Simi Valley, CA – November 2014… Michael James is a busy guy. By his own estimate, the veteran engineer mixes an average of 250 to 300 songs a year in his Alternator Records facility. His discography includes records by New Radicals, Hole, L7, Robben Ford, and Kalimba.
James’ philosophy in mixing a track is purposefully minimalist. “I’m a firm proponent of doing whatever needs to be done — or doing nothing if a track doesn’t need anything,” he observes.
The racks in his mix room are rich with classic analog gear, but front and center in his setup are two of his favorite tools: the Manley ELOP Limiter and Variable MU Limiter-Compressor. As he explains, his use of these essential tools is a bit untraditional.
“Sometimes I just want a bit more fatness, a bit more girth in the tone, and instead of reaching for an EQ, I’ll use a compressor to change the tone,” he says. “A good compressor is one of my favorite EQs. And I absolutely love the Manley ELOP for that.”
He cites the ELOP’s selectable side chain filter as a big part of its appeal. “It’s really great for letting bass and other low-frequency instruments still breathe in a mix,” he observes. “It has this magical attack and release time and a great sonic character. It’s perfect for getting something to sit just right in the mix.”
James says the ELOP seems to find its way into pretty much everything he mixes. “Even with all the great gear I have in my studio, I find I keep going back to using the ELOP. It’s great on lead vocals, great on guitars, great on bass – in fact, I pretty much love it on everything.”
When he’s not reaching for the ELOP, James points to the Manley Variable MU as his other steady choice. “The Variable MU does for a mix what a great guitar amp does for a guitar sound,” he offers. “There’s a depth and harmonic richness to it – it adds a bit of sparkle and detail, and fills in the spaces in a really nice way. Every mastering engineer I know uses the Variable MU. It sounds great on everything, though mine is pretty much welded to my mix buss. Other things may come and go, but the Variable MU is always in the mix.”
He adds, “I auditioned both the ELOP and the Variable MU in my mix room. I had set aside a budget for one or the other, and I was trying to decide which one to buy. I’m really good at making either/or decisions, but I fell in love with both of them. I decided to buy both. I don’t know how I lived without them for so many years.”