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How To Mix A Pop Song From Scratch

Mixing Desk

This series is a rough guide on how to go about mixing a pop record from scratch. Many people don’t seem to know where to start, so hopefully this series of articles will give some guidance.

I am writing this article because it appears to me that there are an awful lot of enthusiastic people out there, who’ve bought all the right toys, but yet can’t get hold of enough RELEVANT information as to how to use them properly. There’s a lot of information out there for sure, but it can get very confusing with all the contradictory opinions out there.

The landscape is certainly colourful. On the one hand, you’ve got the out-and-out experimental lunatics who claim they’ve found the holy grail: “I’ve put my Stratocaster through my grandmothers radiogram and I now know that this is the ONLY way to achieve that authentic ‘valve’ sound!”. And on the other hand you’ve got the purists: “I never use EQ, never, never, never. I previously used to use mic positioning but I’ve even given up on that too. Now I prefer to avoid any analog equipment and I’ve had my guitarist surgically fit an S/P-DIF digital interface into his brain, and I now plug directly into that. He simply *thinks* what the solos should be, and they come through into my PC with direct-digital clarity. The sound has an amazing natural ambience due to the space between his ears.”

Of course this is all jolly good fun, but it can be very confusing to someone who simply wants to know the basics that are used on 99% of chart recordings today, and will probably remain largely unchanged for may years to come. There are other confusing statements too. People sometimes say “Roger Nichols doesn’t use EQ”. Take a comprehensive look through the equipment reviews on Roger Nichols web site and it becomes abundantly clear that he very definately DOES use EQ, compression, the whole lot in fact – and quite frequently too. But like most engineers, he’s just basically saying that whenever possible, he tries to get away without it, and use good recording practice instead – all-in-all an extremely reasonable and practical stance to take.

But if you are learning, don’t stay away from reverb, eq, compression etc., in the mistaken belief that these tools are intrinsically “bad”. They most certainly are not (why would studios spend thousands of dollars equipping their facilities with every processor imaginable if that was the case?). These are all ESSENTIAL TOOLS – all of which you will be required to use at some point. Sure you can screw things up if you use them innaproppriately, but if you are too frightened to ever use them, then you will never learn how to use them properly when you need them.

That’s why recording studios have traditionally employed very young enthusiastic people to train as Sound Engineers. Young people don’t have fixed beliefs, and are much less frightened of making a fool of themselves than older people are. It *is* a bit of a dangerous balance, but one of the reasons why (for example) children are great at learning complex systems like computers is because they are not tainted by a personal history of mistakes. Fear of making mistakes impedes learning, and you have to accept the fact that you will make many, many mistakes on the way to being a good Sound Engineer – and hopefully learn a great deal in the process. I’d be very concerned if I was asked to work with an engineer who claimed they’d never made a mistake – everyone does! Most seasoned professional engineers have a seemingly endless list of after-dinner horror stories from their own past. Even Roger Nichols admits that Steely Dan once had to fork out $60,000 to re-record a song because they’d failed to back up the master of a digital recording – and as anyone involved with computers and audio know, backups are one of the most fundamental, easy and essential things to do.

So let’s talk about the common mixing basics, that all normal engineers do – everyday.

Here, I present to you, some simple instructions on how to mix a pop record. I’ve used it successfully on albums, singles, TV commercials and movie soundtracks. There’s nothing radical here, just straightforward everyday stuff. If you think anything here is strange, then complain to the music industry at large – not to me – because this is pretty much how all mainstream sound engineers go about the process.
There is absolutely no assertion here that this is the “right” way to mix a track – there is no such thing. But what follows is a description of how many (most?) people go about it, and although this won’t guarantee that you will definately get great results, it may help you avoid some of the pitfalls, and if you do perform the following procedure to high standards, there’s no reason why you can’t achieve world-beating results. Many hit records have been produced in peoples bedrooms and backrooms, and you don’t need millions of dollars to do it – just a little knowledge, common-sense, and a good set of ears.

I hope – as always – that people find this interesting and informative.

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2 Responses to “How To Mix A Pop Song From Scratch”

  1. Best part of this article hands down:

    “Fear of making mistakes impedes learning”

    Edit: Not to say that the rest of it isn’t valuable, but I’ve been trying to find a way to express that and you did it well.

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