Interview with Paul Northfield
PAUL NORTHFIELD discovers Flux:: while mixing Dream Theater.
Recording Engineer and Producer Paul Northfield has been engineering rock, hard rock and progressive rock since the early ‘70s.
Paul’s credits include many of the pivotal recordings in rock from the bands like Gentle Giant, Rush, Queensrÿche, Suicidal Tendencies, Infectious Grooves, Porcupine Tree and Dream Theater to name a few. Most recently Paul completed work on Dream Theater’s new Black Clouds & Silver Linings scheduled for release this Summer on Roadrunner Records.
Paul discovered Flux as Black Clouds & Silver Linings was ready for mixing. Flux made such an impression on him that he immediately added it into his mixing setup. Paul took some time out of his busy schedule to give us insight into his use of Flux and about mastering techniques as they apply to his mixing process.
It sounds like you use Multi-Band compression to re-introduce naturalness into the otherwise sterile digital environment.
Where did you begin with Flux?
Actually I went straight for Alchemist because I’ve been very interested in mastering quality, Multi-Band Compressors for a long time. I’ve used, quite extensively, a number of different ones. I was always on the lookout for one that really had a lot of clarity and control. I fired up Alchemist and found that a lot of the components are available separately but pretty much, right off the bat, I started working with Alchemist.
I was using it when I mix. Most of the time I’m mixing analog, though I do lots of stuff “IN THE BOX” these days. When I’m mixing analog, I always do a certain amount of mastering in the whole process of mixing because I find that a careful use of EQ on your overall mix alleviates the need to grab a whole bunch of cheap EQs and stick them in for no reason. Like for instance, if you want, overall, a little bit more brightness to the mix, instead of sticking in a cheap EQ on every channel and cranking it a little bit, I’d rather add a dB of top end with a great mastering EQ. So I’ve used mastering techniques for a long time as part of the mixing process.
When I work “IN THE BOX” I tend to use more things like multi-band compressors because they help to give you a bit of the qualities that you lack in the digital world which are the saturations and such-like that you get in the analog world. The distortions and saturations that exist in the analog world are usually quite musical and very helpful once you get familiar with which the good ones are. That could be like tape saturations and things like harmonic distortions from Neve consoles, tubes, transformers and things like that. So I find that multi-band compressors are probably the tool that I find most useful in the “IN-THE-BOX” world.
Recently I kind of bounce back and forth. When I was mixing the new Dream Theater I was mixing off of Pro Tools through analog gear including an SSL and then back into Pro Tools at 96K using a Weiss Convertor so I’ve got a really great A/D. I then monitored it through a great D/A convertor as well which is also very important cause if you’re listening to everything through inferior convertors then you’re either going to over-compensate because you can’t hear what you’re doing or you’ll be trying to compensate for things that are problematic in the gear that you’re listening through. So that basically was the setup.
Right from day one I just started firing away with Alchemist because I fired it up and it sounded great. I said ‘oh okay’ this is giving me a bit of a quality like you might get when you’re putting something onto tape or something like that. I really like the compression and the fact that it’s a very high quality piece of software. You don’t feel like you’ve got a lot of artifacts happening when it’s doing what it does. The EQs are extremely smooth.
I like the fact that it’s really optimized for mastering. I noticed that the EQs kind of max out at plus or minus 6dB. In the mastering world, if you need more than 6dB of something you should be mixing it again! I like the fact that it’s optimized for fine-tuning. It’s not like you move a control a tiny little bit and you’re getting 2dB of boost or something. It’s a precision instrument.
The digital environment is inherently sterile and you need tools that help you generate musicality. Compression is one of those tools. Distortion is another one of those tools, used carefully. The thing you get a lot of in the analog world is phase shift flying around. Often it’s considered to be a terrible thing but sometimes it’s what gives a particular EQ its personality like some of the API graphic EQs, which sound incredible, very musical. You couldn’t do a mix through them but if you’re trying to make something sound interesting they’re very interesting sounding devices. When it comes to mastering the digital realm performs really well. Really well designed EQs can be very, very low phase shift with great stereo imaging and I think Alchemist is a great example of that.
I was surprised that a five band multi-band could sound so good. The Five Band Optimizer preset was the first thing I fired up. Immediately it was like ‘Wow’. It’s doing something substantial. It’s giving you more width and dimension and punch and it doesn’t seem to have any real negatives. Whereas some things tend to be a bit crunchy. There are a number of other things I’ve used like the TC Master X series in the past. I’ve had some great results from one of those but I don’t like using the five band because I don’t like the idea of putting too many crossovers in the mid-band frequencies which is where all your imaging comes from. But I’ve noticed with Alchemist you can get away with that and it doesn’t seem to be messing with my stereo image. All in all I was very impressed with it.
It’s funny, I think the world of mastering and mixing is a strange world because ideally you should mix something to the point where it sounds the way that you want it. Then when you go to mastering, other than maybe alleviating possible problems if you were mixing in a less than ideal environment with bad speakers or not great speakers or a difficult room, ideally you should be just making a little tweak here and there. But we’ve more recently gone into a world where mastering comes in with both guns blazing and everyone wants their mixes to sound loud rather than good. I’ll be the first to admit that, when somebody plays you two things back to back and ones louder than the other, it’s hard to discriminate what you like about it. What you do find is that if you mix so that it’s too loud and too pinned all the time it sounds good quiet but when you turn up it doesn’t sound better. It sounds kind of raging and annoying. So to me the ideal in pop and rock music is to try and do mixes that sound good at both quiet and loud playback levels. It’s a different thing if you’re working in a highly natural acoustic environment where you want it to be like a sonic photograph. But in pop and rock music you’re trying to make a statement that reaches people in their car or on their iPod. That’s actually been a problem because most people are on their iPod using MP3s or AAC encoded things and the ear buds aren’t always the greatest. Then you put it on back-to-back with something that’s recent and loud and then your mix doesn’t sound as loud so we’ve got into this kind of vicious circle.
So I’m very happy to find a mastering tool that’s incredibly precise and flexible. You spend months working on a record and a few weeks mixing it and then you hand it over to a mastering engineer. Now some guys do great work but I’ve had great work from people and then six months later had less than great work from the same person, cause they got out of bed the wrong side, or if they just took a different approach that wasn’t right. I would say at this point that less than 50% of the stuff that I get mastered sounds better. It might sound louder but it didn’t sound better. I think that’s a shame but I think at the same time when you’re mixing you have to start to take responsibility for that. You want to deliver something that’s great right away and then maybe the mastering engineer has a couple of tricks that help you get a bit of extra level but you shouldn’t just be pinning stuff all the time because it messes with too much.
At the same time, sometimes you want those tools, so if you’re going to have one then you better have a good one. That’s why I think Flux is great. Instead of blasting through some very crude multi-band compressor that’s creating a lot of artifacts, even if it is doing some things you like, it’s giving you a whole bunch of stuff you don’t want as well. I liked Flux right off the bat for that reason.
On what parts of the new Dream Theater recordings did you use Flux?
The entire album. Flux was part of my mix bus setup. Everything that went to mastering was going through that. Then at mastering, it was mastered at Sterling, they basically said it sounded great. They did a little bit of tweaking but not very much. That was the idea. Not that I don’t want a mastering engineer to touch it. Far from it. At the same time, I don’t want to mix it one way and then hand it to somebody and have them smash it to get it loud. So if I can deliver something that is pretty powerful and the level is really solid, and I like it, and it’s what we were trying to do, then what’s left is a few tweaks ideally or nothing at all. It’s not that I want to take a job away from a mastering guy but at the same time you have to deliver the best thing that you can. So it’s an important tool and I found it very, very useful.
So Flux is something you’ll use regularly?
Yeah, I imagine that I will.
I’m always on the lookout for different tools. Different tools have different textures. Sometimes some of them are more aggressive. With this digital world where we’re finding constantly that modeling is becoming more and more powerful but until you actually measure things really well it’s very hard to model things really well. We’re going to gradually evolve to a point where modeling is getting so good that a lot of the things you’ve relied on in the past just won’t be necessary. New tools come up that really didn’t exist effectively in the analog world. A tool like Alchemist in the analog world would be very, very difficult to achieve with very low phase shift EQ, with multi-band compression that’s fast. Actually zero attack times and things like that are almost impossible to achieve in the analog world. In real time you simply can’t do it. You have to pre-delay things before you can even do things like that.
Paul’s credits on allmusic.com:
World’s End – Paul’s Management:
The Official Dream Theater Site: