Saga's Michael Sadler on The Art of Mixing

Sagacity, definition: Exhibiting acute perception, foresight, wisdom, and sound judgment. Tenacity, definition: Holding together tough and firm, with a tendency to stick or adhere. Two words could not better describe Saga, the longstanding Canadian progressive collective that continues to up its game with every release. To wit: Sagacity (earMusic/Eagle Rock), which crackles with confident energy, from the heavy propulsion of “Go With the Flow” to the anthemic uplift of “I’ll Be.” As an added bonus, Sagacity includes a second disc, Saga Hits, where the band muscles through nine of its best-known songs during a set recorded at the SWR1 Rockarena in Ludwigshafen am Rhein, Germany on June 22, 2013 that includes the perennial powerhouses “On the Loose,” “Humble Stance,” and “Wind Him Up.”

Lead vocalist Michael Sadler (with arms folded in the above band photo) and I recently got together to discuss modern-day recording logistics, the fine art of mixing, and some surround-sound wishes. As you’ll soon see, when it comes to having Sadler talk about harnessing great sound, once you wind him up, he can’t stop.

Mike Mettler: So I’ve been immersed in my own sagacity, as I have to call it, and —

Michael Sadler: [laughs heartily] Oh, the sagaciousness of you.

Mettler: [laughs] Well, what can I say? I really enjoy hearing how the band is firing on all cylinders on this album. And you were in from the beginning of this writing process, whereas for [2012’s] 20/20, you came in after most of the writing had been done. Sagacity was more of a full collaboration from the get-go. And because you guys are so in tune with each other, it seems you have a really good intuitive sense of what works together once you start recording the final tracks.

Sadler: Oh, absolutely. Because of all the years we’ve recorded together, we pretty much know what everybody’s going to do. Nothing moves to the actual recording phase until we’re happy with the arrangements we’re playing together. The song gets really embedded with everybody. You really know your part, and you know what the other parts are going to be.

And you always have the bed to refer to. For example, if Jim Crichton is doing a keyboard part but Ian Crichton hasn’t recorded the final guitar part — I mean, the guitar part is there, so Jim knows the guitar does what it’s supposed to do at that point. In other words, nothing is going to change, so there’s no reason why you can’t do it at home. You’ve already worked on it together, so you know that it’s going to work.

Mettler: Do you consider mixing to be the most important process in terms of getting the sound the way you want it?

Sadler: The real hell we go through is in the mixing, yes. At the end of the day, it’s what comes out of the speakers, and the balances are absolutely crucial to our material. You can have one subtle keyboard part that you know is there, but maybe it’s too low in the mix, and it’s a really important part of the song. Someone else will hear it and go, “Well, that section really doesn’t work in that song. It could use a keyboard part there.” And you go, “Well, there is a keyboard part there!” You get so used to hearing it a certain way that even if someone turns it down in the mix, or even off, you’ll still hear it — but others don’t. So mixing is absolutely crucial.

We stopped trying to mix ourselves a while ago, because I think that’s pointless, and ludicrous. You get way too close to the songs to mix them yourself. All the things you go through from the writing process to the rehearsal to getting all the sounds down and on tape — you completely lose perspective when it’s a complete song and you just sit back and listen to it. You can no longer listen to the song objectively. You’ve got to have someone with fresh ears come in and listen to it and be able to put things where they’re supposed to be, as it were. At first, you’ll listen to it and think, “Wait a minute.” It sounds really out of whack to you. But then you sit back, listen to it again, and open your mind and go, “Oh, ok, now I get it.” You get so used to hearing something a certain way.

Mettler: Can you give me an example of a song on Sagacity where you had to go through that kind of mixing process to get it exactly where you wanted it?

Sadler: “Go With the Flow,” absolutely. That’s the most Saga-esque track on the record. It’s a great cross-section in its 5 minutes, or however long it is [5:26], of what we do. There are lots of highs and lows, and there are loud and soft passages, moodwise — it swings all over the place. Enough so that thus one was very tough to get it right. That’s a great representation right there.

But having said that, sometimes a much simpler song can be much harder to get right. For example, take a song like “Press 9,” which is a quirky little number that pops its head up in the middle of the record. There’s very little musicianship going on there — it’s a held chord, and there’s not really a groove. It’s just a voice, and some really nice harmonies. That’s almost tougher to get the mix right for than a song like “Go With the Flow.” There’s just so much going on in that one, that your attention can be satisfied with every turn in it; there’s always something going on. When it’s bare bones like “Press 9,” it’s very, very tricky to get that mix just right. Because if one thing is too loud, it’s going to sound glaringly too loud, even if it’s up just a half dB; you’re going to notice it.

“Press 9″ is pretty much Jim Crichton and and Jim Gilmour’s baby. They did that sitting by themselves in rehearsals one day. Jim Gilmour just started playing these chords, and Jim Crichton said, “Hang on a second,” and they got it together pretty quickly. And the lyrics are obviously very tongue in cheek.

Mettler: It’s interesting how these two songs are back to back in the sequencing, since they’re such a contrast.

Sadler: Right — it’s like, “We can do this, and we can do this, and we can do this.” [chuckles]

Mettler: Well, speaking of songs that are very Saga-esque, the very last track, “I’ll Be,” is certainly one for the ages. You’ve got everything going right in that one, from the jaunty intro to the grand crescendo.

Sadler: I agree. Yes, that Celtic-style intro. [chuckles] Of all the songs on the album, “Go With the Flow” and “I’ll Be” are very typical Saga — both are especially epic-sounding. And “I’ll Be” definitely represents us on that front.

Mettler: At the very end of “I’ll Be,” we get these very resonant chimes and church bells. Where was that recorded?

Sadler: Actually, that happened on a recent tour of Europe we did. We were on a co-headlining tour with Magnum in Germany, and we also did some shows of our own in Scandinavia and Holland. We were still mixing Sagacity while we were on the road. We were hooked up to our producer in Nashville [Brian Foraker, via “Source Live” streaming software]. We were sitting in dressing rooms and hotel rooms in real time, listening to the mixes he was doing. And we would say, “Ok, can you turn up that guitar a little more?” — and he would, and then he’d play the mix for us again. This was 11th-hour mixing and delivery, as late as it was.

Anyhow, there was church right across from the hotel in a small town in Holland — I’d have to look at the tour dates to remember what city it was [Uden, where Saga played the De Pul venue on May 6, 2014] — it was the morning we were leaving that town, and we came out in front of the hotel, just sort of milling about, waiting for the tour bus to show up. The chimes started happening right in the church across from us, and I think three or four of us just picked up our phones and started recording it, without consulting the others. So there are four or five different versions on everybody’s phones! We just thought, “You know what? There’s a perfect place to put them in, right there at the end of the album.”

Mettler: It’s a nice finish to a very anthemic song. It fits that positive kind of mode that I always get out of your lyrics. Tell me more about Brian Foraker’s role for Sagacity. This isn’t the first time you’ve worked with him.

Sadler: Yes. Brian used to work with Keith Olsen out in L.A., and he’s now out in Nashville, and is very prominent in the world of mastering. He’s very familiar with the band. He did Wildest Dreams with us [1987; Olsen produced, Foraker engineered], so he had the background, and the fresh set of ears we needed. He did a phenomenal job.

Mettler: I think Sagacity would be great album to hear in a surround mix, with all of the layers it has and everything going on with it. Have you spent much time listening to things in surround yourself?

Sadler: Not as much as others may have. I’m familiar with it; I appreciate it. Maybe it’s because I’ve heard some bad surround, where some people really didn’t know what they were doing —

Mettler: Those gimmicky mixes: “Look what I can put here; look what I can put over there.”

Sadler: Yeah, yeah, I probably got a bad taste in my mouth from hearing that kind of thing. “Let’s do the first delay echo on that side, and then on this side, and then in the front on that side, and then in the back on this side. Check it out! And then it’s swirling this big!” The obligatory swirling effect. [both laugh]

I have heard a couple surround mixes that were done using the technology the right way, and I think it’s pretty cool. My main exposure to that would be in movie theaters. When it’s done right, it’s so subtle. It’s another dimension that really, really does work, and I like it.

Mettler: Well, the bug is now in your ear. You guys have to do surround. I think it’s required at this point.

Sadler: Well, I think you’ve done a tremendous sales job on it. [laughs]

Mettler: No charge. I just want to hear the full audacity of the sagacity of this thing.

Sadler: Ah, the audacity of wanting to hear Sagacity in that way! [both laugh]

An extended version of this interview appears on Mike Mettler’s own site, soundbard.com.

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