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RSR029 – Craig Alvin – Badass Mixer

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RSR007 - David Glenn - The Mix Academy

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RSR029 - Craig Alvin - Badass Mixer 

My guest on the show today is Craig Alvin, a fantastically talented recording and mixing engineer originally from Portland, OR before moving to Nashville TN.

He has been making records for over 20 years, and has an eclectic discography having worked on several Grammy nominated projects. His work spans Contemporary Christian Music on one end of the spectrum, to cool pop, and rock music on the other end.

His credits include Amy Grant, Vanessa Carlton, Lady Antebellum, Frankie Ballard, Chase Rice, Will Hoge, The Features, Butterfly Boucher, Erin McCarley, Hanson, and How I Became The Bomb to name a few.

I’ve known Craig for years as a badass magician of mixing that can take the tracks I’ve recorded and make them sound like what I imagined they could sound like. He has long since mixed with a hybrid of digital and analog gear that brings the best of both worlds together to create a sound that is powerful and compelling.

“I’ve had records that I’ve worked on that have won awards, that have been hits in various markets, that have been nominated for Grammy’s...and none of them are records that I really love, or am proud of, or have on my demo reel. The records I’ve made that I’m really proud of tend to go unnoticed.”

Craig Alvin

“It took me a long time to listen to how [music] makes me feel rather than to think technically about what I was doing” @CraigAlvin

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Craig's Studio: 

I have a Harrison Series 12. It's about 20 years old, its digitally controlled analog. Its sort of like having protools mixing but in analog form. I can take a sound from ProTools send it to outboard gear, then back into the console on a fader. When I work, I start a conversation with the song. It keeps me in a positive mindset and thinking on the thing I’m supposed to be thinking about which is the song, and the song should be speaking back to me. Once you’ve been sitting in the same room for 8 years mixing by yourself, you have to develop some ways to trick yourself into thinking you’re working on music with people.

Harrison Series 12

“Music is meant to be shared and experienced as a group” @CraigAlvin

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Favorite Effects or Outboard Gear: 

1. Distressor (super versatile compressor) I have them set up as parallels for my kick and snare trick I learned from Joe Chiccarelli. On kick it gives me a solid punch sound that I can bring up. On snare, i have it pretty squishy so i can give it more length.

2. I have a AKG BX10 spring reverb that I’m absolutely in love with. It’s the only reverb I ever found where I can drown a vocal in reverb and people still think it's dry.

Gates Sta-Level

3. Gates Sta-level. I bought my sta-level back around 1990. From a guy in Portland in $50, I then traded it to Seasick Steve, he used it for about a year and traded it back to me for a mic that he wanted. That thing has been on every lead vocal of every mix I've done since about 1996.

4.I have a Neve 33609 that lives on my drum bus and that compressor can do no wrong. It doesn't matter how hard you hit it, just running through it makes things sound better.

Favorite Albums He's Worked On: 

Ryan Lindsley’s - White Paper Beds

Erin McCarley -  Love, Save the Empty
Peter Barbee -  Among Savages

Andrew Belle -  Black Bear

“Ryan Lindsley’s White Paper Beds, is one of my favorite records I’ve ever worked on” @CraigAlvin

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Tips for Recording Great Drum Sounds: 

I have a philosophy that some things should be left alone or done with minimal processing such as my close mics. (kick snare, toms, overheads should be set up to get the best sounds without a lot of processing) then I have the opposite where I have mics set up specifically for lots of compression or EQ or distortion to give the kit its character. At mix those can be varied or eliminated. I also tune (the drums) to almost every song.

“Engineering 101: if you’re studying audio engineering, gain staging is everything. What I’ve found, is when I gain stage certain pieces of gear, I start to get this affect where I have optimized everything. I start off every mix by getting my low set, I set my kick drum and bass guitar and they always hit and they always hit the console at the loudest part of the sound at the same meter. Once you have set that, that's where you know your low end sits best, ..I do the low end first because the low end requires the most amount of energy then I start to build up the rhythm section around that. Those two don’t change because we’ve hit the optimal spot for the console”

“You cant just watch a video or read an article and be good at it right away, you have to train your ear and learn the technique” 

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Jam Session 

Q - What was holding you back at the start?
A - I think it was that I wasn’t focused. I wanted to play bass, I wanted to be in bands, I was in school trying to learn theology and I was just not focused on it. I took a decision to stop playing in bands, stop running live sound for everyone, get out of school and just focus on recording.

Q- What was some of the best advice you got early on?
A - The very first time I walked into the studio and Joe (Chiccarelli) was there setting up drums and working on a 24 track we needed as many tracks as we could get. So we decided to mix the overheads with high hat and tom mics and I looked at him and said, “we’re gonna mix these now?” He looked at me like I was the biggest idiot in the world, he said, “We’re mixing right now. We’re always mixing, mixing is our job.” And that was a huge revelation to me. The truth is when you choose a mic, you’re mixing. When you choose a location for that mic, you’re mixing. When you choose a particular musician to play a part, you’re mixing! There’s another bit of advice that I got. I lived in Oklahoma for a few years and my friend Ted, who spent some time in the music business, would always say, “the difference between whether something happened or didn’t happen, it whether it happened or not.” It makes no sense, but what he meant was, if something's not happening in a mix and you choose to let it go by, then that’s your choice. It didn’t happen because you didn't make it happen. I think he said it to make you take responsibility for the situation

“I can now have a studio where the knobs never turn on the outboard gear” @CraigAlvin

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Q- Share with us a recording tip, hack, or secret sauce.

A - The first thing I do (when it comes to vocals) I believe in the careful care and feeding of compressors. And what you’ll notice when looking in ProTools is that the waveform will be very loud in the bridge and quieter in the chorus. The first thing I do is go through with clip gain and even that out in a general sense so it’s kind of one volume the whole way. I do it visually so it’s more or less the same volume. The reason why is because I want the compressor and the other effects to be more or less in the “butter zone.” I get it so I can set my compressor once and leave it. Then I use automation to turn the volume up and down, after compression. After that I’ll filter out low end rumble and vocal pops with the RX plugin or the linear EQ from waves and use that in audio suite. After that the best thing i’ve learned for a vocal is something we used to do with tape. I have the UAD studer plugin. This the custom "Craig Alvin" setting on that: 456 tape with noise turned off. Then I run it at 7.5” per second, I turn the bias all the way up to make it darker and turn it to +9 to get more saturation. Right above the bias, there’s a high frequency tilt that’s on the record side, and I turn that up till the high end sounds right again. What this does is it gives you tape saturation, but that works in a really beautiful way with s’s. You can get by with so much less de-essing, and it’s probably the best vocal compressor that you can find

Q - Share a favorite hardware tool for the studio
You really can’t underestimate the power of having good delays. Like in particular the PCM41 by Lexicon. They’re kind of looked down upon because the 42 is supposedly the better version. I think its important to have bad gear laying around. The great thing about having bad gear like the PCM41 is that it has built in character. It has a sound that harkens to a particular era. With the 41, I will turn the delay all the way off but turn the mix all the way up and run acoustic guitar through it. You can turn a really nice sounding Martin guitar into a crappy old archtop that way. A lot of old altec consoles have these crazy, really kind of bad sounding mic pres and EQs that are phasey weird spring reverbs and stuff. Those things are fun to record percussion. When I was working on the features Wilderness record, I went around to pawn shops and bought all the old 12 bit audio gear I could find. I found this thing called the Yamaha Rex50, which is a 12 bit version of the SPX90. That became really a big part of of his sound he had to go out and find a couple to keep with him when he tours.

“We have a listening deficiency going on right now. People believe the hype machine, the believe the rumor mill, but they don’t spend the time to be diligent and just go listen to everything” @CraigAlvin

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Q - Share a favorite software tool for the studio

A - I am completely in love with the UAD tape emulation especially the ampex and the studer. But I found Echoboy from Soundtoys and I turn off the delay and turn the mix all the way up. They have all these filtered sounds that essentially are what I was talking about with the weird audio gear and you can vary them in all kinds of ways and I do that ALL the time. I’m using a delay, but not as a delay, more like a channel strip.

Q - Is there any trick we should know about how to effectively name pre-sets and keep them organized?

A - I remember these in context through the song, so I name them based on the context. I have a reverb named Adam Lester Magic because there was a guitar player names Adam Lester and I found this pre-set that made his guitar come alive. And I use Adam Lester Magic on a lot of guitars now.

“I do some records simply because I have to pay the rent, but I think you should always strive to do meaningful work” @CraigAlvin

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Q - Share with us a tip for the business side of the recording studio

A - I’m not good with the business side. Honestly the thing that’s helped me the most is getting management to negotiate for me because I always sell myself too cheap.

Q - If you had to start over what gear would you need? How would you find people to record? And how would you make ends meet while you got started?

A - If I was in that situation, I wouldn’t think of gear yet. I would go find a job someplace where musicians gather maybe a bar, coffee shop, lyft or uber driver, someplace you can meet the people making music. Make a budget and figure out how much money you need a month to live and save until you have 3 months saved. Put that away and do not touch it. Now, by this time you’ve met the musicians, keep doing your job, and get behind those people and push life crazy. Help them record, help make their studios better, engineer for free, help them unload after a gig, do that stuff, make yourself invaluable to that scene and you will succeed. But you have to have money in the bank first so that you don’t go crazy.

“I really believe you get better results when you don’t mess around with the basics” @CraigAlvin

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Q - What is the single most important thing a listener can do to become a rockstar of the recording studio?

A - Practice mixing everyday for hours a day. Seriously, get ahold of track do everything you can to practice making them sound better. Listen and compare your mixes to ones you know are good, and keep working on them until they sound as good as those mixes. You have to discipline yourself and spend a lot of time doing this. But once you do that, you’ll have trained your ear to know what a good sound is.