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Mix a pop song – 1 – Familiarisation

Familiarise yourself with your setup and the tools needed to start mixing.

Connect a short reverb onto an aux send, and a long reverb onto another. That’s all you need for now.

Play back the song. Loop it, preferably, so you don’t keep having to rewind and press play each time.

Now throw up all the faders to around the middle position. Yep! Every single one of them! Don’t try and “mix” them just yet, simply push the whole darn lot up. If the main stereo level is too loud, move all the faders down a bit. Don’t bother messing with the Aux sends or EQ or any of that stuff for now. Just make sure everything is turned up.

If you hear a sound like an oscillator at the bottom of a wishing-well, then you’ve probably got a “timecode” track in there somewhere. It’s usually on track 23 or 24 or at least on a track at the edges of the mixer. Wherever it is, mute it. It isn’t normally designed to be listened to (although timecode tracks with some effects have – bizzarely enough – featured on some remixes). If the timecode track is being fed to an external piece of equipment like a drum machine, or another mutlitrack machine, make sure that you have muted it in such a way as to not interfere with this.

Now, while the track is playing, push up the faders of things you can’t hear, and pull down anything that’s way too loud. Use panpots fairly randomly (at this point) to move things off center. Keep “Bass Drum”, “Snare Drum”, “Bass” and “Vocal” dead center for now.
Still DO NOT touch that EQ or Aux sends yet! 🙂

Listen to the track a few times. Figure out what each part is and label it. If you’re using a PC or digital mixer then the software normally lets you do this. If you’re using an analog mixer then either jot it down on paper, or better still write the parts underneath the faders themselves, making sure this won’t damage the desk. If the desk is made of metal or plastic then you can normally write on the desk surface itself using a chinagraph pencil (do NOT use felt-tip pens!!). If the desk has a fake-leather surround (or you’re not sure how “permanent your marker pens/pencils are), then maybe stick some white sticky tape across the length of the console and use that. Some people prefer to use sticky tape always, as when the session is over, you can stick the tape to the wall of the studio (or somewhere else), and stick it back on the desk if you need to remix. IN ALL CASES make sure that marking the console in this way won’t cause any permanent damage!
When you’ve done this, make a rough mental note of where the faders are, or store them in software. You are not trying to create a “mix” here, just familiarise yourself with the exact contents of each track. On a computer system like n-Track, this is greatly aided by the fact that you can physically SEE if there is sound on a particular track at a given point by looking at the “timeline”. On older, traditional, recording systems – well – you just have to listen. If any tracks seem blank, leave them turned up quite high (and perhaps panned right over to one side) so you will definately hear sound from the track if anything crops up. You may find that – if the number of tracks was limited – different instruments are on a particular track at different points in the song.

It may surprise you to know that you are STILL not ready to mix, so still DO NOT touch that EQ or Aux sends yet!

Even once you are intimately familliar with the contents of EVERY SINGLE TRACK AT EVERY SINGLE POINT OF THE SONG, you are STILL not ready to mix.

You have some very important playing around to do now – and this is the fun part!

AND IT TAKES TIME!

Listen carefully to what each part of the recording contributes to the song. Are there some parts that are obviously meant to “work” together? What do I mean by this? Well, you may find one percussion part – say a “Tambourine”. When you listen to the percussion tracks you may then find another part – say a “Cabasa” that is having a “conversation” with the Tambourine. These things often work well in stereo – with the Tambourine over to the left (for example), and the Cabasa across to the opposite sides. See what stereo placement and level works well for those kind of parts.

Other parts “converse” as well. Guitar parts can be having “conversations”. Try the same thing, with one part over to the left and the other over to the right. Maybe it sounds too “cheesy” like that? Try more subtle placement. All the time you are refining your knowledge of the song and familiarising yourself with the artist and producers intentions when the wrote the musical arrangements.

Don’t be scared to REALLY throw the faders around whilst trying this – you are NOT “mixing” yet. It is extremely important that you hear the song from different perspectives – from the guitars “point of view”, from the drums “point of view” etc. It is often helpful to mute all the parts apart from (e.g.) all the guitars or just the drums, so you can figure out the subtle interplay between them. Also make notes of things that “clash”. Sometimes when “tracking” (recording original parts) a poor monitor mix disguised the fact that certain parts don’t really work so well together. You need to be aware of these things if you are going to mix the track.

Make sure you read any notes accompanying the song. I use pen and paper to make notes, but some people use the “Notes” pages in PC software to store information. Make sure you look for any notes that people made during recording. It can be very embarrassing to spend a long time sorting out sound for a particular track, only to discover in the tape box at the last moment a little hand-written note saying “Don’t use track 14 – it’s to be erased!”. Similarly, remember that in many cases you might not be *required* to use every part on the tape – the band are looking for your creativity after all. Sometimes if you “thicken up” one part of the song, certain other parts may not be required at all.

Another thing to watch out for, are “old” parts that people simply forgot were on the recording and aren’t meant to be used. Sometimes these aren’t even labelled. If you hear something decidedly strange and are in doubt, phone up the artist or producer and ask if the track was really intended to be used. Often they are not! Sometimes (especially if multiple record producers have worked on a project) people are worried about erasing parts from a previous version and leave many of them behind “just in case”. Hugh Padgam (well known UK record producer) one mixed a song by “The Human League” that spanned a total of SIX TWENTY-FOUR TRACK TAPES! (a total of 144 tracks!) simply because every producer that worked previously on the song had been too frightened to erase their predecessors work. Naturally, his first job was to spend many hours, “sorting out” the multitracks, to get it down to a more manageable 24 track recording. This sort of thing is naturally very unfair on the final remix engineer/producer – and wastes a lot of expensive time – but you need to be aware that it happens, and be aware that you are not necessarilly expected to include everything that is on the tape. But to make these decisions you need to spend a fair while making yourself very familliar with the contents of the recording.

A console with real faders (i.e. hardware ones you slide with your hands, not with a mouse) DRAMATICALLY speeds up this process. You can chuck faders about all over the place very quickly and really get a “hands-on-feel” for the song. If your track is MIDI based, then you might like to consider buying one of those relatively cheap MIDI controllers with 16 real faders on, so you can flick them up and down and do this process quickly. There are other controllers that can help too. My Yamaha sampler has four knobs on the front that can be configured to act as MIDI controllers in exactly this way, which can be useful. With some PC software these controllers can be used to control audio levels instead of – or as well as – MIDI tracks.

If – on a MIDI-based track – you find that there is some MIDI automation that seems to be overiding your hardware MIDI controlling device, then see if your software lets you turn such automation off. If it doesn’t, you can try and reconfigure your MIDI controller to adjust “Expression” instead of “Volume” (almost no-one automates “Expression”) and that will let you control the volumes whilst keeping the previously automated MIDI data intact.

At this point, you should have some pretty good idea of how the song is designed to fit together, and you’ve probably made some notes – either on paper or in your head – for things you plan to do when you actually “mix” the track. If you really DON’T have any ideas at all, then – to be honest – I think you need to play with the track some more before mixing, because you obviously don’t understand it enough to do the “fine tweaks” that mixing is really all about.

I have actually STOPPED a mix at this point before, and said to the artist – “I’m sorry, I don’t really understand how this song fits together properly. Can you sit with me and explain how the bits are intended to fit together? – I just can’t see it myself yet”. People normally jump at this opportunity and are eager to help.

Also, make sure that you listen to – and understand – the words of the song and their emotional and sonic content.
When you feel comfortable that you “have a map” in your head of the song, and “know the territory”, then you are NEARLY ready to get down to process of actually mixing the song.

So how do you do that?

I’ll go through the basic principles in a moment, but – to be honest – after you’ve done it a few times, you just “know” what needs to be done, and – apart from a few unexpected tricky bits – you don’t really think about it technically at all – you just sort of go into autopilot for periods of about 30 minutes, then sit back and listen to what you’ve done objectively, and repeat this process until the mix is done.
It can often be useful at the end of a mix – when everything is finished and everyone has gone home – to examine closely what you ACTUALLY did, because most of the time you don’t really know – you just used your ears. It’s useful to do this bit of study at the end of a mix so that if you are in a similar position in future – and for some reason your ears aren’t guiding you – then you know what settings to use as a standby.

Does that sound bad? Is that “mixing by numbers”? Of course it is bad – but sometimes you have no choice. Often there is a great big studio session booked, and you wake up that morning with a stinking cold and you can’t hear a goddamn thing. Naturally the best course of action would be to come clean and find a replacement engineer but this is not always possible. You can’t cancel the session (LOADS of money down the drain, paying for all those session musicians and studio time!), so you have to do the entire session on autopilot, using settings you remember as being “good”, and hope that no-one notices that you’re ill. You can both amaze and depress yourself with how remarkably well you can engineer a session whilst really being quite deaf. My old boss used to say to me “Jez – as long as you have two legs I want you in here every morning! – AND NO EXCEPTIONS!”
Anyway – I’m getting off-track…

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