Josh Gudwin is approaching the mix from a production angle so he’s as much completing the song as he is mixing it. He saves all his takes from the performance captures for ease of replacement or ad libs. This is not less work for Gudwin, but the decision-making process during the mix stage is simpler.
“The first thing I do is make sure my gain staging, how loud everything is going into everything else, is correct,” Gudwin says of his mixing. “The more volume you put into a compressor, the more it starts reacting to that and starts turning things down. I’ll go to the loudest section in the mix, loop it, make sure my input and output is correct so it’s hitting all my analog gear and not distorting, over-compressing or doing anything out of the ordinary. Once my gain staging is correct, I can start making sure my compressor is hitting correctly and my EQs are set to the right frequencies.”
Drums are the first sound Gudwin tackles, removing odd frequencies and balancing all the elements. Bass is the next with particular focus on the bass and kick drum having their own space with the groove going into the compression. Guitars, synths and other elements come in next, with Gudwin spacing everything so no drums are clouded. Once the multitrack music bed is in place, the vocals are brought in, balanced and EQ’d for no drastic jumps in volume.
“I slowly start to tame the vocal in so it sounds like a solid take,” says Gudwin. “I’m constantly taking out frequencies that I don’t like in vocals and I’m compressing. The frequencies I don’t like are different in every song, but they’re around 2.5 and 4.5, and then between 5 and 8, and then 10 and 14 for vocals. Those frequencies are aggressive. They jump out. Certain vocals are sharp and when you turn the music up, those sharp frequencies hurt. I like finding those points and turning them down and so the louder you have a song, the more you are able to hear it and it feels bright, not harsh.
“For the most part, I’d rather not turn down my vocal because I want it to sound fuller. If the instrument is the main thing, then I’ll take it out of something else. It’s all sharing frequency. Too much of the wrong frequency is bad and vocals have a lot of harsh frequencies. Some people’s voices resonate so low, that if they are raised, their range is between 100 and 200 Hertz and it sounds dull. You have to turn some of those low frequencies.”
At this point, Gudwin starts boosting, which he can do because he has already removed the harsh sounds. De-essing comes next, then reverbs, which he times so there are no delays stepping on other words, then he starts getting creative with the vocals, using things like delay throws. He does the same steps for the featured vocal, if there is one, and then builds his master fader.
He uses a combination of outboard gear and Plugin Alliance Brainworx bx_console SSL 9000J and Black Box Analog Design HG-2, particularly for mastering EQ, and FabFilter on everything, especially the Pro-DS for de-essing and Pro-Q 3 for multi-band EQ fixes for the frequencies he removes. Says Gudwin, “When you take frequency away, you’ve got to rebuild a little bit. It’s like making pottery, growing, widening and balancing.”
The mix is listened to on multiple speakers. Gudwin has Yamaha NS-10s, ATCs and Amphions at the studio. He works from the biggest to the smallest speakers, including a Bluetooth Bose, eventually landing on headphones. “If you go to the NS-10s and it doesn’t sound good, you missed a lot of things,” he says. “They’re mid-range heavy. It takes skill to make them sound full and loud without flopping. Every little speaker exposes a little more frequency and dynamic response. You listen on headphones to make sure nothing sticks out because a lot of people are going to listen on headphones. Then print the mix.”
Although it is not his preferred mode, Gudwin has mixed using headphones while on the road, most notably when he took on Bieber’s remix of “Despacito,” originally mixed by Jaycen Joshua. Gudwin was in transit from Bogota, Colombia where he cut Bieber’s vocal in a studio, made some edits in his hotel room as Bieber wanted to change some of the lines, mixed in the airport lounge on his headphones and ran to catch his next flight, turning in the mix upon landing.
As Bieber’s album producer, A&R, mixer and vocal producer and engineer, these types of demands are commonplace for Gudwin, who is an integral part of the very small, five-person team behind the Bieber phenomenon for the last 15 years. Says Allison Kaye, Bieber’s longtime manager, “Josh has been in some of the worst rooms with that kid in some of the worst times in his life. Josh is a solver. He’s always working as hard as he can to push things forward.”