Sound engineer/producer, Mark Vreeken, is an industry pro with an impressive list of credentials including NBC’s late-night lineup of Conan O’Brien, Jay Leno, and Carson Daly, music legends Prince, and Nora Jones.. In this interview, Mark provides an in-depth look at the art of mixing, offering tips of the trade, gear advice for specific mixing situations, thoughts on Digital vs. Analog, and much more.
Mark, thank you for taking the time to speak with us. Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get your start in audio engineering?
I played a lot of guitar as a kid and worked in a music store. My parents got me into the co-op program at school when I was 17, and I started doing gigs at a small sound company for high school credit. There was a lot of live music around in those days. I was lucky to be surrounded by good local sound guys who taught me enough so that I could start working. I learned some of the basics there-signal flow, troubleshooting, and how to get a mix together.
Early in your career, you spent years with The Tragically Hip as the FOH Engineer and Production Manager, touring North America, Europe, and Australia. Can you share a few highlights of your time with them?
I was with them from ’89 until ’06. They’re a great bunch of guys who gave me a ton of opportunities to learn. I’ve been spoiled for life working with them. They included me in their sessions, and I got to see how people like Don Smith, Chris Tsangerides, Hugh Padgham, and a lot of other producers worked in the studio. The Roadside Attraction tours were a highlight-and opening shows for the Rolling Stones and Jimmy Page/ Robert Plant. It was an eye-opener. Doing gigs at the old Montreal forum and Maple Leaf Gardens was a big deal [for me] at the time. Growing up, I was such a huge hockey fan.
With 27 years of experience in the audio industry, what do you think has been the biggest change in audio technology, and how has this impacted your role as an engineer or producer?
The switch to digital in both live sound and the studio has changed it all forever. I’m not saying digital always sounds better than before. But everything has taken a big leap forward as far as flexibility and the ability to do more complicated shows, with better live and broadcast sound quality. Making records in Protools or Logic has been a pretty solid upgrade from tape too. No more cutting tape or running out of tracks. There was that period when we would still track to 2″ then transfer over to Protools, just because it sounded better. Now that the converters have improved, nobody bothers with that any more. If you want tape saturation, sound people just fire up the Studer or Ampex plugs and you’re there. Being able to do unlimited takes and revisions has its good and bad sides, but it’s a lot less stressful knowing you don’t have to record and edit destructively any more. I still like real tube compression more for vocals than anything digital, even if you’re adding an extra DA-AD conversion.
How do you perform a line check swiftly?
It depends on how the band’s backline crew duties are divided up. I talk with the monitor engineer and backline crew to come up with a plan that’s good for everyone’s work flow. On tour, you’re able to play back Protools through the console to get a mix in the rig and see what’s happening with the sound, out front and onstage, before line check. I also make sure I can hear that all of the mics are clean, and try to get rid of any buzz and noise before we start plowing through together with everyone. If I need more time with any instruments or vocals, I’ll come back to it after everything is tested.
How do you execute gain staging?
Keeping unity gain throughout the system is what I aim for. But I like to add a gain stage on the back end of the console so I don’t have to hit the mix bus very hard. I’ll also leave myself some headroom on the input side if it’s something unfamiliar that might kick in a lot louder during the show than in rehearsal. Once the show starts though, I’ll just push faders wherever they need to go. Nobody in the audience cares if your faders are parked at zero. They just want it to sound good.
If the drums are mic’d, should you assign the entire set to a bus?
Sometimes with multiple mics on the same drum (like kick and snare), I’ll EQ and compress them together in a bus. It depends on the situation. If it’s a solid pop tune or a heavy band, I like to use some bus compression and limiting on the whole kit to make it punchier and sound like one instrument instead of a bunch of separate elements. There are times when the output compression thing just doesn’t work for the song, but I’ll always have it on standby just in case.
Space permitting, do you also assign all the vocal mics to a bus as well? Would this be useful when dealing with feedback issues?
If I’m doing a TV show with a bunch of lavs or handhelds that need to get really loud, I’ll do some overall bus EQ to get rid of some hot spots that might feed back, and leave myself some EQ filters on the input strips to deal with the tone of the source. For lead vocals, I’ll usually bus the main vocal and backup mic through the same EQ/dynamics/effects signal path in case the main fails. There’s some consistency changing to the spare. One thing that works great for background singers in a bus is inserting a Cedar DNS 1500 to lower the noise floor. It helps dry out the mics a bit in a big room, and get more overall level without bringing up all the fan and air conditioning noise in the room.
Bass: DI or mic’d? What’s better for what situation?
I always try to get both. You never know what will be best until you hear everything in context. Sometimes you’ll have these massive Ampeg rigs that sound huge when you’re standing in front of them, but it doesn’t translate the same way through the mic into the PA or studio monitors, and you need to get the real sub-low bigness from the DI. Getting the two signals in phase with an ibp tool, or with channel delay, is the way to go.
MONITORS: how would you go about setting up levels properly for the monitors?
I’d start by hiring an amazing monitor engineer! Ha. I’m not a monitor guy. It is an art unto itself. Monitor mixing is a totally different approach than FOH and Broadcast. When I do mix monitors from the FOH console, I always split the vocals, bass, and any other key inputs so they have dedicated channels for wedges and in-ears. Leaving yourself some headroom on the input side is always good because you don’t want to clip those digital inputs.
How should I organize all the cables, etc.?
As neat as possible with the load-out in mind! We always try to stay away from the other departments with our cable runs and use yellow-jackets to protect them wherever we can. We also loom up anything that will save time on the tear down and try to keep the spares close by.
When should an engineer use effects (e.g. reverb, etc.)
Assuming the artist likes the sound of their records, I try to follow that as a starting point. Sometimes you have to let the acoustic space dictate how much reverb to use. For broadcast, I’ll add a little more reverb than normal to give it some life before it goes through the broadcast compression chain.
Tools of the trade-Digital vs. Analog?
I like them both. I think the sound of tube, or class A gear, and analog summing can’t be beat. But everything is going digital these days and there’s no looking back.
In the studio, it’s all Protools. And for live work, everything from speaker control and measurement to consoles and communication is all digital now. It’s more flexible than analog, but pretty fragile at the same time. When something digital stops working, it’s not as easy to troubleshoot and fix as analog gear. I still always travel with some analog gear-Manley Voxbox, BSS 901 and an SPL Transient designer.
In a live setting, what particularly (besides feedback) should you keep an ear out for, and adjust accordingly?
Following the flow of the arrangements so the audience is hearing the lyrics clearly and all of the instrumental hooks that support the song.
What does the role of production manager look like at live performance events?
In concert mode, the PM deals with sound, lights, video, rigging, busses, trucks, hiring and firing crew. They deal with safety, local regulations and ordinances, budgets, tech and contract riders. The PM also deals with advancing shows and making sure everyone knows where to be at what time. Most important, making sure the artist is presented and treated in the best way possible within the budget. It’s a big job that I’m glad I don’t do much any more.
How many people make up a production team and what are their roles?
That varies depending on budget and what kind of show. Sometimes, for artist promo stuff, it’s as small as a couple of people flying all over the place doing everything. In tour-mode or on a TV shoot, the sky is the limit. Every last detail has a separate person all over it.
You’ve lived through the change from analog to digital mixing boards (and audio in general). How has that changed your job and what the audience hears, if at all?
Digital control for loudspeaker management and measurement/prediction software has made the sound way more consistent from venue to venue. Using digital consoles, you’re able to use snapshots and virtual sound check to fine-tune the mix before the band is on stage. Fiber optic networks are used for distributing sound over long distances, and bring way more flexibility with design layouts in big venues.
What separates a good sound engineer from a bad one? What are some bad habits some sound engineers have that bands should watch out for?
One bad habit I’ve seen is assuming you know the way the band should sound better than the artist or the people that have been working with them for a long time. Their input can save a lot of time in the long run. Another important thing is to walk around the venue when the band is on stage and listen to what the room sounds like compared with the mix position, because once the show starts, that gets more difficult.
Your list of credits in the broadcast studio is the Who’s Who of the music industry, including Alicia Keys, Feist, Rihanna, Snoop Dog, and over 50 others. How did the doors open for you?
I’ve just been lucky to have the live work lead into the recording studio, and from there, into mixing for broadcast. Working for the Tragically Hip opened a lot of doors early on, and then being lucky enough to get in on the late night TV work where I was working with a new artist every night.
How have HHB products enhanced your sound output?
The UAD plugins are incredible for Protools. The UA satellite gives you a ton of DSP in a small portable box. Right now I really like the Neve plugs, the Sony Oxford inflator, DBX 160, and the precision de-esser. The Blue encore 300 condensers are my favorite vocal mics. They sound great and have excellent rejection. I use The Manley Voxbox on almost every gig I do, live or in the studio. And the Coles 4038s are some of the best studio mics ever invented.
What gear can you just not live without?
If I had to pick one thing to bring to a gig it would be Spectrafoo measurement software on my laptop.
How does live mixing differ from sound in the studio or for television?
For FOH, I’m mostly mixing in mono because the majority of the audience, no matter where seated, is listening to one speaker cluster, and the mix needs to translate that way. For broadcast, I always mix very wide. Lots of fun in both places.
Provide an experience in which you successfully separated sounds and combined sounds later, during post-production.
For most of the shows I work on, we print every input to a separate track in Protools so we can fix up all those bumps and noises when mics get hit. Also, being able to mute open mics when they’re not in use cleans up the final mix a lot. Same goes for audience mics.
What is the difference between a Systems Engineer and a FOH technician? A Systems Engineer determines the final speaker cabinet setup, time aligns and tunes it, then walks around listening when the show is on to make sure the level and tone is the same everywhere.
An FOH tech sets up and tears down all the FOH gear with the stagehands, interfaces different consoles together, loads and configures console and Protools files, patches everything and distributes signal where it needs to go, and works with the engineers to provide whatever they need.
Can you provide us with an effective method you have used to ensure that equipment is properly maintained?
We check everything in advance that will be used, and have spares whenever we can. Most gear is built to fail at some point, so packaging everything in good shock-mounted cases helps a lot. Being there for load-out and the truck pack is not a bad idea.
You have worked on Late Night with Conan O’Brien and The Tonight Show with Jay Leno as the broadcast music mixer, and on recording sessions with an all-star resume including Dave Navarro, Enrique Iglesias and Sheryl Crow, as well as several movie soundtracks and TV documentaries. How do you balance your career and your personal life?
By trying to put family first. Skype home every day. My career/personal life situation is only possible because of my wife.
Televised events and live performances with Lady Gaga, Mary J. Blige, Kanye West, Lenny Kravitz, Michael Buble, and many more have afforded you the opportunity to work with the best.
I’m just lucky to get these gigs. Hopefully they’ll keep coming around.
Any tips for aspiring bands and/or mixers?
Try as hard as you can every time you’re on a gig and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Watch YouTube clips and check out online articles about how other people are doing their thing and making gear cooperate.
What should they look out for?
Excellent people that are doing the same job-and try to figure out how they do what they do so well.
What levels of education do you require in this field?
Lucky for me, nothing is required. There are some good schools out there, but learning on the job is the best education.
What areas of sound engineering would you like to see improved upon?
It would be great to have some real standards in place for surround sound in broadcast so your 5.1 mixes unfold to stereo reliably everywhere, and the end customer hears what it was meant to sound like. Same goes for broadcast compression. I’d also like to see more speaker manufacturers making cardioid subs that are easy to fly. This is a great time to be doing this job because nowadays almost anything that can be imagined can be made to happen by some genius somewhere.
What is the secret to your success?
No secrets. Hard work and trying to get along with the people you’re working with.
Do you enjoy life on the road?
I’m trying to travel less and spend more time at home with my family these days. Life on the road is only enjoyable when things are smooth off the road. Working with great people makes all the difference. The challenge of getting a lot done in a short time is a big part of what I like on the road.
What’s your favorite/least favorite part of the job?
Favourite and least favourite is the travel. Sometimes it’s a lot of sitting around and waiting just to sit around and wait some more. On the other hand, you get to hit some great spots that you would normally never go to, which is amazing.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
When your are not traveling the world or sitting in a recording studio, what are you doing?
Spending quality time with my family.