Nail the Mix – Instructing the Next Generation Part I

Wednesday, 19th April 2017

Instead of spending too much time waxing poetic about producers Eyal Levi, Joel Wanasek, and Joey Sturgis’ most recent endeavor of crafting an interactive, online educational experience (not to mention their sister podcast Unstoppable Recording Machine), we’ll cut straight to the chase. We had the pleasure of chatting with both Levi and Wanasek one Friday afternoon to spill the beans about the basic functions and goals of the program, as well as their unique perspective on the industry (and changes within it). What follows is a highly informative and honest look at it all that should give perspective mixers, bands, and just casual fans a pretty good idea of how to better themselves and their craft – even if it’s not necessarily music.

Dead Rhetoric: Where did the initial idea for Nail the Mix come from?

Eyal Levi: I had started doing courses for CreativeLive. There’s experts in their field that go on and teach you everything from basketweaving to photography. I was one of the first, if not the first, to do an audio course. I didn’t expect it to go well – I was kind of negative about it because I hated teaching. But it went really, really well – surprisingly so. I went back and did 8 more of them. Every time I did them, they got bigger and I found myself really enjoying them.

Over time, I just realized that the format was restrictive because you are on the clock. You don’t get to interact with the audience enough, and you aren’t giving them something that they can work with in real time. I felt like the next real, good evolution would be to give people the actual audio from the session and show them how to mix as you go…but I didn’t feel ready. So when I got with Joey [Sturgis] and Joel [Wanasek], we started a podcast to figure out our market and to grow it and learn what we were doing, running something. Eventually, after about 9 months of getting that together, we decided to unleash Nail the Mix. But we kind of knew from the beginning that we were going to do something like that.

Joel Wanasek: Basically, we kind of sat down and were thinking, “there has to be a better way to educate people who are coming up into this business.” The traditional studio roles of being a mentor, for example, or getting an internship and working in a big studio and having good mentors and being in that environment – having big artists that come in – that’s kind of gone. A lot of people are just doing this in the basement of their house. The only thing they have to rely on is the Internet. The problem with the Internet is that anyone can make any claim on any forum, and it’s hard to go in and just check, “well, this person has worked on 30 great records and has done all these amazing mixes, and worked for 20 different labels – so that person is legitimate.” That person’s comment is right next to some kid who has only been making records for 4 days. If you didn’t know, you could sit there and equally weight the advice.

So we wanted to make a system or a way to bring it direct to the consumer – meaning that there has to be a better way, a more affordable way. Going to recording school is so expensive and I would say, outdated, in terms of what the market wants and what are marketable skills. For us, it was about solving that problem. How could we bring the big studio and the really successful [producers] into people’s bedrooms in a way that they can interact and get the most value out of it for a very fair and reasonable price.

Levi: The thing that they are missing, outside of being able to go to recording school, is that there are so few big studios anymore, and very few avenues for people to just find out what “pro” means. They will never learn if no one shows them. There are very few places for people to get that. We wanted to find a way to provide them [with that] – something that showed them where the bar is at, so they can understand it.

Wanasek: I look at it as someone eventually had to solve this problem. I can only speak for myself, but I definitely feel very fortunate and blessed, because the guys I work with – Eyal and Joey – out of all the guys that we know in the business that have made good careers at producing, they are the most ambitious, hardest working dudes you are going to find. When we get together, we set really ridiculous goals and we go out and we actually do them. I feel that’s been a part of the success…anyone could have done what we did. But the difference is that we are the ones that actually went out and did it, and continue to do it, with an adamant and furious passion and desire to just change things for the better and help educate and raise the standard for the next generation of upcoming audio professionals.

Dead Rhetoric: With your backgrounds, you obviously have a lot of opportunities in the marketplace – what made you feel it was worthwhile to spend time educating instead of just focusing on producing/mixing/etc?

Levi: I’m going to be selfish and just say that I get bored easily. I have already worked with a great deal of artists. When this became a thing, I was ready to move on already. This is my third career, basically. I was in a band [Dååth], for a while that was full-time. Then I produced full-time for a while, and now this. I need to feel like my life is constantly evolving. I reached a point with production where I felt that I had taken it as far as I wanted to take it. For me personally, this made perfect sense. I don’t want to speak for Joey or Joel, but for me, it came around at the exact, right time. I feel like I’ve already done the ‘working with artists’ thing.

Wanasek: In my case, I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart and an incredibly, insanely ambitious person. No matter what I’m doing – maybe it’s just human nature – but you always want to do more. It’s not about success or fame or money, or any of that shit. It’s about challenging yourself and doing something that brings value, or makes you feel like what you are doing is worthwhile. I made a living as a producer for quite a long time. The thing is, being a producer – once you start getting into the big, national stuff as a mixer/mastering or whatever, most people get pigeonholed into a certain genre or style of music. If you have a big hit record and you get famous for a sound, then everyone comes back to you and says, “I want that sound.” You are like, “well, how about I make your sound with you?” And the label and the band is like, “nah, we just want to sound like the last record.”

It’s a self-perpetuating thing and then it becomes a trend. That trend has a life cycle. You start getting to the top – when you started off doing it, producing, you had a dream and a goal, and then you get there and you are like, “okay, now I can do one of two things – I can find a way to grow, or I can just sit there and try to solidify a legacy and just grind it out for the next 20 years and just do more and more big bands at the same level and wrap up more fancy names.” For me, it’s like, “well, I’ve worked on some cool stuff – and there’s always bigger and badder bands out there, but I want to do something that’s more impactful.”

I can only make so many albums a year…I can only mix so many songs each year. But if I can go out and educate thousands of kids, those kids can make that times however many records they can make a year. Now that’s actually doing something – that’s really impacting people’s lives. In a way, I feel very fortunate because I have had a very good career, as well as my partners, we’ve had very good careers doing this. We feel like we owe something. It’s bought us houses, and in my case a family…it’s paid all the bills and allowed us to have comfortable lives and be able to go do the things that we love to do.

Levi: I’ve got a really nice TV!

Wanasek: [Laughs] I have crappy shoes though, and a shitty car…the point is, you can go get a nice one. More importantly, we’ve gotten to do what we wanted to do for so long and for that, at least personally, I feel incredibly grateful. It’s about giving back and wanting to share that passion and love music, and the craft of making records…and help other people do it. To me, it’s such a greater task than just working on a band, if that makes sense.

Levi: I totally agree with that. I’ve had this voice in my head, which has made me kind of insane now for over 10 years telling me that my work in music was done enough. Basically, I’m not fulfilling my potential as a person. I’m not making enough of an impact by working on bands or being in a band…I don’t want this to sound bad, so no offense to anyone, because everyone needs to follow their own path. But it’s squandering my potential to just do that. I haven’t been able to get that voice out of my head. For the first time, that voice is starting to chill out a little bit. I’ve always felt that I had to do something, like Joel said, impacting more people.

Dead Rhetoric: What does someone stand to gain, either as an amateur or quasi-professional, from getting into Nail the Mix?

Wanasek: Everything [laughs]! Let’s talk about it from a pro’s point of view and then we’ll kind of go down to someone just starting. From someone like my point of view – they’ve been around and has a certain workflow and has a sound that people will go out and seek and pay for…you’ve got clients and rapport with different labels, etc. Going and getting to watch your peers – it’s always interesting to know what someone else is doing. You get good at a certain style and sound but like anyone who gets good at something – you can always get better. But who do you go to when you are already working on some of the best stuff? How do you get better, besides being more consistent or working faster?

When you get to see someone else’s workflow and sit there and talk with them about it…you get a lot of cool ideas. The same thing when you teach people stuff. I can sit down and we can have all these different producers come on, so I feel like I get to see some pros…you get to watch all of what your peers are doing, and that is going to give you inspiration and ideas, and hopefully it’s going to take the whole level of people, because they are all going to see each other and how they work, and it’s going to raise the bar. Everyone is going to get ideas and make everyone better.

Going down the scale, if you are an intermediate or just beginning – you can watch all of your heroes mix songs, and some of the best bands…we just had Meshuggah on. This month we have two #1 singles that were massive country songs, we had Papa Roach – to be able to mix songs that were chartcrushers, by the people that were responsible for them, and to get inside of their brain and see how they think and the decisions they made…and watch them make them, and have them sit there and explain to you every single step that they are doing and why they did it. How it fits into the big and small picture – what they value and what’s important to them…to me that’s priceless. You can’t put a value on that.

When I started doing this, if I could have watched someone like Chris Lord-Alge mix a song, I would have paid like $10,000 to do it, just to sit in there for 2 hours and pick his brain and ask him questions. Now you can do that for 24 bucks! You can sit there and watch him do it all day long, on a live stream, plus have a Q & A with him, and get his session, where you can sit down and analyze it, do your own mix, and compare what you did to what they did and learn from that. In my opinion, it’s just unprecedented. It’s totally disruptive in a very positive way.

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