Reference tracks, loud mixes and Katz

Losing perspective

The longer you mix, the more fatigued your ears get and you find yourself immersed in the microcosm of your own mix while the bigger picture slowly slips away. You spend hours doing this only to wake up the next morning to a mix that sounds like something your cat coughs up after a bad night of clubbing or whatever it is cats get up to when they mysteriously disappear. Everyone who’s tried their hand at mixing goes through this. Yes, skill and experience go a long way in addressing the issue. But I also find that using the right reference material can help move things along quite fast.


Using reference tracks to better understand the spectral balance and dynamics of your mix is one of the best ways to hold on to the bigger picture. Typically when someone wants to see how well their mix is coming together, they reach for their favourite records. But over time I’ve come to realise that not all tracks are appropriate for this purpose and unless you have the right material lined up, this is probably the least effective way to judge the quality of your own mix. And more often than not, it’s detrimental to your work. Here’s why.

The Loudness war and dynamic mixes

Engineers talk about the loudness war like its a post apocalyptic era in record production. Articles about the loudness war litter the internet, like craters left over on a battlefield that saw some heavy shelling. Whether heavily compressed mixes are good or bad for your music is ultimately left up to you and the genre you’re working on. But It can be said that super compressed audio makes for less than appropriate reference material.


When a good mix engineer works on a track they’re usually working keeping the artist and the song in mind. Trying to preserve the natural playing dynamics of the performers while trying to achieve the right depth and balance. The key word here is balance. A good mix engineer’s work isn’t validated when someone listens to the track and says “great mix”. Instead you want them to simply say “great song”.  The tools that facilitate the mixing are neatly tucked away, lifting the performances and the song into three dimensional space. A kind of smoke and mirrors act. This is a delicate and subtle process and is a culmination of many hundreds of minuscule movements that add up to tie a mix together.

Before a track is ready to release, though, it needs to see a mastering engineer. And while gifted mastering engineers can preserve the integrity of a mix while at the same time preparing it for the hundreds of platforms that we consume music on today, they’re usually at the mercy of labels. Over the past two decades nearly all major labels have adopted the louder is better policy. A mastering engineer will usually receive a mix with -6 to -12db of headroom but will have to send it out with virtually no headroom for it to be accepted by commercial labels.

What happens to the mix at this point is complete loss of dynamic range. And when you start comparing your mix to this kind of material and try to compete with loudness that was achieved by people with decades of experience and million dollar equipment, more often than not you end up destroying your mix with  a long chain of pirated plugins.


Instead if you could listen to the relative levels of the elements the way they were meant to be and just concentrate on the balance of instruments rather then be distracted by how loud everything sounds, you’ll be getting much better results.

Bob Katz and pre loudness war music

While I was doing some research on what kind of tracks would be best suited for this kind of work I came across The Honour Roll. Bob Katz who’s a world renowned mastering engineer has taken the time to compile a list of albums produced before the loudness war that make for excellent reference material. The records are meant for you to calibrate your monitoring system to playback at the right volume for mixing based on genre. But I’ve found that its an excellent reference for mixing in general.

I’ve compiled all of these into a project and they work splendidly. I highly recommend you pick your albums from the same list and compile a project of your own.

I received a track from a friend who needed some advice on his mix. I used this system of referencing to gauge where the track was at. After spending some time with the track and the reference material I sent him a mail with what I thought he could change. To my surprise it ended up making huge improvements over the previous mix. I’ve been using this system successfully for a while now and I’ve gotten great results every time.

Here’s a video documenting the process and how I set up my reference material.



The backbone of most bands is a solid drummer with a good kit to boot. But when you’re touring and don’t have the liberty to carry your own kit, you often end up getting drum kits that may not be in the best condition. Most engineers will acknowledge that once your kit sounds right everything else will fall into place. Of late, I’ve been spending some time working on an affordable drum trigger hack to deal with bad kits.

IMG_4781 have been around for a long time. But a good set of triggers usually costs a fat sum of money. While these work well, I wasn’t too keen on dropping that kind of dough on something I wasn’t sure would be useful in a live situation. Not to mention, there’s the added cost of a module to get the triggered sounds you need

IMG_4769.jpgBefore I continue let me elaborate a little on triggers and how they work. Basically they’re very simple devices mostly consisting of a piezo transducer and a mounting bracket that sits on the rim of the drum. The pickup senses vibration and produces an electric signal which is then converted to digital (MIDI) by a module which plays pre-recorded drum hits (samples) for every MIDI note it receives. The drum module can also be adjusted to accommodate a range of volumes, so you could in a sense reproduce the dynamic range of the drummer’s playing. IMG_4776.jpg

These became quite popular in the ’90s especially among metal drummers, but were still considered to be lacking in dynamics and unsuitable for other genres. However drum sample technology has come a long way since and triggered sounds have become commonplace in studio production today.

Getting back to using them live – since buying a bunch of expensive triggers was out of the question for me, a friend recommend that I get in touch with Naveen Ujre. Naveen is an audio engineer from Bangalore and he’s the go to tech guy for a lot of musicians in the city. You’ll see him behind the console for quite a few popular bands as well.

He had a trigger ready for me in a few days.  I decided to use my laptop and a sound card for a module. Basically, the trigger sits on the drum head on stage and feeds to the console through a DI box. From there, I just send the signal through my laptop and chose from a library of drum sounds. IMG_4772.jpg

After running a few tests I realised that the triggers work quite well but could use some refining in design and sensitivity. Because they’re running into a laptop and there’s a lot of conversion stages, the latency is noticeable and isn’t usable live in its current form. However I feel that the problem may be solved with a dedicated module and some adjustments to the trigger itself.

On the other hand this is a great addition in the studio. Instead of spending hours trying to get your triggered samples to line up to your recorded audio, having additional trigger tracks saves a lot of time. It’s not always necessary to have triggered drum tracks. But if you’re recording in a poor room on a cheap kit there’s no harm throwing a few triggers in there in case you want to use them later.

I made this video in which I highlight the use of triggers in the studio so you know what to expect if you’re using one for your projects.

Capture that space with room mics

Using room microphones on a drum kit is probably the best way to get a big drum sound. We don’t always get to record in big live rooms. But when you do, there’s no reason not to set up a few room microphones.

Room mics filter

There are probably as many ways to set up room microphones as there are major league engineers, but what you decide to use will depend entirely on the space you’re in, taking time to listen to the room and inspecting the studios mic locker.

Essentially, you could use any mic in a room. I’ve even seen engineers using SM57’s.
But typically a pair of condenser microphones is most common. A switchable polar pattern would be preferable because you may want to use these in Omni.

Sometimes tried and tested mic placement may not work. Here’s a video of a session in which the space outside the studio made for a more appropriate room sound in the context of that particular song. This is from a session I did with Bangalore based band Thermal and a Quarter on their album No wall too high.


I’d also like to take a moment to mention  Al Schmitt. He’s one of those legendary engineers known world over for his incredible microphone technique and extensive work on some of the best records ever made. He’s worked with Elvis, Sinatra, Ray Charles, Steely Dan and many more. If you’re interested in making records and you haven’t heard of him before I’d recommend watching the interview of him on Pensado’s place.

Tech 21’s Oxford: More Orange than Donald Trump

Everybody loves down tuned stoner doom guitars and people who say they don’t are most likely lying. As a guitarist and sound engineer, I often get asked about my preference of tone and gear and my reply is always the same – the simpler the better.

Shepherd guitar rigWorking on Bangalore based sludge band Shepherd had no exceptions. The guitarist Namit Chauhan originally tracked through a tube amp. And although it was a great amp it didn’t really fit the bill. I had worked on the mixes for a while before I decided the better alternative would be to re-record the guitars. At this point we didn’t have much time left and the guys wanted to put the album out asap. I needed a sure shot guitar tone for the album and going to a studio or renting an amp was out of the question.

Enter Tech 21’s Oxford. It’s from their Character line of pedals and is modelled after Orange amplifiers. This thing is all analog, true bypass. And best of all, it’s plug and play. The pedal has a cabinet function which allows you to plug it directly into a PA  or  sound card and you’re ready to go. It runs on one 9v battery and lasts seemingly forever. The controls are straightforward. Level, low, mid, high, gain and character. The character knob has a bit of a learning curve. To my ears it just adds saturation as you turn it up. What I love about this unit is that it’s easy to use and fun to mess with and nearly every setting sounds usable. Which is a far cry from its digital counterparts with their multiple screens and hours of tweaking in order to get the tones you want.

Although there is much to be said about digital multi effects units. When you want something that’s portable and requires literally 5 minutes of tweaking before you can get a tone thats ready to go you’d be hard pressed to find something better than a Tech-21.

All the guitars on the Shepherd album were recorded through the Tech 21 Oxford directly into a Scarlett 8i6 save a few guitar solos which were from the original recording. Namit currently plays a J&D Les Paul copy tuned 2 whole steps down. His current rig is Polytune>>Wah>>Oxford>>Akai Head Rush(delay). There’s a noise gate in there too, but it’s used as a power distributor and not really part of the chain.

If you want to listen to Stereolithic Riffalocalypse, check it out below.

Stereolithic Riffalocalypse by Shepherd