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Mixing the EP (or why pop songs are AWESOME)!

Debs: There are a million things I should be doing right now. I should be sending out a newsletter. I should be checking chords and lyrics. I should be writing stuff for the PDF book we’re sending out to many of our Indiegogo donors. I also owe Monkeyman Productions something. What am I doing instead? I am writing a blog about mixing. I’m not going to edit it though.

Today I spent four hours looking at EP mixes with the marvelous Aaron Tsang. If you paid close attention to the Songs in the Key of Geek credits, his name should already be familiar – he mastered it 🙂 He’s bio is heavy on the composition side, but he does things pretty much all over the musical spectrum and is ridiculously talented at pretty much all of it. I originally met him through a high school friend (and another composer), Kevin Lau.

Okay…MIXING! I have to admit that I was going into today with some trepidation and nervousness (and also, sleep deprivation but that’s beside the point). This had nothing to do with Aaron whatsoever, and everything to do with me. If you’ve read more than a handful of comics, you know by now that I am an extreme perfectionist. That definitely holds true in the studio, where I take ten times as long as Errol to do anything (and that’s actually an extreme understatement). I have what Aaron actually called a “microscopic ear” when it comes to my vocals because I am so, so critical. I find it really hard to call a project done because what I’m constantly thinking is “Maybe I could still do that better.”

Mixing Songs in the Key of Geek was really hard. Don’t get me wrong – Erik did a phenomenal job especially considering what he was given to work with (i.e. we recorded in our living rooms). But Erik was also in New York, so it made real time feedback next to impossible and there was a lot of going back and forth on prints. It also took a really long time for me to make any decisions because I had to be sure by listening to the same print 10 times. If you’re wondering where Errol was in all this, by the way, he was helping, but he’s not a perfectionist.

So back to this EP. I was really excited when Aaron invited me over because of the real time factor, and also because I have no idea how Erik mixed the last album and what he used (aside from Melodyne which I recall him mentioning) and I was really curious. But also scared. And even more scared because of how soon we’re releasing the thing.

Aaron lives about an hour away from me on TTC, happily on a subway line. The first thing you notice when you enter his condo is the HUGEST SCREEN EVER! And the second thing I noticed was “Huzzah, Cubase!!!!” I like Cubase. Devin uses it too and he taught me a few basic things on it so that I could record myself. I found it pretty intuitive. Far beyond Garageband, but that goes without saying.

Aaron let me take this “I am very focused” picture of him. He was showing me how the mastering process works.

For the record, Errol gave me executive power on mixing decisions. This was incredibly trusting of him, especially since what we each find most important in mixing is completely and utterly opposite.

We spent the afternoon time looking at the two songs that were most complex from a mixing standpoint: “Commodore 64” and “Tribbles”. Aaron had actually sent us a sample print of “Tribbles” already so that we could decide on a direction. The real question was whether to keep the vocals loose or pop song the heck out of it like the original.

Let me define what “pop song the heck out of it” actually means. It pretty much means vocal perfection.


I googled "Heaven" and this gorgeous image by angrymikko came up.
I googled “Heaven” and this gorgeous image by angrymikko came up.

Don’t get me wrong. The vocals were actually really strong as they were without correction. Devin and I had  listened to it in the studio a bunch of times and reveled in the gloriousness of it, and I had let my friend Matt hear it too because I wanted to hear how it sounded in a car. His reaction (grinning like a mad person and asking for a repeat listen) was awesome. But there’s a difference between “really strong” and radio pop standard. No human voice can do that off the bat. When you hear Taylor Swift singing in that song, a single vocal line is made up of frequencies from dozens of tracks that are crazy processed.

But here I was, being offered perfection. Not because I was being neurotic and overly critical. Not because I was being a perfectionist. But because pop songs are vocally perfect, and “Tribbles” is a parody of a pop song. Did I want to pop song the heck out of it? The answer was a no-brainer.

And then I watched him do it.

Like this but better.
This was pretty much my face for two hours. Actually, it’s still my face.

There’s still quite a long way to go. Aaron will be sending us tracks to proof while we’re in Ottawa at Can-Con this weekend. Yes, we know we’re cutting it awfully close as far as deadlines go. It wouldn’t be fun without some kind of mad scramble, right? Words can barely contain my excitement.

8 Responses to Mixing the EP (or why pop songs are AWESOME)!

  1. This folks is, I think, is why Debs and Errol works. Despite Errol hamming up the distracted geek guy role, he really is quite good at what he does. And Debs when she is on fire, she is ON FIRE!

    AND they have a great collection of friends with such a wide mix of talents. Aaron Thank you for bringing your perfection to our ears! The first CD was awesome I now have even higher expectations for this one!! Thanks for your time and expertise!

    Also.. I have screen envy…

    • For me, my envy is the software and skill. I wish I could do music editing. I did one class in pro tools. Told my professor how excited I was to go out and buy it, and an M-box for myself to use at home. She told me not to bother, because almost no one in the industry uses it any more. I was crushed.

      • I don’t know what an M-box is – oh noes! I’d actually really like to learn how to mix properly, though I think I’d choose Cubase to learn on. One day on a better computer with some decent speakers, perhaps.

      • The M-box was specially designed for Pro Tools, I think. I know PT didn’t work without it. It worked with both the input and output and turned your computer into a multi-track audio recorder. We used big box recorders, though. I don’t know if PT is specifically for music, or just more generic audio. We did a radio play, and a “snap shot of a place” project. I wanted to do the movie theater, but home office wouldn’t let me. That stunk, so I did a D&D session instead.