The Hold Steady studio diary - Stay Positive - #10

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“Stay Positive”, November 29th through February 19th Craig thinks that mixing is for mixers and defers to me. In his opinion, that’s what he’s paying me for. Franz and Tad both like to be somewhat hands-on when it comes to listening back to the mix. When we listen back, they will write down comments and we’ll address each one. Galen and Bobby are somewhere in between, but do give constructive input. Depending on the song, different people feel the need to be there and the need not to.
So as you can tell, it’s very laid back with not a lot of star fits. Actually, none.
We mixed both Stay Positive and the previous record at the Magic Shop in Soho, NYC. I love that room for mixing and it’s easy for the band to be in Manhattan. They are free to wander around and show up when I have something to play for them.
There’s nothing glamorous about mixing. There’s nothing glamorous about any of the record making process, but mixing is the most workman like. It’s really just a lot of fine-tuning, knob twiddling and hair twirling. To any normal visitor, it can be downright boring.
I approach mixing the same way as I approach the other parts of making a record. I start with one of the easier songs and go from there. With mixing, if I’m in NYC, I always go visit my favorite mastering engineer, Greg Calbi and we listen in his room. He’ll give me an idea of how close I am to it being flat, frequency wise. That is the ultimate quest for me. To bring in a record and have it not need any equalization. Doesn’t happen often, but it feels good when it does. To my knowledge, Greg never needs to compress my records. I do that as we’re mixing. I like to hear the record sound that way while I’m working on it so I have a stereo compressor strapped on the stereo bus all day.
So, as usual, we start the mixing session with “Aderrall.” This song is so stripped down and straight ahead that sometime after dinner, I had the boys come down and check it out. Even with the first day of set up, we nailed the first song by 9:30 p.m. So it was time to move on “Navy Sheets.” We worked until midnight and then I grabbed the tape and went home to get good night sleep.
Up very early the next day, I made my way to Sterling Sound to meet with Mr. Calbi. Tad joined us to check out the mastering magic. We listened in his room and agreed that I was close enough to just continue, without thinking about how it sounded there. That’s good news. I mentioned to Greg that I wanted to come back the next morning with two more songs, since I was going to get more involved with songs that would definitely be on the record.
Off Tad and I went to the Magic Shop, where we nailed “Navy Sheets” and then “One For The Cutters.” And the next morning Tad and I were waiting at Sterling when Greg arrived. I wasn’t going to make this a daily event; I just wanted to make sure I was on the right track. And we were. Greg liked the two we brought him and was really into “Cutters.” Sitting behind him on the couch, he turned around as it was playing and gave me the “double thumbs up” sign. I love that sign.
With those concerns out of my mind, we returned to the studio and got down to business. And the business was rock. Doing the second record with the boys proved to be easier, especially given the fact that we were more comfortable and understood each other better this time around. The mix comments were less severe this time around. During the mixing of “Lord I’m Discouraged”, I made sure to crank Tad’s monster rock solo way up. As we did the playback, Franz looked at me and said, “The solo is too loud, but I know that you guys like it like that.” And that was it.
And that’s how most of the mixing went. We had minimal issues and we plowed through the songs and a relaxed, but quick pace. The band found refuge at Mexican Radio, a restaurant around the corner with great margaritas. Whenever I needed them I would call and as we got closer to the end of the session, I found myself going over there personally to get them and have a drink too.
The last couple of days flew right by, like the last two weeks of summer to a teenager. We mixed all of Franz’s song in a row. I liked the idea of getting in “Franz mode” and staying there a few days. It worked out great.
Tad and me made one more visit to Calbi, just so I could hear more songs in a different space and we again left very happy. We were now down to our last day. We had a one b-side to mix and then we were going to try a stem remix of “Constructive Summer.” When mixing in the digital world, it’s very simple to just break down all the instruments into “stems,” which are stereo mixes of each instrument, with the mixing equalization, compression and effects added. These sub-mixes are recorded back into Pro Tools. When needed, you bring all the stereo stems back into the console and theoretically; there is your mix. So after sending the crew back to Mexican Radio for the second time today, we prepared to do the “Constructive Summer” stem remix.
Once I had the mix set, I went over to the restaurant to escort the band back over. Figuring we were very close to being done, I decided to kick back and get a couple of drinks myself. Well, an hour later, we made it back to the studio and soon enough, “Constructive” was finished and the celebratory champagne was flowing. We were standing in a circle toasting and then finished off the last of the Jameson.
It was exhilarating knowing that we were done. Everybody was stoked and we all hugged. With minimal clean up, I grabbed Ted Young, my trusty right hand man at the Magic Shop and we met up with whoever was standing at HiFi. At this point, I was running on fumes and didn’t stay much longer than a couple of drinks. As I looked around at the celebration, I felt an amount of pride knowing that everyone did his best on the record and was thankful that I was involved.
As Franz was leaving the Magic Shop we hugged and he said, “I can’t wait to start the next one!’
Me too!

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