Getting his start in Atlanta in the 70s engineering and producing hits for Paul Davis, Peabo Bryson, and Melissa Manchester, Ed Seay has become one of the most respected and influential engineers in Nashville since moving there in 1984. With hit-making clients such as Blake Shelton, Lee Brice, Martina McBride, Ricky Skaggs, Dolly Parton, Pam Tillis, Highway 101, Collin Raye, and a host of others, Ed has led the charge in changing the recording approach in Nashville. In this excerpt from the 4th edition of my Mixing Engineer’s Handbook, Ed also describes how both he and Nashville have embraced mixing “in the box.”
“Do you hear the final product in your head before you begin to mix?
To some extent I can. Rather than just randomly pushing up faders and saying, “Well, a little of this EQ or effect might be nice,” I like to have a vision as far as where we’re going and what’s the perspective. Definitely, I try to grasp that early on.
Is there a difference between mixing country music and other genres?
Country music is definitely lyric driven. One of the mistakes that some people make when they try to work on the stuff is they tend to downplay the lyric or downplay the lead vocal. In pop and in rock, sometimes you don’t always hear every word, and it’s kind of okay if it’s buried just a little bit, but country is usually not that way. People definitely sing along with country songs, so that’s the biggest thing. The vocal rules, but at the same time, it’s pretty boring if it’s all vocals and it sounds like a country record from the ’60s, where you don’t have any power in there. There’s an art to keeping the vocal on top without making it dominate.
How much do you mix in the box?
I mix in the box about 95 percent of the time. If someone says, “I wanna mix on a big console,” I say, “Great. Let’s go,” but every time I do that I look back and think, “That sure is easier to do in the box.” Actually I started mixing in the box back in 1999, so I was one of the pioneers, at least in Nashville. I saw what was coming and embraced it not only as the future, but also as the present. In fact, I mixed the first in-the-box country record to go number one: “Austin” by Blake Shelton [in 2001].
Part of what’s really changed in the business recently is that we live in a recall world now. It’s so important to have the ability to recall something 10 times to turn something up or down, and that gets cost-prohibitive on a console since your paying for the room and the assistant and everything that comes with a studio. Mixing in the box is really the way records are made these days, and so many of the big records are done that way. I’m glad that I embraced it early.
When you start to mix, how do you build it?
Well, I’ll usually go through and push up instruments to see if there are any trouble spots. All this is dependent upon whether it’s something that I’ve recorded or if I’m hearing it fresh and have no idea what it is. If that’s the case, then what I’ll do is kind of rough mix it out real quick. I’ll push it up and see where it’s going before I start diving in.
If it’s something that I know, then I’ll go through and mold the sounds in a minor way to fit the modern profile that it needs to be in. In other words, if it has a real flabby, dull kick drum, it doesn’t matter what the vision is; this kick drum’s never going to get there, and I’ll do whatever I have to do to make it so. I’ll work through my mix like that and try to get everything up into the acceptable range, or the exceptional range, or at least somewhere that can be worked with. It takes a couple of hours to get good sounds on everything, and then another couple of hours to get real good balances. After that I’ll do some frequency juggling so that everybody is out of everybody else’s way.
The last stage of the mix and the toughest part is the several hours it takes me to make it sound emotional and urgent and exciting so that it’s just not a song, it’s a record. It’s taking it beyond sounding just good and making it sound like an event.
How do you go about doing that?
I try to find what’s important in the mix. I try to find out if the lead vocal is incredibly passionate and then make sure that the spotlight shines on it. Or if the acoustics are sitting there but not really driving the song like they need to, sometimes playing with compression on them can make it sound like, “Boy, this guy was into it.” Maybe it’s pushing and pulling different instruments. Somebody’s got to be back, and sometimes it’s better when things are back and other things are farther up front. Sometimes it means making sure your cymbals or your room mics are where you can actually feel the guy, or sometimes adding compression can be the answer to making the thing come alive. Sometimes hearing the singer breathe like on the old Steve Miller records. With a little of that, you might say, “Man, he’s working. I believe it.” It’s a little subconscious thing, but sometimes that can help. It’s just basically playing with it and trying to put into it that indefinable thing that makes it exciting.
When you’re building your mix, are you starting with bass first or starting with the kick drum?
I start with the kick drum sound, but then I put up the drum kit and put the bass in. Then I’ll push up all the static channels that aren’t going to have giant moves, like the acoustic stuff, keyboard pads, maybe a synth or Rhodes or piano that doesn’t have a whole bunch of stepping-out licks.
Early on, I’ll try to make sure that there’s room for the lead vocal. I think one of the big mistakes is to work on your track for eight hours and get it blistering hot and barking, but then have no way for this vocal to cut through. You’re then faced with the choice of turning this baritone vocal into steel wool with ridiculous EQ, or just turning him up so loud that he sounds inappropriate. It’s cool to have a bright record as long as everything kind of comes up together, but if you’ve got an incredibly bright snare drum and the vocal’s not so bright, then it makes the vocal sound even duller. If you’re thinking all the way to the end when you master the record and add EQ, it’ll brighten the vocal, but it’s also going to bring up the snare even more, so you have to have everything in perspective.
Eventually I get the vocals in and get the backgrounds around them; then I put up the solos and the signature stuff. At that point I get an overall rough balance of everything that sits there pretty well and then juggle the pieces.”
You can read more from The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com. You can also get more mixing tips from Ed during his interview on my Inner Circle Podcast.