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Now, I must confess that I’m a city a boy. A veritable Yankee, if you will. Up until playing drums in a couple of alt-country acts last year, I hadn’t really approached country music.
Recently, though, I was able to talk to Julian King, a Nashville-based recording engineer, mixer, and producer who’s worked with George Jones, George Strait, Waylon Jennings, Tim McGraw, Hank Williams Jr., Clint Black, Martina McBride, Toby Keith, Kenny Rogers, and many others. In fact, he earned a GRAMMY for recording Faith Hill’s giant country crossover hit “Breathe.”
I may not know country, but with a resume like the one listed above, King certainly does. So we got deep into it, covering recording techniques for country instruments, mixing tips, and his favorite iZotope plug-ins. Let’s start with the tracking phase.
On recording telecasters—a staple of the genre—Julian told me the following:
“I’d love to say I’m a genius for having recorded the guitars on Toby Keith or something like that, but the truth is that with a great player like Brent Mason, there’s not much else besides sticking an SM57 on a guitar amp. It’s hard to beat an SM57 with a Neve mic preamp, or blend an SM57 with a Royer 122 a little to fill it out.”
As for banjos and acoustic guitars, Julian had some interesting approaches I personally can’t wait to try.
“With the banjo,” he said, “the sound emanates of the top and the bottom of that drum, so I tend to get back a little bit, get away from the fingers. When I’m recording acoustic guitars though, I like to put a Gefell UM70 and a SM57 just nearly touching. I’m not trying to create a stereo image with them, I’m trying to create a mono image with two mics panned hard left and hard right, though I can pan them however I want later.”
He aligns these two mics as closely as possible, prints them to separate tracks, and lets the blend dictate the timbre of the instrument when summed to a single, point-source output, wherever that may be.
A discussion of what happens when these mics accidentally knock into each other during a tracking session brought us to the following.
“In a few instances, it has saved the project,” King said of RX. He first got into the software through engineer/producer F. Reid Shippen. “Reid is a friend,” he told me, “and when he was mixing something for me a few years ago, we came across this horrible noise.”
King couldn’t recall what the noise happened to be, only that it was loud and intrusive in the track. But without thinking much about it, Reid said, “I think we can get that out,” and then “had his assistant fiddle away with RX.”
“It wasn’t a few minutes later that I was figuring out where I was gonna order RX from,” Julian concluded. “I had to have it!”
Learn more about RX 6 for Music.
“Our genre is kind of all over the place,” King told me. “You could be mixing something poppy and sparse, or something that’s overly dense and full of instruments. It’s hard to say if there’s one approach—each song dictates what it’s going to be.”
You might have noticed more electronic, loop-based elements in country-pop lately. So has Julian.
“Sometimes,” he said, “when there’s a lot of programmed stuff and there are live drums on top of it, you gotta grid the drums up, and get it all tight to where it sounds like they fit together, so it’s not loose and floppy, you know?”
This led me to ask if he prefers to grid the drums to the pre-programmed material, or retool the programmed elements to the drums. Not surprisingly, the answer depends on the situation.
“If the song had its genesis in the writer’s room with a loop—and if the loop makes its way to the tracking session—we try to lock the drums down the best we can with some sort of reason. It’s not like it’s stapled.” However, if the song is more of “a real feel/groove thing, we might go the other direction and line things to the drummer.”
This brings us to editing, a process right on the brink of mixing. Where Julian decides to conduct necessary edits depends on the project.
“A lot of times,” he said, “if the project comes to me—and I’ve not heard a note until the mix—I’ll work to get a static mix, and then that’ll decide what I’ve got to edit.”
Still, he prefers not to edit and mix at the same time. “It’s a different path,” he said. “Particularly if you start having to grid things, it can become a science exercise and not a creative exercise. And I’d rather stay in my creative headspace in the mixing mode.”
Some engineers prefer to start with the faders up, subtracting their way to a balance. Julian’s approach is more like building a house from the foundation.
“I try to get all the instruments up as quick as I can,” he said, “because what you do to one can affect what’s going on with another. But you gotta pick one fader first. It doesn’t work for me to just push them all up and just building the balance with them all out of chaos.”
Drums and percussion usually constitute his starting point, and he tends to work his way towards the bass from there.
His approach here is simple: “I’m trying to get everything where I can at least hear it, and everything is panned and in its spot within the first twenty-five to thirty minutes of the mix. It doesn’t mean I don’t go back and work on the drums later, but I try to get everything together.”
Here, Julian—completely unprompted, mind you—mentioned an iZotope product.
“On the drums, one thing I like to use from time to time—especially for drummers who play the cymbals hard—is Neutron on the cymbals, using the Dynamic EQ to control that hashy sound. It’s great on room mics and cymbals to help bring them back into reality, so I can feel the ambiance of the snare when the cymbals are not being played, but I don’t have to ride them down when they are.”
Neutron Dynamic EQ on Overheads
As luck would have it, at the time I interviewed Julian I was working on an alt-country mix that had drums with a particularly unfavorable character. I needed help in getting the overheads not to sound like someone tapping on a wine-glass in the next room. Here he recommended a tip out of his parallel chain.
“I’ve got two or three parallel compression paths,” he said, “one of them is going through an amp simulator to bring some darkness, adding some guts for lack of a better word. You might just try doing a separate bus of the drums, or the cymbals. Doesn’t matter which amp simulator—use whatever you got in your disposal.”
Trash with bass impulse response in Convolve (to simulate amp) on parallel overhead bus
Julian also had a fantastic parallel-snare technique for brushes; I imagine it would work particularly well on a train beat.
“If I have a song that’s got brushes, I may have two channels of the same snare—a ‘mult’ if you will. One of them might be gated to get the backbeat, and the other one will be crushed to within an inch of its life to get the brushes.”
What about that all-too-important balance between the kick and the bass drum?
“If it’s a four-on-the-floor kick drum,” Julian told me, “it’s a little brighter and smackier than you’d have on a kick playing a standard, straight pattern. You might be able to get more room on the bass down low, and let the kick drum be in that smackey range. It’s a song by song basis with whatever seems to suit the lyric best.”
Here, Julian said that “the key of the song can make a big difference. In a lower key or register, where the root of the song is following naturally to the bottom of the guitar, it maybe doesn’t need as much help in the low-end than if you’re up a third or a fifth higher. If it’s higher, maybe there’s a fullness that you miss.” In these cases, he may feed some of the bass track to that parallel amp-simulator drum bus to “add some sub-bass sorta vibe if it needs it.”
On mixing bass for modern country-pop, Julian remarked that “there’s a fair amount of programmed 808-sounding kick drums in the music we do here now, and they can take up a lot of space.”
“If those are prevalent,” he said, “I don’t need to go down there and add all that sub nonsense to the bass because those 808 things are already owning all that area.”
As you might’ve noticed, country arrangements can often get dense. I asked Julian how he handles balancing all the elements, and he agreed it could be tricky.
“I try not to get carried away carving things up EQ-wise,” he said, “but there are certain instruments that are overly rich in frequencies that are not their feature frequencies. You can end up with electric guitars that get too thick; they particularly get heavy where they can battle too much with the bass guitar, so I may have to scoop some low-middle out, still trying to leave some weight.”
Don’t go too crazy though. “You don’t want to take them apart to where they sound puny.”
The same goes for piano too, which “can get enormous. You want to hear these busy licks in certain spots, so you turn it up, but then it starts clobbering everything else. You’ve gotta carve and peel things away EQ-wise or compression-wise to make it speak.”
Here the stereo spread is also your friend. If your instruments are “living in a similar frequency range and doing similar things,” Julian says its best to “get them away from each other as much as possible.”
For example, take two mainstays of country music: the Hammond organ and the pedal steel guitar. These can often fight in the mix, So Julian tries to “find ways to put them on separate sides of the stereo image, so they can poke out when the time’s appropriate. It’s similar with acoustic guitars and mandolins, or acoustic guitars in pairs. Try to get them on opposites sides so you don’t have all of that high-end jangle all in one place.”
Indeed, balance of frequencies is key, so you don’t end up bashing one ear over and over again. “Even if it’s one acoustic guitar,” Julian stressed, “maybe I’ll get it on the opposite side from where the high-hat is living, just to try to get some separation.”
In general, Julian said, “It’s about leaving room in the middle for the vocal, and putting things that are accenting or accompanying the vocal to the side.
Which brings us nicely to the voice.
As Julian works in Nashville, he is quick to tout the virtuosity of the musicians he sees on a daily basis—which is why he’s quick to be self-effacing about grabbing excellent tones when asked for technique. It was this way when I asked him about recording guitars, and he was likewise demure when asked about mixing vocals.
“A great vocal mixes itself to an extent,” he told me.
But still, a tool like Neutron finds its way into his vocal chain, particularly when working with “singers that are not really linear.” By this he means, they exhibit a timbre “harsh in the midrange at some moments and really thick other times.”
This is a phenomenon I’m certainly acquainted with when dealing with singers; their performance, their mic technique from moment to moment, or the quality of their voice can contribute to irregularities that make an overall, channel-wide chain unmanageable. You have to change the settings from time to time—or you did, until modules like Neutron came along, with its Dynamic EQ mode that lets you not only “pull out some high-midrange,” says Julian, “but also set a lower frequency to push back up to help fill it out.”
“You can trigger that lower band to push up as the higher band is pulling down, to help see-saw the frequency response. It can help you not have to pull the vocal on ten different channels and to EQ different words different ways. It’ll help you get to where you can manage the whole song without having to EQ sections separately.”
So that’s an excellent corrective technique—expanding upwards to pull out the frequency your compressing downwards—but what about balancing the vocals with all of these dense instruments?
“Our market is for the most part lyric driven,” said Julian. “It’s not as reliant on instrumental hooks. If we’re not engaging the listener emotionally with what the singer’s singing about, we’re not gonna have a hit.”
When I asked Julian how you go about achieving the right balance, he acknowledged that “it’s a tricky spot because you don’t wanna get the vocals so loud that you lose the energy of the track around it.”
His solutions, however, were granular.
“You do some vocal rides to pick up some words, some after thought words. I’ve usually got two or three different parallel vocal chains going on to help me with that. But also, I end up having to dig out words here and there so the listener knows they just heard that word ‘can’ and not the word ‘can’t’, because certainly in that instance, you can really change the meaning of the song.”
When I asked Julian about compression during the mixing phase, he was quite candid.
“Unfortunately,” he told me, “the haste and the loudness of where we live today means we stomp on everything all the time. It would be nice to work on something that had a lot of dynamic range in it, but compared to the records I made twenty or thirty years ago, there’s so little dynamic range, so you start trying to find ways to create the illusion of dynamic range. Frequency shifts in the mix—where low frequency and high frequency elements come in to take over the choruses—make it feel like it’s getting louder when it’s really just changing its frequency complexion, because it’s already as loud as it’s gonna get.”
King calls this “Illusory Dynamics”, and he learned the technique from an old mentor named Lynn Peterzell, who, at the time of his untimely passing, was “doing probably 40 or 50 percent of all the records here in Nashville.” Illusory Dynamics is a practice King also employs on his mix bus, which just so happens to be:
Once again, without prodding, King talked about switching to the platform a couple of years ago. “I don’t have Ozone 8 yet, he said, “but I really like Ozone 7. It glues things up nicely. It lets you get the record nice and loud, but it helps keep that idea of illusionary dynamics central: It’s loud all day everyday, but it seems to somehow do it in a respectful way. That’s all that’s on my stereo bus.”
I asked him what modules he was using specifically.
“I have a starting point with the Equalizer, Dynamics, Post EQ, Vintage Compressor, and the Maximizer at the end of the chain. It’s on from the get-go. As soon as I push up the first fader I’m hearing it. So I’m pushing against it. If I’m doing something that’s a little more period sounding, I’ll use the tape emulator, and maybe even the vintage EQ. It’s like one-stop shopping for me.”
Julian's chain shown in Ozone 8
Julian and I wrapped up our conversation with a few other topics, ranging from effects (“Certainly no new tricks here,” he said, “probably just overused things that we all continue to over use!”) and automation (where he described not automating levels, but sweeping EQs on guitars for guitar licks to “change the complexion and make them have a different shine”). But for me, the biggest take-away how he knows when to wrap up a mix—how to know when the song is done, and how to strive to deliver it on time.
““I’m not sure that there’s a light that goes off,” he said, regarding endings. “You just kinda fish for it.”
“Sure,” I replied, “but how do you get a quick turn-around for your artists and clients?”
He thought about it. “I just do the best I can,” he said after a moment. “Some days it’s busier than others. I’ve mixed two and half songs today for example, but two of them were cut on the same day, at the same studio, and with the same layout, so it’s a little easier to transition from one to the next. You’ve already gone a few steps up the hill. So yeah, I just try to manage my time the best I can.”
It’s good to know that for respected, GRAMMY-award winning engineers, great mixes might be achieved in the same way many of us work: Just doing the best we can and managing our time. Keep on working in that way, and you might wind up with a satisfying, decades-long career in your chosen field too.