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Tyler Mays is a producer/mixer from Seattle, WA who specializes in rock and pop music. He is the owner of Irongrove Studios.
Drawing on his upbringing as a multi-instrumentalist and performer in many genres, Tyler uses his developed ear and musical instinct to guide artists through the recording process.
His first foray into the studio began over 13 years ago in an effort to document short song ideas, but over time his engineering and creative recording process evolved to become his primary musical focus.
I’ve definitely learned a lot from interviewing Tyler.
Let’s dive right in.
Do you play any musical instruments?
Quite a few–mainly bass and keyboard, but also some guitar, drums/percussion, backup vocals and trombone (I haven’t played my trombone in a couple of years).
How did you get into music and for how long have you been producing for?
My parents started me on piano lessons when I was 5 years old. As a got older I picked up more instruments–first trombone, then bass, then eventually a little guitar and drums.
Throughout my school years I gained experience in jazz and classical music through performance groups and private lessons.
I also began playing music at church, and spent some time in choir classes. I had some great teachers and mentors to whom I can attribute a lot of my development, and I also need to credit my parents who supported and encouraged me in a great way.
In my early teens, around the transition from Jr. High to High School, I dropped out of private lessons. I used the extra time to focus on my own band I had started with my brother and our friends.
This is where recording and producing began for me–slowly I pieced together an interface, a couple microphones and a computer, and made some horrible recordings of our song ideas.
Over the years I managed to make slightly better sounding recordings of a new band I made, and eventually a couple of friends heard my work and asked me to record them.
As of today, I’ve been recording/producing for over a decade, about 13 years.
What, in your opinion, are the skills needed to be a music producer?
You need a good ear, both for musical performances and for songs. Although being a producer is different than being a songwriter, having an ear for arrangement is important so you can give the artist feedback. A producer needs to know the emotional side of music and keep tabs on culture too–we need to know what will make a song connect with listeners. Unless you’re only producing your own music, you also need to have emotional intelligence, the ability to read people, and to be a good hang with many types of people. If an artist is not comfortable around you, they won’t be able to make great art.
How do you become a music producer? Do you study with courses, learn online or just experiment?
I think there are many paths into this. Some of the best producers were self-taught, while others interned for established studios and producers. I was a trained musician early on, but my producing and recording were mostly self-taught. I dug up books from the local library and went online for help when I was starting out. I also experimented a lot. Later, I sought out higher level online resources from industry pros, and got involved in communities of other producers/engineers locally and from around the that I am still part of. I wouldn’t recommend going to college for music production or recording, because it’s many, many times costlier than any of the online resources available, where you can learn from the best names in the business. Having a college degree does not matter in this career field.
Who are the producers who have most influenced your approach to music production and why did they have that influence?
There are lots of producers and mixers I look up to. Neal Avron, Rick Rubin, Bob Clearmountain, David Bendeth Howard Benson Chris and Tom Lord-Alge , Paul Leavitt, Ken Andrews, Joey Sturgis , Aaron Sprinkle, and Sam Pura have worked on a lot of my favorite records.
Many of them are rock records, but these guys work on a diverse set of music too. I think what great producers have in common is that they know how to get the most out of the artist and to bring the artist’s sound forward–every project is a “custom job,” they’re not just putting their sound on a band or doing the same thing every time.
What DAW are you currently working with? Why do you prefer to work with this DAW?
I use Reaper. The customizability of the program has allowed me to develop systems and workflows that are fast and efficient, which makes my job easier and ultimately frees up more of my energy to give to the artist. It’s not the most user-friendly program if you’re starting out, but it’s definitely a cool thing for “power users.” I first starting recording on Audacity and spent my early years on Cubase Recently I started learning Pro Tools since the bigger studios have it on their computers and it’s a good idea for me to know my way around it. Pro Tools was/is the “industry standard” and is still everywhere, but hit songs are being made in every DAW under the sun now days.
And what about your room? How big is it? Is there treatment?
My room is interesting. My ceiling is fairly high, about 9′, and the room is big enough to fit drums, amps, my mixing setup, and a couch comfortably. It’s kind of shaped like the letter “T”, with my mixing area set up at the bottom of the “T” and tracking area with drums and amps across the top of the “T.” I have the two areas separated with a wall of hanging panels, and my mixing area is treated with more panels (6″ thick rockwool bass trap panels straddling the corners, panels on the sidewalls or “early reflection points” and a 4″ thick “ceiling cloud” over my head). My studio is in the lower level of a log cabin house where I live with my family, so there are logs running across the ceiling supporting the floor above which help diffuse sound too.
When you set up your sessions, what’s your general layout and what would you start mixing first?
I create a bus/group for all instruments, and one for all vocals. Sometimes, I run another one for all my FX. These 2-3 busses feed my master fader. Below those, I’ll split things into instrument groups (all drums, all guitars, etc. and into further layers if need (kick group, snare group, etc.) My process for mixing looks like this: I’ll start with preparing the session on a separate day, setting up routing and adding drum samples/guitar amp/bass amp tones if necessary. Then the next day I’ll sit down to start with fresh ears, and get a good volume balance/panning balance. From there I usually mute the vocals for a while, dive more in depth sculpting the instruments, and once I feel like I have the instrumental rocking I’ll add the vocals in again and finish the mix.
In your opinion, what classifies as a good mix and a good master?
I think it needs to fit the vibe of the song, provide the song energy, and sound good when played everywhere! In most genres, the vocal being clearly heard is also important. Other than that, it’s really up to creativity. Your average music fan doesn’t know what mixing is or what a snare drum is. They either like the song or they don’t.
What are your five most favorite plugins?
Tough choice, these are probably my 5 most consistent staples these days:
- ReaEQ (stock Reaper EQ) – perfect for narrow, surgical moves when needed
- Brainworx bx_console SSL 4000 E – I’ll use it to EQ drums, guitars, sometimes vocals
- Brainworx bx_townhouse Buss Compressor – my favorite master buss compressor
- Native Instruments/ Softube Vari Comp – glues together my vocal buss, great for mastering
- Soundtoys Echoboy or Echoboy JR – awesome, versatile delay.
What’s the one plug-in that you simply couldn’t do without?
The one where my speakers plug into my interface! I couldn’t hear without that one 🙂
Which plug-ins do you like to use on vocals?
I use Melodyne to tune vocals, and often use it combined with Waves Tune Real-Time to tighten up more with less work. These days I’m loving the Brainworx bx_console Focusrite SC to EQ vocals and do some basic leveling compression. I love the Native Instruments/Softube VC 76 to get aggressive vocal compression, and Waves RVox for smoother compression.
Waves C6 and TDR Nova (a great free plugin) are often my go-to for de-essing and controlling annoying resonances that can happen anywhere in in the frequency spectrum depending on the singer, mic, and room. Also, for extra saturation, I like the Softube Saturation Knob (another stellar free plugin) and Soundtoys Decapitator. I use various reverbs and delays on vocals, usually as sends.
Do different reverb types have certain roles in your productions?
Yes. Some times I go for realistic “room” sounds (for instance, I am sent drum tracks to mix with no room mics, but I want to make the drums sound like they were in a room). For strings or pianos, I like using bigger hall settings to mimic a concert hall. Plate reverbs and spring reverbs are fun on guitars, or for vocals when I’m going for a more effect-ish sound. For vocals, I often combine different delays and reverbs, sometimes sending a delay into a reverb. I’m also a fan of short slap delays on vocals, those often sound cooler to me than a short reverb.
What plugins do you typically have on your master bus?
Like I mentioned before, the bx_townhouse and Vari Comp are my go to master buss compressors. Sometimes I’ll use one, sometimes both. I usually EQ the master buss with the Native Instruments/Softube Passive EQ as I find it lets me sculpt the mix without it sounding too “EQ’d”. The Waves LinMB is an awesome multiband compressor on master bus when something has separate frequency bands poking out here and there, or the whole mix needs to sound more “together”. I use this for final mastering tweaks only, I don’t mix with this on as it can mask moves that need to be made in the actual mix. For final loudness limiting/clipping, I’ve been using the TDR Limiter No6 GE and a new favorite of mine, the Hornet Magnus MK2.
As far as EQing goes, are you doing more subtractive, additive or is it an equal amount of both?
I would say an equal amount of both. One way I like to work, is to do any “problem solving” cuts to an instrument in solo, but to boost with an EQ while listening to the whole mix. That way I can zero in on something with a narrow cut if it’s a problem, and always have context for what I’m adding.
In regards to cutting frequencies, are there areas that you find yourself gravitating more towards?
Sometimes. Often with drums, I’m cutting out midrange and boosting lows and highs. But not always! EQ is 100% source dependent. I’d say the only EQ move I do all the time is hi-passing to filter off unneeded sub and low end junk. I even do it to kick drums and basses.
What type of compression plugins do you usually use?
I have a variety….on drums I usually like faster compressors for excitement and punch (things modeling FET or VCA compressors are cool). For vocals, either fast exciting compressors or slow gentle ones (modeling “opto” compressors) are great depending on the material, and sound great combined. Also, the stock compressors in most DAW’s are great and should get alot of use! I still reach for the stock compressor often. If you learn how to master the stock compressor and get different sounds out of it, you’ll get more out of any other compressor.
Do you have a lot of compression going on?
It depends on the mix, but yes almost always I have compressors on drums, bass, vocals, and the overall mix. I’m a big fan of stacking compression, especially on vocals. Instead of having one compressor going crazy, sharing the load between multiple compressors often is the right sound.
How do you make your mix louder?
It starts with a good balance. A mix that’s properly balanced will also sound “louder” already. Also, it needs a good frequency balance between lows, mids, and highs. Not having excess subsonic buildup is key–low end takes up tons of energy and eats up loudness potential. That’s why I often hi-pass my kicks and basses strategically to cut off the junk, but keep the important low frequencies to have a full bottom end. Often, the whole mix gets one last hi-pass filter anywhere from 20-40hz to further clean up low end in mastering. Once the frequency balance is good, I use clippers and limiters to get loudness. The master limiter is always the last thing in my chain, usually I set it with a ceiling of -0.2db to ensure nothing clips (some will argue that -1db is safer to avoid clipping in online streaming conversion). On most transient-heavy music (anything with drums or that’s not a soft song), I will add a transparent clipping plugin before the limiter. Clippers shave off peaks that would otherwise hit the limiter hard. It’s kind of like stacking compressors on a vocal–you can get a more transparent result by sharing the work between two plugins instead of one going super hard. Getting loud masters that don’t sound crushed takes a LONG time to figure out–for me much of it was a feel thing and developing my ear. Fortunately, now with streaming being the primary means of distribution for music, the “Loudness War” has cooled off somewhat compared to 10 years ago.
What is your biggest challenge as a music producer?
Keeping my work and life habits consistent is the area where I’ve really been trying to make strides. Since I’m my own boss and I work with people at different times of the day whenever they are free, it’s easy to forget to draw boundaries to have consistency and normalcy in my schedule. I’m working on getting consistent time off. I need vacations and weekends (whether or not that happens on the weekend) just like anyone else. Last year I didn’t really make that a priority, and I started to burn out until I took a break and re-thought things. I love music, and want to continue loving what I do and giving my best effort to everyone’s art!
What׳s your advice to producers who are starting out and making tracks in their bedroom?
To quote one of my favorite producers, “start before you’re ready.” There will probably never be what feels like the perfect set of circumstances. Having all the free time you need, the perfect room, the perfect song idea or all the right gear is simply not the case when we start. Use what you have, use the stock plugins! Get creative, and you’ll make cool music. To quote another one of my favorite producers, “it’s not the gear, it’s your ear.”