SONAR X1 for the win! Interview with the MixFest Competition Winner

Alex Niedt (pronounced “neet”) is a Kansas City recording artist, producer, and mix engineer whose releases include the Don’t Forget To Tip Your Bartender and Song To The Siren EPs and the Lex Luger-produced single “Hold Me Down”.  In early 2012, Niedt won the MixFest Competition, hosted and judged by Grammy-winning mix engineer Dave Pensado, and appeared on the 52nd episode of Pensado’s Place.

Pedal to the Metal – winning mix by Alex Niedt

Tara: Can you give us some information about your musical background and what prompted you to become a musician?

Alex: I grew up in a highly musical, highly artistic environment.  My father’s life-long profession has been the classical guitar.  My mother was a ballerina.  Beautiful music was in the air for hours every day from the time I was born.

I started playing the electric guitar in first grade, refusing to actually take lessons from my father, then picked up the electric bass, drums, piano, and steel and nylon-string acoustic guitars.  In fourth grade, I started the violin, which is the one instrument for which I’ve truly taken lessons. I’m relatively new to the engineering/mixing world, which I entered out of necessity, wanting to record the music I was writing.

Tara: Can you explain a bit about what you did to mix the song “Pedal to the Metal” for the competition?

Alex: The session was a well-organized Pro Tools session, and the first thing I did was dump it into Sonar X1.  I organized the tracks into folders:  Drums, Synth/Keys, Guitars, Vocals.  Track cleaning came next, checking for pops, clicks, noise, etc.  Listening through the song, I decided what element should be the focal point in each section – what was important when – and what was unnecessary and begging for deletion.

In the final mix, I used a lot of automation to bring the important elements to the foreground when they needed to shine and tuck them back when they didn’t.  The song called for excitement and energy, so I really wanted things to move.

I replaced the kicks and snap with my own samples via Slate Trigger, and moved some of the synth elements out of the center with tools like Waves Center and S1.  One of the most important things I did was remove some 808 kick occurrences when they clashed with the synth bass.  I made sure the replacement kicks and synth bass were strong enough in the low end that the 808 kicks were not missed in those sections.

Another thing I’ll touch on is vocal consistently.  The many different sections of leads and backgrounds in this song carried different amounts of sibilance.  The vocals really came together when I evened out this sibilance with a combination of Waves RDeEsser and clip gain on each vocal track.

Tara: Did you use another DAW before SONAR?

Alex: I started with a Teac tape machine!   My first DAW was Cakewalk Pro Audio 9, and I’ve had every version of Sonar since.  I also own Pro Tools and Reaper, and have “dabbled” in others.  There are things I enjoy about each DAW I come across, and they all have their short-comings (some more than others), but there’s no platform I’d rather use to create music than Sonar.   And I love the fact that I’ve seen some of my feature requests implemented in the X1 updates.

Tara: What are a few of the features in SONAR X1 that you could not live without?

Alex: Fully customizable key bindings:  I customize all my bindings from scratch, using a reference chart I made to continually see what could be switched around for more logical mental grouping.  This alone makes my speed in Sonar much quicker than in Pro Tools.

Searchable browser:  There is nothing more annoying than searching through long lists of plug-ins to find the one you want.  In X1, I can type “Tri” and there’s my Softube Trident A-Range, ready to be dragged wherever I want it!

Bus Architecture:  After using other DAWs, it’s always nice to return home to Sonar’s user-friendly bus architecture, and I love X1’s additional ability to ALT+Click a bus to select everything routed to it.

Smart Tool:  Not all smart tools are created equal.  I’ve used DAWs whose smart tools aren’t smart enough to apply to everything, and I’m left having to select other tools to get the job done.  The less I have to think about what tool to select, the more I can concentrate on the music.  In X1, the smart tool is all I ever need.  It makes Sonar’s Piano Roll workflow even better, too.

ACT:  I absolutely love controlling my faders, pan knobs, and all plug-in parameters via my Roland A-500 Pro, and ACT makes it so incredibly easy to map things however I’d like.  The integration between DAW and controller is fantastic.

Tara: Thank you so much for walking us through this and congratulations again on your win! Any final thoughts?

Alex: Since the contest win, people have often asked me what they should buy if they’d like to get closer to my mixes.  The funny thing is most of them have as much or more equipment, plug-ins, etc than I do.  You don’t need a lot of stuff.  Learn to be great with what you have.

You can check out more of Alex’s music.

Plus, if you want to try SONAR X1 Producer, you can download a free trial version.