If you’ve heard Billy Ray Cyrus, Chris Young, Jason Aldean or Kenny Chesney, then you’ve heard mixes by Billy Decker. Don’t pidgeon-hole Billy to country music, though. He has worked with artists as diverse as Bret Michaels and Bubba Sparxxx. Billy Decker is a mixing machine, stationed in Nashville, Tennessee. Billy has created a sort of mixing system where he can knock out several mixes a day while maintaining a high-quality output. Billy moved to Nashville in the mid-1990s when country music was taking over the charts and country music began borrowing elements of rock and pop music.
We wanted to learn more about Billy’s process, playfully referred to as “Deckerating,” so we reached out to ask him about his process and he was kind enough to fill us in on some of his techniques.
Q: How did a kid from the University of Nebraska wind up as a top mixer in Nashville’s competitive music scene?
Billy graduated from the University of Nebraska and then attended Full Sail Center for the Recording Arts, graduating as the top of his class in 1992. Describing his start, Billy says “I did go to Full Sail, but I learned the majority out in the real world and also by reading a lot and asking questions. There was no internet back then, so it took a little longer to get an answer!” Billy moved to Nashville in 1994 and as far as getting his foot in the door of the Nashville music scene, Billy began his work at studios tracking bands and recording overdubs. He remembers “I soon found out that the mixers were kinda like the quarterback on a football team and I always wanted to be a quarterback.” The mixing bug had gotten to Billy.
When pressed on what artists and engineers influence his approach to mixing and producing hit records, Billy mentions superstar mixers like Chris Lord Alge and Mike Shipley and then name-checks Kevin Churko and Joey Sturgis who specialize more in hard-rock and metal. Churko and Shipley spent a lot of their career engineering for legendary songwriter/producer “Mutt” Lange, so their productions ranged from hard rock to hair bands to country and pop—Celine Dion to AC/DC. With musical influences reaching so far beyond country, it’s no wonder that Billy’s mixes bring an attitude and edge that separates his mixes from the traditional Nashville sound.
Billy’s template-based approach to mixing, as well as his speed probably owe their roots to Chris Lord-Alge, who mixes mostly analog and on an SSL. Lord-Alge treats his analog setup very much as a standardized mix template and both Lord-Alge and Decker are known to replace the snare and kick with their own signature sounds in every mix. Billy mentions that template-based mixing speeds up his setup time and allows more time to find the best balances and create dynamics in his mixes. He would rather develop a great feeling mix than spend 30 minutes EQing a kick drum. As far as keeping excited and having fun with each mix, Billy’s response is “I really just love mixing, so each day I just treat it as practice. As they say—practice makes perfect!”
Q: What is your approach to building the arrangement during your mixes?
Billy’s response is refreshingly honest. “I really don’t think about it all that much. I have always been a throw-and-go guy. To me, it’s just a feeling I have when it sounds good or bad. I guess I’m lucky that other people think so, too.” The top mixers tend to work quickly and the technical part has to be so ingrained that it’s transparent to the creative part of mixing. It’s part instinct and part building a vocabulary of treatments and processing that get you to where you want to go. Spend time learning what your plugins and effects do and then you don’t have to learn how to use them while you’re mixing. Mixing is really like playing an instrument—don’t watch your fingers, just play!
Q: You’ve built up a loyal following of artists who return to you over and over. What brings the artists back to you?
Billy jokes, “Well I have been told that I have the best smelling control room in the entire world. It’s because I burn incense, LOL. In all honesty, though, it has to do with constantly reminding myself that I am in the customer service business. I never forget that—I say what I’m gonna do and then I do what I say. And then some! It’s that easy.”
Q: You have been working out of your own private mix room, The Cabin at Westwood Studios. Do you ever work outside your studio?
Billy: “I don’t mix anywhere but here. I know my room like the back of my hand so mixes will always be within about 5%. Clients come to the studio to close out their mixes all the time. I love the interaction and I believe it’s also why people keep calling. They always walk away smiling.”
Q: Getting into the actual mixing, how do you create such space in your mixes, especially in mixes with so many stringed instruments?
Billy’s answer, of course, is that he does “Nothing special.” He adds, “I do know my frequencies very well and I know exactly where certain instruments live int he spectrum. I’m actually speaking about that exact topic (“Become a Master of Frequencies”) at the URM Summit.”
Billy mixes in Pro Tools with a limited set of his favorite plugins and says that outboard gear is “Not my thing.” Everything is done in-the-box. Joey Sturgis Tones has even developed a line of plugins modeled after Billy’s effects chains for vocals, guitar, bass, drums and even his stereo bus “glue.” Billy has found a range of effects that streamlines his process, yet allows him to achieve the sounds he needs for each and every mix. Keep in mind, as Billy puts it “I use a lot of compressors and limiters, but I tend to use a little bit of each one.”
His favorite plugins include Slate Trigger, Metric Halo Channel Strip, Waves SSL Channel, and the McDSP EQs, and Channel G. Vocals run through the Waves CLA76 (Bluey), Metric Halo Channel Strip and Waves RVox, while guitars are treated with the URS BLT EQ and Waves L2. Effects are kept simple and come from the SoundToys EchoBoy, Waves RVerb and Waves Doubler. His stereo mix delicately employs the Waves Kramer PIE compressor, the Stillwell Event Horizon clipper and the Waves L3.
Q: Do you send your mixes out to be mastered or do you master them yourself?
Billy: “It’s kinda fun to get another take on your mix, although if the budget does not allow for mastering, I can do something similar. As I mix into my own mastering chain, it’s virtually mastered when the mix is done…” If Billy sends out a mix to be mastered, he will print an alternate mix and remove the L3 Maximizer from the master bus.
Q: I see that you mix on Mackie HR824mk2 monitors. Do you ever work on headphones?
Billy: “Yes, I have always mixed on Mackie’s with a subwoofer and I have mixed on headphones with good results.” Billy has been using Sonarworks Reference 4 to calibrate his monitors and compliments Sonarworks by saying “The best thing about the Sonarworks system is that it told me more about my room than my ears ever could have.” To add to his idea, even if you decide not to turn on the room correction plugin, simply running Sonarworks’ calibration program and generating your profile curve will show you exactly where the frequency problems lie in your particular setup.
Billy’s philosophy on mixing should be helpful to everyone. “At the end of the day, don’t get caught up with all the so-called ‘Rules of Audio’. If it sounds right it is! Enjoy life and what you do. I beat cancer a few years back, so that gave me a different kind of perspective than most people…”