If you’ve enjoyed the big hits from Lady Gaga’s The Fame and The Fame Monster albums, such as “Poker Face,” “Paparazzi,” and “Just Dance,” then Robert Orton is your man. After spending eight years at the side of producer extraordinaire Trevor Horn, Robert has gone on to craft hits for Robbie Williams, Enrique Iglesias, Ellie Goulding, Carly Rae Jepsen, Flo Rida, Kelis, Usher, Mary J. Blige, and Marilyn Manson, among many others, while winning a few Grammy awards for his work along the way. Robert is also one of the first hitmakers influenced by earlier versions of my Mixing Engineer’s Handbook. Says Robert, “The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook is one that I remember studying very closely when I was an aspiring mixer hoping to catch a break.” Here’s a portion of his interview from that book.
“There always seems to be a lot of layers in your mixes. I know you started with Trevor Horn, and his stuff is like that as well. Is that where you got that technique from?
Robert Orton: I worked with Trevor for eight years, and I learned so much. He’s so talented and just an unbelievable guy. I learned something from him every day I worked for him, and I’m sure that if I worked with him again, I’d still learn something new from him. It’s true that he layers a lot of things. Most of his multi-tracks tended to have a lot of parts, and mixing that stuff was difficult in terms of the track density, so I got used to layering things and figuring out how they fit together. That rubbed off on me, and I certainly do approach mixes like that now.
You’re not afraid to go wet on a mix even though the trend is to stay dry.
I just do what feels right, really. It’s about creating shifts in perspective and excitement between different sections of the song. There’s definitely a lot of that going on in the Gaga stuff, with extra delays that come in on the chorus and that kind of thing. Dry is good because it can be in your face, but a bit of wetness can position things and stop them from bumping into one another.
You seem to use a lot more delay than reverb.
Yeah, I don’t use much reverb at all, actually. Sometimes I’ll use it more as an effect if there’s a big moment that needs some sort of emphasis, but generally I try to stick with delays because you’re left with more space in the track.
Do you use a set number of delays right from the beginning of the mix?
I do have a template that I start from, but to be honest, everything’s individually tailored for each mix. I don’t really know what I’m going to need until I start diving in. I normally just listen to it and tweak as it’s needed. I spend a lot of time on the vocal because that’s often the most important element of a mix. I add effects while listening to the vocal in the track, because what’s on a vocal can really influence the way the backing tracks feel against it.
I notice that you use a lot of stereo delays as well.
Yeah, I do that to create excitement in the mix. You’ve got frequency to use and you’ve got depth to use, but certainly there’s width that you can create excitement with, too. Things that sit far left and right in the mix can make it sound more exciting. Having different delays on either side can often make a vocal sound bigger, but at the same time they don’t get in the way of the direct sound.
Do you have a particular approach to using EQ?
I use a number of approaches, actually. Sometimes I’ll hear a frequency that I don’t like; then I’ll use some subtraction. Other times I might think, “This just needs to be brighter,” and I’ll just turn the knobs until it sounds right. I don’t think too much about the frequencies, and I’m definitely not afraid to boost a lot.
Having said that, I don’t just go in and EQ everything. I think the best advice I could give anyone who wants to mix is to learn when not to process something. The more you process things, the worse it sounds, I generally find. To me, mixing is more about balance and groove and getting that to happen. I always try to get the mix to sound as good as I can just with the balance before I go in and start EQing. I might fix something at the beginning of a mix if it feels wrong to me, but I don’t just jump right in and EQ things. I think that leads to more of a mess than anything.
How much compression do you use?
I’m quite light with it. I do often use some compression over the mix buss, but I don’t automatically put it on. I find that sometimes compression helps the groove of the song. I don’t really use compression to hold things down in their place unless there’s an obvious problem. I might compress a lead vocal quite heavily to maybe bring out a certain energy in it, but generally I don’t compress a lot. A lot of mixing for me is about feeling the movement and the groove, and a little bit of compression in the right area can help certain elements fit in the pocket and make that happen, so I might use a little for that.
The Gaga stuff is a really good example. “Just Dance” has a slightly odd drum pattern that sounds a bit like four on the floor, but the four was actually just the snare. I used an SSL buss compressor across the mix, and it really helped that feel because of the way the kick and the snare reacted to it. That’s a good example of how buss compression can influence the groove of a song. I use compression more like that, really. I don’t automatically reach for it, but sometimes it can really help accentuate the groove.
What’s your approach when you have a song that uses a synth instead of a bass guitar for the bottom end?
I think you have to approach it slightly differently, because quite often those types of synth sounds interact with other parts of the song. Maybe the top end of it is buzzy or something like that, and it’s not always just the traditional low end that you’re looking for from some of those parts. Sometimes I approach that by maybe multing it out so I’ve got the bottom end from it [on one channel], but treat it in parallel and then blend the sounds together.
I’ve noticed that in those kinds of songs you’ve made the kick a little bigger than it might normally be, so it takes up a lot of those frequencies as well.
I tend to mix the kick drum quite loud in that style of music. I know that’s a bit of a trend at the moment as well, but I like to hear it thump you in the chest. Sometimes I’ll use a trick like compressing the bass every time the kick hits so you don’t need to balance the kick as loud for it to have impact.
So you’re keying it, then?
Sometimes. That’s certainly a good trick when you have a dense bass synth that’s taking up a lot of space. Sometimes that kind of trick can open up space in the mix if done subtly enough.
How long does it take you to do a mix?
I do a mix in a day. I normally start at noon and keep working until it’s done. Sometimes I go home at 10 in the evening, and sometimes I go home at four in the morning; it depends. When I’m not under a really strict deadline, I like to come in and listen the next day as well. Going away and getting a fresh perspective with a new pair of ears can be very valuable.”
You can read more from Robert Orton and The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.