Audio Tip #9: MIXING

A clear mind creates stronger music. Also, take time away. A mix made after ten hours of tracking rarely sounds good to worn out ears. Tired ears = bad mix. So, make sure you take a break, then return to your mix with fresh ears.

Today's technology makes it very tempting to add layer upon layer. The side effect is your song or production gets rather dense and cluttered. Sometimes you must step back, reevaluate, and strip it down. Heed the advice of award-winning recording and mixing engineer Ed Cherney (Stones, Clapton, and Raitt): "Listen to what's there, see where the song is, [and] eliminate things to find the heart of the song. Ultimately, mixing is about heart, not equipment. Nobody dances to what kind of gear you used."

Check your mix in mono (use TV speakers). If you use small speakers, check your bass content on full-range systems. Don't rush. Take frequent breaks.

Don't forget about dynamics. I get lots of tapes and the one common thread is dynamics . . . or a lack of any. Get soft. Get loud. Swell. Fade. Mix it up. Subtract some instruments from the mix. Add in everything including the kitchen sink sample. If you don't know what I mean, listen to orchestral music, specifically try Mahler's Adagio to his Tenth symphony. You'll learn what dynamics really are.

Try using a little compression when tracking. Set the compressor to the point where you see just a little bit of flicker in the gain reduction LED's (1 or 2 dB) with a 2:1 or 4:1 ratio. Leave the attack and release times in the middle of their adjustment ranges (20ms-80ms attack, 350ms-650ms release). Besides the small amount of compression and the appropriate distortion, record it dry, and add effects at mixdown.

Patch your signal into wave lab for a Visual representation of the Source you are applying EQ to.

If you can't use stereo mics or try stereo mic imaging for any one of a number of reasons, don't worry. You can make your stereo mix sound a lot bigger through the use of creative panning, stereo effects processors, digital delays, and creative reverb usage. You can even send a mono signal via headphone output to a speaker in a room and mic the room. Use your imagination but watch out for "widening" devices that rob the bottom end of solidity. Try to picture what a wider sound would be like. If you were two microphones, what audio "image" would you "see?"

If you find that at the end of your project (meaning it's too late for a remix) the levels of some of the instruments or vocals aren't as even as you would like them to be, mastering can help a bit in this area. At mix time, keep a CDR of all your mixes close at hand, and A-B them on a level-matched system while you mix each subsequent song. Then, when you go into the mastering studio, take an audio CDR of your mixes just in case you want to reference what you had before with the enhanced version.

Another thing you can do is pick some commercial CDs as consistent references during each mix, you'll be establishing a "sonic imprint" of that particular balance and referring back to it when you're on a different tune. Don't worry if your reference CDs are different styles of music. Focus on the Sonics and the tonal impact of the artist. Sometimes a reference CD can show you what you don't want in your mix too.

Less work doesn't always mean better results. Take the case of "flying" backup vocals. Record one pass of vocal tracks and clone them into the rest of the song. That's less, isn't it? Well, it's less work than singing every single note of the song, but what could be lost in that process? Did you lose some spontaneity at the end of the last 8 bars of vamping? Singing tighter as a group by the time the 3rd chorus is recorded? Getting a tighter groove because someone gives it a little something extra? Don't skimp, as you and your project are the ones being shorted.

Commercial CDs sound the way they do for good reasons. There's a lot of stuff that happens to make a great sounding record, and a lot of talent making it so. Often, a great sounding record starts with great players, arrangers, and singers who know what to do and what not to do. 'Less is more' is said and it's true, except that many people think that 'less"' means 'less effort.' Some digital recording techniques can tempt us from putting that something extra into a performance. Yes, we can get addicted to plug-ins and editing and CPUs and spend countless hours perfecting each bit and byte, but are we keeping an eye toward the soul and spirit of the music? Is Auto-tune going to help us be better musicians (and better live performers)? Sometimes the answer is simply "Do what works." Other times, the answer is "look a little further." Many an engineer has spent extra time searching for their path of excellence, and that can only be accomplished over time. While you are going through that "time", keep in mind that our attitudes about the process are just as important as the process itself.

Here is 'sin' #1 of the first release home recorded CD. Buried Vocals. Probably the single most important instrument on your CD is the lead vocals. The lead vocals intimately tell the story of your song and carry the main melody, the one that people will be humming days after they hear your masterpiece. It's a shame then that the most important instrument in the mix is usually the most sonically neglected when bands mix their CDs.

Ideas don't always evolve into songs, but they help you be creative. The important thing is that since they are ideas, you shouldn't come to a conclusion till you have tried it. In other words, if you have an idea that running a drum set through a Marshall stack would sound cool in a love song, and when you try it, you may tell yourself... "Not so much but that sound is cool."