Mixing Outside the Lines

Jul 30, 2008 2:05 PM, By Janice Brown



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Working with the pop avant garde, including Bjork, Mum, Camille and Coco Rosie, crafting the experimental-classical movements of rising-star composer Nico Muhly and producing electronic music of his own, Icelandic producer/engineer/programmer Valgeir Sigurdsson engages in highly creative engineering on a daily basis. Two records made this year—Muhly’s Mothertongue and Camille’s Music Hole— illustrate Sigurdsson’s imaginative style and technical prowess.

Sigurdsson was the ideal engineer for the avant-acapella style of French pop chanteuse Camille. “I’ve done a lot of experimenting with human voices, beat percussion and vocal layers—since Bjork’s ‘Medulla’ album—so Camille and her producer insisted I do all the recording and mixing on Music Hole. I was kind of like their sound advisor,” says Sigurdsson. “It was composed with limited sources—vocals, body percussion, beat-boxing, sonic textures and piano—and so it was a very creative recording role because they trusted me to make decisions on how we should create a lot of the sounds.”

While he recorded Camille in France, Sigurdsson mixed the album back at his Greenhouse Studio in Reykjavik on his integrated SSL AWS900 and Pro Tools HD3 system. “It was a complicated album and called for some creative solutions,” he says. “For example, some of the vocals are in French and some are in English, and we wanted to find a way to make them different sonically, too. Camille said that the French always want to hear lyrics clearly so I ran the French vocals on the song ‘Canards Sauvage’ through an SPL Vitalizer, which made those French vocals stand out in a different way; they’re brighter and jump forward in the mix. This became a blueprint for rest of the album: I used the Vitalizer on all the French vocals.”

On both the Camille and Muhly records, Sigurdsson weaves countless elements together in a mix where nothing gets lost, where every part—from the most minimal to the lushest soundscapes—feels present and essential. “I think mainly, when there’s a lot of elements but everything seems very clear and present, it has a lot to do with my EQs,” he attributes. “I use the SSL EQs on the AWS900 all the time. My rack of Neves [1073s and 1084s] and my API 550B are also really important.” He also uses reverbs to create space in the mix. “I find it very useful, especially with albums that are tracked layer by layer [as with both Mothertongue and Music Hole] to 'glue' the elements together with different reverbs and sometimes delays. My reverb of choice is usually the Eventide Reverb plug-in, and I typically have a few sends set up with various reverb types and lengths.”

Mothertongue, particularly for the scale of its composition, posed unique mixing challenges. Muhly composed Mothertongue in three 15 to 20-minute sections, which ultimately broke down on the record into three songs per section, plus a bonus track. “We didn’t break them up until the very last stage,” notes Sigurdsson, “so I was essentially mixing 15-, 20-minute sections. I broke them down into five to 10 smaller pieces to mix, and it was a big challenge to maintain consistency across the entire section, making sure I did not give any part a unique character that was inconsistent with the overall piece.”

The first section, called “Mothertongue Parts I-III,” changed the most in the mixing process, says Sigurdsson. “By the time I started mixing, a lot of sounds had started to become hidden, buried underneath other elements, and it was just about figuring out what was most important and finding a way to bring it out. The final section of the piece was never big enough when we were recording it—during mixing, I added another layer of bass and these monsters Nico asked me to create, which I made by processing the sound of crunching cereal. There’s another part in Mothertongue where we created a interesting texture with the sound of whale meat sloshing around in a bowl.”

Prior to buying the AWS900, Sigurdsson says much of his mixing was done in-the-box. “I prefer to mix through an analog desk, but it was frustrating to be in two different places when you’re in the middle of the mix,” he shares. “Going from Pro Tools to an analog console was like playing a piano and then having to stand up and strap on your guitar—it could be pretty annoying when you had a flow going.” Sigurdsson calls his new setup “hands-on” and “intuitive,” all-important qualities for facilitating endless creativity at Greenhouse.

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