Eli Janney: Mixing For Wilco, Wheat & People He’s Never Met

DUMBO, BROOKLYN: We think it would be QUINTUPLE cool to be Eli Janney. He grew up in Washington, DC (#1). He honed his audio chops with Don Zientara of Inner Ear Studios and recorded groups like Shudder to Think and Jawbox (#2). Next he engineered for producer Ted Niceley (Fugazi, Future Kings of Spain) (#3). Then he was in the brashy Girls Against Boys, making six albums over 12 years. (#4). Now he’s a Brooklyn-based mixmeister, with recent projects such as the 5.1 mix for Wilco’s tour movie Ashes of American Flags, and the latest album for songwriting specialists Wheat to his credit, among many more. (#5). That’s five levels of cool. Count ‘em.

Eli Janney

Q:What’s going on in the wonderful world of being a mixer today?

A:It’s funny, because like I was saying before, my job has moved over much more from producing to mixing. Part of that is because I really enjoy mixing, and part of is that so many people are recording themselves.

I work with a lot of young bands who don’t see value in a producer, or don’t have the budget, so it’s a lot easier to hire me to just mix it, rather than produce it and mix it. I love mixing, so I’m very happy with that, and I can mix on my time. And then, I’ve had the opportunity to work on films. The film before Wilco was Severed Ways, which is showing at the Angelika as we speak.

Why do you like the art of mixing?

I like mixing because you’re given a limited palette. The arrangements are done and the performances have been done. But the freeing thing is you’re not married to any of the recording process.
When I produce something from start to finish, it’s hard to let go of it. It’s like, “I’m going to turn down this part where we worked on the guitar tone for six hours?” It’s much easier to as a mixer to say, “That’s not adding to the emotional content of the song. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s distracting. I won’t get rid of it, but I’ll sit that in the mix more.”

Sometimes when you’re producing a song, you fall in love with parts, but being a mixer you can be a little more mercenary about it. And I’ve found that with bands that usually when you turn something down, they don’t notice, or they say, “Wow, we didn’t think about doing it that way, and we really like it!” Since you are detached from the recording process, you’re given the freedom to do what you want with a song. Whether you’re the band doing the recording, the producer, or the mixer, what you’re really trying to do is present songs to people.

So that’s why you like mixing. Why do you think people want you to mix their tracks?

Cuz I’m awesome, yo! (laughs) Because I’m from this punk rock background. I grew up in Washington, DC and I grew up listening to Fugazi and being exposed to the whole DIY aesthetic. But then I was in Girls Against Boys, and moving to NYC I was exposed to commercial projects.

I really come from an indie background, and that’s where my love lies, but being able to marry those two aesthetics (indie and punk) is good for a lot of people. All music is independent now, but people still want it to sound – for lack of a better term – professional. Or rather, people want it to sound really, really good without sounding commercial. That’s what I’ve been able to bring to a lot of projects. People record themselves, they have an inexpensive studio, then they get to the end and it just doesn’t sound that good – but they know something is in there.

They say to mixers like me, “We did these rough mixes, and it just doesn’t sound good.” So you need to be able to put your ears on it and make it sound good. I’ve been able to marry this punk rock aesthetic to working with Steve Lillywhite – a punk rock and a polished sound.

What are you mixing with?

I have two setups. One is the studio I’m sharing, Ishlab, has an MCI desk, and at home I have an in-the-box setup. When I’m listening at home its through Genelec 1030 speakers and a 1092 sub, while at Ishlab its Genelec 1031’s and a big Tannoy sub, with Yamaha NS10’s at home. I’m on Digidesign Pro Tools, but I’m heavily into the Universal Audio cards.

I know I like my UAD-1! Why do you love yours?

They just sound really, really good. The Harrison EQ doesn’t sound like the Cambridge or Neve EQ – they have totally different sounds. I’ve read that they do these emulations in each circuit, so instead of trying to emulate the sound, they emulate the circuits first. That’s really why I’m comfortable mixing in the box, and the new cards give you a lot of horsepower.

Tell me the latest, greatest lesson you learned about mixing.

I was working with this artist, Alexi Murdoch, at Stratosphere Studios. He came in with these acoustic tracks, mainly voice and guitar, but with other little things on as well like horns. He has a very good ear and said that the mix didn’t sound right, so what we ended up doing was removing all of the compression from the mix bus. It was a Buzz Audio stereo optical compressor, which is a great compressor. But it sounded much better without it, and I realized, “Wow, you don’t need compression all the time. It’s great to mix with no compression whatsoever.” He’s a terrific guitar player, so that makes it easier, but the subtle dynamics going on throughout the song gave it a lot of emotion. It reminded me that you don’t have to slam everything.

Another thing I learned a long time ago is to listen to the mix in the “wrong” place in the room. You’re always sitting in the sweet spot in the center. Before I finalize a mix, I’m always listening in places like the far corner by the doorway. If you stand off to one side, or even out in the hallway, you start to hear things that you wouldn’t have heard otherwise. People say to me, “Are you paying attention?” Yes, I definitely am!

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