August 19, 2015 —Mix engineer Michael James has a double number one hit for his mix of the song “Estrellas Rotas” from recording artist Kalimba’s latest record, Cena Para Desayunar (Sony Music). The record has ruled both Monitor Latino’s ‘Plays’’ and ‘Audience Reach’ charts for seven consecutive weeks so far. “This is a very special record for Kalimba, so I’m blessed to have been part of it,” says James. He mixed the hit record using a large collection of Dangerous Music gear. James’ mix career spans a host of musical artists including New Radicals, Hole, Far, L7, Robben Ford, Edwin McCain, Maia Sharp, A.J. Croce, Chicago, Jawbreaker, and Mario Guerrero, to name just a few.
James first bought the Monitor ST/SR stereo and surround controller when it came out in 2006, and then he eventually designed his whole studio around Dangerous Music gear, adding three, 16-channel, Dangerous 2-Bus analog summing units, two BAX EQ’s, the recently released Dangerous Compressor, as well as the Dangerous Liaison re-callable analog patching system.
James says, “I was talking with (engineer/producer) Fab Dupont about monitor controllers and he recommended Dangerous Music gear and put me in touch with the company. I had a monitor controller already that I really liked and it sounded fantastic — I thought it couldn’t be beat — but it didn’t have the flexibility that I wanted, and I also needed surround-monitoring control. The Monitor ST was an audible upgrade to my other monitor controller, it sounds great! There are no surprises when my mixes go to mastering. It’s just so nice to be able to make mix decisions really quickly without second guessing anything!”
Mixing the hit song ‘Estrellas Rotas’ for Kalimba, James utilized his complete Dangerous Music system to get the golden sound that’s put the track at the top of the charts. He uses the three Dangerous 2-Bus analog summing amps in a “very interesting way,” as he says. “I use my three 2-Bus units as 48-channels in, by 6 out. It breaks down to three 16 x 2 mix sections.” He then sums those 6 channels into another device for adding color if he wants it.
James describes the purpose of the setup, “Whether I am doing strings today, detuned heavy rock guitars tomorrow, or a singer-songwriter the next day, I have to make sure that I keep everything in the sweet spot, and that I’m not adding color where I don’t want it. The thing that’s great about the Dangerous 2-Bus for me is that the ‘mastering aesthetic’ of the Dangerous gear allows me to keep the coloration that I have in its pristine state, rather than adding to it.”
For the Kalimba mixes, his multiple Dangerous 2-Bus setup was perfect he says, “I always divide my mixes into three submixes. The first 2-Bus (‘Bus A’) got all Kalimba’s vocals. For parts that I want straight up the middle, I use the Mono button on that 2-Bus channel; for other parts that are panned out towards the sides, I set and/or automate the panning inside Pro Tools. The output of the 2-Bus ‘A’ is routed to a buss compressor and a particular EQ suited to the vocals. The signal flow is such that individual instruments or voices access their particular compressor, EQ, de-esser, etc. via Pro Tools hardware inserts, and then that entire group or submix typically has some subtle processing on it at the stereo output of the 2-Bus. Since the 2-Bus has so much headroom, it’s really easy for me to decide that I want the entire vocal submix to be brighter or warmer, or more or less compressed.”
On the Estrellas Rotas mix, he assigned the acoustic and electric guitars and keyboard tracks to the second 2-Bus (‘Bus B’), as he normally does, he always puts tracks that he calls “the sides” through that 16-channel summing mixer. “Mid-rangy harmonic instruments like guitars, strings, horns, keyboards, pads, counter melodies to the vocals—basically anything that has lots of harmonic content, and gets panned to the sides, is on the second 2-Bus,” he says. “In the same manner that I have processing on the vocal submix, I’ll have processing on the output of ‘the sides’ submix—but I’ll have different attack and release times, and colorations including the Dangerous BAX EQ. The BAX EQ and the 2-Bus really work together for me.” Using the BAX EQ James has some pretty specific setting he uses on his ‘sides’ submix, “I’ll typically filter out some of the low frequencies, and maybe boost with the BAX’s shelf settings. Then I always filter out the highest 70k, or the next setting down at 28k, the top filter is always in, it’s never disengaged.”
For the drums and the bass tracks on the Kalimba track, James reserved the third 16-channel, 2-Bus. “I have a BAX EQ on the stereo output of that submix as well, and a compressor. I treat the BAX EQ on the drums and bass differently than the ‘side’ instruments. The sound of a tighter bass is coming back—I think people like to hear the bass on their phone or television; the BAX EQ is great for that. Frequently I find that half a dB or 1 dB at the lowest shelf adds a little bit of warmth without making the bass tubby. Then up at the top-end on the BAX, you can go all the way down to the ‘crack’ of the snare drum or keep it way high at the top end and get more sparkle out of the cymbals—or anything in between. Often it depends on how nasty the drums were recorded or how well they were recorded.”
Explaining why his 48-channel, 3-submix Dangerous mixing system helps him get better results faster for his clients, James says, “I think the multi-buss, submixing technique works great for me because it gives me a lot of flexibility. The beauty of this is that I can have a mix that sounds perfect to me, but my client may say, ‘I love it, it’s really warm like a Peter Gabriel record, but I imagined a brighter sound like Martina McBride.’ Then I can say ‘No problem!’ because I have control over individual submixes—I can crank up as much as 5 dB of guitar bite without touching the vocal—which is ‘perfect.’ This is essential for me as a mix engineer, because if I just had one EQ on the mix buss, I’d have to start compromising quite a bit.” James says that the producer on Kalimba’s record, Stefano Vieni, has made him one of his “go to guys” and loves his mixing—they have worked together on other projects that went #1. So when artist Kalimba and producer Vieni stopped by the studio they told James, “make my voice sound great,” and “make the song sound like a hit.” James obviously came through with the Estrellas Rotas track.
Digging deeper into the gear, James states, “The BAX EQ and the Dangerous 2-Bus are essential because they don’t change the character of my mix, all they do is sum the tracks without distortion, let me preserve all the coloration that I worked so meticulously to create—and they are so incredibly dependable! They don’t break.”
He also uses the Dangerous Compressor on the drum submix or the mix buss. “Because the Dangerous Compressor is on the Dangerous Liaison patching/switcher, I can use it on the drum or mix buss,” he adds, “and it’s super quick and easy to determine where it will sound best at the push of a button. It’s so versatile that I can get it to feel like an SSL buss compressor or it can be ‘grabby’ or I can get it to stay out of the way and just control the level.”
“The Dangerous Compressor sounds great on a lot of things,” states James. “I mostly use it as part of my final mix buss. I have the Liaison working in two different ways. The first buss on the Liaison is typically used for lead vocals and bass guitars, where it makes sense to instantly compare the sound of an 1176LN into an LA-3A with the sound of an LA-3A into 1176…or the sound of an 1176 inserted in series with an LA-3A in parallel routing. Those are three significantly different sounds that can now be compared instantly instead of futzing with the patch bay while trying to remember how each signal path sounded. Liaison’s other buss is dedicated to the final ‘mix buss’—where I have the Dangerous Compressor—I also have a pair of ToneLux TXC compressors acting as a limiter, and a Manley Variable MU,” he adds completing the details of his hybrid setup.
“I have the Liaison set up so I can switch the order of the TXC compressors—which I have set at a 20-to-1 ratio—and the Variable MU, which I have set to a 1.5-to-1 ratio. Sometimes I use all three of them, sometimes only one. The very final piece that covers my ass, and makes sure a record can go to mastering without unwanted distortion, is the Dangerous Compressor,” concludes James.
For more information on producer and mix engineer Michael James please visit his website: http://michaeljamesproducer.com and his blog: https://michaeljamesproducer.wordpress.com James is also an accomplished guitarist and instrumentalist and has a new solo album, titled Marchesano.