“I always imagine when going into a mix room that Mike Tyson is there, waiting for me. Mixing is like going into battle, but really it’s a battle with yourself, and one that you have to win, every day again. You’re sitting on your own, in front of a pair of speakers, and you have to believe in yourself, and in what the artist is trying to do.”
So says Tom Elmhirst. During the last twelve years the mixer has clearly won an incredible amount of mix battles, as can be learned from the long list of chart-topping tracks he mixed, by the likes of Adele, Amy Winehouse, The Black Keys, Cee Lo Green, Ellie Goulding, Florence & The Machine, Arcade Fire, Mark Ronson, U2, Peter Gabriel, Rufus Wainwright, and Goldfrapp, and many more. The list exemplifies Elmhirst’s position as one of the world’s leading mixers, something that is also reflected in his four Grammy Awards wins.
Elmhirst began his career in London in the early 1990s, cutting his teeth at the legendary SARM studios in London and graduating to becoming a tracking engineer for producers like Trevor Horn and Steven Fitzmaurice. He became a full-time mixer in the early 00s, initially working in London in both The Pierce Rooms and Metropolis Studio C, but eventually settling on a permanent residence at the latter facility. The Briton moved to New York in 2012. He currently conducts his mix battles in Electric Lady Studios Studio C, going into battle with an arsenal consisting of his very own Neve VR72 console, an extensive collection of outboard, his favourite ATC SCM50 and Auratone monitors, and of course, the ubiquitous Pro Tools rig.
Neve desks have played and continue to play a central role in Elmhirst’s approach—he bought his Neve VR72 at Electric Lady from CRC Studios in Chicago, and had it refurbished. The desk is at the heart of his mixing philosophy, which is about, he says, “marrying the best of the old and the best of the new. Having grown up in the era of large format console mixing I just would not enjoy mixing in the box in the same way. I could not live without faders and outboard gear. But I could also not live without Pro Tools. For me it is about getting that combination to work.”
Elmhirst has conducted one Mix With The Masters seminar at La Fabrique, in August 2012, an experience he still treasures, and he looks forward to doing more seminars in the future. While sharing his encyclopedic knowledge of analogue and digital mixing techniques will be a crucial aspect of any seminar he conducts, he maintains that teaching participants how to win that battle in the mix room, every day again, is arguably even more important, because mixing is as much about attitude, mindset, and experience, as it is about technology and techniques.
“A lot of the time I talked about anything but compressors and EQ’s and the technical side of things,” recalls Elmhirst about his first seminar. “Once we got into the studio I would watch people work, and could see their personalities come out. From that I could begin to understand what they needed to do to be able to progress. For example, some of them were too calm. This is good in a recording situation, but mixing is different: you need to be quite aggressive. I don’t mean personally, but with regards to your work. You have to be really confident and trust your own judgment. The worst thing in the mix room is doubt!”
“You need to be able to make decisions, and make them quickly. In doing so you should not be afraid to make mistakes, initially. You’re making music and mixing a record. It’s not science. You have to have the courage to be a bit reckless, if necessary. You just pull the faders down again and have another go. The heart of it is to be decisive and get something going very quickly. I get the balance of 98% of the session right in the first hour, and the rest is working on details, achieving the nuts and bolts of a mix. If you get a result quickly, you’ll still have energy to start again from scratch, if necessary.”
“The thing about mixing is that you have to know how to stay fresh. You make impulsive decisions and try things out, like getting that chorus to explode. With some mixes you have to fight your way through, or there may be some chaos. Sometimes clients are not quite sure where they want to go, or they may feel that a mix is not quite going in the right direction. You may feel like that yourself. But you don’t panic. Panic in the studio is not a good vibe. You have to hold it together, and, as you’re fighting the mix, as you’re wrestling, suddenly it starts to feel like a record. And then you need to take it further. Many of the guys in La Fabrique left their mixes at a point where I could continue.”
“I mixed multitracks that the participants brought in, and we also listened to loads of records. Then we talked about what we liked and disliked. We covered a wide variety of genres and mix approaches, because dealing with that is part of your job as a mixer. You have to be able to adapt to a wide range of artists and styles of music. When you’re mixing you’re finishing a record, and for many artists this is quite hard, because it means committing to something. In that situation you can’t have a shred of self-doubt as a mixer. The essence of my job is to work with the greatest artists that I can, with great songs and great producers, and to trust my instincts in how to move forward.”
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Q&A with Tom Elmhirst
Teaser – 2012 Session