment.

So, how does one develop the skills and the discipline necessary to learn good mic placement today? One would have to purposely put limitations upon oneself, like an exercise. I've done those sorts of exercises on recordings. I've started projects with the goal of using mic technique rather than EQ and compression, and it's rather revelatory. The processing isn't generally necessary when you take the care to get the mics placed properly in the first place.

If you would, please discuss details of your new book.

Well, it's another adventure, like my first book. It's called Mixerman and the Billionheir Apparent. I started posting the story in August and I think people are going to really enjoy it. We are in an entirely different era of the music business now, and I have a few things to say on that. This book goes right to the heart of the matter and will keep everyone entrained to boot. I'll be posting the story in it's entirety on my website, mixerman.net and I encourage you all to have a visit.

As a talented musician, producer, engineer and mixer do you ever find yourself feeling spread too thin to satisfy all of your artistic abilities?

Today, when I make a record, I'm often the recordist, the mixer, and the producer. Because I've done all three of those jobs at a high level, I can get away with it, but it's certainly not ideal, nor preferred. As the producer and the engineer, at all times one of those jobs is suffering because they each require completely different focus. I can rely on a staff assistant to cover much of the engineering side for me, but yes, I'm still spread thin, more so than I prefer.

I found your analog versus digital mix bus comments very interesting. Most mixers I know typically mix into their mix bus so it would make sense that your mix bus be the core tone of your song/mix. How did you end up with your mix bus chain as it is today?

Experimentation. These days, I'm running multiple outputs from my Antelope Orion 32, clocked with an Antelope 10M into my two Dangerous 2-Bus units, summed into my analog SSL G384 stereo compressor, into my analog Pulse Technics EQP1a3s, back into the DAW. Generally speaking I only strap analog gear onto the 2-bus, and rarely strap it to an individual channel.

With so many available options within the digital domain, what do you reach for without thinking twice? For example, do you have a go-to insert chain and process that you always follow no matter what the song is, or are you more open to being spontaneous and trying new tools to achieve your end goal?

I try to avoid go-to anything. I have tendencies, but every song and recording is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to that. Again, over time you begin to recognize patterns, and you develop go-to ways to fix those problems. And I certainly have tools that I will reach for first. But really, I'm usually just making educated guesses as to what the best tool is to fix a particular problem. After that it becomes a matter of trial and error to some degree. If my first choice doesn't do the job, then I'm going to try other fixes. And I'm always open to trying something I've never done before.

Dyna-mite ... holy shit! This plug-in sounds exactly as I remember the original. It's so perfectly aggressive, and that's very useful when you want to hammer a part with compression.

Which are your favorite Softube plug-ins, and what do you like about them? In what situations do you typically find yourself using them?

Well, let's start with the Softube guitar amp models. Guitar players and recordists seem to shy away from the distortion these days. When I learned recording, you really had to get the drive right at the time of the recording. But now you can easily and convincingly add distortion with a plug-in, and so guitars are often delivered with inadequate drive for the nature of the part. My first choice for fixing that sort of problem is the Vintage Amp Room, Metal Amp Room, and Bass Amp Room. All of which distort great and give me a plethora of options and flexibility in terms of tone. Being able to introduce room tone by moving the virtual mics off of the cabs is exceptionally useful, and it's why the first virtual amps I reach for are usually the Softube Amp series of plug-ins.

I also love the Spring Reverb, which is perfectly trashy, just like the real thing. Frankly, I think it's the most realistic spring reverb out there. Then there's Valley People Dyna-mite ... holy shit! This plug-in sounds exactly as I remember the original. It's so perfectly aggressive, and that's very useful when you want to hammer a part with compression. Plus, the TSAR-1 Reverb is one of the best sounding verbs out there at the moment.

You really can't go wrong with any of the Softube plug-ins. Which is why I have nearly the entire line.

What does the rest of 2015 and 2016 and beyond look like for you?

Well, for starters, I'm in the process of a big move to Asheville, North Carolina, where I'll be a freelance producer. Echo Mountain Studios is there, which is my favorite recording room anywhere, and I've been eyeing a move to there for some time now. Asheville is a hotbed of music, and I just don't have to live in LA anymore to mix and produce records. I often travel to produce records, and I don't even personally meet half of my mix clients anymore. People just send me the files, and I send them back mixes, and we do notes by email and Skype.

Once I get settled in my new spot in Asheville and get my room up and running, I'm probably going to get right to work on the audiobook for Mixerman and the Billionheir Apparent. I'll also be looking for acts to produce, and records to mix. I'm looking forward to the change in scenery.

Freelance guitarist, recording and mix engineer, pro audio writer.
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