Dave Darlington: Mixing in Manhattan

Mixing in Manhattan

Issue 11 | Headliner

Harlem-born Grammy-winner, Dave Darlington, is somewhat of an all-rounder when it comes to music. He still prides myself on being a musician first, but it was his love of music that got him into engineering, mixing, and then mastering. “I never wanted to be pigeon holed,” he tells us; and with the kind of eclectic projects he’s got going on right now, we don’t think there’s much danger of that. Headliner finds out more about the man behind the music.

When Darlington ‘got started’ in the studio game, it was the 1980s, andLatin freestyle music was rife. He was working with the Latin Rascals and Louis Vega, that whole Latin scene, but didn’t want to be known as ‘that latin freestyle engineer’, so he began making different musical waves.

“I didn’t really see myself as a mastering engineer, but the album that really turned the corner on that for me was Ambrose Akinmusire, the jazz trumpet player,” Darlington recalls. “We mixed the record together, and I recommended a mastering guy. I really liked the way it turned out, and the mastering guy came back to me and said he also really liked the way I had it sounding, so suggested I assemble the CD myself. I said, ‘I guess I could’, and that ended up being a pretty big record, and changed my mind about whether or not I could master.”

In today’s digital realm, many people don’t have the extra budget to go to a separate mastering engineer, so after mixing a record, Darlington will often offer to do the mastering himself.

“I mean, I’ll always say to my clients that it’s great if you can afford to have a second set of ears, because it is, but at the end of the day, we are putting out records that people like, so mastering it here is a viable option,” he says.

When it comes to mixing, Darlington works very much in the box, though also has a sizeable box of analogue toys, which are key in his process.

“I have a bunch of Neve 1073s, and a bunch of APIs, then an LA2A and 1136, but that's for recording,” he explains. “Now, if I'm going to cut a drum kit, or a vocal, or a horn section, once I get it in the box, I will try not to over compress or EQ going in. If I wan to put in an EQ, I'll put the Waves Scheps EQ in there - that's as good a Neve as you're going to get - and, if you record with the EQ, you're stuck with it: this way, you can change it if you need to. I also mix with the mastering chain on fairly early, when I am really trying to scope the level of stuff, so I can hear how it's going to react.”

Darlington's effects suite is largely Waves based, of which he has a few particular favourites.

“I rely pretty much on Waves reverbs and delays when mixing; I am a big fan of True Verb and R Verb, and they just came out with a new one called H Verb, which is really, really powerful, so between those three, that's my ambient settings,” Darlington reveals. “Then, within the tracks themselves, I love to use the Renaissance EQ, the Renaissance compressor, and the RVox compressor. I pretty much keep them in my bag of tricks, as it's so easy to use, and they sound so good. There are a million EQs out there that you can choose from, and they all have their pluses and minuses, but Waves seem to have figured out a way to just simplify everything for the users, without sacrificing any sound quality. I think it’s probably down partly to their longevity; as a company, Waves has been in the game since the beginning of digital, and they really have a feel for how things should sound. It’s unbelievable, actually. I don’t know what goes on under the hood in terms of programming, but it’s kind of like driving a sports car, you’re not really of how the fuel injections are working, but when you mash the pedal, it goes! That’s what I love about Waves.”

Darlington has been working on some really interesting projects of late, one of which was centred around four lads from Liverpool. “I worked on this really cool Beatles covers project, where you can play along to all the tracks. So, for example, you can turn off McCartney and play the bass along with She Loves You,” he explains. “Of course, these songs don’t exist in multitrack, so we created that track by track, and I was mixing against the real single, and I couldn’t quite get it. That’s when Waves came out with the REDD [modern vintage console] plugin. The minute I put that in, suddenly, there was the sound, right there! Just amazing.”

Other projects include Brazilian jazz trio fronted by Manhattan Transfer’s lead singer, Janice Siegel; and a capella group, Straight No chaser, who are signed to Atlantic Records.

“They’re 10 guys straight out of college that have been very successful in a cappella, and they’re working on a new album; they’re recording now in Nashville, and we’re mixing as they go,” Darlington says. “We just finished mixing a superb cover of Ike and Tina Turner’s version of Proud Mary, in a medley with [Otis Redding’s] Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay, and it’s just killer. That is such a great arrangement, and when you hear it in a capella, and they’re doing their own percussion and everything like that, it’s totally phenomenal, to be honest.”

“It’s funny. Everyone thought the Internet would be the demise of music, but for engineers, it opens up a marketplace all around the world. People in other countries find me through my website, and I can work remotely over the Internet. It’s a ripple effect, in terms of recommendations, also; we quote a price to mix a record, including a revision, which means people feel safer when shipping all their hard work over to someone they don’t know. It’s an amazing way of working, actually.”

Darlington uses four sets of studio monitors: a big club system complete with subwoofer; a pair of Genelec 1031As; an old school pair of Yamaha NS10s; and a little Sony radio:

“It’s the Genelecs and the Yamahas that I really rely on. The Yamahas are very difficult to make things sound warm and attractive on, whereas the Genelecs basically sound great on almost everything you put in, so you don’t need to work as hard,” Darlington insists. “With the NS10s, you hear all the mids and transients at exactly the same time, so they always sound a little harsh, whereas with the 1031s, you can attenuate the highs via some knobs on the back if you need to, and they’re bi-amped and powered, so they offer something different.

“I tend to keep my room pretty flat though, and I have a guy who’s treated it really well. I also have a little Sony radio that I run off an old cassette deck as the amp, and it’s very low quality, but man it tells you a lot about how a pop record translates off of the big speakers! It’s a great reference point.”

I ask Darlington to leave us with some dos and don’ts in terms of working in the music industry. He laughs, and replies:

“You have to be a ‘can do’ guy, so basically, say yes, and worry about the rest later! I remember the owner of a new studio once said to me, ‘if you can learn this software, you can have the job’. It was Performer 1.4 software at the time, so I stayed the whole weekend in that studio to learn it, and I got the job! I find that true of most of the high end engineers I know; they were given the opportunity, and just jumped.

“Secondly, diversify: don’t be a hip-hop only engineer. Learn about jazz, classical, pop, singer-songwriter, how to make a crunchy guitar sound. Get your palette as wide as can be. Learn how to record a violin. That’s how I learned to love DPA microphones: I always use DPA 4099s and 4011s, the little omnis, and the DPA guys have really got the acoustic thing down, and they’re fantastic sounding. And on that kind of stuff, you just have to get the mics in the right place, and try never to EQ, as it’s purely about placement.

“Then thirdly, stick to your guns. There will be some lean times and some great times; when times are lean, you think no-one will care, but sooner or later, someone will call, or you’ll bump into someone on the street, and something will happen. Believe it will happen, and it will.”