George Nicholas is the name behind some of the biggest releases in Australian electronic music. As one third of the group Seekae, Nicholas was at the forefront of the sound that would come to be known as “post dubstep” with contemporaries including Mount Kimbie and James Blake. In the last few years he has taken on the role of mix engineer, working with some of the biggest names in Australia including Cosmos Midnight, Winston Surfshirt and Cloud Control amongst many others. We sat down with George for a chat about balance, space and “atmospheric soup”.
The last few years have seen a transition in your career from artist to engineer, do you think your experience on the “other side of the desk” informs your work as an engineer?
Yep! I think maybe having some experience on the artist side of things makes me a little more realistic about what’s important in a mix – like groove, feel, emotion, intentional flaws… rather than technical minutiae which is important too – but shouldn’t overshadow the creative aspects.
Whats the best piece of music related advice you’ve heard?
I like that Miles Davis one “It’s not the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play”. While I’m pretty sure he was talking about Jazz I think it’s easy to extend it to mixing and arrangement. Leave space for an element in the time domain by preventing overlap between sounds or carve out space in the frequency domain and you can generate clarity, space and impact.
Is there a particular part of engineering that you love? Like part of the process that never gets old or annoying for you?
My favourite part of mixing is getting an initial balance – setting levels of elements and doing broad EQ – because it’s really all based on intuition and feel. I love/hate the point at about 30 minutes in when you A/B with the rough version and the mix has more/less clarity/depth/punch/muddiness/harshness/flatness.
Do you have one hot Ableton trick that you use often that might not be super obvious?
In a lot of my mixes and productions I’ll set up a return channel and one or two reverbs set with the maximum decay time then send some melodic sounds to it to create a sort of atmospheric soup. I’ll then turn down the volume fader on the return and ride it to introduce depth or softness to parts of the song which need it. It can be especially useful in bridges or builds/prechorus.
What do you usually do when stuck on a mix?
If I’m really stuck on a mix and it’s not working I’ll save a version and completely re-balance the track – muting all elements then bringing them in one by one – de-activating or adding track processing as I go.
What’s your favourite Ableton plugin at the moment and what are you using it for?
I really like the overdrive effect not really for distortion but for tone shaping.
Whats a track with a killer drum sound?
Roland Tings – Hiding in the Bushes! I really like how the live and programmed drums on this one work together – the programmed drums establish a pretty straight backbeat then the live drums fill in the gaps with lots of syncopation and swing. I also really like the tuning of the percussion – and how because a lot of the synth sounds have short release there’s a degree of ambiguity about what’s percussion and what are the melodic elements.
Here’s one of George’s many tips for producers: