Mixing – any “Good” yet? Part II

Dave Cracked Up (Blog), Creating, Engineering, Music/Audio, Opinions, Personal, Tech 3 Comments

Yesterday, I posted Part I of this manifesto where I talked a bit about how and why I feel that I have gotten better as an audio mixer.  Essentially the point of the post was that I’ve learned that there are NO mixing practices or techniques that are gospel out there.  There are starting points and documented methods for achieving certain things with your sounds and mix, but there’s nothing that should be considered black and white …

Only a Sith deals in absolutes.

– Obi-Wan Kenobi

Some of my Luggage from along the way…

What I thought I’d do with this post is get into some specifics of some mixing tools and techniques I’ve “discovered” and like to employ.

I’m not at all criticizing anyone’s techniques or saying that this is the way it SHOULD be done, but rather, digging through my amateur/pro toolbox of things and putting them out there.  Here’s what I think I’ve learned so far:

  • Automation can be your best friend – sure, it takes some more time to write automation moves, but it sure makes things breathe in a mix.  Sure, there are some tracks that are “set and forget”, but a vast majority of the tracks that I mix have some sort of automation applied to them – not only the usual suspects of level and pan, but sends, EQ, insert effect parameters.

Songs evolve over time, and sure the arrangement and chord progressions take you on the journey, but there’s more that you can do with mixing to enhance all this – adding sparkle, widening the stereo image, adding level…

For instance, I might bump up the level, add some exciter, boost the send to the 1/8th note and 1/4 note delay, widen the stereo image, etc. in the chorus – subtlely bringing things to seem bigger.

Lesson learned: With automation, I’ve found you can make your mix live and breathe.

  • EQ: add to taste – I’ve read so many articles on EQ guidelines – what to do, what not to do – it’ll make your head spin for sure.  If there’s anything that I’ve learned, it’s that there’s no “right” or “wrong” answer.  Some folks will tell you that you should never use EQ in extremes (high Q value and boosts/cuts above 3dB for example).Whatever… It really depends on what you’re doing.

The guys over at the Home Recording Show have been extolling the virtues of creating space with EQ.  The more instruments and parts you have, the more drastic your EQ will probably have to be to make room in the audio spectrum so that everything can be heard.

That being said, I think it all comes down to taste and application – if you’re mixing an orchestral, jazz or singer/songwriter project you’re probably not going to have to apply a lot of EQ – many of those instruments have been developed over the past centuries to actually work and compliment each other sonically.  If you’re mixing an industrial metal project or doing sound design, then you’re probably going to be shelving, hi/lo-passing and notching to nose-bleed extremes.

Lesson learned: There are no hard and fast rules to EQ – different styles, situations and effects will require different EQ applications – you gotta use your ears.

  • Layering – mmmm tasty:  There are a couple of different things I’m talking about here – doubling (or tripling, quadrupling…) a part with another performance or copying the same performance and altering it in some way (EQ, effects, different synth patch…).I used to think some parts of my mix sounded too “thin” and ended up playing different lines on different instruments – eventually getting a very complex and muddy sound.

By layering a part, I found that you can fill out a part very effectively – keeping things simple, but also providing some interest and depth.  For instance, a bass line does not have to be covered by only one instrument.  Orchestral composers and orchestrators have been taking advantage of layering for centuries – duplicating (or “x”plicating) the double-bass part with Cello, Bassoon, Tuba, Trombone, Bass Clarinet etc, they found that they could bring some character and definition to the line.

Lesson learned: Duplicating parts and adjusting elements such as EQ, timing, panning and effects can go a long way

  • Distortion – not just yer daddy’s fuzz-pedal – Distortion is good, distortion is good … Really!

I’m not only talking just about fuzz pedals and other kinds of “stereotypical” sources of distortion, but also distortion in the true sense of the word (from Wikipedia):

A distortion is the alteration of the original shape (or other characteristic) of an object, image, sound, waveform or other form of information or representation. Distortion is usually unwanted, and often many methods are employed to minimize it in practice. In some fields, however, distortion is actually desirable; such is the case with electric guitar (where distortion is often induced purposely with the amplifier or an electronic effect to achieve an aggressive sound where desired), or censoring words. The slight distortion of analog tapes and vacuum tubes is considered pleasing in certain music listening situations.

The definition basically puts it all in a nice tidy bucket.  I was aware of what distortion meant, but it didn’t really hit an “a-ha” moment until I read Charles Dye’s A Hard Disk Life where he talked about why he likes to use tube, tape and solid state emulations in his mixes – they add distortion and change, sometimes subtly, the sound by adding harmonics that give the sound some “life” and “warmth”.

Overt distortion is also a great thing too – adding some overdrive, bit-crunching, fuzz, what have you to… well anything, will add something into a sound that will give it some edge to cut through.  It’s all a taste thing, but vocals, drums, bass, keys – everything is game.  A touch of distortion on a fretless ballad bass will have that baby singing!  A bit of fuzz added to a lead vocal will give it a fantastic edge to cut through things!

Lesson learned: Distortion doesn’t just mean a stomp box – it’s anything that changes the character of a sound by altering it … and the good thing is that it can be used on pretty well everything!

  • Levels and Panning – get uncomfortable with them.

Panning – Until a couple of years ago, I was micro-managing my panning on my mixes: “Should that knob be at 1:00 or at 1:24?”  Then Big Al and Mike Wagner from the Project Studio Network talked about this new fangled thing (at least it was to me at the time) called LCR mixing.   Essentially, this is only using three panning positions – full left, center and full right.

Listen to a bunch of tracks out there these days.  You will hear some pretty extreme panning going on when you pay attention – it doesn’t really call attention to itself until you really listen to it.  LCR mixing really simplifies things – I actually do a hybrid of LCR with two extra points in between the L-C and the C-R.  I’m actually quite impressed at how this really clears things up.

One of the things I remember struggling with was how “unnatural” it sounded having an instrument naked and lonely coming out of one speaker.  I really had to step back and listen to the whole sound context with the track I was focusing on – it really did sound much better.  I’ll get into it in Part III of this manifesto, but using effects to help a stereo image does wonders.

Levels – The other thing that I found that I needed to get over was how loud drums and vocals can be without sounding distracting.  Again, with the mixing magnifying glass, it was easy to think: “sheesh that snare is really coming through” – and then wondering why the track that didn’t have any feeling and groove in the end.  It took a few listens to my tracks against “professional” tracks to realize: “for pete’s sake, those drums ARE in your face when you listen to them”.  Those tracks had groove, they made you want to tap your foot and move with the music.

Vocal or lead levels were another item that I got too quiet.  I started employing the “barely audible” listening test to my mixes.  I’d bring the master fader down so that I could barely hear what was coming through.  If the vocals weren’t the last thing I heard before I hit ∞ then they were too quiet.  The second last thing that I was hoping to hear was the drums.

Lesson learned: When micro-managing sounds, I needed to igore my tendency to keep levels and panning in conservative positions – going to extremes added to clarity, definition and excitement.

Of course, proper compression and all the effects helps all this stuff out, but … I’m runnin out of space and time.  Better save that for part III…

Comments 3

  1. Pingback: Mixing…Any Good Yet? Part III | Hatched Productions

  2. Pingback: Should You Limit Yourself? | Hatched Productions

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