Jeff Ellis’s approach to mixing had been a closely guarded formula, secreted away in his dungeon at the Bedrock LA studio complex in Echo Park, California. Those secrets were leaked to the public when Sonarworks shipped Jeff off to New York to speak at this year’s MixCon event—the only industry event dedicated to mixing. Fortunately, SonicScoop was there to record the entire presentation.
Despite this young engineer’s success with Earl Sweatshirt and his Grammy Award for mixing Frank Ocean’s Channel ORANGE, Jeff spoke with conviction and clarity and kicked off his presentation by relating to the audience his feelings, in his words, of “still having doubts… but it gets easier.”
In this article, I dive into the key takeaways from Jeff’s incredible presentation that should open your eyes (and your ears) to how even the most simple changes in a mix can be transformative. I highly recommend watching Jeff’s full presentation, which is embedded at the end of this article!
Learn to be an artist
First things first—be honest with yourself and those around you. When you first listen to a song, you really have to connect with it. If you don’t connect, then don’t mix the song. If you have to spend days trying to get something right, you will continue to go round and round with the artist and producer with more loathing than love. Eventually the mix will hurt your reputation, so it’s more valuable to stay away from mixing bad songs than to take the money.
At Bedrock LA you will always find Jeff working with the artist and producer in every mixing session. You read that right—the artist and producer are there every step of the way, so don’t be surprised if the song arrangement starts to change. By working as a team and collaborating with the artist and the producer, Jeff can make artistically aggressive decisions that otherwise would have never been touched.
At the end of the day, the team’s goal is to create a song together, and rather than waiting for email notes, they are able to quickly and efficiently make aesthetic choices whenever it is called for.
Don’t harm the rough mix
The role of a mixing engineer is to transform and enhance the rough mix, but there is also a strong need to preserve the producer’s musical vision. This is often quite a delicate feat, considering that artists and producers often provide the mixer with dry stems that require an insane amount of mix processing. Jeff requests stems that have been printed wet and he works from there. The producer can always go back and reprint an unprocessed stem, but the biggest mistake for a mixing engineer is not asking for committed effects from the producer.
Identify moments of glory
It is crucially important during the mix stage that you are not only listening to the sonic quality of the mix but also paying attention to the narrative of the song. By understanding the narrative, we can identify the key moments of glory. From a simple “Hey!” leading from the second chorus into the bridge to a well-placed drum fill, these moments highlight the emotional journey of the narrative and when we work from that place of emotion, we are able to make much more heartfelt decisions in the mix.
Engineers often use de-essers to remove sibilance from vocals, but what if we can actually use the articulation of an artist to enhance the narrative of the song?
As a singer rings out a word that leads into the chorus, Jeff will use automation to increase the volume of the vocal so he is riding the sibilance right up until the chorus kicks in. This stylized technique is really effective at bringing the listener up close to the artist where silence or the removal of harsh sibilance may have previously seemed to be the preferred method.
The fader is your friend.
Another great tip from Jeff involves motifs, or repeated phrases, that are heard throughout a track. Jeff’s “stepped volume effect” provides a subtle but effective musical enhancement to the audience. Jeff demonstrates an excellent example where there is a guitar riff that is present in the intro, post-chorus and reappears one final time in the outro. During the introduction, the lead guitar is barely a talking point in the song, but by the post-chorus the motif is 3dB louder ensuring that as that hook comes through, it carries you through the narrative. Jeff points out that by the time the lead guitar is heard in the outro, the listener should be playing air guitar. The rest of the instrumentation is untouched but well-balanced, ensuring that listeners not only hear, but also feel the track.
To view the full video, click on the player below and perhaps post your own key takeaways in the comments below! We will relay them to Jeff.