Ahead of Greek St Studios' cocktail party this Thursday, audio engineer Kieran Kaye explains why it isn't the size of his mixer that matters, but the way that he uses it...
Recently, I had a sound design and mix session for a well-known German car brand. It was the usual crowd: producer, creatives, and the editor – plus some other bodies that were most likely there for the free sushi (and who can blame them?).
As everybody placed their drink orders with our fresh-faced runner (who hasn’t yet been downtrodden by life, alcohol and staring at Pro Tools for several years) an authoritative northern voice made itself known from the back of the room.
“You know what I like about this studio? You don’t have one of those fooking massive mixing desks with all the knobs on that you don’t use.”
I immediately took a shine to this man.
Here, in Studio 1 of Greek Street Studios, we use the Avid MC Mix and MC Control surfaces for our mixing. For those that aren’t familiar, it’s basically a smaller, digital mixer used to control the levels in Pro Tools - as opposed to a ‘fooking massive mixing desk’. The desk he was possibly referring to could have been the SSL AWS 948 or the newer Avid S6 desks. Truthfully, I’m sure he neither knew nor cared what model it was that we did or didn’t have in the studio; he just had enough common (maybe even technical) sense to know that when mixing a commercial it doesn’t require a large expensive mixer to do the job well.
His comment got me thinking. Do clients care what equipment is used? Or are they just wowed by flashing lights and shiny knobs? My thoughts are the latter.
Don’t get me wrong, I love working on bigger consoles. Having all of your tracks spaced out over 24 channels, each with its own fader and multi-functioning knobs, is a lovely luxury and can make mixing easier. But does size make a difference to the overall sound of the content? Absolutely not. Just better comfortability and workflow than a mouse.
As beautiful and functional as the Avid S6 is, for example, and as much as I would choose one over putting down a deposit on a four bedroom house in the country, one has to ask - does it offer anything sonically that the client would notice? Possibly, but unlikely. Considering most adverts are played through crappy speakers or cheap headphones, I would say there’s even less chance of somebody noticing a difference.
When the cost differential is so substantial, it’s important to know whether the client or the consumer can tell the difference between something mixed through a £70,000 desk and something mixed through £900 Avid controllers. I’m going to go ahead and speak for the vast majority of the population in saying they can’t.
So where does this quality comparison stop? If I’m dismissing the use of a very well made mixing desk for TV commercials, do I really need big fancy speakers or top-notch microphones? If I’m suggesting that a £900 piece of equipment can do the job of a £70,000 piece, why am I not just mixing in my bedroom through a laptop?
It all comes down to the optics - that ‘wow’ factor. Despite the quality of the output, I doubt that the creatives, producer and their accompanying sushi-eaters would be very impressed, let alone comfortable, watching me do my thing in a one bed flat in Dalston.
Truth is, I could do just as good a job from my laptop. Really, it’s all about how comfortable the client needs to be in order to be impressed enough to come back, and if it takes a £70,000 mixing desk for repeat business (and you’ll need plenty of that to pay that bugger off) then so be it – but in my opinion I can, and do, get by just fine without.
Because it’s not the big mixers that make great sounding work, the experience behind the desk becomes much more important than the desk itself. It’s about the talent, not the tools.
Frankly, I’m touched that the bold northerner was sufficiently aware of his technical surroundings to embrace what might be considered a shortcoming to other clients. At the end of the day, it’s not the size that matters but how you use it.