Mixing Styles — LA vs. New York VS. London
Although there's less of a distinction these days than there used to be, where you live has a great influence on the sound of your mix. Up until the late 80's or so, it was easy to tell where a record was made, just by its sound. There's been a homogeniza-tion of styles in recent years, mostly because engineers now mix in a variety of locations and many have relocated to new areas, transplanting their mixing styles along the way.
There are three major recording styles and most recordings fall into one of them; New York, LA and London.
The New York Style
The New York style is perhaps the easiest to identify because it features a lot of compression, which makes the mix very punchy and aggressive (just like New Yorkers). In many cases, the compressed instruments (mostly the rhythm section) are even recompressed several times along the way. It seems that every New York engineer that I interviewed (even the transplanted ones) had virtually the same trick. Send the drums (sometimes with the bass) into a couple of busses, send that through some compressors, squeeze to taste, then add back a judicious amount of this compressed rhythm section to the mix through a couple of faders. This can be enhanced even further by boosting the high and low frequencies (lots of boost in most cases) to the compressed signal as well (more on this New York Compression Trick later in the book in the chapter on Dynamics). For an example of this, listen to any of the mixes that Ed Stasium (a proud practitioner of this method) has done, such as the Mick Jagger solo album She's the Boss, or anything by The Smithereens or Living Color.
The LA Style
The LA sound is a somewhat more natural sound; it is compressed, but to a less obvious degree than the New York style. There's also a lot less effects layering than the London style. The LA style has always tried to capture a musical event and augment it a little, rather than recreate it. Some good examples would be any of the Doobie Brothers or Van Halen hits of the 70's and 80's.
The London Style
The London sound is a highly layered musical event that borrows some from the New York style in that it's somewhat compressed, but deals with multiple effect layers. This style makes extensive use of what is known as perspective, which puts each instrument into its own distinct sonic environment. Although musical arrangement is important to any good mix, it's even more of a distinctive characteristic of a London mix. What this means is that many parts appear at different times during a mix; some for effect, some to change the dynamics of the song. Each new part will be in its own environment and as a result will have a different perspective. A perfect example of this would be Yes' Owner of a Lonely Heart or just about anything done by Trevor Horn, such as Seal or Grace Jones.
As we approach the millennium, there's much less of a difference between styles than there was during the 80's, but variations still do exist. Although the style differences blur on most music, Techno and Dance still have considerable variation divided around the traditional geographic boundaries of London, New York and LA
Increased globalization has had its effect on regional styles, too. Where once upon a time Philadelphia, Memphis, Ohio, Miami and San Francisco all had sub-styles of the Big Three, all these areas now line up clearly in one of the Big Three camps.
Nashville today is a special case among the regional styles, though. This is a style that's evolved (some might say devolved) from an offshoot of the New York style during the 60's and 70's to become much more like the LA sound of the 70's. Says engineer/producer Ed Seay, "Back when I used to listen to my dad's old Ray Price and Jim Reeves Country records, they weren't very far from what Pop was in the early 60's. Very mellow, big vocals, very subdued band, very little drums, strings, horns, lush. Mix-wise, there wasn't really too much difference in an Andy Williams record and one of the old Jim Reeves records.
"What happened was that Country got too soft sounding. You'd cut your track and then do some sweetening with some horns and strings. At one time, strings were on all the Country records and then it kind of transformed into where it's at today, with
almost no strings on Country records, except for big ballads. For the most part, horns are completely dead. They're almost taboo. Basically, it's rhythm track-driven and not really very far off from where Pop was in the mid-to-later 70's. The Ronstadt "It's So Easy To Fall In Love" and 'You're No Good',' where you hear guitar, bass, drums, keyboards, a slide or steel and then a vocal background; that's pretty much the format now, although fiddle is used also. Ironically enough, a lot of those guys that were making those records have moved here because at this point, this is one of the last bastions of live recording."
The globetrotting lifestyle of the 90's engineer has caused a homogenization of regional styles. At one time, most studios had house engineers; today the market is predominately made up of freelancers that freely travel from studio to studio, project to project, bouncing between different cities (and therefore styles) as easily as flipping the channel on a TV. At one time, an engineer might change studios but remain located in a specific area all his working life; now it's not uncommon for an engineer to relocate to several major media centers during the course of his career. All this means a cross-pollination of styles, which blurs the distinction between the Big Three as we move into the next millenium.