'Less is more'
Studio talk with Producer/Engineer Marc Daniel Nelson (Fleetwood Mac, Jason Mraz).
Marc is a Latin Grammy nominated music producer, mixing engineer. He has been producing, mixing and managing creatives for over 18 years. His music credits include Fleetwood Mac, Jason Mraz, Colbie Caillat, Eric Burdon, Robert Duvall, Reik and more.
As Protégé for both legendary producer / engineer Bill Schnee and Ken Caillat, Marc has carried the torch for impeccable quality sound and production. His film credits include Amanda, Solo, Blade Runner, The Vietnam War, Wild Horses, Point Break, No Manches Frida, Father Figures and more.
In 2018, Marc engineered and mixed the original score for the film Amanda. In 2019 it was nominated for a French Academy Award for Best Original Score. His creative management credits include executive producing the 13 episode PBS television series, creating and executive producing the national video campaign for Guitar Center and creative directing for Alcon Sleeping Giant, La East Studios and ArtistMax.
Marc has been showcased on the cover of Audio Solutions magazine, in addition to articles in MIX online, Shore, and Business magazine. He was chosen for the “20 Under 40 ” award by Business magazine for his entrepreneurial work.
Marc, first of all, thank you very much for being here with us today. I will try not to sound predictable in this interview, but there are things that I NEED to ask you to satisfy our readers' curiosity.
Thank you for having me. Excited to chat about cool things music related.
As a top pro in the field, who learned directly from legendary producer/engineer Bill Schnee, what advice would you give serious young producers who are starting out but who are - for the most part - self-taught?
This is a great question, as I think it is very important with how this industry is changing. When I first started back in 1999, it was also a very interesting time for the industry. Digital was just taking off and new rules and deadlines started to lead the way of how things worked and changed. I started at the amazing Chicago Recording Company and even though I went to a technical engineering school, I was more a self taught person as I never was the greatest at reading books and learning in the traditional sense. I strived at hands-on and self-defeating to gain confidence. I made a ton of mistakes over and over in the beginning and that really paved the way for me to really learn how things work and how music is made sonically. Coming from CRC I learned from the top of the best in the midwest and that helped me to advance when I started to mentor under Bill Schnee. I thought I knew what good sounding recordings were then but boy was I wayyyyy wrong. Both Bill and Doug Sax taught me about critical listening. How to focus in to the greatest detail, How less is more and how incredibly challenging it is to get that extra 1 percent in everything I work on. For me, there are so many ways a new up coming guy can go. My greatest advice is always be learning and always be helping.
Never stop reading up on new technology and always experiment until you think you understand every tool in your sleep. Then learn some more... and then sleep! Listen to all types of music from all types of decades. Understand the trends that happen in sonics and how it can relate to the listeners. Like, how bass effects people. Stuff like that. I've been in and out of either working on a score for films to mixing pop albums and everything in between. The key is to adapt to your surroundings and to always be learning. I take things from classical techniques and combine that with things I do in pop. There is room for ideas in all types of genres. Maybe that is why I really enjoy doing trailer music. It is a combination of a few different types of music and is incredibly challenging. I strike to make the biggest sounding mixes I can in any style I do. I think that was the one thing I can take away from the Bill Schnee, Doug Sax camp. Large bigger than life clean recordings are so much more fun to listen to than small clamped down over processed stuff. Its way harder to get that larger than life sound than it is to just put a bunch of electronics in line to create color. (which can be cool sometimes) but for me and the way I've learned... It's way more rewarding to make things HUGE sounding.
Generally speaking, what are the best qualities in a producer/mixer?
I feel the best qualities for a producer is quite different than a mixer. The number one thing I know over everything… over music theory or technique is personality. You have to like hanging with the person. They have to gain confidence from every person in the room and also make everyone feel like a million dollars at all times. Every amazing producer Ive ever met has been an incredibly nice and a strong person. I just love being around people like that. I gain so much clarity and find that makes things so much easier. As a mixer, I think the best quality is just experience… and also knowing many styles. I know some guys do very well sticking with one type of music but I feel for me, a great mixer can mix dubstep or the London Symphony. Music is about feeling, and I think when you get into all types you really start feeling across the plane and it creates all sorts of new styles and techniques.
You also work for picture a lot. Does your approach to mixing change accordingly?
It really doesn’t. In fact, I use the same template to mix a full orchestral score, as I did when I did the reissues for Fleetwood Mac. The way my template is set up has to do with organising for the output. As a guy that never really used sub busses until 2014, I now find things so incredibly easy and almost effortless because sub busses really do create patterns and make things come together so much quicker. I have 9 to 12 sub mixes set up in my template and they all have different types of plugins on the inserts. and ALL of them are inactive until I know the style I’m going to start working on. Like if I were to do Americana style drums, I would use completely different chains on my sub busses than say rock. But there’re plugins like the Ruby that would go on anything I could try to put it on as it makes everything sound better. The insert quality on that plugin alone is insane.
Mixing ITB vs analog (or hybrid). Does it still matter?
Absolutely not. I think everyone can say they are confident on the platforms they are on in 2019. I do still do some outside the box hybrid stuff from time to time but that is only because I like to change it up every once in a while. But that in no way matters in the sense of if it is an issue anymore. Acustica, in particular, has stepped up to a whole different level in the last few years. Its silly to think anyone with a good computer can slam dunk a killer mix. But in reality that is what makes it so fun and challenging. How to be creative against the same things everyone is using. Acustica makes so many amazing plugins. I use Ruby and I love, love, LOVE the Gold Pre channels and the Titanium multiband compressor. That thing is silly good. All of their plugins that I like using employs something similar and that is, that each one makes things sound bigger and lets me create less effect to get it where it is better.
Myths in the audio industry. What's the silliest you have come across (in forums, online etc.)?
Oh Geezzz. There are so many myths and what not. I even catch my self saying things to assistants that really don’t matter as much as I used to think. Ken Caillat taught me that. He used to call me a snob when I was mixing things he was producing. It was a running joke with us for years and luckily we are really close buddies or I wouldn’t understand what he meant by that. He took the time to get that I hyper focus on things he never cared to focus on. But when it all comes down to it. It has to do with music in general. Even though I've learned to take all these different side roads to get to the location while mixing, There are NO RULES. Even though I learned to not do certain things, It really doesn’t matter in the end except if it sounds good. So I take it as this, Learn everything you can from many different people. Learn their philosophies and combine them to become a super version of your self. I think there are so many rules saying you can’t when in reality it should be you can’t because of this and back it up with facts. Experience really is everything and if you’ve made mistakes 10 times doing something, you will know really quickly if it is or isn’t ok to go that route again. I see there are so many online education shows now about production and mixing. The key is to always soak up all the information you can and make of it with what your heart leads you to do.
I know you swear by the 'less is more' motto. Tell us...well...more!?
There isn’t any more! thats it haha! In all seriousness. It all roots from the Doug Sax, Bill Schnee. Its pretty simple really….. The less you do to harm something the stronger it is. One of my best friends, Eric Boulanger who came from the Mastering Lab has an approach that really excels in 2019. Which is why he stands out so much and is leading as one of the top Mastering Engineers in the world. His philosophy is very similar. The less you do, the better and greater it will sound. This doesn’t mean you can’t eq or compress things. It just means if you have the proper monitoring, That in itself is far greater than any outboard gear. Your moves are smaller and you reach to less things to alter the sound. I remember trying out all different types of Mastering Engineers before I met Doug Sax back in 2005. Everyone wanted to put their sound on things and frankly they would insert eqs and compressors just because they bought them and they felt they needed to color the sound. It wasn’t until getting my first master from Doug Sax that everything started to change for me.
What is the most asked question by your clients? How do you accommodate the more unusual requests?
Lately, I've heard clients wanting quieter references which makes me really happy as I spend a lot of time creating mixes that can handle a lot of level in full range. Now that the loudness war has backed off a bit, I am able to get bigger cleaner lo end without extra steps.
Are there any genre-specific mixing tricks you like to use to speed up your flow?
I want my mixes to sound familiar sonically but I always just try to enhance what the artists and composers had in mind in the first place. By making things larger sounding with a lot of extended lo end. Usually, that or the drums or vocals gives me away. For bass and drums I do very little compression to retain size and for vocals, I do a lot of layering compression on vocals. I usually use three different compressors inline to achieve the sound I have in my head. I'm not sure I would have done that 8 years ago, but I find that doing inline a few compressors I can do light compression and combined for vocals it really just lets the vocal sit beautifully in the track. The titanium multiband and El Rey are a magic combination as the multiband in the titanium knocks some of the low-mid mud out of the vocal first and then the EL Rey adds just a bit of the harmonic fullness back. Very nice marriage on vocals those two compressors.
Tell us one thing you really cannot stand in the studio. Something that would make you walk out of the door.
Ego with arrogance. I love confidence, but I can’t deal with jerks. I don’t care if you mixed the Beatles with Nirvana and Frank Sinatra. Or whatever. Being a turkey burger is the least attractive thing I can think of for music. It creates conflict in artists and trust. Also, I don like things wired out of phase. [Laughs]
Tell us about your experience with our plugins. Do you have any favorites?
Well, without this sounding like an ad for Acustica, I can say I get on really well with them. There are some like the Titanium MB that I use on everything and every type of genre. Like I have said, Ruby and El Rey add so much character with just inserting it that I rarely even do much to them other than that. The thing I find most impelling about Acustica products is the attention to that one thing. The insert quality on these plunges are just top class. As a less-is-more kind of guy, I still like gear. I like to mess things up like anyone does but I try to keep things somewhat grounded too. I feel with a few of these plugins, it takes you almost all the way there sonically compared to hardware. I can’t wait to hear what is next down the line for them. It really excites me!