Issue 93


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

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Mix Masters: Pop Vocals with Phil Tan

Born in Malaysia, Tan graduated in 1990 from Florida’s Full Sail education facility, and was given his big break by rapper/producer Jermaine Dupri. Since then Tan has amassed credits like Mariah Carey, Usher, Justin Bieber, Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys, Aretha Franklin, Outkast, Jay-Z and many others, and won three Grammy Awards as a mix engineer on Mariah Carey’s album The Emancipation of Mimi (2005), Ludacris’s album Release Therapy (2006), and Rihanna’s Only Girl (In the World). A staggering eight of Rihanna’s 10 US number one hits were mixed by Tan.


23 June 2013

Diamonds is the 10th US No. 1 that Barbadian mega-star Rihanna has scored since her international breakthrough in 2005. It was written and produced by the Norwegian duo Stargate and American hitmaker, Benny Blanco, and mixed by Phil Tan. It’s the kind of melodic mid-tempo pop ballad on which Stargate appears to have established a 21st century monopoly, the odd-ball ingredient being its four-to-the-floor dance kick drum that gives it movement and bite. It’s also lavishly arranged with strings, piano and a whole panorama of keyboard sounds all competing in the mid-range frequency area. According to Tan, the rough mix was already in great shape, and his main attention during the mixing of Diamonds went into making sure the vocal sounded great and cut through the track. He explains some of the things to focus on when mixing vocals, using Diamonds as an illustration. 


“When you’re mixing a pop record, you’re always aware that the listeners will be focusing on the vocals. The vocal is the star of the entire show. It has to keep the listener’s attention for the entire track. They might like the instruments and arrangements, but they won’t necessarily care as much for them as for the vocals. In the case of Diamonds, the balances in the rough mix were pretty decent, and their sketch was very distinctive, so I didn’t have to do much in terms of surgery.”


“As a fan I care more about how something makes me feel than technical perfection, any day. You want to be sure every word/syllable gets heard, but you don’t want points of emphasis in the performance to be subdued too much. There’s Autotune on all the vocal tracks, because that has become part of her vocal sound. But in this case the tuning is very minimal. If you bypassed it, you’d hardly hear the difference. It’s not there to create an effect, but just to keep her vocals in place.”


“Spend time capturing a good recording. That’s the key, really, to a good mix. Just like with cooking, your dish will come out better if you have fresh ingredients.”

Phil Tan currently works from his own studio in Atlanta, called Ninja Beat Club where he mixed Diamonds using his Avid Icon D-Control desk, some choice outboard, and Dynaudio M1 and JBL LSR6332 monitors, both powered by Bryston amplifiers. He also has a pair of RCF Mytho 8 speakers and Digidesign RM1 monitors, and adds, “Sometimes I’ll check my mixes on a little mono Deadmau5 monitor or the Ecko Spray Bluetooth speaker.” Tan has spent most of his career mixing on a desk, usually an SSL, and explained that his decision to install a D-Control desk at Ninja Beat Club was purely due to the practical needs for mixing pop music in the second decade of the 21st century. 

Tan: “I work on many different projects at the same time, so recall is essential for me. This is the main reason why I stopped working on analogue desks, even though I still prefer the way they sound. I try to compensate somewhat by having a number of analogue pieces in my studio, like a Manley Variable Mu limiter/compressor and an Inward Connections DEQ-1 EQ, plus I also have the SSL XRack (which has 16 channels of summing), a Tube-Tech CL-1B compressor, and mic pres like the Millennia HV-3B, two Neve 1079s and the Universal Audio LA-610 tube recording channel. Just before I mixed Diamonds I acquired the VintageMaker summing unit, and I first used it on that track.” 


“Finding the right EQ or compressor is a bit like finding the right mic for recording. That LA-2A you used and worked great on the last song may not seem right on this one, for any number of reasons, the tempo and key of the song, for example. I don’t have specific settings I use on everything, unfortunately. I wish I did: everything would go so much quicker! Instead, every setting in every mix is done on a case-by-case basis. I basically just adjust things until I think it feels good. For some of the less experienced, consulting a frequency chart might not be a bad idea. Analysers can help too, when trying to identify problem areas.

“Mixers sit for hours every day in a room, and like to try new things, and with Diamonds, I tried the VintageMaker summing box. It has 16 inputs, and I sent stereo pairs of drums, music, vocals and effects returns to the VintageMaker from my Mitch Berger-modified Avid 192 I/O. The VintageMaker is passive and has no sound of its own, so to bring it up to line level it needs to be sent through a stereo mic pre, which also adds some character. In this case I used my two Neve 1079s, which went into my Manley limiter. From there the stereo mix went back in ProTools, coming up on Track 3, on which I had the Waves S1 Stereo Imager to create a bit more space and width for the image, and the Metric Halo ChannelStrip.


“The EQ1B is the ProTools EQ, which just acts as a high-pass filter, taking out some messy rumble in the low end. I also had the Waves SSL Channel.”


“The tracks at the bottom of the session are all vocal effects tracks, with a Waves Rverb, ProTools Extra Long Delay II, Waves MetaFlanger, and two different Doublers, one acting more like a micro-pitch shifter. Their aim was to fatten the vocal up a little bit.”


The vocal is sent to the ambience plug-ins (reverb and delay) before Tan compresses it a second time, leaving more dynamic content in the ambient feed. However, he does compress each side of the delay.

After compressing the vocals a second time with the Renaissance Compressor, Tan then sends that information onto the widening effects before applying final compression and de-essing to the vocal.

The EQ1B high-pass filter only appears in the last stage of the vocal chain. Tan already had a 70Hz high-pass filter activated on the SSL Channel, so the second filter acts as insurance.

The widening and ambience treatments are combined in the single auxiliary, so Tan has separate control over the dry and wet signals.


“Compression (in the conventional sense) lowers the loud parts and brings up the quiet parts, so if someone is singing their heart out and the signal is overcompressed, what the performer is trying to communicate emotionally may not come across. When some of the less desirable parts are really loud (breaths, ess’s, eff’s etc.) it’s not a bad idea to check or re-tweak your settings.

“I shy away from using too much compression on my tracks in general. The whole loudness war issue is a big issue, and I find myself constantly fighting the rough mixes of the songs that I mix. What often happens is that rough mixes are done late at night, after a day’s work, and the engineer brickwalls it and calls it a day. But often people get used to hearing things in that way, and many record company executives think that something that’s less loud is less good, whereas in fact it can be better, because there’s space in the track and it can breathe properly. The problem for me is that I have to make sure that whatever I turn in is at least as loud as the rough mix, or maybe a little hotter.

“I prefer not to handcuff the mastering engineer by giving him something that’s so loud that he can’t do anything with it. I tend to send a version that’s anything from 5-7dB quieter, giving him headroom to be able to do his thing. This can vary per genre, and if it’s more of a clubby song where the low end needs to be really powerful, a limiter is part of the sound. I still try to make sure that the mix does not fall apart without the limiter, and that the balances are intact and the different parts of the song are doing their jobs, and the limiter basically enhances everything. In the case of Diamonds, I sent both versions to the mastering engineer, Chris Gehringer, who mastered the entire Unapologetic album, so he could do whatever he needed to do to make sure it fit in with the rest of the album.”


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Issue 93


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