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Mix a pop song – 9 – Track Sharing
Finally, if certain tracks have more than one instrument part on them (“track-sharing” is a common practice if the number of tracks you have is limited), then it is extremely likely that the different parts will need different levels, EQ, and effects on them (although if you’ve read my article on setting recording levels, you will know that I am an advocate of recording multiple things on the same track at their correct relative levels, so that rough “monitor mixing” during production is much easier).
In order to sort out different parts on the same track, you have two options. You can either (a) automate your mixing desk so that the correct settings “kick in” at the right part of the song, or you can (b) duplicate the track and use different settings with the same track coming through two different channels. On a conventional analog system, option (b) is easy – you just use a patch-cord to plug the track into two different channels at once. On some high-end PC software systems you can do this too (in software), but not always. In some PC systems you might end up having to duplicate the track in order to get it to come up two different mixing channels.
Option (b) is by far the easiest in terms of the amount of work you need to do. Although “automating” the same channel so that it suddenly changes settings at the relevant part of the song seems “clever” and “neat” and is therefore appealing, it is also a lot more time consuming and can often be quiet difficult. By putting the same sound through two different channels you can play around manually, without automation, to your hearts content which is much easier, and the only automation that you need to worry about is the automated “mute” that switches from one channel to the other at the relevant parts of the song.
On an entirely PC based system however, you may find that option (a) is better, as it might make more efficient use of your CPU’s resources, because each extra track or channel tends to use up more CPU power. One workaround for this CPU power consumption problem might be to “render” the settings for the two parts and mix them down to one track, saving the originals in case you need them in future.
Summary of Adding Main Parts
The key thing when adding the main parts is to not take a “prescription” approach that blindly follows any “rules” you think I’ve outlined above. You should make sure that you really understand what each of the parts are “saying” and how they interact with each other. That will help you decide both the sound and the stereo positioning. Use your ears, and look at the controls only if you think you’ve done something wrong or if you want to remember the settings for a future session, and remember – there are no rules – it is really only how the thing sounds in the end that matters after all this – not the theory of how you did it – and above all, please remember that the above comments are just intended as helpful hints and suggestions, and feel free to disagree and go against them as you see fit.
Perhaps you might have totally different approaches in mind, so feel free to experiment as much as you like. Remember though, as time goes on your ears will get more and more tired and you will be less able to make sensible decisions, so work as quickly as you can, and don’t spend too long on any one instrument – it will drive you to the point of mental breakdown if you do.
Also, don’t be afraid to use quite extreme compression on some of the lead parts if you genuinely believe it sounds right to do so. I’ve often been amazed at how much compression some parts seem to require, but yet in the overall sound of the mix, heavy compression if often not particularly noticeable (unlike final “mix compression” which is very audible if overdone). Make sure that the compressor isn’t permanently compressing though – otherwise you’re not getting the best out of it. On the quiet sections of a performance there should be little or no “Gain reduction” showing (it’s obviously very helpful if the compressor has a “gain reduction” meter). If the “gain reduction” lights are always on, then you have almost certainly got the “Threshold” control set way too low – unless you are deliberately using the compressor to add “punch” in which case its excusable. Otherwise, a compressor with the threshold set too low is starting to act more and more like a simple volume control and is a waste of time.
You don’t have to add percussion after the main parts, sometimes it makes sense to do so before – when you’ve got drums, bass, and any pad parts in place. It depends on the song. Personally I often like to do percussion later on in the mix because you can get a better perspective of what the percussion is really adding to the mix. It also gives you a break after doing the drums and bass which have probably already given your ears quite a pounding.
The guidelines are similar to the lead parts; listen to what each part is “saying” and that will help you get your stereo placing. Some things will be intended to be almost part of the drum kit (such as cabasas, tambourines, and maracas, which often work in conjunction with the hi-hat). Other things are quite separate (like timbales) and deserve to be featured for only very short stretches at a time before they become boring.
You don’t have to use all the percussion when mixing – in fact it is generally best not to do so.
The reason for this, is that when recording percussion, people tend to be overgenerous. They put lots and lots in “just in case” on the grounds that “it can always be taken out in the mix later”. This isn’t unreasonable, so bear it in mind, and consider using automated mutes on the mixing system to just bring in the percussion at particular sections that need a little more “colour” adding to them.
When EQing percussion, remember that if you want to get more top end, removing the low and mid will give you a more smoother sounding top end than simply cranking the high-frequency EQ up. It isn’t that one is necessarily better than the other – they just produce different results.
For example, things that go throughout the entire song, like perhaps congas, cabasas, maracas and the like, normally respond to subtractive EQ (removing low and mid, rather than just boosting high) for a smooth sound – otherwise they tire and strain the ears. But things which are featured only briefly – such as timbales – benefit from the extra “thwack” that high-boost alone provides. Additionally, in the special case of something reinforcing an important drum beat – such as tambourine beating in time with the snare – such a sound can benefit from the extra energy that pure high-frequency boost gives, and make it stand out against the drum it is competing with.
Generally speaking, for most percussion it is not at all unusual to have to remove a fair bit of low-end to get the percussion to “cut through” the mix. Bongos and congas – no matter how well recorded – usually need to be “thinned out”, in order to be properly heard on a busy pop mix.
Our old friend – the “small” reverb – is of particular importance when mixing percussion. To get a truly spectacular effect, try being generous with the small reverb, and try making the percussion sound like it is “outside” of the bounds of the rest of the mix – so that it sounds, further back, yet bigger, and “surrounding” the rest of the mix instead of being in the middle of it (unless of course, you are trying to get a 70′s disco sound, in which case leave the percussion fairly dry). If you do this “wide spacing” using short reverb, it is often most effective if it is used only on some parts of the mix (like a percussion break) – if it is like this for the duration of the track it can be tiring on the ears, and distracting to the rest of the mix.
Balancing the levels of the percussion is a tricky business, and best done at fairly quiet levels on small monitor loudspeakers, otherwise there is a risk that one thing (like a handclap or tambourine) will dominate the final mix.
The Big One – The Lead Vocal
Ironically, after all the effort you’ve put into everything so far, there is one musical “part” which if you screw it up, everything is lost.
All the time and money spent doing everything else is just money down the drain if you can’t get the vocal right.
So what are your objectives?
Primarily, you are trying to ensure that what the vocalist is saying can be heard. I don’t (just) mean physically heard, but emotionally heard. That has a substantial impact on the kind of things you will want to do to the lead vocal as part of the mixing process.
Secondly, you need to get the vocal to “fit in” with everything you’ve been working on for the last few hours. Hopefully, if you’ve followed this article so far, you’ll remember that everything has been mixed with at least a little of everything always present, so you should have been listening to the vocal – at least to some degree – all the time you’ve been mixing so far. If you haven’t, then you may have a very nasty surprise when you fade it in. It may sound, tonally, quite different from everything else, and you will realise that much needs to be done to the sound to get it to “gel” with everything else.
But shouldn’t the lead vocal be “pure”? Should it not be unaffected, uncompressed, unEQ’ed, with just a little specially prepared reverb?
Well, try that for starters. It might work. If so, well… erm… that was easy… skip the rest of this section!
In all likelihood though it won’t be. If you’ve done a good job of the mix so far, then everything should sound very impressive and polished, and the vocal will probably not sound as stunning as everything else.
There are – needless to say – so many different ways you can approach the lead vocal that an entire book could be written on the subject. But here are some tips anyway:
- Consider using a different reverb for the vocal that you have not yet used on anything else on the track. Normally, reverb on the vocal benefits from much less “damping” than general-purpose reverb, and – if you can – try taking some low-frequency out of the reverb return or send. Both the vocal, and it’s reverb should be clearly audible above everything else in the mix, without being overly loud. Generous pre delay on the vocal reverb is often very effective, as it makes the reverb sound like it is reflected off the back wall of an auditorium, or off a mountain or canyon. Be careful not to overdo the vocal reverb, as it can sound either somewhat dated, or just plain tiring to the ears.
- You may have to “thin out” the vocal a little, and add some very top end to give the vocal a little polish, and you might also need to use a de-esser to counteract the effects of this EQ. You instead might consider using an Aural Exciter processor effect to add more top end without sibilance, or try playing the vocal through a Dolby encoder (as if it is recording) which will make it brighter. “Switching off the Dolbies” on playback was a standard technique on both lead and backing vocals in the analog days.
- If the vocal needs compression, then expect to spend a fair bit of time doing it. The lead vocal exposes poor compression, so it can take much time to get the settings right. You are trying to get the vocal “present” for the duration of the song, without it sounding squashed or restrained – the vocal should (normally) – sound spacious and open, and able to move freely. An over-compressed vocal actually sounds claustrophobic! (naturally though, this can sometimes be desirable). Sometimes however, you might find you need to “expand” a poorly recorded, over-compressed vocal in order to put some “life” back in it. If you thought setting up a compressor is hard, then try setting up an expander to correct an over compressed lead vocal! Believe me, you won’t want to over compress a lead vocal when recording one in future after that experience!
- I often use chorus on the lead vocal. What? Is that legal? Well, yes it is. I’m not talking about swamping the vocal, or making it sound like it’s been double-tracked – I’m talking about just the weeniest, weeniest amount of very slow chorus at a low level. The level should be so low that the chorus effect itself is inaudible. Instead, the effect is that the high frequencies sound fuller, and the vocal sounds “bigger” and more powerful in a way that is hard to describe. You need to try this to understand what I mean. Just very, very faint chorus on very subtle settings – hardly even there at all.
- Sometimes, using an “old-fashioned” equaliser such as a “Pultec” or other valve-style equaliser can let you change the vocal sound, without making it sound like it has been deliberately equalised. I’ve personally known a Pultec “rescue” a mix that seemed doomed because the vocal didn’t fit with the rest of the track no matter what was done, but two minutes with a Pultec and the vocal was perfect. This is no guarantee though.
- Generally, use only the highest quality effects and processors on the vocal. If you’ve used them up already whilst mixing, consider hijacking them back for vocal purposes, and reworking the other instrument using a spare, unused, cheaper effect unit.
- Using a delay with fairly generous feedback – either on the beat, or perhaps in triplets – can be very effective on a vocal. Often it works well throughout the entire track, other times it works best when you just “spin off” occasional words at the end of particular sentences. Be careful doing this, or it will sound too “corny”.
- Make a final check on the vocal sound, and make sure that it doesn’t sound too “effected”. The human ear is especially sensitive to vocals (we hear the human voice every day more than probably any other sound), and vocal parts can reveal poor processing or poor choice of effects very easily. When this happens, it sounds like the vocal is somehow “crumbling apart” and it somehow sounds “bitty” (even on an analog system!).
- Vocal levels should be set whilst monitoring at a very low level – make sure the lyrics are clearly audible at all levels.
Backing vocals need to sound like a tightly controlled block of perfect harmonies. Normally what’s on tape isn’t anything of the sort.
So how do you fix them?
Firstly, assuming that you have individual backing harmonies recorded on separate tracks, the first thing is to get them to blend together so the harmonies create a pleasing effect. You need a bit of a “musical” ear to do this, so experiment a bit until you get a result where a nice “chordal” sound is produced. Listening to them as a group by themselves, without anything else in the mix, is (unlike other parts) usually the best way to get started. Make a little stereo mix of them, with reverb on each part individually. This is because certain harmonies within the group may need more reverb than others. You can add some “small” reverb as well as long in order to give them each a bit of individual space, but – often that’s not a good idea – because you are trying to get them to gel together into one harmonious lump, not sound like a set of individuals. The spatial “spread” you try to give them in stereo is much more about creating a nice “blocky” sound than separating the harmony parts.
Normally, the levels of the backing vocals don’t fit together. So compress them to death! Yes – it’s OK to do this on a pop track. Feel free to go quite mad. The backing vocals will usually be at quite a low level in the mix and so the compression will either not be noticeable, or will even enhance the sound! You want them to be a rock-steady block with little or no dynamics. If they need dynamics it is (unlike other instruments) best to compress them like mad individually so that they fit together properly, and add any dynamics by hand using automated fader movements on the stereo backing vocals as a whole.
If the backing vocals don’t sound “thick” enough, or simply sound out-of-tune (a common problem), then adding some chorus to them is often a good idea. If you have a “true stereo” chorus try setting the chorus return (or the send) so that it is in reverse – i.e. Parts on the left hand side, have a chorused sound to the right, and vice versa. This creates a nice stereo sound for the backing vocals without getting too much separation on the individual performers themselves. Check them in mono to make sure you haven’t added to much chorus (you normally don’t want them to sound “effected” as such) and the other reason is to check that you still get a nice “chordal” sound on the backing vocals when the mix is played in mono.
To help thicken them up some more, either try using an “Exciter” effect such as the Aphex Aural Exciter or try Dolby encoding, or simply add some very top end (12 kHz), using a de-esser if necessary to remove any sibilance introduced.
Finally, consider compressing the stereo mix of backing vocals as a whole as well. Yet more compression!! – Have I gone completely mad?? Not at all. Compressing the group has a different effect than individual compression, and often both are needed to get that “brick wall sound” that makes good pop backing vocals sound spectacular.
If you are using a PC based system, you might now have to “render” the backing vocal mix in order to get some life back out of your CPU!
If the backing vocals are already “premixed” to stereo, you either have to hope that they were combined using the techniques above, or instead, try adding EQ, reverse-stereo chorus, EQ, Exciter, compression etc. to the stereo track as a whole and see if that helps. When working with a “premixed” stereo set of backing vocals, you will often have to use midrange EQ with a narrow bandwidth in the middle of the note ranges of the harmonies, to “bring out” or “suppress” harmony parts that have not been correctly mixed together.
What? Did you expect a little thing like backing vocals to be easy?
Refining the Main Mix Levels
Monitoring levels and mix “balancing”
At this point, you should have a relatively excellent mix – certainly much better than you’ve ever heard the track before. However, it is likely that at certain points in the song, the mix of the instruments goes slightly off-balance. It’s worth sitting back for a bit of a break now (more tea and biscuits anyone?) and listening back to the mix – perhaps on smaller speakers and at a much lower volume. Personally if I’m having a little tea-break like this, then I like to sit in a different part of the room (maybe the sofa at the back) and listen at a very, very quiet level, and try almost not to listen. Maybe even listen outside the control room with the door shut! (I’m not the only person who does this) – it gives you yet another perspective – and we are each of us, after all – quite used to how records sound coming from someone else’s room with the door closed.
I then make notes either on paper or in my head as to what’s going on.
Listening at low levels is always a real eye-opener (or should that be ear-opener?). For some reason – although you can’t hear the detail of the individual sounds particularly well at low levels, you can certainly hear level imbalances with startling quality.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t listen on the “big” speakers if the studio has them. Main studio monitors are very expensive ($50,000 would not be an unusual price to pay for a pair of main monitors), and part of the reason is the quality and attention to detail in the sound that they reproduce, so main monitors are terrific for making sure you’ve really brought the “detail” out of the sound, and sorted out conflicting sound sources – especially in the low-mid to bass region. The bass end always sounds pretty much OK on small speakers, so make sure you listen on main monitors to hear the mess that’s really going on underneath. It is particularly important if the record will be played in clubs and bars.
If you don’t have main monitors available to you, then the best you can do is listen reasonably loudly in order to hear (and feel) the low end of the mix properly, and then return the monitors to a more reasonable level as soon as possible afterwards. Listening loudly for extended periods will quickly wear your ears out, as well as damaging you ears in the long term.
In most studios, don’t bother listening to a mix quietly on the main studio monitors. They usually work very poorly at quiet levels, and they often don’t come “alive” until you listen at moderate to loud levels. They are calibrated at a medium to high level anyway, and usually behave quite differently if under-driven. If you wish to listen quietly, then listen on the near field (small) monitors instead.
Using a selection of monitors at a selection of different volume allows you to “explore” the mix in different amounts of detail. Do you write documents, or create artwork on a computer much? Yes? If so, then think of listening quietly on small speakers as “Zooming out” of the mix to see the whole picture, and listening quite loudly on main monitors as “Zooming in” (to see the detail) on the mix. You need to see the mix from many different perspectives to get a highly polished result for playback in many different environments.
A summary of monitoring would be:
- Get the “Sounds” correct at moderate to high levels (using main monitors if you have them)
- Get the “Balance” correct at low levels (on medium to small speakers), making minor sound adjustments when necessary.
Interestingly, when you get the mix “balance” correct at very low listening levels, it rarely (never?) sounds wrong when you listen to the mix loudly later. The reverse is almost never true. If you’ve ever done a mix at high volume level, then I’m sure you’ve experienced the bitter disappointment that occurs when you listen to your mix quietly at a later date, and find that the levels are all over the place. Some of the mixes I’ve done at too high a level sound positively embarrassing when listened to at normal levels. Even if your music is designed to be listened to loudly (heavy metal music, or club music etc.), you should still do level balancing at a low volume, otherwise your mixes will sound pitifully weak when they’re played on radio or in your car. Usually the only way to rescue a mix done poorly like this, is to heavily compress and EQ it when mastering, which not very desirable, as it has all kinds of unpleasant side-effects.
So, with that warning, let’s get onto the fine art of level balancing in more detail.
Often, the first thing that inexperienced people do at this point, is to switch on the automation and start programming fader movements in. I resist this urge. I will turn on the automation and program the “mutes” though (for convenience) but I leave the faders on manual for the time being.
My personal favourite starting point is not to automate the faders, but instead to listen carefully to what the source of the problem really is. If it is that a certain instrument “jumps out” of the mix always at certain melodic points during the mix (or alternatively seems to disappear at certain melodic points during the mix), then there are two ways you can make this problem automatically correct itself without resulting to automation. Firstly, you can try experimenting with compression a bit more – see if you can get a compressor to sort out the problem for you automatically. Secondly, you can try equalising the offending part so that the EQ makes the sound automatically dip in level (or go up in level) at the relevant points in the instruments melodic range.
Note that this is not the same use of EQ that you have used so far in the mixing process. Up to this point, you will have been using the EQ either to remove unpleasant resonance’s – which involves “notching” with a very small bandwidth at very specific frequency points – or you’ve used EQ to enhance the sound in a more general level – which usually involves playing with the subsonics of the sound (low-frequency EQ) or tweaking the upper harmonics of the sound at 3 kHz or above.
What we are talking about here, is playing with the EQ at very specific points in the middle of its melodic range – which involves fairly narrow bandwidth right in the middle of the note range of the instrument, and not in the upper harmonic range (which is the bit that EQ for sound enhancement is normally associated with).
This use of EQ and compression as a level balancing tool tends to be interactive between the two techniques -a change to one (either compression or EQ) affects to some degree the result achieved by the other – so you may have to perform a delicate balancing act between the two techniques to get the instrument to behave itself.
But why do this when you can automate the faders?
- Firstly, it’s considerably quicker. Using this technique to get the balance right in one part of the song (carefully checking you’ve not screwed up the level in other parts of the song), usually means that the instrument will “sort itself out” for the entire length of the song. Although it is often possible in automatic mixing systems to copy specific fader movements from one part of the song to another, this is often a fiddly, time-consuming, and often so boring a process that many people prefer to program it by hand for the whole length of the song – which also takes time.
- Secondly, the other reason why using EQ and compression as an automatic mix level-balancing tool is a good idea, is that it tends to lead to a more musical result. Using fader automation to achieve the same ends usually involves making many very, very small fader movements that “ride the melody”. EQ and compression can do this for you automatically if done well. If you do a good job of this, it is still quite likely that you will need to do some fader movements, however such movements tend to be more “general” in nature rather than fiddly little ones.
- Thirdly, using EQ and compression to balance levels makes life considerably easier if you have no automation system at all. People survived without automation for many years and still made great records. This is one of the ways in which they achieved that.
So, what if you have no automation at all?
If you don’t have automated mixing (which is still very common in project studios with analog mixing desks), don’t panic. All is not lost, and you can still get great results. This is how we did it in the days before automated mixing:
- Firstly, use EQ and compression to let the mix sort itself out as described above
- Secondly, for any sequencer generated parts recorded onto tape, you can run the parts “live” instead, and use the sequencer software to automate their mixing levels. Personally I usually record tracks from an external sequencer onto audio tracks separately rather than have the sequencer live, as it is less error prone, gives much better timing (less “MIDI-clogging”) and you don’t have to wait for the sequencer to sync up all the time, which makes it easier to work with – but when doing the final mix it is much less of an issue.
- Thirdly (my personal favourite, and much quicker than the above) re-record onto the audio tracks any sequencer-based parts, adjusting the recording levels by hand whilst re-recording them. This is much quicker than reprogramming the sequencer and means you can “drop in” on any fader movements you’ve messed up. It also means that you’ve got a much better quality multitrack should someone else want to remix it.
- Next, for the case where you have “live” (human-performed) instruments recorded and you have a “real” mixing desk with actual faders, you can find a couple of spare tracks and then mix the entire song down to them as you playback – “dropping in” to re-record over the separate mix sections where the levels are different. This gives many of the benefits of automated mixing – although you might need to get a friend to help you out with the fader movements if there are a lot of them at the same time – but hey!, that’s a fun, interactive experience for you both! They don’t even need to be any good at mixing – you can just tell them what faders to move where and when. Make some chinagraph pencil marks next to the faders as a guide to help them. This used to be one of the standard jobs for Assistant Engineers in the old days, and helped train them in the art of mixing. It is still the standard assistants job in the mixing of movie soundtracks, where there are usually many more trained staff available to help out with the process, making it much quicker and much more enjoyable than using a computer automation system.
- Finally – similar to the above, but in the case where you don’t have a spare pair of tracks to mix down to , you can mix the entire track to separate sections on DAT, open-reel etc.., and then stick the whole lot together – using scissors and sticky tape if necessary (er.. – not on DAT – I mean on open reel for sticky-tape editing! – in order to get the final mix edited together. Although this is time-consuming, and requires some work before the sections can be heard in context as an entire final mix, it is still an option and is the way that complex mixes have been achieved – without automation – for many years. The downside is that fixing mistakes is a laborious process, involving the peeling apart of edits, and carefully tracking different “edit sections” in a computer or on scraps of tape lying about the place. Many people – including me – have spent much time scrabbling about under an analog tape machine searching for a twenty second section of tape on the floor literally tangled up with other sections.
What are you trying to achieve, overall?
You are trying to achieve a mix where – for the entire duration of the song – the levels of all the different instruments sound like they are “in balance”. This does not necessarily mean “consistent” (that would just be dull). If someone is getting a bit loud in the mix, don’t assume that you need to immediately constrain them by pulling the fader back. Maybe it’s OK for them to come up a bit at that point of the song? Listen carefully before you act. Maybe it’s everyone else that needs to be pushed up in the mix at that point rather than constraining the one performer who dared to be bold at that point in the song.
How do you go about it?
As mentioned previously, the trick when level-balancing is to listen quietly – on the small speakers – when level-balancing. This is not the sort of thing you want to be doing at full-blast on the main monitors. It’s fine to get the basic mix sounding good on the main monitors, but the subtleties of tiny fader movements can’t be heard properly at such high listening levels, so try to perform level balancing at a level slightly below what listening level people would normally comfortably listen to on a home hi-fi system.
Is there anything to watch out for?
Yes! – The most common mistake people make, is to spend literally hours and hours mixing a song on automation, delicately riding every single fader in the entire mix, smoothing out even the most slightest of imperfections. People start to “loop” the playback – sometimes spending considerable time on just a ten or twenty second segment, moving seemingly everything around in a continuous “Mexican wave” of fader movements.
If you do that, then the entire automation system effectively just becomes an extremely complex compressor, destroying all sense of dynamics and musical movement in the mix. When you play it back later, the mix will not “excite” anyone anymore. A telltale sign of this, is when the size of the song mix file in bytes (if you can measure this) becomes enormous – thereby indicating that throughout the song almost every fader is on the move (albeit slightly) throughout the entire length of the song. There is “fader edit”, on top of fader edit, on top of fader edit and so on. That surely can’t be good can it? Often you are simply fighting against bad fader movements you previously made underneath and it may well be worth rewriting a fader movement from scratch rather than “trimming” it many times.
So over-reliance on automation can lead to extremely “bland” mixes with no dynamics or life left in them – so don’t go crazy – do only what is necessary to keep the mix balance reasonably consistent, and do no more, otherwise you are wasting hours, killing the song by degrees as the day goes on. Unless the band is totally hopeless, try and leave dynamic “expression” to the musicians. It’s what they’re paid for.
Hey, it’s tea-break time again!
It’s probably best to take a complete break from listening to anything at all at this point. You are probably quite exhausted. If you feel the urge to sleep, then make yourself a strong coffee. If you go to bed now, things will sound different to your ears in the morning and you will end up spending all of tomorrow redoing everything and all of today’s efforts will have been a waste of time. Best to battle on and get it finished today.
When you are ready to continue, listen to some other records very briefly for a few minutes at a quiet level. This will refresh your ears and remind you of how things sound in the big world of music recording outside of your studio. Compare different songs from different people. Listen to the levels of the different parts – especially the vocal level.
Then listen to your mix at domestic listening level, and compare that with listening to it loudly (on main monitor speakers if you have them). It is unlikely that anything major will need changing at this point, but what you will probably notice is that some parts overall are just a teeny bit too loud or too quiet. This should be a very “general” feeling; because you’ve already smoothed out the levels, there shouldn’t be anything that needs changing significantly during the song at all.
To change the overall levels of the two or three parts that might need “tweaking”, there are two ways you can do it. You can either program into the automation an overall “trim” of the separate parts, or – my preference – just carefully crank the “trim pots” at the top of the channel (or their software equivalents). It’s often much quicker than fiddling about with the automation system, especially now you’re tired and likely to do something silly (like erasing the master mix file – it happens, really!).
When you’ve got everything the way you want it, it is time to consider whether compressing the mix overall will have any benefit.
Before you leap out of your chair and go patching your $200 Alesis across the two weeks of blood, sweat and tears it took to get the song to this stage, consider whether you need to do any compression at all.
On the other hand, don’t assume that because you’ve compressed each instrument individually then overall compression isn’t required – the two things are quite separate and the mix compressor will respond to the blend of the instruments in a way that individual instrument compression never can. It can be worth doing mix compression on the night of the mix – you know the song more intimately at this point than you ever have in the past – or will the next day. But you can also be overtired and mess it up completely.
I’ve written a separate article about compression, but in summary there are a number of reasons why you might want to consider compressing the whole mix at this time:
- The mix doesn’t sound loud enough
- The mix isn’t “punchy” enough (not enough “bong” and “boff) despite best efforts whilst mixing
- You’ve worked hard, and the whole mix nearly gels together but not quite.
Using a compressor on a precious, final mix is hard work requiring hard listening and serious concentration. You’ll need to do a lot of switching in/out of the compressor to see if you’re really making a difference, and in some cases you may be “splitting hairs” and not making enough significant difference to make the compression worthwhile. If it’s not making much difference then it probably isn’t worth doing at this stage.
If you’re not sure (and this only comes with experience) then you really should leave it alone. You can always compress the stereo mix later on another day. If you ruin your mix now you’ll be stuck with the results forever.
After you’ve got the compressor making the mix sound the best you can possibly get it, you might still consider one final round of teeny, teeny instrument level adjustments (this really is hard work, isn’t it?). Perhaps the compressor seems to have lost some of the bass from the mix? (quite likely – the subjective effect of compression is often a noticeable loss of extreme bass). Perhaps also some things now sound a wee bit too loud after whole-mix compression? If you think that radical changes are required, then you probably don’t have the compressor set up properly, so either redo it or just unpatch it completely and leave mix compression for another day.
This “final polishing” should take no more than about fifteen minutes to half an hour. You’re nearly dead as it is…
Record the mix onto DAT or CD right NOW!
Even if you intend to review a computer-based mix in the morning before definitely deciding on it, put it down now onto tape of DAT or CD anyway!! This is supremely important: Between now and tomorrow morning a huge number of things can change. Old outboard effects and other external equipment will have cooled down overnight and may sound slightly different in intangible ways the next day. Other people – or in my case, my pets – may not realise the importance of your precious work and start changing settings inadvertently. Even if the mix is “safe” inside a computer, the software might not perform properly the following day. The file system might even lose the mix. The computer may even crash horribly as you power down tonight just before you go home! I’ve had it happen. Even if you leave it turned on, it might catch fire. It’s working right now, so put the mix down and store a backup outside of the system (on DAT, CD or similar). Even more importantly keep the mix master safe and irrefutably well-labelled.
Here’s a story for you: “Gash tape” is what you call the 2-3 minutes of blank tape on a metal spool that you have left over at the end of a blank reel of master recording tape. Tape spools are expensive, and so if you need one quickly in the studio, if you see a tape spool with some “gash” on it lying around, you just pick up a razor blade, poke it through the hole in the tape spool, and slice straight through the layers of tape to the hub. All of the spare blank tape falls in little bits onto the floor or into the dustbin, and you’ve got yourself a nice empty metal spool in a hurry. In a London Recording Studio one morning, the bleary-eyed Producer and Engineer staggered into the studio after a late night mix the night before, only to find that the Tape-Op had just chopped last nights Marvin Gaye master mix into 6 inch pieces, mistaking it for “gash”.
Horror stories can involve DAT tapes too. It’s certainly not unusual to find a DAT tape has gone missing, only to find that the cleaners have accidentally knocked it off the shelf behind some tape machines or behind an equipment rack. Keep it safely stored away.
So if the studio breaks down overnight, or if there is some other disaster, you’re going to feel nice and smug if you’ve got a copy of the mix stored in a safe place. It’s happened to me before. It may be nothing more sinister than a simple power-cut for a few hours, but it still puts you out of action if you’ve not stored your many hours of work onto a portable format such as DAT or CD. This can be a disaster if you’ve got a mastering session booked that morning.
Important preparation for tomorrow
Don’t go to bed. Not yet.
Without changing anything related to the mix setup, do the normal housekeeping duties like emptying the ashtrays, taking the cups to the kitchen for a few minutes.
It’s quite possible you might (incredibly) want to listen to some light music at this point. That’s fine – but listen quietly though. Resist the urge to listen to your mix again. You’re finished with that for today. Personally, I used to like gently playing the lovely Yamaha Grand Piano in the main studio for about half an hour, with the lights dimmed.
Why are you doing all this? Because if you go to bed now, without a break, you will not be relaxed and as a consequence when you climb into bed, you will still be thinking about your mix. You will actually dream about the mix – moving faders in your sleep. You can have bizarre and confusing dreams about the mix if you haven’t relaxed properly before getting into bed.
I’ve literally woken up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night screaming “I’ve wiped the multitrack!!! I’ve erased everything!! Oh my god what am I going to do!!!” and then realised I’ve just been having a nightmare about the mix! It’s a horrible experience. You’re not going to be in a fit state to do anything the next day if you have a broken nights sleep like that.
So you must relax after the mix session, so that you can get a sound nights sleep without worry!
Wherever possible, you should allow time to have a “mix review” session the following morning. But before we discuss that, I’d like to make some closing comments about the mix process itself.
The process, in summary, goes something like this:
- Learn everything about both the song and the recorded material on tape
- Set up a rough mix of everything
- Establish a good backing of drums, bass, and “pad” tracks in context
- Get to the next stage of having all the lead stuff active and in good working order
- Add in the lead and backing vocals
- Tweak the mix, such that it is good throughout the entire song
- Perform a final, “general” revision of levels and (possibly) mix compression
- Record the mix down to stereo
- Sleep on it
But – as I have mentioned previously, it is an iterative process. You will change and revise everything you’ve already done, as the mix takes shape – however, the more times you go around, the less radical the changes should be. You should be “closing down” the mix by degrees as the day goes by. By the end of the mix, you should feel confident that it is a “near-as-perfect” representation of what you were expecting to achieve. You should not feel that anything “could be better”. That’s why mix sessions usually go on well into the night. You tend not to have an ending time in sight, and instead you just work, and work, and work, at it until you feel that it is absolutely perfect. Then you go to bed after a brief period of relaxation.
It is difficult to write an article like this purely from “memory” of what goes on, and in practice there are without doubt some important aspects that I have left out. I will review this article from time to time to incorporate peoples comments, and update it where I think I left out important points. For example, on an analog mixing session there are several important things you need to be aware of. Apart from the obvious importance of making sure that an analog multitrack is properly calibrated and demagnetised before you mix – and that you are definitely mixing from the “Repro” head and not the “Sync” head (which has a different frequency response characteristic at the high end, and it is easy to forget to switch to “Repro”), it is also important to remember to clean the heads at several key points during the mixing session. An analog multitrack tape gets a severe battering during a mix session, and you will dirty many cotton buds wiping off all of the oxide that sheds onto the tape heads during the mix session. That battering might even effect the tape itself – the master tape may get slightly duller after hours and hours of use, and you might need to compensate for this (but it should not get too much duller, because that may indicate that you’ve got a nasty problem like magnetised tape heads).
As I said – there are probably other important things that I’ve forgotten too. I’ll add them as I remember them.
Finally, I should also state that both parts of this article represent my own practical experience of mixing sessions over several years – but they might not necessarily reflect the experience of the many other people around the world who also do mixes – and so I do not assert that this is in anyway the “right” approach for all circumstances. However, it’s certainly been my experience so far on mixing sessions that what takes place resembles pretty much exactly what I’ve described in 99% of cases.
The only times when it’s deviated significantly from the above is when helping out less experienced people, who often go off in disturbingly significant wild tangents, and have sudden major changes of approach during the session – and almost start mixing from scratch again. I normally can’t wait to get out of the studio quick enough under such circumstances, because there’s a real danger that they won’t even finish the mix at all. Use your time sensibly, and keep an eye on the clock. Mix sessions that run over more than a day are usually not pleasant to work on.
The Morning Review
Let’s now talk about what you should expect from a “mix review” session the following morning.
Firstly, try to do it by yourself with perhaps just one other person present. Having an experienced person who wasn’t there last night can be helpful – perhaps an experienced mixing colleague?.
The aim of the morning review, is simply to confirm that last nights mix was good enough. The aim is not to make any changes whatsoever unless something is badly wrong. Even if the person reviewing it with you suggests some changes, do not make them blindly without question – they may be wrong in their opinions.
If you work in software development, you’ll realise that this “morning after” process is a lot like fixing final bugs before a major software release – i.e. you do the minimum amount required to fix a bug – and that’s assuming that you even decide to fix it at all. If it isn’t critical, then leave it well alone. The last thing that you want to get into is dismantling everything. Most of all, you need to avoid “chain reactions”.
What’s a chain reaction? A “chain reaction” is where you start making changes that have impact on other things, requiring them to be changed, which has impact on further things and so on. Normally the conversation goes something like this:
“Ooo – we ought to turn up the percussion just a tiny bit”
“Yes, let’s do that”
“Ah… the snare sounds too quiet now. Can you brighten it?”
“Yes, it’s brighter now. Oh… The vocal isn’t loud enough anymore…”
“You’re right. Push it up, that’s right.”
“The guitars seem to be losing definition now.”
“Yes. We ought to consider using a different effect on them…”
Before you know it, everyone is taking the mix apart, and redoing everything. All this because you thought the percussion was a tiny bit too quiet. Was it worth it? The chances are, that once you let this happen, you’ll be in the studio until the early hours of the next morning yet again, with no guarantee of a better result.
The way to avoid this, is first of all to consider whether it is really critical that you make any such change in the first place. Can you live with it how it is? It’s fine to be a perfectionist, but playing with the mix after you’ve “finished” it, can have lots of subtle side effects that you forget in the cold light of day. Maybe (in this example) the percussion was a tiny bit too quiet deliberately because you found out – last night – that it was interfering with something else?
It is very easy to forget the reason for things on the morning after. Leave it alone if you can. If you must make a change, then the moment you realise that your change is starting to interfere with something else, then you should put it back exactly how it was. Don’t go “unbalancing” all the hard work you did yesterday.
Not only have I seen this happen several times before, but I’ve also known several times where the revised mix at the end of the “mix revision” day (after many more hours tweaking) sounded much worse than the original mix did the night before!
Learn to trust what you did the night before, and the only changes you should make – if at all – is to fix “major bugs” only. That’s the point in leaving it overnight – just to check in case you’d gone completely mad due to tiredness the night before. If the mix sounds pretty good then just leave it. Don’t start tweaking all the faders again.
For this reason, try to avoid “inviting” important people to audition the mix in the morning. They can listen to it later. The morning session is for you alone (and perhaps a trusted friend or colleague). The last thing you want is half the band turning up, along with all the record company representatives. Before you know it you’ll have every fool playing with the faders trying to make their mark on the mix. The mix is finished at this point and should be considered sacred unless something is badly wrong.
If you feel that you must make changes to the mix, before you do so, it is vital that you compare the mix you did last night with how it sounds this morning. The two should – naturally – be identical. Play them back simultaneously and switch between them making sure that they are identical in every respect before you start to change anything. Better still, on an all-digital digital system (a trick I’ve only discovered recently), blend last nights mix out of phase with the mix as it is now. The two should cancel out and you should hear total silence (apart from any effects or reverb that have a degree of randomisation in their behaviour).
I’ve nearly sent a mix (on more than one occasion) with “just one change” off to the mastering room, and then discovered (at the last minute – whilst waiting for the taxi to come and take the tape to the mastering room), that the mix is missing an important instrument because a “mute” button has somehow accidentally been knocked between the night before and now, or that an important effect is missing because of a dodgy patch cord. So you can understand why I stress that ideally you should leave the mix well alone, rather than make changes.
If – a couple of days later – you genuinely feel that some very slight tweak is really necessary, just mention it to the mastering engineer, and they will EQ, compress or otherwise process the final mixed stereo recording to bring out (or suppress) the things needed in order to get to the result that you want. At this late stage, this tends to produce better results than making ad-hoc changes to the mix setup itself, and because the entire mix is being processed, it tends to minimise the “chain reaction” effect that can otherwise occur as a result of trying to re-balance the original mix faders. It’s also beneficial in the sense that the mastering engineer will be hearing the mix with a totally fresh set of ears and may even urge you to consider leaving the recording alone if they believe that the balance is good enough without further reprocessing.
In some ways, mastering engineers are the “doctors” of the mixing world: “Doctor, I think my mix is unwell!”. “Really? Let me have a look… I see… That’s nothing serious, so try not to worry. Just take two of these frequencies and see me in the morning…”
Mastering can be a very reassuring experience.
I hope this article has given you an insight into the art of mixing, and that it helps you create great mixes in future!
Jezar.How To Mix A Pop Song From Scratch
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