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December 21, 2022

Joe Chiccarelli - Finding the sweet spot of a console




One advantage to mixing through an analog console or summing mixer is the subtle harmonic saturation and compression you can get when you overdrive its electronics. In this excerpt from Joe Chiccarelli Deconstructing Morrissey’s "Istanbul,” you’ll hear how Joe finds the sweet spot of the custom console at Studio 1 at Sunset Sound in Hollywood by dialing up varying amounts of gain with the master fader.

Desk Accessories

Joe starts by talking about the Studio 1 console, a customized API/Demedio desk with an EQ section featuring Jensen op amps and transformers. “A little more hi-fi, a little warmer, a little less trashy in the midrange, but equally aggressive,” is Joe’s description of the sound of the console. He says it has “one of the greatest summing busses you’ll hear.”

The Studio 1 console EQ has API controls but the electronics have been customized.

Like with other analog consoles and gear, the trick is finding the “sweet spot,” where you’re pushing it just the right amount to get that pleasant, subtle overdrive of the circuitry that compresses the audio and makes a mix sound glued together, warm and energetic.

Glue It

Let’s briefly digress to discuss how “gluing” a mix works. By definition, a mix is the summing of multiple individual tracks into stereo, mono or multichannel format. You want that conglomeration of tracks to come together in a cohesive and organic-sounding way.

A master bus compressor processes the tracks in the mix as a group, providing them with common sonic characteristics.

Master bus processing, particularly compression, helps imbue the mix with common dynamic characteristics and sonic color. Master EQ and light saturation can also help glue your tracks together. In the case of Joe’s mix of “Istanbul,” he gets differing amounts of harmonic saturation and compression by adjusting the master fader.

“Depending on where I set the stereo fader gives it a lot of character,” Joe says. “So I really work it to find the spot where the glue is there, and yet the transients are there.”


He’s careful to preserve the transients because too much compression or saturation can soften them and cause the mix to lose punch.

Hot and Cold

Back to the excerpt, Joe explains how the stereo fader, which controls the output of the mix bus, impacts the sound. He says lower levels can result in a cleaner output but aren’t giving him the sound he’s looking for on this mix.

“If I pull it down more, maybe my level looks good, but I lose something. I lose some power and punch,” he says.


So why not just crank the master every time? “Go up too high,” he explains, “it might sound a little hashy, a little noisy.”

The trick, he says, is to find that sweet spot where driving the console adds character but doesn’t make it sound overly saturated.

In the Pudding

Next, he plays a short section of “Istanbul” with the fader set about 3 or 4dB down from zero. He then moves it even further down and plays it again.

At this level, roughly 7dB down from unity gain, he’s not happy with the results. “Some of the instruments seem to drop away, and the vocal seems a little bit by itself, not quite glued to the track,” he says. “Maybe there’s a little loss of power, overall, and the whole thing doesn’t feel like a nice, tight mix.”

Joe tries different settings on the master fader to find the sweet spot for this song.

Finally, he puts the stereo fader all the way up. “My guess is that this might sound a little more airy, a little bit edgy and maybe even a little loose.” he says

Pushing the master fader up gets Joe the sound he’s looking for. His decision is based not only on the sound of the console but the context of the song. On a quieter or slower song, his setting might be different. He’s using his ears to make the choice.

Up Against It

In the video excerpt, the examples were interspersed with Joe’s explanations. Here, you can listen to them back to back, making it easier to hear subtle differences. To compare apples to apples, all three examples were level-matched.

Here’s the mix excerpt with the master fader down -3 or -4dB:

For this one, it’s down -7dB:

Finally, here it is with the fader pushed all the way up:

Click back and forth between them (with headphones on), so you can compare. Focusing on the snare will allow you to hear better how the different master fader settings affect the punchiness of the mix.

DIY Analog

If you’re working in a DAW without any analog gear to mix into or through, you can approximate the saturation and compression using analog-modeled plug-ins. If you’re going for a console overdrive sound, use a transformer saturation effect. You can also get similar results with a tape or tube saturation plugin.

Be judicious. When dialing in such effects from a plugin, it’s easy to add too much.