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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Mixing Tips From Gaga's Mixer

Lady Gaga performing image
I love the way Lady Gaga is mixed and I was lucky enough to interview her excellent mixer, Robert Orton, for the 3rd edition of The Mixing Engineer's Handbook, which was recently released. Here's a brief excerpt, where he talks about mixing in the box and his approach to EQ.

"If you’ve enjoyed the big hits from Lady Gaga’s “The Fame” and “The Fame Monster” albums like “Poker Face,” “Paparazzi,” and “Just Dance,” then Robert Orton is your man. After spending eight years at the side of producer extraordinaire Trevor Horn, Robert has gone on to craft hits for Robbie Williams, Enrique Iglesias, Carly Rae Jepsen, Flo Rida, Kelis, Usher, Mary J Blige, and Marilyn Manson, among many others, while winning a few Grammy awards for his work along the way. Robert is also one of the first hit makers influenced by earlier versions of this book. Says Robert, “The Mixing Engineer's Handbook is one that I remember studying very closely when I was an aspiring mixer hoping to catch a break.”

Are you mixing mostly in the box or on a console?
I’m mostly in the box in Pro Tools with a load of plugins. I’ve got a few bits of outboard gear as well, mainly a bit of compression like some [Empirical Labs EL-8] Distressors, because there’s not much that sounds like them. Sometimes you just need a bit of analog to find the sound you’re looking for, but for the most part I’m in the box. I guess I’ve always really mixed that way. I like the way it sounds and it’s so much more convenient when it comes to recalls.

Are you using an analog mix buss?
No, I’ve tried those kind of things and I haven’t felt that I’ve gained a lot from using them. Basically I mix in the box and then I’ve got a couple of things that might go over the mix, but I don’t buss it out or stem it out or anything like that.

Do you use a controller?

No, I just use a trackball. The few times when I mixed on an [Avid] Icon or that sort of thing in the past I’ve found that I ignored it most of the time. I’m so used to doing rides on the trackball that I forget that the controller’s there. I have a really simple little setup. I just sit in front of a pair of monitors with a computer in a well treated room. 

What’s your approach when you have a song that uses a synth instead a bass guitar for the bottom end?
I think you have to approach it slightly differently because quite often those type of synth sounds interact with other parts of the song. Maybe the top end of it is buzzy or something like that, and it’s not always just the traditional low end that you’re looking for from some of those parts. Sometimes I approach that by maybe multing it out so I’ve got the bottom end from it [on one channel], but treat it in parallel and then blend the sounds together. 

I’ve noticed that in those kinds of songs you’ve made the kick a little bigger than it might normally be as well so it takes up a lot of those frequencies as well.
I tend to mix the kick drum quite loud in that style of music. I know that’s a bit of a trend at the moment as well but I like to hear it thump you in the chest. Sometimes I’ll use a trick like compressing the bass every time the kick hits so you don’t need to balance the kick as loud for it to have impact. 

So you’re keying it then?

Sometimes. That’s certainly a good trick when you have a dense bass synth that’s taking up a lot of space. Sometimes that kind of trick can open up space in the mix if done subtly enough.

Do you have a particular approach to using EQ?
I use a number of approaches actually. Sometimes I’ll hear a frequency that I don’t like, then I’ll use some subtraction. Other times I might think, “This just needs to be brighter,” and I’ll just turn the knobs until it sounds right. I don’t think too much about the frequencies and I’m definitely not afraid to boost a lot. 

Having said that, I don’t just go in and EQ everything. I think the best advice I could give anyone who wants to mix is to learn when not to process something. The more you process things, the worse it sounds, I generally find. To me mixing is more about balance and groove and getting that to happen. I always try to get the mix to sound as good as I can just with the balance before I go in and start EQing. I might fix something at the beginning of a mix if it feels wrong to me, but I don’t just jump right in and EQ things. I think that leads to more of a mess than anything."

To read additional excerpts from The Mixing Engineer's Handbook 3rd edition and other books, go to the excerpts section of

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