Studio Spotlight: James F Reynolds

Tom Frampton
18th January 2020 — 8 minute read

Mix engineer, producer and song writer James F Reynolds talks projects and shares his personal studio, production and professional insights in this Studio Spotlight episode.

Tell Us About A Project You worked On That You’re Particularly Proud Of

A couple of things spring to mind...

My first ever big break in mixing is probably a significant moment for me in my mixing career. When I decided that I wanted to move away from making the records and into mixing the records (although I still write and mix alongside each other, it's predominantly mixing now), one of the first jobs that my management managed to get in for me was with Tiny Tempah’s album: Discovery. I was pitted against two or three other big engineers in the States to mix Written In The Stars.

That's obviously a proud moment for me because I did it. I was sort of fairly fresh off the blocks. I had come out of making a lot of house music, so I think the bottom end wasn't an issue for me because I've been doing that for years - making big house records - so kind of moving into the urban scene was quite a natural progression.

So, I mixed Written In The Stars, they all went away and said, “We like it, yeah but, you know maybe, we'll…”

There's always this thing that if someone's got a bigger name, it always helps get that mix over the line. Initially, I was told that it was going with this big US mixer - whose name will remain unmentioned - and then they did a video shoot. In the video shoot, they put all three mixes on as a blind test, and... they chose mine!

So that led to me doing the rest of the album and that became quite a big album - which I built my career from that stage onwards as a mixer - so yeah, that's a big, big moment for me!

It was written in the stars for James: they put all three mixes on as a blind test and chose his mix!

I think the other thing I'm super proud of is that I've been with BTS, the Kpop band, from the beginning.

I always mix their singles and I've seen them come from literally nothing to the biggest band in the world now.

It's a big challenge as a mixer, you know when you're looking at two hundred and fifty to three hundred parts. At first, you think your head's going to explode - it takes a lot of good prep work.

James has been with BTS from the beginning

I have to credit my assistant James Cunningham who's been brilliant getting the mix ready for me, but even so, I'm still stepping into two hundred and fifty stems that have been brought down from three hundred. It's still a big headspace to fill and it's certainly not a four hour or even a day's mix - it's two days of solid concentration and grafting, but you know, I think that's good - it's good to be challenged and to have your boundaries pushed.

It's always quite nice when you step back out of that into a thirty or forty stem mix - and you're like, well, I think I can just about cope with this! So yeah, it's good!

What Set Your Mix Apart From The Other Tinie Tempah Mixes And Got You The Gig?

Do you know what, the honest answer is I'm not sure because I never heard the other mixes, so I don't know what it is that I did!

I know that they liked how I did all the beats in the bottom end and, as I said, that again is me coming from a dance background: I knew how to make drums and bass big and that's essentially what they want in urban - especially in those mixes that I did for Tinie - they wanted that kind of big warm bottom end, so I think that probably helped.

I've found (and I think it's a British and American thing) that British mixers tend to have more super lows and warmth, whereas the Americans have got more sort of low mids and scooped it, sort of cut it, rolled it off a bit, so they can get it louder - but it won't be as warm.

There used to be quite a big difference between British and American mixes. I think that's changed a bit now and there's a bit more of an even spread of people that do both. I certainly do both now depending on what is required of a mix - if it's to really stand out on the radio, like this track I've just done for another artist called Marcus McCoan.

We did a track called "Hair Down" and I would say that's quite a US-style mix because I just wanted it to punch on the radio and to do that you need to sacrifice a bit at the low end, but you really get the low mids and upwards knocking through.

On Marcus McCoan's "Hair Down": I just wanted it to punch on the radio

Tell Us About Your Studio Set-Up

Studio setup is quite basic really: a few keyboards, as I still write and produce for artists.

I have a mixing desk but it's really the control unit that will allow me to send out to various outboard compressors.

I've got the Phoenix mastering Plus which is an amazing compressor. When I'm doing more band based stuff, I can sometimes mix through that.

My DAW is Studio One, which I've been on for the last two or three years - I absolutely love its very quick workflow.

View from the hot seat — James's studio

The main speakers that I mix on are the Kii’s. I've had them for about a year and they literally blew my socks off when I heard them - incredible! They're designed by a very, very clever man. Essentially, they're a bit like Barefoots - they're a sealed cabinet with subs built into them - but, through his DSP technology, he's managed to get a lot of the bass impetus coming forward from the speaker - rather than getting reflections off the back wall - so they're brilliant for any room. I've had my room acoustically treated, but even so, they're great and they have phase correction technology within them, which means I have a very accurate and pretty balanced listening experience - great, great speakers!

Then you've got the classic Auratone - which is based on the original Auratone - it's an amazing little speaker. When you want to give your ears a break, you want to check all the balances... brilliant! Brilliant speaker! I think a lot of the Thriller album was mixed on the Auratone speaker, so that speaks volumes - I don't think you need to say much more than that.

Whats Your Strongest Skill? Why Do People Chose To Work With You?

I think my strongest skill is experience.

When you mix records, it takes years and years and years of, just practice and practice. And actually, the reason I say experience is because when I started out, I'd listen to a demo that I got in and I'd go... sounds rubbish. I'd do what I thought was right and I used to put a lot more of my own stamp on something - which is right in certain situations - but, generally, when you've got a demo, people have thought about it for a long time and there's a reason it sounds like that... because they want it to.

So, the biggest, biggest thing, I think to take away - and what an upcoming mix engineer should understand - is speaking to everyone that has a say in the record and understanding where everyone's head is at before you start mixing it. I think that will give you a lot of strength going into the mix and know exactly where it is.

You might hear something that you think is wrong but they'll go "we love it, we just want it tidying up". In which case, you've got to go very lightly and clear up unnecessary bottom-end and all the usual things that you do when you're mixing a record: making a space for all the instruments, checking that all the panning is right (again that it comes into the making space thing) and cleaning up.

So much of a good mix is led by the prep and how well the prep is done. Over the years, when I work with my assistants, I build them with a basic prep and they start and do more and more. If they can get that into their head it just leads into such a good place to mix the record.

And by prep, I'm don't just mean colouring it all and putting it in the right place. I mean, making sure that if it's live drums that there are no phase issues, cutting out unnecessary noise, cutting out breaths from backing vocals (that are going to be compressed and make the track ugly). You know, all of those little things... all together... add to a lot. And actually, you can often do a prep and listen to it against the demo and it's already in a better place and you've hardly done anything in terms of EQing - so yes, super important.

How Has Bounce Boss Integrated Into Your Workflow?

Bounce Boss has been amazing!

The thing I'm most annoyed about is that I didn't do it myself because it's such a brilliant idea! For years, I've needed something like this, just to streamline my workflow.

I used to use SoundCloud to sort of try and get to what Bounce Boss did but it got nowhere near. The sound quality was no good. It just didn't work proficiently.

When Bounce Boss came along, I was like "this is absolutely brilliant, it's exactly what I need." Especially, from an organizational point-of-view.

When Bounce Boss came along, I was like "this is absolutely brilliant,
it's exactly what I need."

If I'm working on an EP or an album, you've got to take into consideration that across that there's going to be loads of different producers, A&Rs, management, and the artist!

Now, sometimes it's just one person that has views, but sometimes, it's all of them that have views and they all want to have their view! In those scenarios, with one track or multiple tracks, if everyone's sending you an email from a different email address, your inbox fills up, and before you know it you don't know whether you're coming or going!

What Bounce Boss does brilliantly is it allows me to contain everything in one place: contain all the feedback from all the different avenues that feedback may come from on each mix and have all the mixes on that per album in the same place. It speeds up massively the whole process.

For example, when I work with the Koreans (they're very precise in their feedback, which is brilliant and I love it) they write timings down for all of their notes, but even then, I still have to get in there... if the track's not lined up in the same place as the timing of their notes in the session, you've then got to locate the timing difference - all those things or have QuickTime open and do it on that. So again, it streamlines it because you can make the notes on the point you're talking about. I can listen to it and go to that place in the track.

So yeah... brilliant! So far it's been amazing and everyone that I've worked with on it has been over the moon to use it.

Can You Share A Music Production Tip?

The most important thing is: not being fooled by volume and loudness when you use plugins.

You see a lot of beginners, when they start, they have tons of plugins on a signal path and you go "why have you got all of those, just to get it to that loudness?" Often you could take half of them off, turn it up a bit and it sounds better than it did from sticking all these plugins on!

Fundamentally, start with the right volume levels for everything before you start adding plugins. If you add a plug-in because the volume's too low, you're doing unnecessary processing on something that may not need it - so that's a very important part of mixing.

The second thing, I think, over the last ten years that has become incredibly useful is: being able to use multi-band side-chaining. Incredibly good for notching out space in your mixes. I use the FabFilter multiband compressor a lot of the time - not solely, but a lot of the time - I use it to notch out.

For example, if I have a piano and I want the lead vocal frequencies, say between 1kHz and 4kHz, but I want the mids to come out of the way of those, so they're not cluttering: I'll put the FabFilter multi-band across the piano; I will send the vocal to the FabFilter multi-band; I'll set the multi-band range to mono and to that frequency; and then I'll adjust it until I know that it's out of the way.

That's a relatively new thing that's come into plugins and it's incredibly good at making your mixes really shine and have space clarity.

What Advice Would You Give Someone Looking To Hire A Professional Like You?

Do some research, depending on the style of music that you do.

Every kind of mix engineer has fortes or certain mix engineers do. I quite like to mix different styles of music across the board but some people are very much more band orientated; some people are very much more urban orientated. So, find the right mixer for you and see if they've got the time to do it - just do some research.

You're not always sure, with a lot of the really big mix engineers, how much they're actually going to be across it - especially if you're a new artist - it might be that they have the final ears on the track.

Sometimes you might be better not going for the top of the chain mix engineer. If you're at the bottom, get someone who will really spend the time and go into it and give it a lot of love - someone who wants to prove themselves and make a point.

That said, obviously, you can't argue with the track record of someone like Serban Ghenea, who's had like a million number ones or something - you can't argue with that, but just do your research.

What's your promise to clients? When they work with you, what can they expect?

Attention to detail, really.

I have never ever been one of these people that, even as I've got busier, have tried to squeeze in more mixes and knock out two or three in a day.

My absolute fundamental principle is quality.

No matter who I'm mixing for - it will be a day - unless of course, it's like an acoustic track with a piano and a vocal - and I won't send it at the end of the day. I will sit on it; I'll come back the following day; I'll listen to it; I'll double-check it myself.

I do think that's something that I do that maybe not everyone does because they like to squeeze in as many mixes as possible. I just think you can't keep the same level of quality up.

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