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‘It’s not the gear, it’s the ears’: Grammy Award-winning engineer Dom Morley on his new service The Mix Consultancy

Dom Morley, a Metropolis-trained recording engineer who has worked with the likes of Amy Winehouse, Adele and more, has launched The Mix Consultancy, a platform that provides advice on mixes

Dom Morley, a Grammy Award-winning recording engineer, has launched The Mix Consultancy, a service that evolved from helping out some mates into a fully fledged platform that provides advice on mixes. This could include anything from tips on engineering and production to EQ, compression and mix specifics. It is primarily aimed towards those who aren’t in education or have graduated and are finding themselves a little lost in the audio world without one-to-one tutoring – especially with the reduced number of professional studios to work in these days – and who need an extra pair of (experienced) ears.

Here, Morley discusses the inspiration behind The Mix Consultancy, how his experience at Metropolis and working with legendary engineers informed his mixing approach, and the future of the new service…

Filling the gap

Morley explains that the need for this kind of service arose from a gap in the learning experience of some audio engineers, resulting from the increasing pressure from the industry to ‘do it yourself’. As it turns out, while the amount of professional studios has diminished – to roughly a third of what there were, Morley says – audio education has greatly improved from its position in the ‘90s, when there were only a few institutions in the UK offering music production courses. This is certainly a benefit, but education comes with a price and some people aren’t able or willing to go down that route. That’s where The Mix Consultancy comes in.

“I’m the MA tutor for Leeds College of Music, Music Production,” he tells PSNEurope. “I try to teach my students as much as possible about production, mixing and the industry so that they are as well prepared as possible when they leave. Once people have left education, they are mostly making music on their own and producing from small studio set-ups. They haven’t got the structure around them anymore, and there’s no segue from access to a tutor whenever you like, they have to just work it out from there. That’s quite a cliff to drop off.

“The other side of it is, I started in studios in the late ’90s and there were lots of them then. You pretty much had to be in the studio to make a professional record. That’s changed now, and it’s really democratising that you can make a professional record in your bedroom, but I think it’s detrimental that people aren’t getting the mentorship to make records that I was lucky enough to get. I was at Metropolis for seven years as an in-house engineer, and I got to assist and engineer for some of the biggest engineers and producers in the world, people like Tony Visconti, Phil Spector, etc. You learn so much from working with people that are 20 or 30 years more experienced than you are, which is lost on those that are doing it themselves. The option to leave a course you’re doing, get a job and continue to learn off people while you get paid is much reduced. You can watch Youtube videos, join Puremix, and read, but ultimately, none of them are going to listen to your mix.

He continues: “When I was learning how to mix, I would play an engineer a mix and say ‘Can you tell me three things you’d fix’, and from there I would learn so much about what I wasn’t hearing that was wrong. What I want to do with The Mix Consultancy is offer that to anyone. So, if you’re in your own little studio trying to make a record that sounds good, and you know it doesn’t sound as good as what you’re hearing on the radio, then send it to me and I’ll tell you what I would change and provide you with a few solutions. I’m hoping that’s a gap I can fill for people.

As for the one-on-one approach, “it really nails down what people are missing in their mixes. If you don’t know what it is or what to look for then you can’t fix it.”

In terms of the modern, DIY, home studio setup, Morley has adjusted just fine. “I work almost entirely out of my own studio,” he recalls. “I’ve built my own place, I’ve got my own gear, I run ProTools and a whole stack of outboard. I use other studios when I have to record drums but that’s the only thing I do elsewhere.

I remember thinking in the late ’90s that the studio situation was a case of who can hold their breath the longest as there was a need for some, but nowhere near as many as there were. It’s a shame, because a lot of really great facilities closed down, but you just have to move with the times. I never wanted to own a studio personally, but that’s how it is. If you’re a producer or a mixer you kind of need to have your own place.”

Despite the multiple benefits of working out of a personalised home studio, much of what Morley learnt came from his time at the legendary Metropolis Studios. It made up the bulk of his audio education. Morley states: “I got to know a lot of different people and equipment [at Metropolis]. It meant I wasn’t afraid of any equipment, as you had to get used to so much. For example, when I started there were three different SSL desks, an E, G and J, a Neve and a Focusrite. I ended up knowing how desks worked rather than only knowing how an SSL worked. I was open to anything that would come by and finding the best way to use it. I also got to work on a real global scale, which distills a work ethic and a sense that good is the enemy of excellence, and everything has to be excellent.”

It’s not the gear, it’s the ears

To be excellent, it seems, you need very little in the name of tools. Morley advocates the bare minimum of equipment for up and coming audio engineers, as it’s all about the skill. He explains: “A good DAW, whichever one you work the best with, and a handful of plugins will get you an extremely long way. It was always assumed that the difference between people making music at home and studios was the gear. Professionals kept saying, ‘It’s not the gear, it’s the ears’ – your experience and ability to hear where the problems are and fix them. Now we’ve got to the stage where people at home can have the same gear as professionals, and there’s still a difference in quality. The gear you require is minimal, you’ve just got to get really good at critical listening, it’s the most important skill you can have.”

In terms of what makes a good mix, Morley notes: “You’re supposed to be delivering the emotion of the song. Whatever the song’s about, you need to be supporting that in the mix as much as the production, musicians, and vocal performances have. Hopefully I can get a sense of what the song is about by the way it’s been mixed, whether it’s aggressive or gentle, brittle or warm.”

Describing his own mixing style, Morley says it is vital to feel completely immersed in a project: “I did a lot of work at Metropolis as an assistant and engineer to Chris Potter who worked with the likes of Richard Ashcroft, The Rolling Stones, etc. His style I very much liked and I noticed I’m probably emulating or doing my own version of when I mix.

“I like to feel enveloped in a mix, to feel it surrounding me. I like to have a lot of detail going on, little things that you only hear the third or fourth time you’ve heard it. I try and do something that you can sit in, like a big sofa.”

Back to Black

Morley has been widely recognised for his work as a recording engineer, particularly with Amy Winehouse winning the Single of the Year Grammy for ‘Rehab’ off of her album Back to Black. Understandably, he is particularly proud of his work on that album. “The thing I’m really pleased with is that I think it really found it’s audience,” he recalls, “which is always the most frustrating thing when you work on records – when you know it’s a good album, but it didn’t manage to get out and happen like you know it should have. Whereas Back to Black deserved an audience and it really got one. It connected with a lot of people.”

Considering his approach to making the album, Morley can see where the choices made contributed to its success. “We were aiming for something that sounded like that classic, Spector-y, girl band, you know all those records that Spector made in the ’60s. It was rhythm mics, valve mics and the natural ambience of the room to try and capture the sound the way they had in order for it to sound authentic.”

To sum up, Morley gives his opinion on audio education, and how The Mix Consultancy can provide the expert advice needed without ‘formal education’, per se. He concludes: “It doesn’t have to be formal, but you need some kind of education. It’s not like you have to go to college or university, but you have to find some way of dedicating an awful lot of time to getting better and fluent and firing off other people who already know how to do it. You can do that as part of a degree, a job in a studio, or in your spare time while enlisting the help of mix consultants.”