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Michael James has been a familiar face in the music industry since his name began popping up on records by the likes of the New Radicals, Jawbreaker, Hole and L7 in the early 1990s. In the time since, James has continued cultivating an impressive catalog of work and recently relocated to a new studio facility in the San Francisco Bay Area featuring gear selected with help from Vintage King Audio Consultant Chris Bolitho.
"Wow, that's a tough one. I wouldn't know where to begin," James says when being asked about his favorite piece of gear he's picked up from Bolitho and Vintage King. "I must say I am quite fond of my Sterling Modular Plan B Mastering Console because it was truly a game changer, both sonically and ergonomically. Chris and I had a lot of fun when we came up with the plan to integrate it into my world."
We recently sat down with Michael James as a part of our new series, 20 Questions, and talked to him about favorite microphones, philosophy on plug-ins and the new mix room he has been hard at work building out. Continue reading below to learn not only some of his powerful techniques for mixing hits, but also about the soul of the man behind the desk for records from Edwin McCain, Robben Ford, Reverend Horton Heat, Chicago, A.J. Croce and many more.
1. What was the first big piece of gear you ever bought?
In the mid 1980s, I dropped nearly $4000 at the UCLA student store on a Mac SE. The Mac was an integrated box with a black and white display and two floppy drive bays, plus a whopping one megabyte of RAM. I carted it around to pre-production and recording sessions in a custom padded cordura bag with a shoulder strap. I learned MOTU Performer (v1.22?) so that I could program drums and keyboards. I carved a niche for myself as "the cat who could save many hours of overdubs" by printing layers of premixed keyboard parts on a stereo track in a single pass. Instead of spending hours in an expensive recording studio to record multiple parts, I would do all the layering at my home, and then record literally a single pass at the session! Various keyboards, including Roland S50, Roland D550, Roland U220, Yamaha TX 802, Roland TR626, Akai SP1200, were sequenced in Performer and summed via Yamaha MV802 line mixers. My investment recouped quickly.
2. What kind of console/work surface do you work on? What drew you to it and what makes it essential to your workflow?
My console is a unique modular hybrid. I grew up on large-format Neve desks, and did a lot of mixing on SSL 4000 and 9000 boards. When I put together my room in SoCal in 2002, I faced a difficult choice: Neve or SSL. Instead of choosing one over the other, I decided to cherry pick all of my favorite pieces of outboard gear and string them together with patchbays and Dangerous analog summing mixers. Short clean signal path and low maintenance. Minimal air conditioning requirements.
After I got the summing section together, I chose Dangerous again for the monitor controller (Monitor ST/SR) and Tonelux for 32 channels of EQ and compression. I also had a Chandler EMI rack mixer for a different, more colored tonal palette to complement the precise Dangerous mastering aesthetic. As the desk evolved, I shoved the mission critical pieces into a Sterling Modular Plan B mastering console because of its sonic neutrality and comfortable ergonomic workflow. Volume automation, which is super important to me, is written on an Avid Artist Mix control that fits nicely above the bolster.
Today the console is a unique combo of hand-picked boutique equipment from Dangerous, Manley, Avalon, Tonelux, Empirical Labs, Chandler and Purple. Combined with my producer racks, it provides 32-40 EQ/dynamics channels, depending on how I configure it on any given day. Anything beyond 40 channels gets done inside Pro Tools.
3. What's your go-to piece of equipment or plug-in? What do you use on every mix?
I have a few go-to pieces. As much as I would love to tell you that every mix is truly unique, I found over the years that there are certain pieces that are used every single day.
Dangerous Compressor is always the last item in my mix bus chain before I print through the analog to digital converter because it can handle anything I throw at it without adding distortion while achieving modern loudness requirements. It resides in Insert Loop #5 of my Dangerous Liaison, followed by a Manley Labs Stereo Enhanced Pultec EQ in Insert #6. Most of the time the Flip button is engaged so that loop six switches places with loop five.
Liaison makes it possible to instantly make an A/B comparison of the two signal paths without having to change the patchbay— it's like a virtual assistant, and it is faster than switching the sequence of two plugins. Liaison enables me to experiment freely, without the concern of eating up valuable time, which is super important when deadlines require quick decisions because every minute counts.
4. It's apparent from your answers that you use a lot of analog gear. What is it about analog gear that draws you in closer and makes you want to use it?
As much as I like the euphony, musicality and familiarity of analog gear, it's more about the tactile feel of moving a control and getting instant gratification with my eyes closed. It's much faster for me to do that than to grab a mouse and look at a computer monitor. Music sounds different to me when I look at waveforms or videos. I get a different experience when it's all about the sound, not the visual cues.
5. How do you began your day in the studio?
On the days that I work alone, I literally walk to the middle of the room, take a look at my work environment, smile and then thank God for the opportunity to live this wonderful life. This simple act reminds me on a daily basis just how blessed and lucky I am to be able to earn a living doing a job that I absolutely love. When other people are in the studio with me, the first thing I do is to greet everyone warmly. Then I review the goals for the day.
6. What's the first thing you start working on when you get a mix?
Before I touch any faders, I always listen to the rough mix and often have a phone call with the artist. I make notes of my first impressions and the artist's requests, then I visualize the sound of the creative mix mentally. The next few hours are devoted to manipulating the tracks until they sound like the artistic vision – or better!
I typically push up all the faders just loud enough to support the lead vocal, which I push way above the mix at the start. I immediately begin sculpting the vocal and putting it in an environment that tells the story, even when soloed. I write automation of volume, effects sends, etc. right away, before sorting out any other tracks. If there's a glaring intonation issue, I will use Melodyne to tighten up the pitch, but I'm not militant about it. It's all about the emotional feel, not necessarily the intonation. Plus sometimes having a fluid interpretation of the pitch center can make for a richer harmonic experience. Kind of like the way I imagine all the Funk Brothers tuning to the same piano note before a Motown session. Everybody has their own unique interpretation of being in tune.
After getting the vocal to stand on its own, I generally make the bass have a balanced conversation with it. I like it when the combination of those two elements, the top line and bottom line melodies, can tell the harmonic story of the song without the rest of the arrangement. When they work well together, there is a wide sweet spot that the other instruments can occupy because the listener's brain will automatically fill in the middle notes of the harmonic structure. That means that a little bit of an embellishing instrument can go a long way, and leave room for other elements in a dense or complex arrangement.
7. What's one secret trick in your workflow that you can divulge?
I'll give you two tricks because my modus operandi is to "under-promise and over-deliver." The first one is to set up parallel compression with pre-fader sends, not post. This will allow you to make changes to – or even mute – your spot mics without affecting the spank of your parallel compression path. As an example, you could have a super articulate drum sound in the verses that relies heavily on the spot mics, then you could blend in the parallel drum return for added power and sustain during the choruses, and then completely mute the mics from the mix while cranking up the parallel return to create a nuclear spank during the bridge! If you were to send post fader, like most of my friends do, you would lose your parallel path the moment that you mute the spot microphones. Or you might change the sound of the parallel path if you were to trim any feeders that affect the sends— pulling down those faders will result in a less compressed sound, which may not be what you intended. Sending pre-fader prevents that from happening.
The second trick that I will share is multi bus processing. Instead of thinking in terms of mix bus processing, I tend to think in terms of submix bus processing. You might say that my approach is similar to that of Michael H. Brauer, but it is unique to my preferences. In its most simple terms, try this: set up separate stereo buses for your vocals, your combined bass and drums, and the rest of your musical instruments. Three stereo buses instead of one. Process them separately to your heart's content, then sum them together as a final stereo mix bus. And then process that bus as well, if you like! Just remember that "more" is not necessarily "better." Exercise good taste and judgment.
8. What's your favorite kind of song to work on mixing?
Anything that makes me feel genuine emotion from the artist! I want to be convinced that the artist actually believes in the song. Sadly artists often get lost in the craftsmanship, and in the quest of perfection, they forget about the most important thing: the emotional content. I believe that my job ultimately boils down to creating a mix that is conducive to emotionally connecting the artist with the listener in a meaningful way.
9. What non-gear related items do you need in your studio space to get your job done?
Fresh air, natural light and a sanctuary from the distractions of the outside world are pretty much all that I need beyond the tools of the trade. When working in my room, Rosie the Studio Cat keeps me on my toes and gives me unconditional love. I like having her around. I love it when my wife stops by.
Nearly 20 years ago my room at Keith Olsen's studio, Goodnight LA, had an exceptionally comfortable sofa that was conducive to power naps. I just got a good one for my new room. A sofa, my cat and some back issues of Tape Op magazine would ensure mental reboot whenever appropriate.
10. How do you stay inspired in the studio day-in/day-out?
Balance. I work hard in the studio, and I play hard outside! That outside experience brings fresh perspective to my work in the studio. Further, my spiritual practice includes the belief that work, when performed in a spirit of gratitude and positivity, is elevated to the status of worship. Love thy neighbor and love thy God go hand-in-hand. By loving my artist through enhancing the music, I am in fact strengthening my spiritual mojo and, pardon the semantics, worshipping God, the Universe, the higher power, the code, or whatever you call it that keeps you on your healthy path. I bring this sense of purpose to every job I do, so finding inspiration is not a problem.
11. What's the first record you remember consciously hearing a difference in the production/mixing aesthetic?
Just before I became a musician, I remember noticing how amazing a couple of Steely Dan albums sounded. Katy Lied and The Royal Scam sounded very different to each other, but were both mind blowing sonic experiences. After I became a musician, my mind was again blown by the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Crowded House's Temple Of Low Men and Woodface opened my mind to the way that clarity and detail can affect the way the listener perceives or connects with a song.
12. Is there an overriding philosophy that you bring to mixing or producing records?
Definitely! Inspiring and nurturing creativity are the keys to having fun in the studio. When the record it is fun to make, the listener can feel it; when it's a drag, the record can be a downer. Ultimately a music recording's raison d'être is to provide entertainment or empathy. If it doesn't do either of those two things, it's really not much more than decorative wall paper. At the end of the day, I need to make the artist feel good about his or her art, and I also need to make me actually feel something from the recorded performance.
13. Talk a little about the creation of your new studio room. How would you describe the space's aesthetic?
I've always liked the idea of being relaxed in a recording environment, so the new room is destined to be a blend of control room, living room and reading room. Sofas, chairs, tables, antique furniture, nice artwork on the walls, comfortable lighting... It's all about inspiring creativity and blowing up the outside world.
The control room is 600 ft.² My mix position occupies approximately 1/3 of the room. The rest of the space is scattered with keyboards, guitars and amplifiers, along with the above-mentioned furnishings, and provides ample space for the bass to develop. The room sounds very good and is super comfortable. It has exposed beams and the same maple flooring as my house (a 1905 Victorian/Eduardian in Petaluma’s Historic District), so it feels just like home when I go to work.
14. How has your workflow evolved in the modern world of plug-ins and digital technology? Is it something you avoid or embrace?
I use plug-ins in the same way I use any other piece of gear. I learn their capabilities, and then I use them when I want to hear the sound they impart to the music. Regarding other digital technology, editing is so much easier now than it used to be! I don't miss splicing tape.
15. As a guitarist yourself, you must be very particular about tone. How do you like to go about recording guitar tracks?
Yes, it's true that I am particular about electric guitar tone. For my own personal tone, I prefer a sound that is dynamic or touch sensitive, that lives right on the edge of clean and dirty. Many good tube amplifiers have a sweet spot that sings. When you roll off the guitar's volume knob or play softly, an amp can produce a nice sparkly chime will morph into a beastly growl when you play harder or turn up the guitar.
To capture that sound, I typically use either one or two microphones (Royer R121 ribbon and Sennheiser MD421 or 409U3 dynamic) close to the dust cap where it is glued to the speaker cone. Whenever using two microphones, I make sure that the capsules are precisely the same distance from the glue ring to ensure that they are in phase. The ribbon sounds sweet and the dynamic sounds punchy. I record to two separate tracks and blend to taste at the console. If I record with only one mic, I will choose the ribbon or the dynamic based on the tone and the part.
Here’s a tip for folks in small spaces where loudness is a concern: mount both of those mics in a Rivera Silent Sister isolation box. I bought one from VK and spec’d it with a 90W Celestion Cream Alnico speaker for my taste. The box has a labyrinth before the ports, it knocks down the SPL by 30 dB, and best of all, it actually sounds good! Most iso-boxes do not.
As far as arranging layers of guitars, I prefer to tell the story with as few parts as possible. With a fewer overdubs crowding an arrangement, each part gets a bigger slice of the pie and becomes more important. After capturing the first "all in one" part that is an off-the-cuff reaction to the first time that I play along to a song, I listen to that performance and make notes of the good ideas. Then I develop them one section at a time. I do not cut and paste entire sections, for example choruses, because I want each one to have its own personality. Plus, generally speaking, each chorus wants to be a little more intense than the previous one.
After recording all the various lines and layers, I edit, removing any part that is ultimately distracting from the parts that I want to listener to hear. I often think of a non-guitar-centric album by Thomas Dolby, Aliens Ate My Buick, as a masterful crafting of multiple parts and sounds that never compete with one another. I strive to take the same approach with my own arrangements.
16. Do you have a favorite all-around microphone? One maybe that gets more use than others on lots of different types of recordings?
Pearlman TM-47 gets a lot of use on vocals and acoustic instruments. Royer R121 for electric guitars. Shure SM7B and Neumann KM-184 are utility mics that are frequently never put away, always ready on a mic stand. When I'm working superfast by myself on insane deadlines, I grab whatever mic is closest, and if it sounds good, I record it. Those two mics have gotten used on pretty much everything from vocals to bass to electric and acoustic guitars. I recently recorded a Fender Jazz Bass through a 35W Mesa/Boogie Mark 5:35 combo guitar amp miked with a KM 184! Shouldn't have worked, but it was perfect in the track. The key for me is having stuff ready to go so that I don't lose that inspired lightning-in-a-bottle moment of creativity.
17. How do you know when a record is done?
There are several ways. Most importantly, it has to feel so good that I want to play it 10 times in a row. I'm looking for excitement, not perfection. And emotional resonance… Without that, a record has no soul and means nothing to me, even if it sounds terrific.
A record can also be done when there are no more distractions that take away from the message of the song or pull the listener out of the emotional cocoon of the song. Removing parts can be more powerful than adding them.
18. If you could go back in time and tell your younger self one thing to make life in this industry easier, what would you say?
Build a motivated, incentivized team from day one. Don't be a lone wolf. Be a virtuoso specialist in one or two things rather than just plain good enough at everything. If you are a virtuoso at only one thing, you can build a team to handle the other stuff for you.
19. Can you separate music from the rest of your life?
Music infuses nearly everything in my life, but I have enough balance that if, God forbid, all of a sudden I could not do music, I would continue to have a rich life. When I was first coming up in the business, I frequently worked 16+ hours a day on music. I believe that was part of paying my dues, but eventually I found a balance that allows me to enjoy the other things that are important to me. Having a well-rounded, balanced life ensures that I have a constant flow of outside inspiration and new experiences that I can incorporate into my creative arsenal.
20. What advice would you offer someone looking to become a mix engineer?
Don't rush into the job. It may sound sexy to call yourself a mix specialist, but the reality is that it takes a very long time to develop not only the skills, but also the aesthetics and restraint necessary to make a record sound like a #1 radio hit. If you were a great producer or engineer, but still developing your mix chops, you might torpedo the project by mixing it yourself. If you have access to someone else whose work you like, who knows how to make hit records, work with that person to ensure you make the best possible record. Plus you will learn some new skills and philosophies during the process.
Think of the cliché about a chain being only as strong as its weakest link. If you have an A+ artist, and you do A+ production and engineering, you still have the potential to complete an A+ record by working with an A+ mix engineer. If, however, you decide to mix it yourself, and at the moment you only have B- skills, you're going to end up with a B- record. My recommendation is to work with as many A+ mix engineers as you can, and learn from them! Then take that knowledge and develop your own unique way to apply it.
After you hone your chops and land your first gig, remember to make the artist feel good about his or her music. You most definitely do not know better than the artist, plus it's not your name that is on the album artwork! Do your best to manifest the artist's vision, even if you do not share that vision.
Want to check out some work from Michael James? Check out a few tracks Michael has worked on from the likes of New Radicals, Edwin McCain, AJ Croce and Kalimba.
Portrait: Micah Smith
Studio: Tim Roth