“Bassy” Bob Brockman has a wide range of awards and credits, including more than 30 Grammy nominations with two wins, and an Oscar nomination. His many credits include Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton, the Notorious B.I.G., Babyface, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, The O’Jays, Brian McKnight, Jodeci, Faith Hill, Korn, Laurie Anderson, Vanessa Williams, Christina Aguilera, Diddy, Herbie Hancock, the Fugees, Santana, and Sting. He’s very much of the “old school/new school” in that his formative years as an engineer were spent in the analog world, but he’s quite at home in the current digital one as well. In this interview taken from the 4th edition of my Mixing Engineer’s Handbook, Bob describes his mixing process.
Can you hear the final product in your head when you begin to mix?
Yeah, probably. I think that I probably make some subconscious and non-verbal judgments when I first hear a song. I make a judgment on style and then go through a couple hours familiarizing myself with all the parts, then I try to see what’s really crucial and what could be wallpaper. I then find whether there’s something that’s really important that I should make the listener aware of.
The first 20 years of my career I had a producer standing right next to me, telling me what parts were important. It’s less so now because I see fewer people. I get sent digital files, and I sort of end up making those mix/production decisions on my own and end up delivering a more or less finished mix to the producer or the band; then I’ll get notes on what to tweak.
Where do you start your mix from?
I’ve always mixed the whole thing together at the same time. In the old days I would set up everything across the console and very quickly sort of push things into place manually. I do the same thing now in Pro Tools, although I don’t think it will ever be as intuitive a process in mixing in a DAW as on a console. There’s something about sitting at a console with a bunch of faders and being able to grab something and move it, which is hard to replicate with a mouse, but I’ve gotten used to that workflow these days.
Another thing is I’ve been mixing with my eyes closed for most of my career. It was something that I started doing when I was 23 or 24 years old. I think I have an easier time visualizing the three-dimensional panorama that’s coming out of the speakers. It’s also a tool to help me to localize things. Somehow when I close my eyes it’s easier for me to see an instrument or vocal by removing my eyes from the equation altogether.
How loud do you listen?
I listen pretty loud [laughs]. It’s loud enough that I drive everybody out of the room for the first couple hours of the mix. I think it’s important to know what the music sounds like loud, but once I’ve made the global decisions about the low end, then I’ll usually go down pretty quiet, and that’s where I tend to stay for the remainder of the mix. I might bring it back up when I’m getting closer to print just to make sure that there isn’t anything that’s too harsh on any of the really loud things of the mix.
What do you deliver to the client these days?
I used to deliver a vocal up a dB and a dB and a half, but it’s really not necessary anymore. I now deliver a lead vocal a cappella, a background a cappella, a TV track, and a main pass. Whoever is mastering the mix can put all those parts together to make a fix, as opposed to me delivering a lot more mixes. I always thought it was absurd to deliver a mix with the lead vocal up a dB and half because it’s usually not what you need. You usually only need a breath or a word or a chorus where it’s just not loud enough. I don’t think they ever got used anyway. I did that for about 15 years, but not anymore.
Has your philosophy changed from when you started to now, especially now with the digital workflow?
Yeah, it’s changed a lot. There’s so much detail in every mix now. I find myself automating almost every aspect of everything in the mix, whether it’s changing the EQ of the backgrounds as they go into the chorus so they punch through, or automating the sends and returns to each of the effects. I’m also constantly filtering things like delay returns to make them brighter or duller at different sections of the song. It’s now so much more involved and detailed than anything that I would’ve ever been able to accomplish on a normal analog console.
When I go back and listen to mixes that I did 15 years ago, I think, “Wow, that record is kind of fat,” because it was done on an analog desk, but it’s certainly not as involved and detailed as the mixes are now. It was enough to have a mix that had a great sound and a great feel to it 15 years ago, but everyone expects a lot more precision today. I also find that I’m doing 15 to 20 revisions now, and that just never happened earlier in my career. People just have the ability to endlessly make changes, and because they can, they do.
You can read more from The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.