Music, Audio, and Other Illnesses

Mix A vs. Mix B

In the dark, dim past, on a dark and stormy night, Bill Bottrell would rant to anyone who would listen (usually just me) about Mix A and Mix B. As I despair of ever getting him to write about it, I’ll now take it on.

There are all kinds of ways of expressing what the idea is supposed to be about, but for want of a better phrase, it’s about What Went Wrong With Music. This is something that must cross everyone’s mind from time to time: What Went Wrong With Music.

Here’s Bill’s theory — which I find kind of inarguable: Mix A represents the musicians in charge; Mix B represents the engineers in charge.

Think about what that means for a few minutes: in the days of few (or fewer) tracks, we first began with capturing music — think Meet the Beatles, or some of the old RCA Living Stereo recordings. As the musicians got more used to the process, and they became more involved in it, collaboration between the two respective teams began, culminating in works like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, or even Tubular Bells, for that matter.

I think about my first experiences in a studio: my band and engineer Doug Sclar were equal partners in shaping our work — Doug effectively functioning as a non-playing musician. Although now I think we kinda sucked, we were certainly ambitious — all of us, Doug included. And rather than giving us orders, he was, in addition to capturing our sounds, performing what we might call “cat-herding”.  This strikes me as an ideal: everyone’s opinion is given equal weight.

Certainly, George Martin never gave the Fabs instructions. He would offer suggestions, they might take them, and gradually a record would emerge.

But: as tracks became more plentiful, and options increased, the power began to shift to the other side of the glass. And this here is the crux of the matter, of Mix A vs. Mix B: power. By the late 70s, we (the players) were taking our cue from the engineers. By the time I moved into Hollywood, many musicians were jumping through hoops of their own to meet engineers exacting demands. At one group of sessions I was involved in, players were clapping their hands in an attempt to cover the sound of a metronome, trying to clap in such flawless time — metronomic time — that the two sounds became one. With the players, the music, so subjugated, is it any surprise that punk music rose up in the midst of it?

Bill himself started as a player, built his own makeshift studio in a warehouse in which he had a job, worked his way up to being house engineer at a small Hollywood place called California Recording (home of the Wah-Wah pedal), and eventually became Chief Engineer at Soundcastle Recording in Silver Lake, L.A. And then the Jacksons came calling, and Jeff Lynne, and…

By the time we met, he was about to open Toad Hall, his private studio in Pasadena. And it was in Toad Hall that he started to put his beliefs into practice: Mix A, the restoration of power to artists.

When you think like this, suddenly most pop music becomes an example of one way of thinking or the other.