What the hell is mixing?

a music producer

Even so, the general principles of mixing hold good. Before we look at these principles, a word about the basic requirements. Firstly, your ears. Keep them fresh (and clean, of course). Never ever attempt to mix a piece of music at the end of a long listening session. Take a break of at least an hour and preferably overnight. The human ear is incredibly good at identifying problems with certain sounds, but not if it’s had time to get used to them.

Secondly, your monitoring system. It goes without saying that you should buy the best equipment you can afford. Without a reasonable system you’ll have no idea how accurate an image of the music you’re getting. But even if you do splash out on an amp and speakers, how do know you’re getting a true picture? The answer lies in listening to your mixes on as many other systems as possible, so that you know, for example, if you’re tending to mix a little bass-heavy or aren’t adding sufficient top end. Finally, don’t think about mixing through headphones. Irrespective of what it may say on the box, headphones do not reproduce music in stereo. They reproduce it ‘binaurally’, which is quite different, and makes it all but impossible to set up an accurate stereo mix.

FEEL YOUR WAY

You can take any approach to mixing you feel is appropriate to your music, from the ‘wall of sound’ (favoured by people as disparate as Phil Spector and hardcore guitar bands), to a cleaner, more considered approach where space is created around each instrument in terms of both frequency and time.

The latter approach is undoubtedly the more time consuming. You need a good ear to determine the area of the frequency spectrum in which each sound predominates and to prevent too much overlap. But that’s what professional studio engineers and producers are able to do, and the results usually speak for themselves.

The most basic function of mixing – the balancing of levels between individual instruments (or tracks) – is not something anyone can advise you about. You know how you want your music to sound and the level controls are in your hands. But do bear in mind the likely destination for a particular mix. There’s no mystery here. The primary requisite for the dance floor is a rhythm track which to hit the punters in the solar plexus. But apply the same bottom end to a song destined for someone’s car stereo, and it’ll cause major problems.

Bass needs to be tailored quite specifically to the needs of a particular track. Using EQ, it’s possible to strip away low frequencies to quite a high level before the ear will tell you anything is missing (though this is where having an accurate monitoring system is so important). Very low frequencies are often not audible but will soak up a high proportion of a speaker’s available energy. Filtering them out can actually increase the perceived volume of the audible bass and will certainly reduce distortion at high sound pressure levels. As effective as EQ is in such applications, it can be something of a mixed blessing in the wrong hands. Use it to correct minor problems with individual sounds and to create space round certain instruments by filtering out unwanted frequencies, but don’t rely on it as a universal panacea. Obviously, much will depend on the versatility of the controls; sweep and para-metric EQ is much more effective at homing in on problem areas of the frequency spectrum. But they can just as easily be responsible for raising the profile of certain sounds till they just don’t fit in any more.

There’s no clear dividing line between the two, except to say that the ear is much more forgiving of frequencies which aren’t there than those that are. So wherever possible, try cutting the frequencies you don’t want, rather than boosting those you do.

WET, WET, WHAT?

One of the areas of controversy which has divided musicians and producers for years is whether to record tracks ‘dry’ or ‘wet’. No, it’s nothing to do with towelling yourself off after you get out of the bath, it’s down to whether you add effects such as reverb and delay before you record them or whether you leave them dry and add your effects during the mixing process.

There are pros and cons to either approach which need to be carefully considered. Record your track with effects and they’re impossible to remove subsequently. If at the mixing stage, you decide you have too much reverb on the vocals, you’ll have to live with it, or re-record the performance. On the other hand, you may only have a single effects processor and want to use this for another effect on mixdown. So unless you do without the vocal reverb, you have no choice but to record with it. Vocals need reverb like England needs Michael Owen but overdo it and it’s dead easy to lose the voice in a sea of mush.

Reverb often has the effect of pushing vocals back in a mix. Great for preventing them sounding like they’re sitting on top of it (as they often can when recorded dry) but not so good if it’s masking an otherwise excellent performance.

You can get round this by introducing a pre-delay to the reverb. This can be set up on most effects processors and can be applied to many instruments, but is particularly useful for creating space around a vocal or bringing it forward while giving it an ‘aura’ of reverb. You’ll need to experiment with the pre-delay setting, but around 30-50ms should do. The tendency of reverb to clutter up a mix is something you need to listen for very carefully.

And it’s vitally important that you choose a program with the right reverb time for each track. ‘Hall’ programs sound great in isolation but can clog up the music quicker than the mud at Glastonbury. Short reverbs are great for creating interesting room ambiences and don’t take up as much space in the mix, but can sound unnatural. This is one argument for not adding reverb until mixdown.

When all your instruments are ‘in place’ you can properly assess the type and quantity of reverb you’ll need. If this isn’t feasible (perhaps you only have one effects processor) try to keep reverb to the minimum needed to achieve the desired effect and limit reverb times. Long reverbs often don’t have time to subside before being retriggered and can accumulate in your mix like Glastonbury mud (yes I know I’ve said it already, but you should have seen it).

Use pre-delays if they’re available and don’t reject the use of gated programs. The overuse of gating effects on drum sounds in the late 80s may have contributed to their current unpopularity, but they can be extremely useful in chopping of unnecessary reverb tails and creating space. Another trick is to limit the frequency response of reverb using either your mixer’s controls, or your processor’s built-in EQ (if it has it). This is best done by monitoring return signals from your reverb unit and cutting any unwanted frequencies or limiting those which appear to be obscuring the sound.

 

PANNING FOR GOLD

The art of panning instruments and sounds to create a convincing stereo image is one of the most important in mixing, yet is frequently misunderstood. So often, you hear demo tapes where the instrument placing appears to have been carried out quite arbitrarily. It’s like sharing sweets: one for this side, one for that side, and one in the middle for luck. Panning is an essential part of mixing; a means of achieving balance in your music as well as creating the transparency of a stereo image that we all take for granted in commercial recordings, but which can be difficult to reproduce.

Though I’m loathe to talk about what usually happens in a mix (if we all did what ‘usually happens’, we’d still be playing whistles and banging hollow logs), there are a few basic ground rules which you really can’t get away from. The first is that the dominant, low-frequency instruments invariably sound better placed at or around the centre of the mix.

I’m talking here about the bass drum, the bass guitar or synth and any deep percussive instruments you may be using. Pan them too far left or right and your music will sound off-centre. Fine, if that’s what you’re aiming at, but there are much better ways of getting creative with your pan controls.

One of the best is to set up some interesting rhythmic interplay using your different percussion sounds. Obviously, if you’re using a sample loop for the drum track this may not be possible, but you could always augment it with additional percussion (such as cabasa or claves) and pan these to the left and right. Alternatively, try setting up a delay on one of your instruments and panning the dry and delayed signals to opposite sides of the mix.

Lead vocals are also placed at the centre of mix in most recordings, though this has much to do with where you’d find the singer at a live performance. There’s is certainly nothing to prevent you experimenting with the positioning of the vocals, particularly where you also have backing vocals as well which can be placed in a similar position on the opposite side to the lead vocals, to balance things out
But again, hard panning left or right of any vocal parts can be difficult to live with. I should also remind you that pan controls are not static, and there’s nothing to prevent you from panning instruments left and right during a recording. It’s easily overdone, but in moderation it can provide a real sense of movement (quite literally) within a mix. A more subtle alternative would be to use a stereo chorus program on a effects unit which features auto-panning. This leaves the dry signal in place, but shifts the chorusing between the left and right speakers. And talking of effects brings us back to reverb which can be used to create a convincing stereo image from any mono source.

By panning outputs left and right, you can use reverb to produce a much broader, more expansive sound, even at short reverb times. On the other hand, reverb may be upsetting your stereo imaging by changing the apparent location of a specific instrument. If this does occur, try panning the reverb to exactly the same point in the stereo field as the dry signal, preferably sticking to a mono effect.

 

INSTANT MIX FIXES

To round things off, how about a couple of ways to provide an instant fix for your mix? If you’ve already mixed down to stereo and found the result disappointing, try sticking the entire mix through an aural enhancer. Though not always successful in treating a complete mix, they can alter the overall sound in subtle and distinctive ways, particularly processors which affect the stereo imaging.

Alternatively, give the track to someone else to mix. The results may not be to your liking (at first), but I guarantee they’ll reveal a side to your music that wouldn’t have emerged had you been sat behind the mixing desk. What have you got to lose?

written by Nigel Lord

The Art of Audio Recording. From Demo to Master

art of audio recording

In this documentary, top UK producer Greg Haver presents how he transforms demo song into a final release master. Enjoy this journey – from demo to master – with producer who worked with Manic Street Preachers, Melanie C or Bullet for My Valentine. This documentary will take you steb by step  from the initial demo, the re-tracking, the mixing and the mastering by Ryan Smith at Sterling Sounds in NYC and finally back to Modern World Studios in the UK for a final listen and comparative analysis that will blow you away!

Reverbnation in the real world

reverb effect

Reverb, of one type or another, is probably the most widely used effect in modern mixing. In today’s recording environments music is usually made from a combination of artificially produced sounds and close-miced recordings. The recordings may have been made at different times and in different places. This approach gives us control over practically all aspects of our mix but if we want it to have any kind of coherence we will need to use some reverb to help to recombine the sounds and bind them into a performance with the impression of an ambient space. Using the correct reverb can make the disparate multi- tracked parts sound whole again as well as bringing colour and three-dimensionality to the sound. Conversely, using too much reverb or the wrong reverb can cause the mix to sound cluttered, messy and distant.

When we make a noise in an enclosed space the sound radiates outwards. It hits obstacles such as walls, tables and chairs and one of the following will occur.

  • Reflection: If sound encounters a hard surface it will generally reflect back into the room.
  • Absorption: Softer surfaces will tend to absorb sound although precisely how much absorption occurs and which frequencies are affected depends largely on the nature of the materials.
  • Diffraction: Sound will bend round or be shadowed by objects. This will spread the sound out in many new directions.

Generally there will be a distinct initial reflection after which further reflections build up quickly as the sound gets rebounded around the room and becomes more diffuse. The time between the sound and its initial reflection depends on the size of the room. On a reverb unit it is usually known as pre-delay. The complex mass of repeats and echoes that follow the initial reflection are what we recognise as reverb. Each line on the diagram below represents the amplitude of a reflection of a discrete sound. There are a number of early reflections followed by a more dense mass of intermingling later reflections. These diminish in amplitude over time.

reverb in the real world

The exact point when reverb ends, is difficult to define, so a measurement known as RT60 is used. This is the time it takes for the reverb to decay by 60dBs from its original value. This is known as the reverberation time. Reverb can radically change the nature of a sound. The sound of a hand clap in a living room, a church or a bathroom, for example, would all be very different. Reverb can be bright or dull, have a long or short decay time, it can be dense or sparse, it may or may not have a distinct early reflection.

These characteristics, and so the resultant sound, are determined by such factors as the size and shape of the enclosed space, the absorptive qualities of the materials that form the room boundaries and the quantity, size, shape and reflectivity of the objects within the room.

To illustrate the last point, if you’ve ever been to a band sound-check and then to the subsequent gig you will have noticed that the room sounds much more reverberant and generally brighter during the sound check than the gig. When the room is full of people high frequencies are much more readily damped and a large part of the reflected sound is absorbed by the mass of bodies making up the audience (assuming they have turned up!) giving a tighter sound.

Subgroups

This video explains how using subgroups (drum tracks, guitar or vocal tracks) for things like multi-tracked drums can give you more control over your mixing with minimal effort. He describes how we can bust or send a bunch of different tracks to one stereo fader or control the overall level or EQ in dynamics on a track in mixing.

Separate Mixing Sessions

How do you boost your music notes? Here are 31 really helpful mixing tips. Some of the tips are really useful which explain how to save your mixes for future use, have control over your mixes and how to modify the original notes.  The author also says a mixer should be open to feedbacks from clients when he or she plays for them. There are tips here which show you to incorporate these feedback in your work.

The Mute Button

Do you want to get rid of those unwanted parts in your mix? Here is a solution called “Mute Button” which is the perfect remedy to remove those extra stuff which do not fit in your mix. The focus is on the  “Mute button” which will improve the mix in less time and costs no money. This way the mix will become more audible and will sound focused. The book called Mixer mans book which is an amazing book calls this process under dubbing. The biggest mistake one tends to make is to assume that you need to have everything fit in the mix somewhere, whereas muting certain parts makes your task easier to accomplish.