So how exactly can one set of ears be behind the signature sound of artists as musically diverse as Lana Del Rey, Green Day, Metallica, Lady Gaga, U2, Justin Timberlake and everyone in between? American Mix engineer and producer Andrew Scheps is certainly so much more than the ‘lord of loud’, so we had to find out more.
Speaking live and direct from his Punkerpad studio in Titton, Worcestershire in the UK, Andrew explains the difference between mixing for The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jay-Z and and Adele (spoiler: there isn’t one), analogue versus digital, the gear and techniques behind his sound and where he stands on mixing in Atmos.
Oh yeah, and turn it up. There’s the small matter of Metallica’s Death Magnetic to wrestle with, too…
So where are you at right now? I hear you’re in the UK?
“Yeah, I’m in Worcestershire in the UK. We lived in LA for a really long time. But my wife is from here and we moved back full time almost eight years ago.”
And your studio is there?
“Yeah, I’m in my studio right now. For mixing I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else. It's all set up. The cats are here. It's easy.”
So your days of travelling the world, roughing it and making do are over?
“I haven't done that for mixing for 20 years or something. But even when I was mixing on analogue gear I had a Neve console and a bunch of gear and stuff at my studio in LA. And now, it's just a computer and speakers. So it's perfect.”
You’re equally well known for mixing and producing. When working on a new project do the lines get blurred?
“They definitely can get blurred. But if you go in as one thing, and then you find you're doing more things, it's very difficult to go back and say, ‘oh, by the way, let's give me a production credit’. And even harder to say, ‘let's give me royalties that a producer would get.’ So I like to be very specific.
“And, in my case, I think it's, it's not that hard. I've either been hired to mix it, or I'm being hired to produce it. And then whether I mix it or not, is part of the conversation. But if I'm producing, I'm producing. And I’m fine with co-producing. This new album, the Fellow Robot record, that was definitely a co-production. But yeah, I think you've got to lay that stuff out at the very beginning, because nobody wants to negotiate later.”
When you’re mixing a track, what kind of state does the track reach you in? Do you like a rough mix? Or do you prefer to just push up the faders and listen to it fresh?
“No, I actually insist on a rough mix. If there's no rough mix, I won't mix it because it means that you're not done. It means that you have no idea what you want. So that makes it difficult. And in a lot of ways, there's nothing worse than someone saying ‘No, no, just do your thing’. Because the problem is that every artist has something in their head that they want and if I don't have some breadcrumbs on what their ‘thing’ is, then it's just a total shot in the dark. I mean, you can get lucky. But it really would be getting lucky at this point.”
So there’s a whole conversation to be had before you even begin?
“A conversation about the rough mix - to say what you like about it, what you don't like about it - and speaking about the project itself, I think that's really, really useful.
“And I love the tracks to show up sounding just like the rough mix. When I track, I don't use any plugins, I don't use anything. I just record as close to what I want to end up with as I can. And that's because I'm old!
“But today, for people tracking at home, they're basically mixing from the first day. They've got a microphone up, they record something and they're immediately processing. And to think that I’ve got to take all that processing off, and start over, and end up with something that's like what they were going for? Yeah, it's not a job I want. I don't want to recreate. I just want to create.”
And that’s what people come to you for? That ‘signature sound’?
“I don't know. To me, I don't have a signature sound. And I like that. My discography is all over the place. I love that. One of my favourite records I did last year was a classical record. So it's great to do that. But I definitely do have a signature aesthetic. I guess my stuff is loud… It's aggressive when it needs to be… But it's as beautiful as it can possibly be when it's supposed to be. I very much play off the emotions of the music and I try to amplify those. And if there are drums, they're going to be loud. So there are definitely common themes. But I'm hoping that, sonically, they’re not too common.
“I don’t think it’s a good thing if someone hears the first four bars of a song and says ‘Oh, I bet this was mixed by this guy’. Then I feel like then your personality has sort of overtaken the music. What's great about my job is how different every record is.”
Just to wind it all the way all the way back, what was it that got you into music?
“Well, I started out as a French horn player, when I was nine. You know, learning an instrument in elementary school in the States. Then I wanted to play in the Jazz Ensemble, so I switched to trumpet and I quickly realised that while I was OK I was never going to be a professional musician. I just wasn't good enough. And I didn't want to practise as much as that was going to take.
“So I was always a geek. I love pushing a button and stuff happens. I started doing lights in junior high school, and then sound a little bit. And then I was listening to Queen: A Night at the Opera was the first album I ever saved up money to go buy. And Jethro Tull and Yes, and obviously, some of the Beatles stuff. And I just realised that there was this thing that was record making. And it was just fascinating to me.
“And then I discovered Brian Eno as a producer, and started buying records just because his name was on them. And then that would introduce me to bands, and I just sort of became obsessed. And then when I saw my first recording studio I said, that's it. That's the thing I'm going to do. Because I wanted to be in a band. I wanted to have that experience. And this way I get to be in lots and lots of different bands for a little while.”
And you worked for New England Digital back in the day. That must have been the very dawn of sampling and the Synclavier?
“Yeah, yeah. That was my first job out of college. When I was at university in Miami - so that was 1984 - they had a Synclavier that had monophonic sampling. So it could play one sample at a time. And it was right around that time that polyphonic sampling became ‘a thing’. So Wave Frame, Fairlight and Synclavier - they were sort of the three big digital things. And yeah, that idea of samples spread across a keyboard and being able to play more than one at a time happened pretty much then. And so for me, it was sort of normal, like, of course you can do that. But two years earlier, you couldn't. Yeah, it was a good time.”
That must have brought you into contact with some pretty famous folks.
“Oh, absolutely, yeah. It was an amazing opportunity, because I was doing field service so I would show up when it was broken. These people had these incredibly expensive things and they were broken. So they were always in a bad mood when I showed up. But once I got it working, they were in a really good mood! But they also didn't trust it, so I had to hang out. I hung out on Dire Straits sessions, on Sting sessions - I was at Benny Andersson’s studio for a week. They were so expensive that I was always with people who were successful. So yeah, it was really, really good.”
So is there a routine? Something that you always do first?
“Well, there's a sort of a setup thing I do where I have to prep the session. I get the tracks in the order I want, I colour code them, I route them the way that makes sense to me. So the whole time while I'm doing that I'm sort of exploring what's there and listening to the rough mix. And that's when I get this idea in my head of how I want my mix to feel. You hear something happen and you go ‘Ooh, that's hinting at this thing’. And I want that to be a really big deal. And I want this to really explode when it happens. Or that second verse… that’s got to be absolutely gorgeous. And I don't necessarily know sonically what that even means. All I know is that I'm not feeling it now… and I definitely want to feel it.
“That first impression is how I want the journey of the song to be. I don't write any of it down because usually it's such a visceral reaction to it that that never goes away. I don't need to remember that I wanted the bridge to be beautiful; it knows what it wants to be as far as I'm concerned. And then hopefully that lines up with what the artist wants, too.”
Do you play with arrangements much? Edit things around?
“Not if I’m just mixing. I feel like every once in a while there's a song where I just think this doesn't work the way it is. And it would absolutely work if it were this way. And usually it's something like ‘cut the intro in half’. Or ‘cut the first chorus in half’. Something like that, where I just feel like, we want to get into the music more. And as a listener who hasn't spent nearly as much time with that music I feel like I'm a little bit objective about it.
“I will add things sometimes if, again, if I really feel like I was expecting it to be there. ‘And where is that thing?’ If it’s not there then I'll do it. And that's always a very careful conversation with the artist, you know. To say like, look, it's great, but I was hearing this thing in my head and we can get rid of it if you want, but…
“I also really compartmentalise the roles - we're talking about how blurred the lines are. One of the reasons that I record so simply when I'm producing is that I don't want to be mixing. Because once I start mixing, now I'm mixing, and I'm not paying attention to the performance anymore, because it's as if it already exists. That's what mixing is - you're only dealing with the recordings you've got. So, the way my brain works, I keep them very, very separate. There are things I will do while mixing that won't ever occur to me while I'm recording.”
With modern recording how it is, you must get mixes where the artists and producers have loaded the track up with too much ammo. Do you ever pull up a project and see 200 tracks and think ‘But I only need 10…’?
“Every once in a while, yeah. I'd start building the song and then every time I bring something in, it gets worse. And anytime I bring something else in, it gets worse. But again, that whole mindset of mixing is ‘I've been given some stuff and now I'm going to mix it’. There are mixers who do quite a bit of arrangement in that way, you know, not changing the structure of the song, but taking things in and out and doing that, but I won't do that. Unless there’s a strong feeling that ‘There should be a B3 in the chorus. How come there isn't? Without it I can't make it work the way I want it to work’. So I’ll do it. And It's exactly the same thing with taking stuff out. I'll have an idea in my head. And if I leave the stuff in and it’s just ruining things, then yes, I will take it out. And strangely, with that stuff, usually the people don't even notice. So it turns out that the things that were in, that were causing a problem to me, weren't things that they were precious about anyway.
“But I try to use everything because I'm always assuming that the artist must have listened and they must have wanted these things to be there. And nobody cares more than the artist. So it's up to me to understand why they're there and let them do their job.”
What’s your feeling about gear these days? Anything you can’t live without? Are you a collector? A hoarder?
“No, but I used to be. Yeah, I mean, I had a 64-input Neve console. I had a huge wall full of gear. And it's all gone. The thing behind me right now? That’s a modular synth. I've literally got a computer and a bunch of speakers - because I'm doing Atmos now - and that’s it.
“I kept a few microphones… A couple of compressors… And that's pretty much it. And when the gear went, it went all at once. It was very cathartic and made me a bit sad, because, you know, it smells good? It's warm. It’s… you know, all of that. And I've been collecting it for 30 years. But no, that broke me of the habit.”
Is there anything that could only be done analogue? Can everything be done digitally?
“Microphones. You can't record something fully digitally. And I think that that's something that I’ve talked about at a lot of schools and workshops and seminars. One of the things I always try to get across is that first of all, there's analogue, and digital is very, very different. But definitely one is not better than the other. It's not even a conversation worth having at this point.
“Digital sounds great, analogue sounds great. Analogue has horrendous problems and so does digital sometimes. In a lot of ways, digital has a lot fewer problems than analogue and there are people who would argue with me on that, but you know, whatever. But while you're recording, it's analogue. And it's always been analogue. So do as much as you can with analogue before you record it.”
Do you get artists or engineers where they have some sort of fix on analogue and might want to record onto tape? Do those people still exist?
“Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the last Chili Peppers record they did completely on tape, so good on them. I mean, if you're a really good band then there's no reason you couldn't work on tape. But I don't think people appreciate how excruciatingly difficult and slow it is to work on tape. ‘You want to find out what it's like to use the chorus from that take? OK, I'm getting a razor blade out… And it's going to be hard to put back together if you don't like it. And it's gonna take me 40 minutes to do it…’
“At this point, I really don't buy into the fact that one is better than the other. Whatever you like, whatever you respond to emotionally, that's what you should do. 100% I would never try and talk somebody out of doing something a certain way. But I have had bands that have wanted me to mix analogue and that's not how I mix anymore. It just isn't. And so if I'm going to do a good job, I need to do it on my rig, the way I've got it set up, and that's when you'll get me doing my best work.
“There are bands that I've worked with that I trust enough and we have a good enough of a relationship with that I’ll do whatever they want to do. I’ll be ‘let's go do that… But we're doing it together.’ It's not someone saying, ‘Oh, you need to do this while wearing a green shirt…’ You know?”
Do you always mix alone?
“Yes. I don't think any mixer in the world wants to actually work on the mix with anyone else in the room. Anyone. Because while you're mixing, you're failing constantly. You're changing your mind! There's stuff I've spent hours and hours on over the course of three days, maybe. And then I listen to it on the fourth day and say ‘This is horrible! I’ve got to start over.’ If someone was in the room, as you were working your way towards ‘horrible’ for hours, you'd get fired! And then they would never like the mix. You'd never get to the point where they'd say, ‘Oh, man, that's amazing. Sure sucked for a while, though!” Like, that just doesn't happen.
“So I think I love collaborating with artists, once I've got where I think it's great. And then we go back and forth. And we make it great for them. Absolutely. I collaborate a lot. But I have to get to the first revision of the mix myself. And sometimes it goes really, really fast. And sometimes it's ridiculously slow. And no one needs to know.”
Your body of work and the artists that you’ve worked with are so musically diverse. We're talking about Adele and Lana Del Rey sandwiched in between Chili Peppers and Metallica. So you must have a ‘metal’ template that you pull up and…
“No, no… I think the reason I can do what I do in terms of genre is that I don't care what the genre is. It's like we were talking about at the beginning. I have this aesthetic about ‘sad things should actually make you cry’. Not just say, ‘Wow, that's sad!’ Like, all of the emotions should be heightened to the point where, if you're paying any attention at all, you can't not respond to it. And that's across genres. I mean, a track like 99 Problems has this place where it explodes. And then it comes back, and then it explodes again. And so does the classical record I mixed last year.
“Music is music and I don't want to say like we're ‘post genre’ because genre absolutely exists and there are purists within the genres and it really, really matters. And there are things that if you didn't do them, well, you're actually not in that genre anymore. Like if you don't program the hi-hat a certain way, you're not trap. Like that's just a defining feature of the genre. But, within every genre, there is sad stuff and there's happy stuff, and I like the sad, dark angsty dissonant stuff. And I like that in every single genre, basically. So yeah, I don't approach genres differently.”
There's so much water passed under the bridge since ‘the loudness war’ and the whole compression thing. Where is that at these days? Is it a conversation that people got bored of? Are engineers not using those techniques anymore? What happened?
“I have absolutely no idea. I mean, I was the poster child for ‘loud’ because of that Death Magnetic record. You know, everybody hated that Metallica record that was ‘the loudest thing’. My line is that the loudness war is over because I won. And that's it. And that was the record that did it.
“I think, in pop radio, there really was a loudness war. You had to be loud. But radio stations compress the crap out of everything. Everything that plays on Radio 1 is exactly the same level, it doesn't matter what level the mix was. So I think it was all a little bit inflated, and it was a lot just completely outside of my awareness… I never did anything because it had to be louder. Ever. Everything I did was always because ‘it's not feeling right’.
“There are people who will say ‘well just make it a quieter mix, and we can turn the volume up,’ but it's just not as simple as that. Forcing all that audio energy through a smaller hole because it's bigger? It just sounds different. It really does. And it's something I'm actually working on. I work on doing quieter mixes because there are artefacts to it that I don't look like and certainly over the last five to 10 years, my mixes have gotten a lot quieter. But every once in a while there's a record where the mixes are crazy loud because that's what works.”
How does a band like Metallica go about building that enormous, huge block of sound? Ultimately, there are a few guitars and a bass and some drums. Are you tracking on tracking on tracking? What’s the process?
“Well, Greg Fidelman recorded that. But no, there aren't a ton of guitars. I think sometimes people just forget that everybody in Metallica is really, really good at what they do. I mean, James’s rhythm parts are insane. His right hand looks like it's not even moving. And it's one of the most aggressive, precise things you've ever heard in your life. So two of those? That's a big machine. If you put more on there, it would actually end up getting smaller because they would just start collapsing together. So it really is just the band. Like Chili Peppers - it's the band.
“You're so lucky to work on projects like that. It's not like they aren't still hard work. And it's not like you don't have to do anything. It's really hard work and there's a lot to do. Those mixes took a long time to get right. Songs are very long, and you have to keep people engaged the whole time, but to have that raw material? You know, it's a pretty good start.”
And then mixing something like Adele or Lana Del Rey is such a different sound. Is there a completely different set of plugins that you go to there?
“No, no, like I said before, the genre doesn't really even occur to me. Because it's in the tracks. While you're mixing, you already have that raw material. It is the genre it is. So I'm just always trying to make a version that is the one that I think will connect to the most people and it's the one that I really, really connect with emotionally and want to listen to.”
What kind of plugins do you lean on for vocal effects and reverb and things?
“I'm terrible at reverb! I use the Pro Tools built in reverb, D-Verb. I use it all the time. It's a real dirty, grainy thing. But it's really easy to hear and doesn't take up a lot of space and you don't need tons of it.
“I love Altiverb because it's got lots of impulse responses, the same with the Waves IR-1 because that lets you do stuff to the impulses that you can't do with other ones. I use a little slap delay with nothing crazy. Like, if you listen to the Adele mixes, there's almost nothing on her voice. That was a spring reverb. That's all I used on that record. But if you listen to Lana Del Rey, she is so particular about her effects that a lot of those effects actually came to me on the multitrack.
“And there was a track where I guess she had changed the lyrics something and she had re-sung the middle eight. So for the rest of the song, I had a vocal, I had two or three different reverbs and delay effects, and then I just had this raw vocal for 16 bars in the middle of the song. And it was actually terrifying, because you know that she's reacting to little tiny differences in those effects that I'm not going to hear because it's not about hearing. It's about the sound hitting her emotionally in a really specific way. And that was by far the hardest part of that mix. Just getting the effects - not to sound right with the other ones, but for her to be happy with the way that section felt.”
And you use a lot of parallel compression. I'm really interested in your routine for that. Do you have a little setup that you always use on your plugins?
“Yeah, I mean, I've got a mix template, but it changes. Any time I change something, I do a ‘Save As’. I think I'm up to version 85 or something like that. So things are constantly changing, because I'll find something I'll do in one song and think ‘Oh, that's great’ and I'll see if it works on a few other songs and if it does, it goes into a template. And then I get sick of stuff and so it goes away.
“But yeah, in the templates there's a mono parallel for kick and snare. There are three or four different parallel things for drums, mostly compression, but one of them is just distortion because it's a way to get a compressor effect but it's not a compressor. And I've got some vocal effects, like the two reverbs I start with and hope that one of them is going to work because I don't want to have to find another one! Slap delay… A little bit of a chorusing effect… And then that's it.
“Guitars and bass and keyboards and all that, there's nothing I can start with on those. Like they're always so different that they just get dealt with on their own. And then there are a couple of parallel compressors for vocals as well. And then a little bit of mix bus processing, but basically EQ and a limiter at the end and no compression. And that's it.”
Tell me about the latest project. You’ve been in the producer’s chair for this one.
“So that’s the Fellow Robot record, right? So I mixed a single for them. They just got in touch randomly a few years ago. And I liked the music, and we worked it out. It’s super indie low budget, but I do that as much as I can when I love the music. And they just got back in touch, like, just an email, like, ‘Hey, Andrew, remember us?’ And it was right when the pandemic started. We were talking about where we could record and trying to figure out a way where we could actually work together and just make the record.”
So you weren’t physically with them when recording?
“I have never met them. Never been in a room with them. It’s all been Zoom and email and that’s it.
And it turned into two years. Them working and sending me stuff and me telling them every single thing I thought about it, and we just sort of iterated for two years on all the songs. And then the mixes took me a while because the songs are dense, there's a lot going on. And there was a lot that I really wanted to do. There would be an idea I'd had in my head for 18 months and I just couldn't wait to get my hands on it!
“In the end we'd spent so much time working on the record already together that there were absolutely no mix revisions. I sent the mixes off and it’s like ‘great, done’. So yeah, it's really good. And we've already started on the next record - they sent me a bunch of demos and then I listened to this week. And we'll just start the same process up again.”
You mentioned earlier that you were mixing in Dolby Atmos. Is that something you just have to do in 2023 or something you like and appreciate?
“Like I said earlier, I’m a geek. So the idea of it, I absolutely love. I always tried to do spatial things. I always wanted it to sound ‘like it’s coming from behind you’ when you’re just wearing headphones. That stuff has always been cool to me.
“So to actually have speakers behind and above you? It’s awesome, it’s so much fun. The whole thing about it only being with streaming and people only listening to it on headphones, it’s a gigantic topic and everyone talks about it but my feeling is that it’s still very early days. Like the early days of MP3 when they sounded terrible. It’ll get better. There’ll be more speaker systems. That stuff is getting better. That’s all ramping up and the mixing is so much fun. You can do what you want and stay musical. You can keep the band in the front but there’s always ear candy, and instead of just ‘I’ll pan this left to right’ now it can be like a helicopter and it can go down and go back up. You can create stuff that’s impossible to do in stereo. You can do something emotional with the song. You can make something important without making it loud. They might not hear it the first five times they listen but it’s then super cool when they realise that the choir is behind them.”
So what’s next for you?
“The big thing I’m working on for my label is the final Low Roar record. Ryan [Karazija] the main songwriter and singer, he is the band basically, and he died last year but he’d recorded his part of the record that we were going to make. So Mike Lindsay and I - when emotionally we can take it - we’re going to finish our parts and put the record out.
“And that’s how we used to do stuff anyway. Ryan would do his stuff. Mike would do his stuff. And I would do my stuff. And generally we’d never change anything that the other person did. We were completely on the same page - it was ridiculous. But sometime over the next many months that’s going to happen. But I don’t know when we’ll be up to that.”
Fellow Robot’s new single Crash and Burn is out now, with the album, Misanthropioid, out on 19 May.