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Spike Stent on Tricks of the Mix

Sep 01, 2009

Grammy-winning producer / mixing engineer Mark “Spike” Stent recently sat down with producer (and Waves developer) Yoad Nevo to discuss Spike’s favorites: albums, plugins, studio techniques, and current projects.


What have you been doing lately?

I’ve been mixing Muse. I did a Leona Lewis mix last week, I did some mixes for Justin Timberlake for some productions he’s doing. .The Beyoncé album, I mixed 80 percent of that. It’s been busy, it’s been really good!

Have you been using Waves on the Muse project?

On the Muse project, basically I’ll be using the Waves SSL plugins on the drums; actually a combination of the G and E, depending on what part of the kit. I like the G plugs on the overheads and hi hats. I really like the top end crispness that the G-Channel offers. I normally use the E-Channel on the kick and snare. I like to get the basic punch and the tone of the drums before it hits the SSL.

Regarding the SSL on the drums: Since you started using Waves SSL on the drums and after that going through an SSL console, do you find that you have to do less compression and EQ-ing on the real channel because you have the plugins?

Yes definitely. I would normally mult up (ed. – create multiple tracks from one source) a bass drum 3 times on a console to give it a different sound, to really hone in on the different parts of the bass drum. It enables me to really define the sound before it even hits the console.

When you say “mult,” do you mean the actual mic sources, or also triggers?

The actual mic and there will be triggers, as well—always.

Is that something you do before you start mixing?

Absolutely. I try to get it to sounding great in the box, because I have such a large turnover of work. I try to get one stage of it ready so I can put it away until later, and then go through the console in the final stages. Then I’ll use probably an SSL G-Channel on the vocal chain before it hits the console. I’ll use H-Delay as a vocal effect; I mainly use delays rather than reverbs. I’ll also use outboard reverb, Lexicon or something, that tends to be my weapon of choice.

So usually the processing takes place before it hits the desk?

Yes, absolutely. Sometimes, I will mult up, track copy, and change sounds. Like, if you’ve got a guitar sound and there is something specific and I want to add a lot of weight or compressor I will mult it and make a different sound on one track and something slightly different on the other, like if there is a certain low end frequency that I want to bring out. It enables me to really fine-tune things.


How much of artistic freedom does a mixer really have?

It depends, because there are two sides to what I do: the straight up engineering side and there is more of the actual production side.

For me, if I hear a song and I think that this has to sound sonically better, that’s one thing. So that could be basically a band or something, where everyone is happy with the production: getting it to sound good, getting it sonically right, getting the sound of the track right, drum sounds, triggers, that kind of thing.

The other side of what I do is, I’ll take a track, listen to the demo, and if people aren’t happy with the production as it stands, before it gets to me, then I’ll look to the demo and see where the problem lies. So, that could be a case of re-programming the drums, do vocal hooks, keyboard hooks, and that kind of thing.

Do you think a mixer or a remixer has a duty to preserve the artist’s original intent?

Well, mixing and remixing, I look at as kind of 2 different things. If you are after a club remix, then the remixer should have complete freedom. Sometimes what they do is amazing, though it could be based for a club. Now, with the freedom of the internet, it can become an amazing remix that then becomes a single format. So they should be given complete artistic freedom. I think it is good for them to talk to the artist. But normally, when you pick a remixer, it is because they have a certain sound and style, and should be given the opportunity to do whatever they want.

From my point of view, people usually get me in not only to make them sound better. If they have problems with the final production that has been delivered to the record company, it’s for me to find out what the problem is. Sometimes what I do is combine the original demo, where the idea that everybody is happy with has been captured, together with the finished production, to try and get the magic that is obviously missing from the delivered production.

How do you deal with tracks that you don’t like?

(Laughs) Don’t do them! Well, you know, early on in my career, I just had to, like we all do. You just had to do whatever we could, trying to build a reputation. Sometimes, I do things with tracks that I don’t completely love, but it’s for a mate of mine that I am trying to help out. We’ll do those kinds of things. If it is something I hate – I won’t do it for the money. I’ve been very fortunate, touch wood, that things have been OK for me, so I’m lucky in that respect. I believe that you should really only do things that you are truly into; but, sometimes, we all have to help people out.

What do you focus on the first time you hear a song?

The song itself. I’ll tell you what I try to do: I try to listen as a member of the public and not, “Oh, I’m not sure about that bass drum sound, or that guitar sound, or that keyboard part.” I try to dismiss that and listen to the overall thing and make sure I am into it.

You’re lucky to be able to do that.

That’s just something over the years that I have taught myself not to do. It’s interesting, because I find that you can get too hooked. I used to get quite technical and I had to teach myself not to be. You can get too wrapped up in technology and not listen to the overall thing, and I think that is a very easy thing to do, especially when you are a young engineer: You get obsessed with a bass drum sound or things like that. It’s the overall thing that you’ve really got to judge.

When you first hear the song, do you get a vision of how the final mix will sound?

A little bit, yeah. I know were I am gonna take it. I work from gut instinct. Sometimes I listen to something, see what’s wrong with it and think, “How the f*** are we gonna sort this out?” Sometimes it’s quite obvious what needs to be done, and sometimes it needs complete reworking, which is tough. There are some things where I’ll redo the drums, five, six times, changing tempo, looking back on files trying to find vocal hooks, you know, all that stuff.


What records changed your life?

Well…Too many! In the early years, I was brought up in a split household, which had different influences. My mother used to listen to old Motown, Stevie Wonder, and then you would have classic Elton John records. Dad was completely into the Stones and things like that. There were Beatles, that’s an obvious one. The first album I ever bought was Wings, Band on the Run. Listening to that, I loved that record, but when I started working in a studio, there were so many records, like the Bowie records, Let’s Dance. I used to listen to Kraftwerk. I used to study Grace Jones records.

I started in 1981. I was really young, just 16 years old, so I used to hear these records and think, “How did they make that sound?” I used to sit in the studio, not knowing what I was doing, trying to recreate sounds and things. I was very fortunate to be able to try and do that but there’s too many records, sonically…

So mainly the great sounding albums of the early to mid ‘80s?

Even early ‘90s. There have been some amazing sounding records whether it’s a Dr. Dre record, or if it’s a Radiohead record, or it could be Frankie Goes to Hollywood. There have been so many amazing sounding records. The thing for me is people like, from my side of it, you’ve got Bob Clearmountain, what he’s done throughout his career, I mean the guy is incredible. George Massenburg: incredible. Andy Wallace: incredible. The Alges (brothers Tom & Chris Lord-Alge), what they’ve done: incredible. There are so many, so many records, I could be here all night! You know, some of those Pink Floyd records, Fleetwood Mac records, so many classic albums with a classic sound. Those Beatles records were of a time, yet still sound timeless to me.

Can you separate the songs from the sound? Because sometimes the sound is not on par with the songs.

I mean, I remember when I got (David Bowie’s) Scary Monsters, now that is an amazing record. And those Police records as well; I was a huge Police fan. I know it’s a funny thing to say now that Michael Jackson has just died, but Off The Wall for me was a seminal record. I used to flip-flop between Off The Wall, Kraftwerk, Human League, and some of my dad’s stuff. I used to sit in my bedroom listening on the headphones and think, “How the f*** do they do this?”

I guess the lucky thing for me was, in my early years as an engineer, I got to work with lots of bands, lots of punk bands and things like that. It was the early days of electronic music, and I got to see a lot of that, how records are made. I worked with some interesting artists; it was a great experience.

You’ve participated in some important albums as well.

I did do some things that were alright. I mean, there have been some real groundbreaking records; I’m just trying to remember the ones in the last 10 years. Sonically, there have been some amazing dance records, incredible dance records, which made me go “Wow, what is going on there?” and made me up my game a little bit. And certainly, going to America for me has been a huge kick in the a**. I went from being a bigger fish in a small pond to a f*****g minnow in shark-infested waters! (Laughs) Definitely, getting that urban sound down is a very interesting thing for me, how they go about that.


What are your favorite Waves tools?

I really like the SSL bundle. I love the DeEsser. I always use it, always the first plugin in my chain. H-Delay is awesome. I like the V-Series; I use it with guitars, sometimes on bass. I use the PuigChild all the time on my vocal chain; its tone is incredible. You know, we could have a room full of Fairchilds and they all sound different. The PuigChild is probably one of the best models I’ve ever heard.

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