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What People in the Industry are Saying

A Conversation with Tom Lord-Alge

by Mr. Bonzai

Three-time Grammy Award-winner Tom Lord-Alge has amassed one of the music industry’s most prolific discographies, including diverse credits ranging from U2 to The Rolling Stones, P!nk, Peter Gabriel, Dave Matthews Band, Blink-182, Thirty Seconds to Mars, Avril Lavigne, and numerous others. Photo Credit: Dirtee Stay Out Productions

Beginning his career at Unique Recording in NYC, Lord-Alge won his first of two “Best Engineered Recording” Grammys in 1986 for recording and mixing Steve Winwood’s “Back In The High Life.” During this period he scored his first big break producing, engineering, and mixing “If You Leave” by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark for the Pretty in Pink soundtrack. He would win his second Grammy in 1988 with Winwood’s follow up, “Roll With It.” In the same year he left his staff job at Unique Recording, spending several years freelance producing before deciding on becoming a career mixer and building his personal mixing environment, Spank Studios, in Miami Beach.

With Crash Test Dummies’ God Shuffled His Feet (1993), featuring their hit “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm”, and Live’s multi-platinum Throwing Copper (1994) Lord-Alge kickstarted his mix career. Since then, his name has consistently appeared in the credits of major albums, frequently crossing genre lines. Highlights include Hanson, Marilyn Manson, and Weezer, amongst many others. Recent mix projects include a new studio album from Live, Kensington’s smash album “Rivals,” Weezer’s latest album Everything Will Be Alright in the End, and tracks for Angels and Airwaves, Ash Koley, and Crosses. So far in 2015, Lord-Alge has mixed the new Sleeping With Sirens album Madness, and tracks for Tom DeLonge, Dweezil Zappa, Armin van Buurin and Japanese superstar’s Shogo Hamada, One OK Rock and Scandal.

Barefoot:        Let’s start out looking at the general world of mixing. You had one of your first big hits in ’86. “Back in the High Life,” Stevie Winwood. In the time since then, how has the world of the mix engineer changed?

Lord-Alge:     I think it’s changed dramatically with the technology and the DAW-based mixing systems. The one thing that I’ve found over the years is that for a guy like me who started out mixing completely analog, I’ve made a conscious effort to really stay current with what’s happening in recording and mixing technology over the past, say, 15 or 20 years, because you could definitely have been left behind; so it’s changed, so much so that I physically could mix a record with a laptop computer and a set of headphones, and could mix a record that actually would sound quite good. It’s become more affordable, so it’s definitely available to the masses; and nowadays, there’s a whole new generation of recording/mixing engineers that have come out, that all they know is mixing in the box.

Barefoot:        Do you think that that experience of slugging it out in the analog world translates into a better ability to gauge things now in the modern digital world?

Lord-Alge:     Absolutely. I’m still mixing with what I call a hybrid system, which would be using Pro Tools, along with an analog system and having the knowledge of physically running analog hardware and knowing what those sounds should sound like. This has been very helpful in gauging the quality of plug-ins that are available to me in the digital domain.

I’ve definitely noticed, over the past 5 years, a big difference in the quality of the digital plug-ins; so, I think having as a reference point, mixing analog with analog gear, has definitely helped me. Certainly, my ears have been trained to listen to that kind of analog saturation, so having that point of reference, I definitely think it’s given me a leg up when it comes to mixing with Pro Tools.

Barefoot:        You said that you could mix on headphones with a laptop. When you said that, I imagined that that’s because you know how the sound of your particular choice of headphones will translate to other formats and listening environments; so let’s take that to where you are in your own studio, Spank Studios. In your world is it important to have all of your references, your reference monitors, set up so that you know the room? I guess it’s been tuned to represent audio correctly, is that true?

Lord-Alge:     That’s correct.

Barefoot:        Do you ever mix in other people’s studios or other commercial facilities?

Lord-Alge:     Well, I did for 20 years. I worked out of South Beach Studios in Miami Beach, which is located in The Marlin Hotel. South Beach Studios was originally owned by Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records. He had purchased it in the late ’80s. I guess he fell in love with Miami Beach and purchased a bunch of hotels, and based Island Records out of Miami Beach, and one of the hotels that he purchased, The Marlin, was his favorite, in which, when he renovated it, he actually put his apartment in there, and then thought it would be great to put a mixing room in, or a studio; it was really just built as a mixing studio.

He had a small overdub booth, but he thought it was a great idea to put a mixing room in for his artists to come down, to enjoy Miami Beach, and also to be able to do their work; so I was hired by Island Records in 1995 to mix an album for a band called “Tripping Daisy,” and they asked me, I was living in Los Angeles at the time, if I would consider coming to Miami Beach to mix the record, because they got a favorable rate at the Island Records recording studio; and, of course, I said yes. That was my first trip to Miami Beach and I fell in love with the place and never left.

That was my home for 20 years, and so, April of 2015, when ownership of the hotel changed, and the new owners obviously saw that the real estate was far too valuable to have a recording studio in it, and they asked us to leave; and I bought the console and moved it into my house. Actually, when I bought my house, it had a recording studio; it actually had a control room in it. I bought it from a Latin music producer. I bought my house in 1999, and I immediately tore it out, because I didn’t want a studio in my house, and again, fast-forward 16 years, now I find I’m putting it back in, and very pleased to do it. Now that I have Spank Studios, I generally don’t go anywhere else, because this is my room, and it’s set up for me, and I love it.

From the moment I set them up, I was pretty shocked at just how good they sounded, right out of the box”

Barefoot:        Let’s talk specifically how you monitor in this Spank Studio. I know that you recently acquired a pair of Barefoot MM27 monitors. Has that acquisition in any way affected your work style, has it made it progress in a fashionable way?

Lord-Alge:     Yes, when the Barefoot Audio monitors showed up, it was a good day. There was much rejoicing. One, I was very excited — having not ever heard them. I was excited because everyone that I spoke to, Michael Brauer, my brother Chris, and other people within the industry, had always spoken very highly of the Barefoot Sound monitors, so of course, I couldn’t wait to get my grubby little paws on them.

Pretty much from the moment I set them up, I was pretty shocked at just how good they sounded, right out of the box. Again, they’re self-powered, so you just plug the power in, plug the line level input into it, and you’re off to the races; but immediately, I was just shocked at how true they sounded; and as I worked with them over the past couple of months, I really now find myself using them as the point of reference, as opposed to my NS-10s.

Barefoot:        Are those the only two choices you have in your room?

Lord-Alge:     No, I have more. I have a set of NS-10s, which I’ve used my entire career, I have those hooked up with a pair of 15-inch subwoofers, because obviously the NS-10s are unable to reproduce the bottom end that today’s modern music has so much of, so I need to be able to hear that; so I have that, in a sense, with the subwoofers. I have the Barefoot MM27s on their own, and then I have a pair of JBLs, with single 15-inch and a horn as my main big monitors, using that with an EAW 15-inch subwoofer as well, and those would be my big hype monitors.

Barefoot:        From your viewpoint, what would you suggest to a young engineer who’s just getting into it right now, someone wants to make a career as a mix engineer?

Lord-Alge:     My advice would be very simple, very basic. Basically, know your rig, know your gear, know how to manipulate the audio within the gear, but really just know the equipment that you’re working with; and as far as plug-ins go, use the ones that you’re most comfortable operating; but really know your rig. If you’re using Pro Tools or you’re using Logic, really know it inside and out, know your gear.

I think that’s the most important thing, because to be quite honest, nowadays, mixing in the box has almost become the reference point of mixing. I don’t know what the percentage of it is, but I can only imagine that it’s very high, of the music being heard today, is just music that’s being mixed within the box, and the guys, the cats that have been doing it now for 5 or 10 years are getting really good at it.

For somebody who’s just breaking in, you have to just sit there. It’s going to take months, but just spend hours and hours and learn how to manipulate it, learn how to get it to sound the way that you want. Fuck around with the plug-ins, try different chains of events, but really be the master of your rig.

Barefoot:        Cool. All right, well, let’s wrap it up with some thoughts about recent projects that you’ve mixed using your new Barefoot 27s. Weezer — anything particular about the sound of Weezer and the Barefoot procedure of getting that sound you wanted?

Lord-Alge:     Where the Barefoots have really impressed me is in their low-frequency reproduction. That’s why I said earlier that they’re kind of now my new reference point, because, again, right out of the box, I was just so impressed with the reproduction at the bottom end. It’s crisp, it’s tight, it’s got just the right amount, so with the Weezer project and pretty much all the projects I’ve mixed, it’s really helped me to dial in and tighten up my bottom end a little bit. I’ve always struggled slightly with the NS-10s and the subwoofer, so the years that I’ve mixed with the NS-10s without a subwoofer, I always remember, I would get the NS-10s to “fart” — that means when they just pop a little bit, almost like overloading.

I can get them to fart a little bit, then I know I have the right amount of bottom, and then when I added the subwoofer, you’re still almost kind of guessing a little bit at what level you have it, and again, over the years I’ve kind of found where the sweet spot is, for me, for monitoring. Every once in a while I have to go behind my console to make adjustments or whatever. I am always so petrified about hitting the subwoofer and changing the settings of the self-powered subwoofer; so yes, of course, I write down what the setting is; but the great thing about the Barefoot, and where they really helped me out, is using them as a reference point. The one thing that I love about them is the bottom.

The top end on them is spectacular, and it was great when I got them, because I immediately felt relieved that I could still hear the top end. The top end is just so nice and clean and not harsh. Again, I was so impressed by them, and I was shocked that in their flat setting, aside from the bottom end, they’re not far off of my Yamaha NS-10s. When I switch between the two, the one big difference I notice when I go to the MM27s is, the bottom end is tighter, which I really like. Aside from that, the NS-10s might have just a tad bit more of a mid-range bump. I think the top end on the MM27 is a lot nicer, as well, and slightly less fatiguing.

I remember when I first put them up I was like, “Oh, shit. I can hear that ride cymbal,” because I just thought, “Wow,” for some reason, maybe on the NS-10s it gets blurred a little bit. For some reason, with the MM27s, I found the top end to be just really nice and pristine, and it kind of got me jacked up about cymbals again.

I do mainly rock, I do a lot of rock stuff, but now that I have the studio in my house, it’s really offered me the opportunity to walk down some different roads. I worked recently with an artist named Sylvia Tosun, who’s an electronic dance music, EDM, artist. She’s a dear friend of mine, and she’s also an artist who I’ve worked with over the years; and what I would do is, she’d make these EDM songs, and then I would take them and do pop mixes for her; but what I’ve really found with MM27s, what really stood out and was really spectacular, was in mixing the EDM stuff.

I used them for the entire mix, and I found that it was just great, because you got to hear this nice rich bottom, and this great bass drum that’s just smacking you in the face, and I was really able to dial it in and make it sound just the way I wanted, with ease, using these monitors. I was very surprised. I could definitely see that these MM27s should be part of anybody who’s doing EDM or dance music.

One: the Barefoots use a small footprint in comparison to using a bigger monitor, like a double 15-inch, or something like that, so their footprint is much smaller. Two, they’re self-powered, so they’re very easily hooked up for the guys that are mixing within the box, and they just sound so damn good.

Barefoot:        Do you ever do any music for film or television?

Lord-Alge:     The only work that I’ve done where there’s visual, generally speaking, would be live concerts. I recently worked with a band called One OK Rock. They’re a rock band from Japan who are huge over there, and I’ve actually been over there twice this year, recorded two different tours for them, for DVDs, where I would sit in the mobile and do the recording, and then bring it back to my studio and do the mixing. And I’m actually getting ready to leave next week to go out to do Twenty One Pilots. They’re doing a live album. I’m not sure if there’ll be a visual included in it, but I know that they’ve hired me to mix their live album.

Barefoot:        Do you ever do any classical music?

Lord-Alge:     I don’t, but you know what? When I get tracks that have strings, I always say, “Can you have the guy that recorded it give me all the regular recorded audio, but can you also have him give me his stereo balance?” Because I like to hear what his balance is. Nine times out of ten, I would use his balance, because then I could take that balance and then spank it, and add a little rock and roll curve to it. I try to focus my energies on what I do best, and then surround myself by people to complement my shortcomings.

I’m very quietly just mixing records here at Miami Beach. I did my time in Los Angeles, I cut my teeth in New York, and I just found that, for me, I really enjoy living down here, and it’s just a wonderful place to make music; and my clients love coming down here. It’s a vacation for them. They bust their ass making their record, and it’s so anticlimactic when they’re mixing in Los Angeles. The record company’s there, the girlfriends are there, and then they go right on tour, so they really never get a break.

They come down here and they’re out on the Jet Skis, they’re cruising South Beach, they’re having a great time, and at the end of the day, they come in, they listen to the mix, and they’re nice and focused, and then we go out and have a nice meal, and some cocktails, and then we do it all again the next day. It provides them with this great kind of relaxation, so that they can really focus on what we’re doing here.

 

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