Singapore Sling

/October 7, 2014
If you’re working in an unfamiliar studio, what precautions do you take to prevent your mixes coming out sounding like dull, bass-heavy foghorns or thin slices of white bread? Have you made sure you’ve tuned your ears and your thinking to the new environment? Hope so.

There are two motivations behind the topic of this discussion. Firstly, since most recording engineers tend to work in only one studio environment nowadays – at home primarily – their capacity for travelling to ‘away games’ seems to be diminishing. Secondly, I’m off to Singapore tomorrow to mix and teach for a week – an ‘away game’ if ever there was one, so I thought now might be an opportune time to address a few of the dos and don’ts involved in this peculiar escapade.

I’ll be in unfamiliar surroundings, recording and mixing on an unfamiliar console in an unfamiliar country. Consequently my head is full of plans about what to take with me so I’m at home in these alien digs.
But there’s a problem. I can’t do the most obvious thing: bring my main monitors along for the ride. I’ve been parked in front of Event Opals for a few years now but unfortunately the studio in Singapore uses mainly Genelecs and Questeds. But because my ‘other’ main monitors happen to be Questeds I’m hoping this will constitute familiarity enough. Either way it will be fascinating to see what some of my recent mixes sound like in these different, high-end, Singaporean surroundings.

Things I will be taking along with me are a hard drive, loaded up with recent multitrack files of mixes I’ve worked on in the last few weeks. These are songs I’m right inside at the moment so I’m intimately acquainted with every nut and bolt of their makeup.
I’ll be taking headphones I know well, including Sennheiser HD650s and a pair of four-way Ear Monitors Australia in-ears that sound fantastic in all contexts. I’ll also be taking several recent CD releases that I’ve been listening to heaps in recent months. These will be on constant rotation, patched into an external input of the console.
I’ll bring my iLok along for the ride too, only because I doubt some of the plug-ins I currently use will be familiar to the studio, although in this case I’ll be mixing primarily in the analogue domain on an SSL Duality, so it’s not a critical item. But hey, it’s light, so I might as well take it.

The main trick with mixing ‘away’ is getting comfortable with the tonal balance of the studio monitors as soon as possible. Setting up your own speakers is pretty useful in this regard if it’s practical – in my situation this week, it isn’t – for the obvious reason that it eliminates the most basic point of difference between your own environment and someone else’s: the monitoring… well, sort of.
The problem with this theory is that in different environments your own monitors can sound quite different. It’s an important fact to acknowledge actually, because there’s only one thing more dangerous than using someone else’s monitors in a foreign environment, and that’s your own monitors assuming they’ll sound identical. They won’t.
It’s certainly a good starting point nonetheless. It makes you feel comfortable from the get-go, seeing your old mates parked in front of you like loyal co-workers. To me the idea of sitting in front of some yellow-coned KRKs for instance would immediately have me reaching for the sick bag. No offense to KRKs loyalists, but I just don’t like them much – at least I didn’t the last time I encountered them.
But speakers don’t sound familiar if there’s nothing that you know well playing through them.

Without doubt, the single most important thing to bring along with you to any ‘away game’ is a CD, or collection of songs that are known to you in a meaningful mixing sense. Ideally these should be songs that sound great out there in the big wide world – commercial hits even, though that’s not critical. The most important thing about these songs, regardless of their pedigree, is that you listen to them regularly during your time at the console.
Don’t leave them in the suitcase; don’t leave them on top of the CD player. Put them on constant rotation, and make an effort to ensure their output is comparable to the listening level of your mix. Patch the CD player into one of the console’s external inputs so that any time you hit that switch, there it is on the monitors.
In the end, the A/B switch is the most powerful tool you can establish in a studio. It allows you to instantly compare your work with something else, and in the context of a foreign environment where the room, the speakers, the console and the outboard might all be alien to you, it’s both comforting and highly informative. Don’t hesitate to set this A/B switch up as your highest priority.

The SSL is an interesting oval to run out onto when you’re playing away, particularly for the first time. I imagine it’s a bit like playing at the MCG in Melbourne – the opening bounce is daunting and the crowd of knobs might overwhelm some, but the focus remains the same.
These consoles are without doubt one of the finest pieces of audio equipment on the face of the earth. Personally, I’m pretty familiar with them, but for the uninitiated, a word of warning if you’re one of the lucky few who’s about to work with an SSL for the first time. SSLs are a bit like a Formula 1 car: they look basically like any other console, but if you’re not careful with the throttle, you’ll be into the wall around the first bend.
The EQ on an SSL is pretty amazing, but a little tends to go a long way so try not to overcook it. The same applies to the compression. Top speeds can be reached in no time flat so don’t get cocky.
Mixing in a studio that’s new to you, especially a commercial facility, has its hazards and pitfalls, but provided you take a few basic precautions like the ones mentioned here, you should be fine. All that’s left to do then is apply your skill and enjoy the ride. And remember, you’re one of the lucky ones, so make the most of it.

Enjoy. I know I will…