Aug 7, 2012
Watching Chris Lord-Alge mix is is like watching a virtuoso pianist.
As you can see in the video above, he’s the master of Big Moves – swinging himself from side to side across a massive console; “conducting” the mix; playing air-guitar in all the solos and miming every drum fill.
But like an extravagant pianist, the truth is none of this has an influence on the sound whatsoever. It doesn’t matter what beautiful shapes a pianist makes in the air after playing a note, and it doesn’t matter how much of a flourish “CLA” makes when he hits the automation punch-in – the song will sound the same.
Or will it ? Actually, I don’t think that’s true. I’ll explain why in a minute.
Watching the mix
I was lucky enough to get the chance to watch CLA in action myself just last week. Mike Banks from the awesome RecordProduction.com site set up a masterclass with “the Lord” at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios and asked me if I’d like to go along. Since I’ve always wanted to visit Real World I jumped at the chance. The opportunity to watch a “big name” mixer like Chris was an added bonus. Personally I’m not the biggest fan of his distinctive, heavily compressed sound, but I certainly appreciate the skill and technique that goes into creating it.
The day followed the same pattern as the paid sessions CLA has been running recently in Paris. He introduced himself, gave a brief and very entertaining summary of his history in the business, including several very funny anecdotes, and then played a selection of songs he has worked on, including his first ever professional credit (which sounded superb) and his latest – Muse’s epic Olympic Anthem “Survival”. Throughout he explained some of the key parts of his philiosophy, and how he came to learn their importance – commitment, preparation and focus were recurring themes.
Next came the section that inspired this post. CLA did an “instant mix” from the raw(*) Pro Tools files of “Holiday/Boulevard of Broken Dreams” by Green Day, armed only with a couple of 1176 compressors – and of course Real World’s magnificent SSL 9000 XL K series console, with it’s all-important buss compressor.
Solid State Logic have played a very significant part in CLA’s career, and he was happy to pass on his love of their products during the day. SSL organised the event – not surprisingly, since Peter Gabriel owns the company, as well as Real World – and their head designer Chris Jenkins was there, even helping CLA find his way around the K-series console’s automation ! (Chris is more of a “G-man”.)
(*) Although the mix was coming straight from Pro Tools, it was by no means entirely raw – there were plenty of edits, and some printed effects – I’m pretty sure the drums were all pre-gated, for example. Cheating ? You decide…
The “Big Room”
I need to pause for a minute to comment on Real World’s “Big Room“. Chris began the day by saying “I love big rooms – they suit my personality”, and the Big Room is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is…
Anyway. I wrote briefly about it years ago, wondering how it sounds. Now I know – it sounds great, despite being so huge. I take off my hat to the designers who made it work – and gave it such a great view !
Mixing in sections
Chris next talked a little more about his approach to mixing and his philosophy, after which he made another pass through the mix, adding automation. This was fascinating – I’m in the process of reading Ken Scott’s great book “From Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust” (read it, now !) and finding his description of how he worked before automation was available particularly interesting.
Ken mixed in short sections, setting up individually for each pass and editing the master together afterwards. This is something I’ve done myself many times mixing from tape to computer, and it turns out it’s exactly how CLA likes to work too, punching in the automation for each new section of the song.
The final pass of the mix didn’t happen, sadly – ironically because of a technical fault with the SSL. But this gave extra time for Q&A with CLA, who gave snappy, entertaining answers – including the fact that his “benchmark album” for sound is “Wish You Were Here”, which surprised me, as did the fact that he’s a huge Peter Gabriel fan.
I avoided provoking an argument with him about mastering from stems (he says he never allows this, feeling it compromises his contribution to the mix) and instead asked his opinion of the loudness wars, given his reputation for producing heavily compressed mixes. He skirted around this a little by simply saying he thinks they are “a joke” but also said he was happy for a mastering engineers to make a mix louder if it didn’t compromise the sound of the original mix. His mastering engineer of choice is Ted Jensen – so I guess it depends what you think “compromising the mix” means ;-p
Overall it was a great day, and I’d like to say thanks again to Mike and the SSL team for putting it on and inviting me.
Mixing as a performance
So, back to CLA’s mixing – why do I say that his flamboyant style can actually influence the sound ?
Because it’s not the movements themselves that are significant – it’s what they mean about his state of mind.
Chris only starts moving like this when he’s “in the zone”. The day I was there, that meant halfway through the first pass of the mix – when he got even more into it than he is in the video above – and in the later stages of the automation passes. Once he gets into the flow, everything comes naturally, he works faster, follows his instincts – and the way he moves is part of it.
It’s something we all know – when everything is starting to click, you naturally start to move with the music – whether it’s simple head-nodding or full-on air-guitar playing. One of the things I love most about the TC System 6000 is the hardware interface.
And it’s important in another way, too – it conveys something to the audience. For a concert pianist, movement can be an expression of the performer’s personality and help people listening relate to the performer. For a mixer or mastering engineer, it works in exactly the same way – communicating something to the band, artist or manager attending the session.
I’d go as far as to say that for someone of CLA’s calibre and experience, moving like this is a crucial part of the equation – I’m sure it’s so much a part of his technique now that if you suddenly told him he had to stop, it would almost impossible for him to mix.
And as CLA himself says, it’s a strong argument for the value of a hardware mixing console – just imagine a concert pianist trying to play using a mouse !