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Like Night & Day

Mitch Kenny got over a quick bout of self-doubt to mix Hermitude’s Dark Night Sweet Light into a nomination for ARIA Engineer of the Year.

By

10 December 2015

Artist: Hermitude
Album: Dark Night Sweet Light

Mitch Kenny should be in hospital. When I catch up with him in his temporary studio on Level 7 of a George St low-rise, he’s still occasionally coughing up the remains of a lingering bout of pneumonia. But there’s no stopping Kenny, which is how he got ill in the first place. He talks non-stop for the next three hours, rides his scooter across town to Sydney’s Studios 301 and gabs on again in front of a crowd for another 30 minutes.

He’s just finished up a five-month long stint, flying between ABC studios in Sydney and Melbourne to record and mix the music for a new TV show called The Divorce, starring Lisa McCune, Marina Pryor, Hugh Sheridan amongst a cast of other singing and dancing actor-types. Kenny describes it as being “like a Bing Crosby movie, where people spontaneously burst into song”. The ensemble he’d been recording was the Australian Opera & Ballet Orchestra. It’s a world away from Hermitude’s Dark Night Sweet Light — for which he scored an ARIA Engineer of the Year nomination, and the record we’re supposed to be talking about — but Kenny’s used to hopping codes.

CLASSICAL TRAINING HELPS

Even though he quit his music performance degree at Melbourne’s VCA, classical music has been good to Kenny. There aren’t many dedicated engineers who have tried finding their place amongst a deck of cellos. When he dropped out, Kenny did a stint at audio school and a bit of live sound work before ending up at Studio 52, where he really learnt the craft. Through his VCA connections, Kenny also freelanced his way through his fair share of classical music sessions. 

Kenny had been flying back and forth between Melbourne and The States for a few years before he decided to head over to the U.S. permanently and try his luck. His mate, Jared Scott, had been engineering there for a few years, so on a wing and a prayer Kenny bought a one-way ticket.

When Kenny arrived, he soon realised he had to pass the critical eye of one of three women to get into the studio system: Paula Salvatore, Studio Manager at Capitol; Rose Mann-Cherney, the now-retired President of Record Plant Studios; or Candace Stewart of EastWest. “Those three women controlled the whole movement of engineers,” said Kenny. “Especially staff engineers in the studios in L.A. They’re very good friends and they know each other’s needs.”

After walking around town introducing himself to every studio in LA, he finally landed a meeting with Paula. She knew a bit of his work, but with no positions available, directed him to go and see Rose. Without Kenny knowing — in the time it took to get from Capitol to Record Plant — Paula had already rung ahead to recommend him. Apparently another interview wasn’t required, because by the time he arrived, Rose had already organised a walk-through with Jason Carson, the studio manager.

It was post-GFC, and Record Plant was the only studio that hadn’t lowered its rates. “The only artists booking the studio were rappers who liked being able to say they were working in the most expensive room in town,” said Kenny. “The positive side of that is they kept going and it was a really interesting place to be. The negative side was that house engineers only ever dealt with one channel in and two channels out; because they were only recording vocals over beats. As I had a ‘proper’ engineering background (we all have to do everything in Australia), Jason asked me, ‘How are you with engineering a string session?’ My response was, ‘I eat string sessions for breakfast! There’s fewer microphones than a drum kit.’”

The first session Kenny engineered in the US was a string session for a Mary J Blige record. That classical music background paid off again. Over the next few years, Kenny engineered a boat load of hit records including some for Elton John, Beyonce and Chris Brown. One of those, the No. 1 Don’t Hold Your Breath for Pussycat Dolls’ Nicole Scherzinger, put him in the room with hit songwriter Billy Steinberg and Jimmy Iovine’s right-hand man Dave Rene. Rene had a young Russian kid in the wings who needed an engineer… his stagename was Zedd. Kenny ended up engineering much of what became the mega-hit Clarity.

LAYERING KICK DRUMS

Mitch Kenny: “The three most important things on a record are the kick drum, the kick drum and the kick drum. I knew it before I went to The States, but making a lot of dance and hip-hop records really reinforced that idea. Even with that big L.A. rock sound, the kick drums are just so big and important. I’ll layer kicks till the cows come home.

“I’ve got a few kick drums that all do a certain thing. I use a live kick drum sample, and a 9th Wonder kick together quite often. Some of them might not be overly loud but it’s about making it work in different formats. Hermitude’s record, in particular, has to work in a club, on radio and on a phone. The very low bottom end can’t be too much for any of those three mediums, and I need at least one kick drum that’s got some front — something above 3000Hz — and is in the centre.

“I get a lot of records to mix with loads of stereo kick drums. I need something in the middle to hang the hat on, so I’ve got a really good collection of modern-sounding mono kick drums.

“I’ll place kicks in by hand with the Tab to Transient command in Pro Tools. Before I start replacing, the first thing I do is check the phase on the kick drums I’m replacing, including the breaks and samples. After that, I check anything I’m adding. 98% of what I get to mix is done on laptops. I’m not getting stuff to mix that’s recorded in studios, which I’m completely fine with. When it’s being prepared in less than ideal environments, some people have got no idea what phase is, let alone where it is. They can make it knock in their room but don’t know the bottom end is out of phase.

“I know I need to give-up and walk away quickly when I’m a long way through a mix and want to go back and mess with the kick drums again. Once I get them settled, that’s my benchmark and everything else fills in the space around that.

“On the 808 in the verse of The Buzz, I automated the level to turn down the front of each kick. The front of it was just a little bit too clicky. Initially I tried to fix it with the SPL Transient Designer, but I couldn’t get it to work. It’s unusual. Typically I’m trying to find as much front on an 808 as I can. 

“I then ended up using the Transient Designer to extend the body to go from hit to hit. I love that 808s can be found on everything, whether it’s dance, hip hop, or pop. I even did a full-on, overblown Nashville country record for American Idol winner Scotty Mcreery — you can’t get more white-bread than that — and there are 808s in there just ticking along playing the tonic and dominant.”

SIDECHAIN YOUR WAY OUT

Mitch Kenny: “I ended up sidechaining the percussion break in Through the Roof with Waves’ C6 multiband compressor to lose all the bottom end in the drum loop and make space for the kick drums. When the kicks weren’t hitting I wanted to have the rest of it popping through, so a normal sidechain would have just taken away too much information.

“I used the same trick for the snare. It was hitting at the same time as the kick drum, so I sidechained the multiband’s top end to compress when the kick drum hits. It means they work together rather than getting in the way of each other, and gives me more space.”

CHANGING YOUR IMAGE

Mitch Kenny: “I get a lot of mixes supplied where every track is a stereo file, which means you need to do something to manipulate the image. I tend to pan things in the centre or hard left and right, then I’ll stereo expand beyond the edges to get things out of the way or make a highlight of them. It’s why I’m so adamant about having a strongly centred kick; it helps balance that super wide stuff.

“I’ll very rarely tuck something in. It has to be doing a specific function. The reverb and stereo synths take care of that anyway by being all over the place in terms of the image.

“I find the trick is not about how wide you can make a track, it’s more about getting it moving. An example was automating the Aphex Exciter plug-in, the stereo width, and volume, simultaneously on the synth hook in The Buzz. There’s a moment at the end of the hook where it jumps up an interval and wants to pop out. It was supplied as a stereo sound and because I wanted it to leap into the middle, I automated Waves’ S1 Imager to the opposite extreme and automated the Aphex Exciter so it excites at the front of that note. 

“All of a sudden, this part that was bouncing on the edges of the mix gets slammed into the middle, pushed up in volume, and distorted by the brightness of the Aphex Exciter. It’s exciting.

“When the mix is working for me psycho-acoustically, it’s like a diamond. I see the height as the frequency from low to high, the width is the stereo image and the front and back is basically the balance. When it starts to go up and down, forwards and backwards, and side to side all at once, that’s usually when I’ll send the mix off.

PULLING IN YOUR TAIL

Mitch Kenny: “I love TL Space’s emulation of the AMS RMX16 and Avid’s D-Verb, usually set to Medium Room 2. The two parts of my world — pop and classical — influence each other greatly. My take on reverb tail lengths is heavily influenced by the classical side. It’s one of the things classical music producers are sticklers for: making sure they’re not only balanced in the image, but that their lengths are right for the music.

“The start of a sound is more important than the end of it. You get body and width from the end of a sound, but people aren’t going to tap their foot along to the end of a reverb tail. So I don’t want the tails to be so long that they’re getting in the way of the next sound. I want them to be falling in the pocket.

“That said, reverb tail lengths change all the time and can really date a record. Listen to Pour Some Sugar on Me and Mutt Lange has the reverb tail louder than the vocal! It’s amazing, and exactly how it should be because it’s a moment in time. Even from this record, which was mixed in February, to the end of the year, snare tails have shortened up a bit.”

VOCAL THROAT

Mitch Kenny: “I didn’t record the vocals on this album but I did learn a lot about how to record them from working with Kuk Harell, who produces vocals for Beyonce, J-Lo, Bieber and the like. The biggest lie anyone tells a vocalist is, ‘one more.’ He will track through until he’s absolutely convinced he has enough to comp, then he will say, ‘four more.’ That way the artist knows you’ve got everything you need to make a vocal, and the ‘four more’ is because we might stumble upon a happy mistake or a little bit of magic. Because they know you’ve got it, they relax and might find a bit of brilliance. Then after four, move on. I can make a barking dog sound like Pavarotti with Melodyne, but you can’t manufacture emotion.

“I put the Antares Throat plug-in on Young Tapz’s vocal hook in Through the Roof. It does a couple of things. It scoops out around 200Hz and — this is from someone who’s recorded far too many vocals — makes it sound like there’s more top palette in the sound. It also makes it sound more present. I don’t change the ‘throat’ and ‘glottle’, but I change the breathiness. This is adding 12 — whatever that means — at 4000 cycles, and pushes things out a little.

“I also automated McDSP’s Futzbox in at the end of the hook, because with everything else coming in, it just made it sit better. Overall, I couldn’t depart too much from the sound of the pre-effected chopped up vocals, because they were switching between them and the hook quite rapidly.

DON’T DELAY TOO LONG

Mitch Kenny: “I’m a stickler for automating delays rather than leaving them in, because they take up so much space. I’m a big believer that the ear picks up changes in tone more than changes in level. I love using Waves’ H-Delay for its control, but hate the ‘analogue circuit’ part of it; it just adds noise. When you compress it, it just keeps bringing up the noise.

“I automate my delay throws with a physical fader to catch the nuances in a more musical way. For instance, on Young Tapz’s vocal for The Buzz, I didn’t want the ‘z’ sound at the end of his hook to repeat in the delay. So as well as band-passing the delay signal, I quickly faded the send in and out to catch just the middle of ‘buzz’ which helps it to sit better in the mix.” 

MASTERING THE MAGIC FADER

Kenny’s setup is relatively simple. He’s a big exponent of mixing in-the-box. He holds nothing against consoles, having developed his craft on them, but he’s fully aware that the ability to recall is hugely important to his clients. 

Mitch Kenny: “Tal Herzberg, who unfortunately died so early, was my walking reality check. When I got to The States I was all console. He shook his head in his stern way and said, ‘When the A&R man rings you at 11 o’clock for a change and you’ve done the change while he’s still on the phone justifying his decision; and you’re sending it to him as he’s still arguing and telling you what the change is; you’ll never mix on a console ever again.’ He’s right. The reality is the amount of changes we need to make and the deadlines that we work under most of the time are completely unforgiving.

“If an artist asks for a 0.1dB increase on their vocal channel. I can’t hear that, but if it makes them feel better when they’re listening to the track a year from now, I’m completely okay with that.”

Kenny has an Apogee PSX100 two-channel converter plugged into his Black Lion-modded 002 via S/PDIF. He uses the Apogee to interface with his analogue master bus chain, which comprises a GML 8200 stereo parametric EQ and a Smart C1 compressor.

MK: “There’s bandwidth for days on the PSX100 and it does enough that the difference between it and splitting everything out on an SSL K is so minimal that it’s not worth it in my opinion.

“I always have the C1 master bus compressor on. It does the lion’s share of the compression for the track, especially on the kicks. It also lets me know when my kick drums are loud enough.”

One key part of Kenny’s mixes is his use of the ‘Magic Fader’. On Through the Roof he pushes the master fader up at various points to increase impact, and slowly brings it back to unity before the next hit. The C1 compressor keeps the overall level from fluctuating wildly but by pushing the level into the compressor it gives Kenny a controlled level of momentary distortion that adds to the excitement and movement of the mix.

MK: “Not that long ago, I tried to mix something without an 8200 and my bottom end was wrong. I always start off with a shelf at 30 cycles taking 3dB out. Then if I don’t have enough, I’ll turn it off. It’s a format thing. You don’t need too much information below 30Hz because it’s so over-accentuated in the clubs anyway. It also translates better for radio because you don’t have all this extra information that has to be compressed through a transmitter.”

LISTENING WITHOUT LISTENING

Mitch Kenny: “While I’m flying the kicks around, it gives me time to listen to the track passively. With it just washing over me, sometimes I hear things I normally wouldn’t. I can hear the macro and the micro at the same time. I think I do better mixes when I’m distracted and not so actively listening. I don’t know if this is true or not, but someone told me they did a study on the brains of mix engineers and found they could slow their alpha waves down quite a lot. The only other people that could get their brains to that sort of state had been engaging in meditation for a long time. I believe it.”

I can make a barking dog sound like Pavarotti with Melodyne, but you can’t manufacture emotion

MAKING TRAKS

Kenny eventually decided to move back to Australia a couple of years ago, and again, his classical music background paid off. Although sessions didn’t come easily at first, he did end up recording the Australian Chamber Orchestra at Studios 301 for a Qantas session with Daniel Johns.

These days, Kenny is heavily entrenched with Elefant Traks artists Horrorshow and other hip hop artists from the One Day collective, which includes Joyride and Spit Syndicate. He’d also previously worked with Angus (Gusto) Stuart from Hermitude when he and Urthboy produced the Paul Kelly cut of the Hunters & Collectors tune True Tears of Joy. “I’ve only been in Sydney for a short while,” said Kenny. “So it’s been nice how one thing has led to another, to another. I hope that means people are happy with what I’m doing.”

So tight knit is the hip hop community, Kenny actually got the call from Urthboy, akaTim Levinson, to ask if he wanted to do a spec mix for Hermitude’s new album. They’d had the track mixed by someone overseas and were hoping for a better result. “No problem,” he said. “I got the email chain of requests and had a relatively good idea of where they were going.”

When he opened Gusto’s reference mix, he had a moment of self-doubt. “I spoke to Joyride about it, who I write with,” said Kenny, “because the first time I opened it up, my initial gut feeling was, ‘this sounds amazing. What do I do to make this better?’ Joyride’s response was, ‘Just do your thing.’”

So Kenny got stuck into bringing his particular mix approach, but in an über-aggressive way, and that one spec mix turned into the entire record. Still, after he’d mixed five or six songs without any feedback, the self-doubt crept in again. “I spoke to my manager Bernadette about it,” said Kenny. “Her response was, ‘If they didn’t like it, you’d know about it.’ One day Dubs [Luke Dubber] showed up at Studios 301 with some more parts for me. I said, ‘Mate, I’ve got to ask, are you happy with how this is going?’ And he says, ‘Yeah man it sounds sick!’ So I just kept doing what I was doing.”

Besides the lack of early feedback, Kenny thoroughly enjoyed mixing the record. “In terms of two humans to make a record with,” he enthused, “I’d make a record with them any day of the week. They’re super-talented guys, lovely as people, really pro, and they work hard.

“Gusto has a really good understanding of actual engineering too. Things came with headroom, were labelled correctly, and he supplied the dry parts alongside the printed effects.”

Hermitude are an incredibly creative duo. Through the Roof’s horn parts sound every bit like they’re sampled from inside a genuine Cuban nightclub, but they’re actually programmed and effected. The pair also went out and recorded a lot of sounds to build their tracks with: sizzling bacon was used as a substitute for white noise to give a little extra flavour; they struck pipes in tunnels to augment drum hits; and got girlfriends to make whale noises. They’re no slouches in the playing department either. Dubs flexes his keyboard chops on the song Metropolis, which they dubbed the ‘NAMM solo’ because it sounds like a hired gun ripping on a trade show floor.

At the end of the day Kenny just wanted the record to sound like a Hermitude record, because “Hermitude gets judged by this. I don’t. Most people won’t even buy the record as a physical format. Besides, with how hard it is to find credits and how poorly they’re represented online, it’s a joke anyway. Joe Bloggs from Dandenong doesn’t care who mixed the record, there’s only a very small group of people who judge me. Hopefully those people like it but if they don’t that’s fine too, because it’s not about me, it’s always about the artist. Always, always, always.”

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Issue 93

REVIEWED

Ableton Live 12
What’s in. What’s out. What to expect.