We go one-on-one with the Sydney-based mix engineer.
From songwriting and production to mixing and beyond, Zolton just keeps on establishing himself as of the most versatile assets available to Sydney’s musical community today.
We spoke with the head honcho about his mixing ethos, his studio space in Surry Hills and what he listens out for while working on a track.
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Tell us a bit about your musical background – I understand you still write and record your own music? How did you pivot from production into mixing for other artists?
I got started in my early twenties playing guitar and singing in a Sydney rock band. We worked with some great producers, such as Paul McKercher, and I signed a production deal with Sony’s in-house producer at the time, Simon Tonx, but nothing much came of it.
It was during a golden age of live music in the city, so it was fun to be part of what was then a thriving local scene. But none of us in the band had the required drive at the time, and I gave music away for a number of years when I moved to New York to run a digital media company.
When I returned to Australia in early 2017, I reignited my musical passion and worked with a super talented young producer, Taka Perry, on a bunch of songs I’d written. That music lead to a syncing/publishing deal with a US agency. But I was already drifting away from recording music and towards mixing.
I’ve had a longtime fascination for the dark art of shaping and polishing sound, so I sought out the mentorship of Australia’s venerated mixing legend, David Hemming, and we had regular calls while I dedicated most of my time to learning the craft of mixing. This included studying mixing via Berklee College of Music.
Every engineer has their own unique approach towards mixing. When you’re working on a mix, what processes do you employ to get the job done to make sure the client is happy? Any particular workflow tips you’d like to share?
I mix fast and back my instincts. That’s not to say they’re always right, but I’d rather try something than not.
I’m an aggressive mixer in that, because of my production / songwriting background, I can add creatively to a song where needed or just make whatever is sent through sound better. It just depends on the song.
I mix totally in the box, but I do something a little unusual in that I run SSL IRs across all the channels in Logic to give the DAW more character. I find that the IRs add nice width and brightness to the overall sound.
I’m also very finicky at the start of any mix, making sure everything is in tune and lined up. Getting the basics right from the outset tends to save a lot of time towards the end of the mix. Additionally, having a good grip on your DAW’s shortcuts can also speed the process up considerably.
Mixing can tend to be a laborious task at the best of times. How do you maintain your passion and drive to work in such a gruelling industry?
I’m just getting started on the mixing side of it, so I’m the opposite of jaded: I’m totally immersed in it and loving every moment.
There are so many amazing digital tools these days that help shape and refine sound. I have a great collection of plugins (quick tip: check out lesser known plugins from Leapwing, Denise and Boz), a good selection of monitors and a well treated room. So every day I get to spend in the studio being creative is a pleasure.
You operate out of a facility in Surry Hills, Sydney. Tell us all about it – when did you set it all up, and what kind of equipment do you have set up there? Do you have any go-to gear that you just can’t live or work without?
I moved into this space just a couple of months ago. Prior to that, I was operating out of a less treated room. And the difference is stark! This new room sounds great and allows me to mix louder when needed than I had been doing.
I mix fully in the box, using Logic Pro. Plugin-wise, I tend to gravitate towards emulations of classic units, unless it’s problem solving software (RX Pro, Melda Drum Replacer) or uniquely modern ways of playing with sound and depth (StageOne by Leapwing, DRMS by Matthew Lane). I love Maag EQs, Lexicon and RC24/48 reverbs, and the Apogee Bob Clearmountain technology is fantastic too.
For monitors, I’m using Dynaudio BM5s, SuperCube 5s and Avantone Mixcube. The Supercubes are a little known brand out of Eastern Europe that I read about on the Gearspace forum and purchased without hearing first. They sound wonderful: so clear in the mids and punchy in the low end. They complement the brighter, more expansive BM5s nicely.
Over your career, you’ve had the pleasure of working alongside some absolutely legendary names in the field, including Bob Clearmountain and Tony Hoffer. What were they like to work with? Do you have any great anecdotes from working with them, or any wisdom you’d like to share with us?
Bob Clearmountain has been a long-time hero of mine, pretty much since I first heard the Avalon album by Roxy Music. In fact, that record was so inspiring that I named my daughter Avalon.
A couple of years back I had the opportunity to work with legendary producer David Kershenbaum (Duran Duran, Joe Jackson) on one of my own tracks and I reached out to Bob Clearmountain to see if he’d mix it.
He agreed and so I got the very rare opportunity to liaise directly with Bob on this song. And of course, he delivered an incredible mix: lush and full of character. But really, just interacting with him to a limited degree was a thrill.
He was very complimentary of the music and actually played a chord himself on the track, overdubbing a strum at the end of the song. So I guess I can now say that Bob Clearmountain was a session muso on one of my songs!
More recently, Tony Hoffer (M83, Depeche Mode) mixed a couple of my tracks and was also a great sounding board for me when I was transitioning into the mixing world. Tony is at the very top of his game and brings an exciting creative sensibility to his work
On that note, is there anyone out there in the mixing world who has influenced the way you approach working with music?
Apart from Clearmountain and Hoffer, like many, I’m a great admirer of the work of the recently deceased Bruce Swedien, and in particular how he created such full mixes but made them sound so sparse. Legend has it that he mixed the bulk of Thriller on Auratone 5Cs, which is the primary reason why I got the Mixcube.
As far as contemporary mixers go, Serban Ghenea is obviously the king of pop at the moment. Everything he touches turns to gold, literally!
His ability to find that balance between being artful and making the song radio perfection is remarkable – even if he is somewhat mysterious about how he achieves his signature sound.
Phil Tan is another who is smashing out incredible pop and hip hop mixes. I was fortunate to have Phil work on a song of mine and was blown away by the low end clarity he was able to achieve. Big bass, big kick, big vocals and everything else sitting perfectly in between.
What are your rates like? How can we get in touch with you to find out more about your services?
At this stage of my mixing career, my rates are very reasonable. But get in quick! (wink wink).
I’m comfortable working across all genres of music and will always ensure that you’re 100% happy with the final mix. The best way to contact me is via email at email@example.com.
You can also hear some mix samples at my website here. I’d love to have a chat with artists at any level of their career about how I can help you realise your artistic vision.
Head to Mixed By Zolton to find out more about Zolton’s work and make an enquiry today.