Abi Asks: Daniela Rivera - Safari Pedals

Abi Asks: Daniela Rivera

Howdy Safari Blog People!

In such a dandy and magical world with so many plugins and pieces of gear, avoiding overproduction and overprocessing is a DISCIPLINE. Lately, I have been honing this discipline to prevent my productions/mixes from becoming a smashy compressor soup that has no low mids left. It’s been a work in progress, and I am not quite there yet. After (kind of) ruining a few mixes, I've been pondering this deep, and philosophical question: how do you even know when the project is done? There's a lot to unpack, and I’m excited to dive into this topic on the blog.

On that wonderful overcompressed note, I had a blast chatting with Emmy Nominated, Grammy Certificate Multi-Platinum Engineer Daniela Rivera (Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Mariah Carey- to name a few) about overprocessing. 

I asked her: “How do you know when a mix is done and avoid over-processing? “

She said: “Well, Abi, that's a great question. 

It's hard to give a definitive answer because every mix has its own unique requirements for how much or how little processing is needed. Most importantly, have I fulfilled all the client's needs and requests for the record I am mixing? If they have sent me an outside reference, am I in a good comparison to that reference? And have I addressed all technical issues without losing the creative feeling? 

Different Approaches for Different Genres

I typically work in the pop genres, which can require a lot of processing due to the many tracks involved. Two approaches for this genre: If the production is done very well and I am working with processed stems then I do not need to process each track individually. Instead, I focus on the group bus and stereo bus levels, aiming to create more crisp, clarity, punch and loudness without sacrificing the production’s intentions. On the other hand, if I have full track outs with minimal production processing, I am very heavy handed to get the mix to a “rough mix” stage first, and then a second round of processing for the final mix stage. I am processing with multiple compressors, multiple EQs, multiple multi-band processors, multiple saturation, multiple clippers, multiple limiters, ect. I am gain staging and shaping each step of the way (track, group bus, stereo bus). 

When working on acoustic records or soft ballads, less “apparent” processing is often my workflow. This means that I am processing but without the aggressiveness of pop mixing. I am using compression, multi band, EQ and limiters but just not “slamming” them. If recorded poorly,  fixing material is needed so processing is corrective while making things competitive for distribution standards. Because these genres don’t typically rough mix loud, they often don’t reveal problem issues, but when mixing and mastering these issues become apparent because there is little to hide behind in the production (for instance if it is just vocal and piano or vocal and guitar).

When working with composers, they generally prefer minimal processing. In these cases, I use faders over compressors and use light EQ to subtract unpleasant frequencies that arise with level increases. Preserving dynamics and allowing the natural velocity of the player and maintaining the natural timbre of the instruments is crucial in this genre. This means avoiding heavy compression, drastic EQ, clippers, or limiters and instead respecting their performance.

Key Elements to Focus On

When listening back to a mix, I focus on these key elements:

  • Vocals: Are the vocals prominent and just on top of the instruments? Have I over-compressed? Have I created a more present vocal without losing the truth of the vocalist's tone? Are there any pitch issues that stand out or vocal alignments that bother me? If I have added wet effects, do they make sense for the vocal (reverb/delay, etc.) or did I drown out the vocals or create a distraction? It's essential to maintain the emotional integrity and dynamics of the original vocals while cleaning them up and ensuring they translate well across multiple platforms.
  • Instruments: Does the music vibe and feel like a cohesive piece with the vocals? A lot of times artists/producers record to the 2 track, so the mixer is often the first one to combine the instrumental track outs with the recorded vocals into a final session. What is the main instrument? In pop records, the kick, snare, and bass are usually at the forefront. However, the main melodic parts could be based around a piano, synthesizer, or guitars. I ask myself if I've preserved the essence and tone of these main elements. Did I over-compress the music, or have I opened it up to make an impact now around the vocals? Is there movement, variation and balance in the music?
  • The Stereo Bus: Next, I move on to the stereo bus to dial in the final tone, mix glue and loudness. The amount of overall compression, multi-band, clipping, and limiting applied here depends on the song and the rough mix or reference mix I received. The initial direction provided by the rough mix influences how much processing I'll add, or correct, in the final stages. It's important to note that louder isn't always better. There have been many instances where overly loud mixes don't make sense. Sometimes, backing off can open up new sonic dimensions that will translate far better to the master.

The Final Listen Through

Personally, as a mixer, I am done when I play back the mix and there isn’t anything that jumps out or bothers me. The mix should flow seamlessly and maintain smooth transitions from section to section, taking the listener on a musical journey without distraction. The mix shouldn’t be static but move and convey the emotion that the lyrics and production are based around. After critical listening, passive listening is a good way to get out of your own way to avoid over-processing. Also, I always listen in mono at the end stage to check the mix and make any final corrections to levels or panning placements. If I can listen to the mix critically, passively in stereo and mono and nothing is grabbing my attention… then I am good to say the mix is complete, or at least complete to send to the client now for their review.”

I learned SO much from Daniela’s insightful answer.

Firstly, I love how all creative and technical decisions Daniela wrote about, are made with the deeper intention of supporting the music, and performance, while also staying relevant to the genre of the song. It made me realize that I haven't given enough consideration to the genre I’m working on, and to be more conscious of what the genre itself can be calling for. Gone are the days where I smash an acoustic ballads with 8 limiters on the Mix Bus after the other 🤪.

Secondly, I noticed and really appreciate how Daniela balances being strategic about how she mixes with creativity and vibe. This balance ultimately gets the mix to the right place without overprocessing. This was a huge takeaway for me, and I will definitely be focusing on being more strategic and forward thinking while I produce/mix.   

Lastly- PASSIVE LISTENING. Something I have honestly not done enough, and probably one of the reasons I get in my head and go processing rogue on my mix/production. I have a habit of getting fixated on things, so this was a great reframe for me. I even made a sticky note I pasted on my desk- “HAVE YOU PASSIVELY LISTENED YET?”. I recommended everyone does the same so we can all not overprocess our mixes together.

Daniela’s answer is something I will absolutely come back to refer to while I work, and I can't wait to apply these principles and thoughts to my next production/mix.

Thank you so much Daniela for your insightful answer!
Catch y’all next week!
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