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Sculpting Space and Warping Time

Sculpting Space and Warping Time

Eric J on Crafting Dense Mixes for Flume and Chet Faker

Grammy-winning engineer, mixer, and producer Eric J Dubowsky cut his teeth at Manhattan’s iconic Greene Street Studios, where he worked alongside hip-hop production powerhouses like Bob Power, Nick Sansano, and Rod Hui, and later, at Atlantic Records, with the legendary Arif Mardin. The New York native also engineered albums for Weezer, The Chemical Brothers, St. Vincent, Odesza, and hundreds more.

Recently, Eric has garnered a lot of attention for the cinematic, stunning mixes he’s turned in for a fresh generation of electronic artists under the Australian “Future Classic” umbrella, including Chet Faker, Flume and more. We caught up with him to plumb the mystery behind the unusual level of stereo width, low end spread, and vibrant top-end detail in his mixes.

Listening to your work with Flume, I’m impressed by your ability to create space in a mix that has a lot of moving parts.

Well, creating space for everything can be a challenge, especially with an artist like Flume, because all of the parts are so cool, and the arrangements are really well done. So you want to be able to hear all of the details.

Do you have a guiding principle when you sit down to mix a dense electronic arrangement?

My goal is always to direct the listener to whatever is the most important thing that’s happening at any given moment in the mix. I try to emphasize moments, especially since electronic music can be kind of repetitive and linear and stacked. When several parts are all playing at the same time, I ask myself, “how do I make room for everything while pointing the listener to what’s really carrying the message of the song at that moment?”

"I’m not very judicious with reverb. I grew up in the ’80s — I love reverb!"
– Eric J.

What are some techniques you use to make space at the right time in a track?

I like to create as much drama and movement as possible in a mix, so there’s a lot of intricate volume automation. Just as importantly, though, I also pay attention to all the frequencies, for every instrument, and I listen for certain things like overlap and buildup.

I like to build a really strong foundation with the low end, because if it’s established and feeling good, and occupying the right part of the spectrum, you can really do whatever you want on top. You feel like everything’s grounded. That’s the basis for a good mix. I also use side-chain compression and dynamic EQ to duck things that are getting in the way of each other.

For example, a lot of times the kick drum and the bass will occupy roughly the same frequency range, but if you pay attention, you’ll hear that each track has a particular frequency that’s leading the low end.

"Numb & Getting Colder” feat. Kučka from Flume's 2016 album, Skin, mixed by Eric J.

Mixing hip-hop and rock records would seem to be quite different than a lot of the layered, expansive-sounding electronic stuff you do now.

There are frequencies in electronic music that I basically didn’t know existed back when I was mainly doing rock. I’m always trying to negotiate that whole extra octave on the low end. Plus, in this day and age, we’re also trying to make sure that everything sounds huge on so many different mediums: an iPhone, MacBook speakers, earbuds, and also on a big festival system.

I really like all that extra subharmonic information, and I want it to translate well regardless of the environment. As a result, I’m pretty obsessed with the low end. Even if you can’t hear that stuff on your earbuds, it affects the overall compression on the mix bus, and it can create movement in your mix in a cool way.

Talk a bit more about this low end sculpting that you do: your low end material very rarely smears into the mids at all — and the ear candy never sounds at all bloated or woofy.

Well, just like a rock mix, I’m absolutely cutting lowend from anything that doesn’t absolutely need it, because I know that I need to constantly be aware of leaving headroom. So I aggressively filter low end from synths, for example.

Electronic music offers lots of low end challenges, since you may have as many as six kick drums all hitting at the same time, and three or four different bass sounds, from an 808 bass to a synth bass. And of course, the 808 can have an attack component that can belong as much to the drum frequencies as the bass.

So what do you do to wrangle all of that bass information?

There’s a lot of EQ sculpting that needs to happen all the time. Because of this, I’ll use transient designers, perhaps just focusing on the front of an 808 sound. Sometimes I’ll split the kick and the bass into different components of the envelope — for example, maybe I’ll emphasize the midrange of the attack on one, and the low end of the decay on another. Honestly, I never dealt with these kinds of low end challenges before mixing electronic music. I also use distortion and saturation to add upper harmonics.

There has definitely been a learning curve. But I spend so much time doing it these days that it has become very natural. I spend the vast majority of the early part of the mix process just on the kicks and basses. That alone can take hours.

“I use so many UAD plug-ins, so it’s hard to even say what my favorites are!” — Eric J.

I suppose with this idea of creating space comes the idea of imaging, and your mixes give a strong sense of a soundstage, with distances between the objects in the mix.

I always like to think of mixes as existing in three dimensions: I think about the panning, which is your “left to right.” I think of it from a frequency standpoint, which you might call “top to bottom.” There are so many frequencies you can play with, particularly in electronic music. Thirdly, I tend to do a lot of stuff with reverb and delay, basically placing things from “front to back.” That really helps with electronic stuff, too.

To create separation, I can put some synths a bit “further back” to create depth. If everything is right there in your face, you lose that quality.

I like mixes to be an immersive experience. A good mix should envelop the listener; it’s not just about having everything on 10 the whole time. I want you to feel like you’re inside the mix, so I like to carve out room for everything if I can. Especially with an artist like Flume; he’s really good at using silence as an element in his music, which is an effective way to create contrast, and that’s what I’m trying to create as I mix. Contrast. A sound is always going to feel louder if there’s nothing right before it. Any “hit” is going to feel huge if it’s preceded by silence.

Chet Faker's "Talk is Cheap" from the 2014 album Built on Glass, mixed by Eric J.

There’s a school of thought that one should always be “judicious” with reverb, but you use plenty.

Well, I’m not very judicious with reverb. I grew up in the ’80s — I love reverb! It has become one of my trademarks, I guess. When I started doing these records, reverb wasn’t thought of as being especially cool, but it does seem like it’s getting cooler again. I use a lot of different reverbs, and I do EQ the reverb returns, for sure. Now, every reverb has a different character, and this is one place where UAD plug-ins have been really helpful. I like to use the EMT 140 Plate Reverb, as well as the EMT 250 Electronic Reverb, which I use a lot on synthesizers — also the chorus effect on the 250 is amazing for vocals.

So you’ll cast multiple different reverbs in a track?

On any given song, I’ll use anywhere from five to ten different reverbs on buses, and this allows me to bring a lot of different kinds of character to the sound. This is what I love about UAD plug-ins; they may be software, but you still get that great analog vibe from them. I love the AKG BX 20 Spring Reverb, that’s just incredible. And the Ocean Way Studios plug-in is great for putting things into a different space.

The AMS RMX16 was huge for me when UA released it. I use the RMX16 a lot on drums. What can I say? I just really love the non-linear reverb thing, man. Honestly, I’ve probably used the RMX16 far more than I should have, but there’s just nothing better than that. I’ve used the EMT 250 on a lot of the Flume stuff, in fact, a lot of the Future Classic stuff, along with the Lexicon 224 Digital Reverb plug‑in.

“I am definitely a perfectionist, and I often tell artists, 'That’s good for you and bad for me.'”
– Eric J.

Are there any interesting ways you like to exploit reverb?

Well, there’s an old trick Arif Mardin taught me, where you put a vocal into, say, a canyon reverb, but you set it so that you can barely hear the reverb for much of the song, but then just for a few moments, you automate the reverb return way up, so that you suddenly have this incredibly dramatic moment that happens. Now, that reverb’s been there the whole time, but only very, very subtly, and that adds to the drama when it suddenly opens up.

Reverbs are so good for creating drama in a mix. You can completely change the perception of where an instrument is, or where a vocalist is standing, just by automating reverb.

I also like to automate pre-delay quite a bit, because you can really change where the singer is perceived to be standing in relation to the listener. I don’t like for sounds to get lost, so I’ll change the time of the pre-delay over the course of a track — by automating the pre-delay, you can create the difference between a singer standing in the middle of a big room, or suddenly standing right in front of you in a big room; same room sound, but very different placement and perception.

Grammy-winner Eric J at the console with the UAD Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor plug-in running in the background.

What would you say is the mixing technique that really defines your approach to the art?

A lot of what I do is based around parallel compression, and it all comes down to the transients. How do you keep the transients, but — especially with electronic music — still make things hit really hard? As we all know, if you compress everything too much, you’re getting rid of all your transients. That’s why there’s a ton of parallel compression on all of these songs; to the extent that I really don’t need to do much compression at all on the mix bus.

I do use the SSL 4000 G Bus Compressor on the mix bus, but the needle barely moves, maybe just 2dB of gain reduction. And I’m talking about songs that you’d absolutely assume had tons of compression on the mix bus. That’s because I’m compressing everything earlier in the process, with several different parallel channels that might include things like a Pultec EQP-1A, a DBX 160, the Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor, Empirical Labs Fatso Jr., and more.

I have to say, when the SSL 4000 G Bus Compressor Collection came out with the side-chain filter, it was the greatest thing ever for me. Before that I was using the Manley Variable Mu Limiter Compressor, because I wanted to be able to let the bass through. But when G Bus came out with the side-chain filter, that was like a gift to me, because that’s exactly what I do. I’m almost never compressing the low end; I always let the low end through.

"UAD plug-ins give extra life and three-dimensionality to sounds that have never existed in the real world."
– Eric J.

Are you a perfectionist? The clarity and balance of the mixes would seem to point to a “yes” on that!

I am definitely a perfectionist, and I will often tell artists, “That’s good for you and bad for me.” I’m obsessed with this stuff, and I hear everything, especially all the problems. A big part of it for me is getting rid of the problems. Anything that gets in the way of the message of the song, and of the sound, is a problem to be solved. And look, that might mean you amplify the crazy frequencies to help carry a certain jarring message in the song. But for sure you need to make enough space between the instruments that the listener feels they’re inside the song.

Y’know, I just pay a lot of attention to detail, and it's very methodical approach, but I just want every moment to be as clear as it can be. The UAD stuff has really helped me do that, and it’s amazing to be able to bring an analog vibe to these sampled and electronic sounds that have been largely created on a laptop. UAD plug-ins give extra life and three-dimensionality to sounds that have never existed in the real world.

— James Rotondi

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