3x Grammy-winning producer/mixer (Santana, Live, Weezer) gives his unique mixing tips and discusses when a mix is done, what feedback he welcomes from artists, and much more.
The Rolling Stones. Santana. Live. Blink 182. Sum 41. Korn. Dave Matthews Band. Weezer. They’ve all had Tom Lord-Alge’s hard-hitting signature touch in their mixes.
We caught up with Tom at his waterfront SPANK Studios in South Beach Florida to learn about his mixing tips and philosophy and get a glimpse into the everyday work practices of a mixing legend.
How did your career start off? Is it true you started as a lighting designer?!
Yup, at 16 I did the lighting for a local New Jersey band. But from hanging around my brothers Jeff and Chris [Lord-Alge] I always had a knowledge of audio equipment. During one of those lighting gigs, the front-of-house engineer became ill and the band asked me if I would do the sound. Well, I guess I did pretty good, because I was promoted to FOH engineer that night.
At the same time my brother Chris had been bugging me to come and work with him as a studio engineer at Unique Recording Studio in NYC, so I took up the offer. At first I did overdubs for Chris, until eventually I began working on my own sessions.
You really took off when you made those huge 80s albums with Stevie Winwood, Back in the High Life and Roll With It. What do you think made them stand out?
I guess I added some edge to what was a less aggressive style of music. I was listening to a lot of Bob Clearmountain’s mixes, and I loved how he made the drums so upfront and aggressive. That, plus Mike Shipley’s mixes for Def Leppard Pyromania, were my point of reference for the overall EQ curve and drum level. So I tried to make the drums as aggressive as possible, that made all the other stuff a bit more in your face.
How did you go from there to the more alt rock direction in the 1990s, with Live’s Throwing Copper and then Weezer?
I had mixed a couple of things for ex-Talking Heads keyboardist Jerry Harrison. Jerry asked me if I would mix a band he was producing called Crash Test Dummies, and then if I would audition for Live’s Throwing Copper. So, I jumped in my 1966 Mustang and drove from Jersey to this studio in the old Playboy resort in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. The very first mix I did for Live was “Selling the Drama,” which the band loved.
Live, “Selling the Drama”
That studio in Lake Geneva had a GREAT live room. I threw a couple mics in the room, and on both [Crash Test Dummies’] God Shuffled His Feet and [Live’s] Throwing Copper you can hear me using the room extensively as a chamber.
Did you think “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” would be such a hit?
I try never to think about that – it’s bad luck! I just try to treat every project as if it is THE project of my career.
Crash Test Dummies, “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm”
You’re not known to mix country music, but you’ve done Faith Hill’s Deep Tracks. Did you approach that differently from when you engineer a high-energy rock album?
I basically approached that as a rock album, but with a ‘Nashville’ vocal level, which is roughly 1-2 db louder than the vocals in the rock tracks I was working on at the time.
One thing that’s noticeable on your mixes, like Faith Hill’s “Cry” or some Dave Mathews songs, is that when you start with just a vocalist and a guitar – or with Coldplay, just vox and piano – you make that one instrument really hold the whole segment on its own.
One thing that I always try to do is to make each individual instrument sound as big as possible on its own. This gives me the creative freedom to make a big deal out of parts that I feel are important in the song. Obviously, sometimes I need to dial it back a bit once I’ve blended everything together.
What do you see as the main difference in your mixing approach today compared to your earlier days?
Over the past 15 years I’ve made a conscious effort to be able to mix in the box. I’ve seen a huge shift in budgets and felt it was in my best interests to be able to mix without having a large-format console. I do have my own studio with an SSL desk, but I mix mainly with plugins, using my console as just a summing/mastering console. All the instruments still come into my console as if they were recorded on an old-school multi-track tape, but all the manipulation beforehand is done with plugins.
In a lot of your recent work with The Beaches or New Found Glory, the mix is like a wall of sound, yet you can hear all the different guitar parts distinctively, even when they’re heavily distorted. What are some of your unique tips for doing that?
I always try to make all the different parts audible. Sometime this is done with EQ to give the part its own space in the mix. For guitars, I love the Eddie Kramer Guitar Channel plugin. It has just the right EQ and compression, and if I want some reverb or delay, it’s there too. Sometimes I will add the CLA-76 to give it a bit more ‘spit.’
Also, I really love to take one of the rhythm guitar parts and distort it using the Manny Marroquin Distortion plugin. I‘ll use that in the center of the track and it really adds an awesome growl. I mainly use this trick in the choruses. With the Manny plugin, I can make the attack slow, so it enters like ‘gang busters’ and then falls right into place.
Recently you’ve also been mixing Japanese rock bands – One OK Rock, Hello Sleepwalkers, The Radwimps. Does it make a difference to your mixing that the lyrics are in a different language?
There are some amazing bands coming from Japan. The language has never been an issue, as the music is very clear to me. The only time it is an issue, is when I might be adding vocal repeats. Sometimes I will ask, just to make sure that the words I’m repeating as an effect make sense.
What I’ve learned from working with these Japanese bands is that a lot of them grew up listening to records I had made in the past – Blink 182, Sum 41 – so they have trust in what I bring to the table and they let me just go for it.
Speaking of Sum 41, in a lot of your mixes for them, the drums are almost a main instrument, right up there with the bass and guitars – not just a beat keeper. How do you do that?
Generally, with the drums, I start out with the SSL E-Channel, which has always been my go-to plugin. Then, I will usually add other compressors to the toms, like the CLA-76 or maybe the Waves dbx-160, depending on how the source sounds.
What are some other tools you like using and what for?
Even though the SSL E-Channel is my go-to for most everything, I do grab the SSL G-Channel if I want to get a bit more aggressive. I miss having a physical plate, but the Abbey Road Reverb Plates plug makes up for it. I also love the Abbey Road Reel ADT and of course the J37 Tape – old-school saturation and delays!
How do you know/decide when a mix is done?
It’s a feel thing… There’s a certain point in a mix where I change one thing, and that makes everything come together. When I’m mixing, I sometimes feel like I’m riding an emotional rollercoaster. It’s when I finally feel that I have squeezed out every bit of energy I can out of the song, that I know it’s ready for the band or artist to give it a listen.
What do you do when the artist you’re mixing insists on something which you firmly believe will hurt the mix?
I try to remind myself that I’m part of a team and that we’re all trying to make the best record possible. Sometimes I need to step back and listen through other people’s ears. This allows me to grow as a mixer. You’d be surprised at how quickly you can come around to the artists’ way of thinking.
What kind of feedback do you welcome from the artist, and where do you set the limits to said feedback?
Look, this is a client-based business, and if they‘re not happy, it doesn't matter how good your mix is, they won’t come back. So I encourage my clients to make any comments they feel will make the song better, and I will do whatever it takes to make them 100% happy with the work I do!
What do you do when a song you’re mixing and haven’t recorded yourself has some ‘bad’ tracks, like a badly played guitar or drums that are not ideally recorded? Do you ever re-record or replace anything?
This is not an uncommon issue. Mostly, what I come across are bad edits, someone in a hurry, not paying attention. These are fixable. Since most songs have parts that are repeated it’s easy to move around parts to fix the offending bits.
But my personal policy is that I always use what’s given to me and I never replace or re-play parts. If I can’t fix it, I will ask the artist if they can re-do the part.
Finally, we just have to ask – Do you ever use the CLA Signature Series plugins?