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Mix a pop song – 3 – Starting the real mix

Now we start the actual process of mixing. Some people will have enthusiastically jumped straight to this point, thinking this is the real starting point. They are likely to be in big trouble if that’s the case…

Why? Here are some reasons (there are others):

  • If you leap in at this point without doing all that “familliarising” with the song, you can end up spending a couple of hours getting the worlds most powerful drum sound, and then find – when you add in the other instruments – that the sound of this song is (for example) a “soft” ballad, not a “power” ballad, and even if you squeeze the right sound out of everything else, the final result will just be plain WRONG.
  • Similarly, you can mix almost the entire track, and then when you add in the vocals and listen to the lyrics, discover you’ve done entirely the wrong treatment for the lyrical nature of the song.
  • Worse still, you can get 80 or 90 percent of the mix polished off – with just a few instruments to go (maybe even just the vocal left) – and realise that there is no way to get the rest of the instruments to conform to the sound you created for the backing track mixed so far. This is very painful and awkward; you have to decide whether to really twist the remaining elements of the mix into place (feeling guilty all the way), or instead to throw away the last few hours work and start again.

(and – in case you were wondering – I’ve made all three mistakes in my past with disasterous results)

So: You know the song, you know where it’s heading – but how do you take it there?

It’s relatively simple to explain. You simply work your way through every instrument in the mix, carefully refining its sound, and checking it against everything else in the mix. You normally have to return to each instrument at least two or three times (and often much more) as the mix takes shape.

By the time you’re finished, everything should sound like it is part of the “same” song. That is harder than it sounds. Normally there are at least one or two things that sound like they are not “fitting in” with the rest of the song.

What order do you do them in?

It’s up to you, but as drums and bass are normally the backbone of every song, with the vocal sitting “on top” of everything else, it makes sense to build a mix up in terms of the musical layering of the song. When working on each sound, you tend to listen to it in isolation, and then “validate” your changes by listening to the track againast everything else in the mix so far. The order of working is usually something ROUGHLY like this:

  • Drums
  • Bass
  • Main “pad” sounds (keyboards or rhythm guitar)
  • Other lead parts (pick guitars / other keyboards etc)
  • Incidental parts (brass stabs / fx etc)
  • Percussion
  • Vocals
  • Backing vocals

– as I say, you’d normally rotate around the above list a few times, then:

  • Program any mutes on the above tracks
  • Possibly compress overall mix (go easy!…)
  • Fine tweaking of fader levels
  • Mix down to stereo
  • Go to bed leaving everything undisturbed
  • Check everything next morning

Sometimes you might EQ the overall mix, but you should be real careful about doing this whilst you mix. It’s not a good idea. You can always EQ the overall mix another day once you’ve “lived with it” for a while, and if you screw it up, it doesn’t matter because you’ve always got the original. If you “miss-EQ” the stereo mix as you lay it down, it can be hard to fix it later. This kind of stuff is best left to a mastering engineer, but there’s nothing wrong with some GENTLE compression (go real easy) as you lay down the mix. Gentle compression also affects the balance of the mix slightly, so people like to do it before the final, very fine tweaking of the fader levels.

Let’s now look at the process in more detail:

Drums

Some important “feel” things to bear in mind when working on the drum sound:

  • The drum sound must suit the nature of the song
  • The sounds should “gel” and sound like ONE kit – in particular, the bass drum and snare drum should sound like they naturally fit together as a pair.
  • On a pop track, the drums should sound “solid” and “robust”, and have real impact.
  • Drum timing can be “loose” but never “sloppy” (yes, the sound DOES effect your perception of timing)
  • The drums need to sound powerful enough for you to FEEL the rhythm, without overpowering the rest of the song.
  • The drums should have dynamics during the song, and not be monotonous (you can do this with subtle fader movements)

Stereo drum tips:

  • Stereo placement of drums CAN be from the drummers point of view OR from the audience point of view. Doing it from the drummers point of view (with wide stereo) does seem a bit “gimmicky” and unrealistic these days.
  • Bass Drum and Snare Drum are usually dead center unless you’re doing Jazz stuff with brushes, and the hi-hat is usually about 50 percent off to one side.
  • The two top Toms are usually equally spaced either side of the centre, and the floor toms much further to one side.
  • Toms fills which are too “wide” in stereo can be distracting
  • It is good to have at least two different cymbals in use, at different stereo positions
  • Cymbals (like toms) should also not be too wide. 50-75 percent off-center is enough
  • If “ambience” tracks have been recorded, make sure they don’t disappear when listening to the mix in mono. If they do, then don’t have them set so wide in stereo.
  • Reverb either on Bass Drum or Snare Drum sometimes sounds good if ONE of them is in mono (gives an interesting alternating “close” / “open” effect on the stereo image). Listen to many different pop songs to hear how often people experiment with this.
  • If you want to use things like noise gates on toms, make sure it doesn’t upset the stereo imaging of the kit overall as the gates open and close.
  • Depending on how they were engineered, a stereo “cymbal” track is sometimes intended to act as a stereo “ambience” track as well. If this is the case, simply use low-frequency EQ to control the cymbals/ambience balance.

Drum sound tips:

  • Bass drums (especially real ones) are frequently problematic and don’t have enough impact. First thing to try, is to use EQ to cut a little of the bottom end off, and push the level up. This will make the bass drum “breathe” more easilly. Then try boosting EQ at around 3-4Khz – quite a narrow EQ setting tends to work best. If the bass drum is inconsistent then use a compressor to even the levels out, but try using EXTREME compression with a slow attack time. This can put one hell of a *thwack!* into the bass drum. Watch your master levels though if you so this, and be prepared to put a limiter across the whole mix later if required. This kind of compression on a bass drum often works best BEFORE the EQ (which is unusual for compression). If using a sampled or ananlog drum machine bass drum (i.e. not a real kit played by a real drummer), adding a degree of VERY SHORT reverb helps add “air” to the bass drum, without compromising power. On a pop track, the bass drum should feel like it is physically hitting you somewhere between your feet and your chest, depending on the style of music. In “drum ‘n’ bass” music, the bass drum will feel like it is hitting you between your groin and your feet, whereas on rock tracks it is more in the stomach and chest area.
  • Another bass drum trick worth playing with, is to mix the sound of a bass drum with a short delay. And I mean REAL short here – we’re not talking about 20-30ms here, no way… We’re talking about getting down to the 5,4,3,2,1 millisecond range. What this does is to produce a comb-filter effect on the bass drum that filters out some of the low end, whilst re-inforcing the top end. Maybe try a *weeny* bit of feedback (try both positive and negative feedback if your delay allows it). To emphasise: We’re not talking about a traditional “delay” effect here. We’re using the delay as a kind of “weird EQ” on the bass drum sound. This technique is kind of unpredictable. It depends on what you feed in. Try it anyway from time to time to see what you get.
  • Snare drums are renowned for being troublesome. Most of the tips that apply to the bass drum work for snare as well, although with snares you often find you need to ADD low-frequency EQ, rather than cutting it back. Adding bass and adding top to a snare drum gives a more “aggressive” sound than trying the more “theoretically correct” method of just sucking out the middle. Sucking out the middle on a snare tends to make it sound too smooth, too sweet, and too restrained. Snares frequently suit a mixture of copious amounts of short reverb, and a medium amount of long reverb. Snare drums on pop tracks should sound like they hit you in the face, working down to your chest. On drum ‘n’ bass tracks the snare should sound physically “higher” in three-dimensions than on a rock track.
  • Toms usually need the bottom end thinning out a little, to give them more air and impact from the top range. If your dealing with a recording of a real drumkit, avoid adding too much top to toms, as it can badly screw up the cymbals and hi-hats. Cutting back on bass is the best approach, coupled with some upper midrange boost. Reverb for toms tends to be similar to the snare, but with the emphasis more on the long reverb.
  • Hi-hats and cymbals, unlike the drums, usually work best with “subtractive” EQ rather than additive. In other words, to get a nice “shiny” cymbal sound, do NOT boost the top end. Instead, roll off some bass, and suck out lots of middle. Adding top end – even on loud rock tracks, often makes cymbals sound far too agressive, too small, over-emphasises cymbal dynamics and often seems to introduce an unmusical distortion which is distracting to the rest of the mix. If cymbals sound too “short”, you can use long reverb to extend them, although this doesn’t work well with real drum kits as it blurs the rest of the kit due to natural leakage.

Drum Soundcheck:

You’ll know when the drums are right – or at least getting there. It should be possible to listen to just the drums from start to finish, and the whole performance should sound solid, sonically excellent, and emotionally powerful (even on a quiet song). All the drums should sound like they are working together as a single performance, and each drum should sound detailed enough for you to pick it out of the mix and point to where it is in the stereo image. Each drum or cymbal should sound razor sharp in its detail and positioning (that doesn’t necessarilly mean “bright” either).

What you are trying to AVOID, is the drums “spreading” into an ill-defined, stereo, lump of goo. This happens a lot with real drums, due to leakage between microphones, but with skilful EQ of the drum mics, it *is* possible to get a detailed and highly controlled sound, without compromising the sonic integrity of the kit overall. The challenge with drum machines, and drum samples, is to get the kit to sound like it is an “integrated” kit where all instruments have been matched to work together well. Drum craftsmen spend years learning their trade so that the kits they make work well together, so bear in mind that it can take skill and practice to create an “integrated” sound from a bunch of drum samples.
Bass

On a pop track, the bass parts and drum parts should work so well together that they sound almost as if they were performed by one person at the same time. In particular, the bass and bass *drum* should “lock” together to form the pounding of the track. Poor bass guitarists who play over-the-top melodic bass lines often lose this synchronisation with the bass drum resulting in a less powerful impact.

Stereo bass tips:

  • On most pop tracks, the bass is best in mono and smack bang dead center. A bit of short reverb can help, but it can smear the imaging of the bass, making its stereo image seem “unstable”, when you really NEED it to be “locked” tightly to the bass drum.
  • On rock ballads, stereo CHORUS can give bass a wonderfully wide swirly sound, whose imprecise stereo imaging actually *helps* the dreamy nature of love songs etc., and can make a picked bass sound more like a fretless one.
  • Too much stereo on bass can make your mix hard to cut onto vinyl (important for loud club tracks), and used to risk serious damage to expensive disc cutting heads. Mastering engineers used to use an “eliptical filter” to effectively “mono” the bass to prevent such damage, which still allowed upper harmonics to give the impression of a “wide” bass, and although it is true that modern disc cutting lathes don’t suffer from this so much, it is still the case that too much stereo bass can cause a vinyl record to jump on playback – especially with loud 12″ cuts.
  • Too much low-frequency bass too loud in the mix, can eat into valuable mix headroom, severely limiting how “loud” your track can be mastered. This can be fine on sparse tracks (like drums ‘n’ bass and reggae), but on a pop song can “weaken” literally *everything* else in the mix, including the lead vocals, and additionally can make mix compression difficult, requiring the use of sophisticated multi-band compressors (or at least side-chain equalisation) in order to avoid “modulation effects” (pumping of the overall mix, caused by an overbalanced bass).

Bass sound tips:

  • Like bass drum, many – if not most – bass parts can be helped by CUTTING low-frequency EQ, and NOT by boosting it as one might expect. In the context of a mix overall, the overbalancing of upper harmonics caused by cutting back on low frequency, can make the bass sound more powerful, not less powerful as you might expect.
  • Basses (guitar AND keyboards) are sometimes quite noisy. You can usually roll off quite a lot of top-end to get rid of the hiss without it affecting the sound too much.
  • Some songs have two bass parts – perhaps synth and bass guitar. Be aware that it can be troublesome to get them to work together, and one of them should probably have to get the “lions share” of low-frequency compared to the other. It’s difficult to generalise about this situation, because it is ambitious and a little unusual – except to say that it is rarely easy to get the two to work together well, and much experimenting may be required.
  • Bass guitar parts very often (almost always) need some compression to keep the energy equal and sustained throughout the song, otherwise, minor imperfections in the bass playing seem to leave “holes” in the track.
  • Like bass drums, bass parts can frequently be made more “punchy” by the addition of some fierce compression with a slow attack and fast release.
  • If compressing bass, don’t make the release time too fast, or weird wobbly stuff will happen as the compressor tries to follow the waveforms of the bass itself instead of the overall amplitude.
  • If the bass is particularly sloppy compared to the bass drum, there is a bizzare trick that is often used: Try putting the bass through a noise gate (of all things) and gating it using the BASS DRUM in the noise gate side-chain, so that the bass drum “pumps” the bass part. You should use the “gain reduction” control of the noise gate to control how much “pumping” takes place, or – if this control is not present – simply mix the gated bass part with the original bass part. This is kind of nasty and extreme, but it has saved many a mix, and is a fairly well-known trick.

Bass Soundcheck:

The bass sound is right when it feels strong and solid and seems to underpin the rest of the track. It should emphasise the drums whilst at the same time adding a whole bunch more to the track. It should sound distinct from the bass drum, but not so much that the two cease to work together as a pair. Like the bass drum, it is more about how the sound “feels” rather than sounds, so you’ll never get a good bass sound working with headphones (except by accident), as the bass needs to be felt from the chest downards to the knees (and sometimes even the feet!).

After working on the bass and drums, they should be performing “as one”.

Summary so far

We’ve examined the basics of starting a “serious” mix (i.e. one that will take several hours), we stressed the importance of thoroughly familiarising yourself with the track before even thinking about starting the mix properly, and then discussed the basics of getting the drum sound and bass parts up and running smoothly. No doubt at this point you are itching to get on with the rest of the mix. But before we do so, I want to briefly cover an important subject that pertains to live drums in particular, and that subject is “noise gates.”

Although it is true that you can “gate” the drums later on in the mix, doing so will “unbalance” the work you’ve done so far – so if you want to use gates on the drums, you’d better start doing so at the beginning, before you start adding in much else.

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