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21st July 2015 - Mixing and Mastering, or Mastering mixing...

I have to tell you that few things are more satisfying in life than hearing the producer of your album that you’ve laboured over for 18 months say, “That’s it – job’s a good ‘un mate!”

The other week, Alex Cooper and I finally completed work on what will be released in September 2015 as ‘Second Time Around’ – what’s known in the trade as a ‘sophomore release’ apparently…certainly saves the need for overuse of the word ‘second’ in my case.

Alex and I spent 3 days of mid-June 2015 mixing and mastering the entire album - not necessarily from scratch, as 3 songs (Chinese Whispers, Second Time Around & It All Comes Back To Rock) are already out there on the digital only E.P. that we brought out a couple of months ago. Nevertheless, we approached those 3 songs with the intention of improving on those initial mixes and achieving continuity with the other 8 tunes they are to sit alongside on this album.

As an old git born in the late 1960’s, I still passionately believe in the ‘album’ philosophy in the download, disposable age. I still fight for the right of any artist to sequence his or her work in such an order that he or she thinks they’d like their completed work to be heard.

I probably enjoy that particular aspect of putting an album together more than most others – not that I’m an experienced album maker per se, but I’ve discovered that when it comes to which songs start/finish/define an album, the process that leads me to the final running order is ultimately very satisfying. The process was a little difficult on my debut, ‘Prove You Wrong’, mainly because in truth there were too many songs on it – 15 in all. Perhaps my inner desperation to prove ‘them’ wrong led me to go overboard on which songs made the cut, and I didn’t really know when to stop.

This time, I knew that I needed to keep the running time down a tad, and as the album’s tracks came together over the various sessions that took place between mid 2013 and early 2015, Alex and I both understood that 10 or 11 tracks would be plenty to make the statement required. And as I juggled with the songs, it became apparent to me over a few days contemplation as to which were the ideal openers, closers and ‘benchmarks’ of the song order. But that’s just one of many things you have to keep an eye on as things came together over time.

For example, just as when you are in the process of ‘tracking’ (when you’re recording all the separate parts for a song), the mixing process for an album requires one particular discipline – the one where you have to know instinctively when to bloody well stop. The temptation to add another guitar part, a tambourine or even the most subtle of keyboard parts when you’re putting a song together can be irresistible, and I imagine to those artists not working to a budget or clock-watching, those temptations must take over more often than is healthy for them or their bank balance.

Similar uncertainties plague the mind during mixing, albeit coming from a different sensibility. You have to learn to step back and appreciate when you’ve reached the point that what you’ve committed to tape is not going to sound any better, fuller, more balanced. That’s the point when you can put the producer out of his misery and say ‘Yeah, I’m pretty happy with that’. It comes off as sounding almost a resigned response, but in reality you’ve heard the song backwards and forwards so many times through those Yamaha NS-10’s that it’s done its level best to beat you into submission. But there is that wonderful feeling elsewhere deep down inside you that says ‘Go on – that sounds f*****g awesome!!’

And if you think it’s bad for you (the artist), then pity the poor producer who has worked on getting the mix to that point without much assistance from you and then patiently listened to your suggestions for what you’d like to hear specifically.

In Alex’s case, he had many considerations as mixing the album began - the drums being one chief area of concern. All the drum tracks were recorded in the same room, on the same kit, with the same microphones…but not on the same day – Simple As That, Better Off Out Of It, Second Time Around and Love Fatigue were the first 4 tunes recorded in Summer 2013; Chinese Whispers & It All Comes Back To Rock were tracked on a subsequent visit in Spring 2014; and the final batch of If My Truth Is A Lie, We Believed, Mr Poison & I Didn’t Get were done in early 2015.

The temperature in the live room at Arkham was probably quite different on all 3 days, which can affect how sound carries to microphones more easily than you’d imagine. Along with that, certain drums might have been tuned a little differently between the sessions and thus give a different ‘feel’ across the tracks. These slight differences needed to be checked and double checked by Alex so that, when you listen to the album, the drums have a certain uniformity to them that ties them all together between tracks 1 & 11.

Alex knows that I hate triggered or sampled drum sounds – I mean, when you have a kit that is tuned well and sounds great, why change those natural sounds for a library snare or tom sound that takes away every shred of originality from the kit you’re playing? I grew up knowing my Neil Peart from my Cozy Powell from my Phil Collins – drummers who had a distinctive signature sound. Now that is not to suggest for one moment that I put myself in their bracket as a drummer! Far from it – but I do want the listener to know that I tuned every drum and struck every cymbal sound - and that what I heard on the initial playbacks is exactly what turns up on the finished product, allowing for reverbs, EQ adjustments and so on.

Alex is a terrific engineer anyway, with a really good set of ears, so I know I needn’t worry about such things. And before long, all ten of the drum tracks – I Love You More has no drums on it - were consistent right across the board. We accentuated certain things of course (the bass drum on It All Comes Back To Rock was given some extra oomph for example) but once that was done, Alex job of then adding my bass, guitar, keys and vocals in bit by bit was that much easier for him.

If My Truth Is A Lie quickly established itself in my mind as an ideal opener. Having rearranged the song’s structure with Alex prior to recording (it was an old tune of mine that had great hooks, but really needed Alex’s fresh perspective) we had a tune that had a great insistent beat to it, and a flow between the various sections that kept the impetus up without the pauses and hanging chords that had somewhat stunted my original composition. This is where a producer really comes into his own for me – solo artists like me have ideas in their heads of how the finished song should sound, but you have to learn to defer to someone you trust when they tell you that it isn’t good enough and needs improvement. That takes confidence, a good ear and a persuasive nature – Alex possesses all those things.

He was pushing me at times for Mr Poison to be the album opener, but I liked the idea of it sitting 2nd. With “…Truth…” opening up with a hard hitting vocal hook, Mr Poison felt like an ideal follow up with its riffy swagger. Once those two songs were in place at the top of the album, I found everything else fell into place very neatly – the title track earning its spot as you headed for the midpoint where ‘We Believed’ was then placed to intentionally catch the ear with it’s more sparse arrangement leading to a real 70’s chorus and a great fun lyric.

One thing you can forget when you spend such a long time between the start and finish of a project like this is the little incidental parts you added to a song that you’d forgotten all about until the mix is pieced together – you can also sometimes hear errors you’d overlooked too. Second Time Around is a prime example of that.

In the original E.P. mix, the acoustic and Spanish picked guitar parts that flow though the intro and the verses were kept quite quiet. For the album remix, I wanted those parts to be more prominent, but when those guitar tracks were brought forth more as we remixed, we heard a glaring fret buzz on the one string of the Spanish guitar track that stood out too much throughout and the part thus needed re-recording in its entirety. No problem – I redid the part taking greater care to avoid the fret buzzes – which had occurred due to my poor hand position anyway – and the remix could continue as we’d intended. I’m really proud of that part and couldn’t have lived with the buzz that most probably would never have noticed, but would have affected me like Captain Hook heard the ticking clock inside the crocodile!

Those of you who’ve heard/downloaded the 3 EP tracks will certainly notice the difference between those versions and the album re-mixes that you’ll get in September. I’ve listened to the whole album in sequence a good few times now, and I’m really thrilled with the way it’s paced.

Some albums aren’t as varied as they could or should be – Monster by KISS, for example, has one or two great tunes on there (I like ‘Eat Your Heart Out’, despite Simmons using the ‘backbone slip’ lyric YET again) but to me, the album as a whole feels very mid-tempo, and without too much variation.

I never wanted that from anything I put my name to, and I also was conscious of not simply repeating myself from the 1st album i.e. putting similar tempo songs in similar positions on both albums, or trying to write ‘Soulmate Part 2’ or ‘Stronger Than That Part 2’. I’m sure if you started the first 3 Dio albums off at the same time, things would sync up between them a lot of the time!! (I’m joking of course – I love those Dio records!)

Keep an eye on the website as well as my Facebook & Twitter as I’ll be announcing the release date very soon, as well as giving you some samples of each track to listen to – there may well be a competition prize up for grabs which I’ll explain once I have that idea sussed out…and there may even be a VIDEO shot for one of the songs to accompany the Electronic Press Kit that comes out with the album.

Not only that, but there WILL be a launch party in September at a Birmingham venue TBC as soon as we know release date so we can combine the 2 events in one. Again, I’ll make sure you know where and when as soon as I do!


Ian x


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