An interview with Grammy-winning producer/engineer Reuven AmielArticle Energizing the Mix
“For me, the most important part is for the music to sound alive and to have good energy," says producer/engineer Reuven Amiel, "and I always base the mix on that. No matter what type of music it is, I want energy.
"So, the reason that people call me," he explains, "is because of my sound or taste. When I jump into a project they always give me a little bit of freedom or a lot of freedom. That allows me to actually tap into something that could be totally new, and experiment a little more."
Amiel is now based in Miami, but he’s lived in Peru, Uruguay, and Israel. His discography as a producer/engineer follows a similarly diverse path. He won a Latin Grammy in 2013 for his mixing work with Felipe Palaez, and has mixed and worked with prominent Latin artists such as Ricardo Arjona, Shaila Durcal, Gian Marco, Susana Baca, and Cristian Castro. But he’s also active producing rock acts. “I'm more inclined to work in the Alternative or Indie kind of market, worldwide,” he says, mentioning his work with Israeli/Scottish underground rock band Mushroom Symphony, and the European modern rock band Pony Asteroid, among many others.
Amiel cites producer Bob Ezrin (Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel, Kiss, etc.) and Israeli producer and audio educator Yoav Gera as mentors. While studying with Gera in Israel in the 1990’s, Amiel had a uniquely early opportunity to work with what was then a brand-new technological idea: audio plug-ins. “So this guy told us that there's a company that's developing this idea of plug-ins,” Amiel recalls, “and it was crazy and totally came from a different world, and that company became Waves. And it's funny because I mastered one record — we mastered there in Israel using Waves plug-ins before they were commercially released.”
Talking to Amiel, you get the idea when producing and mixing, he trusts his own instincts and is not concerned about following production trends.
Audiofanzine had the opportunity to speak with Amiel recently, and here’s our conversation.
How much producing do you do as opposed to mixing?
I will say now it's 60% mixing and 40% production. I'm more into production when the artist offers me something that I like, something that's different or super, super cool. It takes a long time, and it takes way more involvement. And sometimes it's difficult to deal with stuff if the artist is not clear about what they want.
Do you usually mix the projects you're producing?
Yeah, I always mix the projects that I produce.
Producing and mixing a project must be a lot different from one that only involves mixing, since you've been in on the project from the start?
It’s a totally different experience. I enjoy it more when the productions that I'm mixing are a little more risky. More audacity and more risk in it — more unusual — something that breaks the mold of the standard part, or the safe part. So it's more artsy.
Compare that to a job that’s strictly a mixing gig.
I love this detachment that I have when I get someone’s production to mix. And I listen without any preconceptions at all — without any subjective feeling. I just listen cold. I have no idea that they fought to have that part of the guitar in the process. I don't know that this guy was complaining about the background vocals. It's what I have and I want to make it sound cool.
You won a Latin Grammy a couple of years ago, right?
Yes, in 2013, with Felipe Pelaez. He’s become of the biggest artists in Colombia, for many years. And they asked me if I wanted to participate in the record. I always say yes, I want to be in the project, but I have to listen to something of course. But even if it's really different from what I do, I take it, because I think every kind of music teaches you something very important — the sense of groove in a certain kind of music. When you learn the feel of that music that's totally different from modern rock or modern pop, it helps you so much to be a better mixer. Because when you nail the groove and the movement of that type of music, when you go to the pop-rock or the rock music that's a little more stiff in a sense of groove, you're always going to make it sound more alive and more groovy in a way.
What genre was the album?
It's what they call Vallenato. It's a popular folk music from Colombia. It primarily comes from Columbia's Caribbean region. It's something that I never did before, actually. I never worked with this type of music before, I suppose it was a challenge for me to participate on the record. I did it, and I didn't expect anything.
And then you won a Grammy.
It caught me by surprise.
You were the mixer on the project?
Yeah, I was one of the mixers on the record.
Was it challenging to mix a style that you weren't familiar with?
Yeah, it was a challenge. Also, I think that a good part of it is that I never go with any trends. I don't like to be into the trends. I listen to what's going on of course, but I don't want to copy anybody, and I don't want to sound like anybody. It took me years to develop my own sound. People always say, "Your vocals always sound great, and the bass and the low end are detailed and clear." That’s an important element, but for me the most important part is for the music to sound alive and to have good energy. And I always base the mix on that. No matter what type of music it is, I want energy. So, because the reason that people call me is because of my sound or taste. When I jump into a project they always give me a little bit of freedom or a lot of freedom. That allows me to actually tap into something that could be totally new, and experiment a little more. This is one of the main reasons people want me to be involved with their music.
Did you have to listen to a lot of Vallenato before you did the Palaez project, just to make sure you understood how those records sound?
Yes, of course. I listened to that genre of music, and I tried to listen to guys who are leading artists in it, and try to understand the focal points and the balance. The relationship between parts — it could be drums and bass, or other melodic instruments — how they sit in the mix. How do the vocals and instruments sound. Bright, not too bright, more bass oriented, more dry, more wet — those kind of things.
You say you like to do mixes that have a lot of energy. What generally gives a mix its energy, other than the performance. But from a mixing standpoint, what adds energy?
For me, I think the most important thing in a mix are the vocals. The vocals are the most important element, and I like the vocals to sound clear. And clear doesn't mean loud, but to have a clarity in the mix. But also, the vocals should have a sense of urgency, of life, of emotion. It doesn't matter how you achieve it, it could be through dynamics, it could be through effects, it could be through equalization. But you have to find something that gives the vocal emotion. If the vocal has emotion, I think you're already in a good spot in the mix. Then, if we talk in terms of frequency, drums are number one and bass. I don't create the drums so pretty or so detailed. I want the drums to sound full but to feel good. To feel that they’re not stiff. It seems like when you have basic electronic drums, programmed drums, they can sound great, they can sound very clear, because the kick has no leakage, and the snare the same way. But you program it and this perfection can somehow give you a stiffness.
Especially if it's quantized.
Exactly — quantized and too perfect. You can make that sound more alive. You can process that and make it sound more loose. I want the drums to sound loose. Whether it's real drums or electronic drums, I have to find something that makes it sound loose, that flows well, but of course, fits the song and the artistic vision. But in terms of drums it's about how they groove.
So let's say you had an electronic drum part that was kind of stiff, what sorts of things would you do to it?
For me one of the most important things when I work with drums, and believe me, I can get crazy and I hate that part, but it's crucial for me to check the phase and the variable phase, and all the interaction between the instruments apart from the frequencies. To be clear, certain parts of the drum kit have frequencies that mask others, I try to tame them a little bit, to have room for each part in its own spot. I work in a hybrid setup, I have analog and digital together. In that regard, I'm not a guy that will say, "I want the LA-2A always for vocals." Or "I want the DBX 160 for bass, whatever." I don't care. I wake up and I open a plug-in, and I turn some knobs and it sounds good, yes. If not, I change it. I get bored using the same stuff all the time. I don't like to use the same thing all the time because it makes me feel that I'm not serving the song.
Do you mostly mix in the box?
I mainly don't. I used to mix in the box for years, and I think that mixing in the box is great. There are people who do an amazing job of it. I just feel that the combination of the analog and digital gives me different colors. But tools, it depends. I use a lot of plug-ins, too. I value plug-ins as much as I value hardware gear.
Your setup includes a summing box, right?
I have the Dangerous 2-Bus. I love it, I think it's very clean. Very fat in a way. Very big.
So you notice a big difference between mixing through that and just bouncing a mix in the box?
That's an important part. I can't say that I hear a lot of difference, honestly. It’s a small difference. For me, it’s what I call, "the sophistication of the small difference." I totally believe that. In audio, if you have a piece of gear that gives you a 5% or 10% difference, a hardware EQ compared to a plug-in EQ, for example. Or you have a multiband compressor that's analog, and then you find a different multiband compressor that sounds a little better than the other one, you upgrade to the new one and you have 15% better quality than using the previous one, even comparing to a plug-in, or whatever. You pay $4,000 for a multiband compressor, and you pay $2,000 for an EQ, and you got 50% better quality on this, and 50% better quality on that, it's like, "Why did you pay so much money?" Well, it's really the sum of everything that matters. It could be 10% here, 10% there, 15% there, 20% there. You put it all together, with so many tracks, then the difference is substantial.
So it's a cumulative thing?
Totally. That's also an important part. I'm not saying that analog is better, it just works for me. But also, I love certain plug-ins, which for me have a value like nothing else — and there's no substitute in the analog world. I love the de-essers and the plug-ins because of the automation you can do. I love everything that can be automated. For example, this company, Pro Audio DSP makes the DSM, a plug-in that's very unique. I like tools from Universal Audio (UAD). Of course, plug-in EQs and compressors are cool and fine. No problem, I use them. But for me, the real value of the plug-in world is when you can do something that never existed before. Like you go to Waves. They have a lot of tools, stuff that's just cool to use. Stuff to alter the sound. I love that kind of stuff. Brainworx, they also do stuff that's very different. So I like the tools, because they give you a solution for something you don't have in the analog world. Besides effects. If you talk about the rest of the gear, probably 95% of it is divided between compressors and EQs. But there you go again, there's no tool like the DSM in the analog world. Other examples are the Maxx-Bass, PS22, and S1 from Waves. I like those a lot.
Do you have a basic way that you approach your mix? Do you usually start the same way, or is it always different. Some guys will start with the drums and start adding things and others with everything up and so forth.
It's a little different, but I'd say I'd start with the drums. The first thing I do always is I ask for a rough mix. If they have a rough mix, I put it in the session and I listen to it and try to see what's going on, what the vibe was. I get a picture of the song, and then I start checking the tracks, soloing to see if there are any problems. And then when I pretty much understand the shape of the recording, I go to the drums and start working with them. I get them sounding okay and then I move to the bass, and make it sound okay. Then I make a balance with the rest of the instruments, and get them sounding nicer. And then start working with the vocals, where I find a good sound. Sometimes I add a very quick reverb just to blend a little bit, to have a little more fun.
Then I could mute the vocals and start working more with the drums and the other instruments. Once I feel the drums sound good, I start working with the bass. And if in the song the most important instrument is the guitar, I'll work more with the guitar. And then I try to check the shape of the keyboard. I try to clean it up, remove unnecessary frequencies, and maybe boost some frequencies that can give it more presence. Then I work more on the vocals to sound a little more final, and then the background vocals, and back and forth. And when I feel that everything's blending and sounding good, only then do I go into the details. There could be automation here, special effects here, delays or whatever. I always put the lead vocals back on to check how everything is working together, and then I can mute it again for a bit to check more details. I repeat that all the time.
What about panning in your mixes. Do you have any particular system? Some people do LCR, for example, others don't.
I don't work with the LCR, the hard left, hard right and the center. To be honest, I hear a lot of people saying "I mix LCR" and to be honest I really don't understand why they do it. I guess they have a philosophy that I don't feel so bonded with. I think that when everything is in the same spot, it doesn't sound so musical or so wide. And I like in betweens because they really create a difference. It's like, when you have something that's say, halfway between left and center, and you have guitar, like the chunk guitar, the rhythm guitar, the warm guitar in a rock song. And it's being placed hard left and hard right. And then you have another guitar that's also saturated, doing an arpeggio. If you put it halfway between left and center, you can distinguish it more. So for me, it not only creates a stereo field that's wider and more interesting, but also creates more separation.
Everybody does it differently. That's the great thing about mixing, there's no right and wrong. It's just whatever works.
Let’s circle back to the subject of making a mix more energetic. I would think pushing the snare drum up is one way to add energy. As long as you don't push it up too high.
Yes. I like to put the snare in a place where you can feel it. My philosophy on mixing, talking about main instruments, or something that's there for a reason, [is to make sure it can be heard]. Let me give you an example: Let's say that there's a part on the verse or the pre-chorus, and everything's playing, the drums, the bass, the guitars. And there's a little line, like a guitar melody line. If you put it too low, what's the point? When you put it too low, you know it's there, but you really don't feel the statement. It makes it sound weak, and more like a noise. Something distracting. Something that's really not being defined. I'd rather just mute it, because if its something in the background, what's the point?
Can you give an example?
Let’s say you have a guitar that's playing a riff, and then you have a keyboard that's playing the same riff. I may decide I'm going with the guitar as the main one, and for the keyboard I'm going find a spot where it adds a little something to be different. So that it makes you go "Is that a guitar a keyboard? That's interesting." That works. If you want to put it louder, that's also fine. That's just your take on what you want to do. But when there are lines, melodies, something that's being played for a reason, and you put it too low, I think it's only creating noise. Of course, layers that blend with each other are low for a reason, but lines or melodies have a sweet spot in terms of level where they contribute with the song.
Certainly in a rock context that's even more true, because anything that's going to be standing out is going to have to be loud.
Yeah. And sometimes there is beauty of having them both to do certain things. I heard a lot of stuff in the '80s. The 1980s was a revolutionary decade for sound. Everything had a little more high end, and more of a difference. More sophisticated. And you listen to certain artists and you listen to the tambourine part, and it’s loud and proud. Even sometimes a little too loud. But that level of the tambourine is what makes the part memorable. For example, Billy Joel is one of the guys who does that kind of thing. Check, "It's Still Rock 'n' Roll to Me," where the drum fills, especially after the chorus are loud and a statement, but also on "Moving Out," (Anthony's song) he has vocal parts going "Ka Ka Ka Ka" and "Ma Ma Ma Ma," that he puts super loud. But when you listen to that song you go, "Oh my God, it's there." That part is making a statement. Sometimes you want to have everything kind of nice and logically balanced, but other times, when you put something loud a little bit, as a mixer or producer, you have to have the balls to say "I want it loud and proud."