Mixing

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The Case Credo

Honor The Art.
Our mix ideas need to be inspired by and supportive of the music. Don’t force ideas for things you’ve always wanted to do as an engineer into a song that doesn’t need the effect. Listen intensely to the multitrack material for each song, looking for insight into the songwriter, the band, their guest artists, and their followers. They have a passion for something so strong that they’ve put their vulnerable selves out in the open for all to see and hear, in the form of this recording. Know what it’s about, know its place in the history of recorded music, honor all their influences, and dare to be different as appropriate. Make the mix arrangement support the musical aspirations. Our use of effects can sweeten harmonies, but we must know when to defer to deliberate dissonances. We can use EQ, distortion, delays and reverbs to embellish, announce, emphasize, foreshadow, contrast, advance, or in any other way enrich the listening experience, but we are successful only if we have a deep understanding of the musical tactics and the emotional intentions of the artist. You must play the recording studio as a musical instrument, listening to the band and honoring the songwriter every bit as much as the rest of the band members do. Music matters, technical gimmicks do not.
Stay Balanced.
Balancing a mix isn’t a one time, set-it and leave-it process; it is a constant part of the mix session. From the beginning of the session to the end, we must work hard to ensure that the key tracks – typically the vocal, snare, kick and bass – remain easy to hear, enjoyable without effort from the listener. Any change to level, panning, EQ, compression, reverb or any other effect on any track should be followed by a quick listen and tweak to any and all faders as necessary to keep the mix balanced. No matter how ornate and complicated your multitrack mix becomes, always be sure the core elements – that lead vocal and/or soloist, the snare, the kick, and the bass – stay audible and live at relative levels that make musical sense. Never allow these fundamental tracks to get lost under a blanket of guitars, a cloud of distortion, or an ocean of reverb. Add necessary mix complexity while always tending to fundamental balance.
Attention: Front and Center.
The vocal, the snare, the kick drum and the bass are essential elements of most styles of music. They should be dead center, or close to it, most of the time. If you occasionally dare to locate key tracks like the lead vocal, snare, kick or bass elsewhere, you should have a very good reason, and it should probably be temporary. It is a fundamental part of listening that we humans turn our heads and look toward important sounds. Our hearing system is most acute when we face the sound head-on. When we put the important parts of the mix front and center, we honor that basic human urge to face the music.
There are also practical benefits. Data compression encoder/decoder schemes generally dedicate more data to a dead center element than to a slightly off-center element. Mastering engineers will have greater technical control and creative flexibility when the core stays centered. And for the listeners, dead center phantom images have the convenient feature that there is healthy level for that track in both the left and the right loudspeakers. Listeners sitting off center will hear, at least at some reasonable level, all of the key tracks. Panning an essential track like the vocal off to the right risks causing the left-of-center listener to hear a mix with a weak, unintelligible vocal. For the most part, keep the important stuff front and center.

Look Both Ways Before You Mix The Track.
Tracks interact! The sound of track 96 is influenced by what is going on in those other 95 tracks. And – back at ya – the sound of track 96 influences qualities of those other 95 tracks. You either build a mix of tracks that form a mutual admiration society, or you stuff them together into a bar room brawl.
As we build a mix, fader by fader, track by track, effect by effect, we look outward from each new signal to assess its affect on the other sounds, and we look back inward from all the other tracks to assess how they influence the sound of the new mix element.
This suggests two rituals, which will keep your head spinning: First, when you push up a new fader, don’t just listen to that new sound, tempting as it may be – not yet, anyway. Listen first to the new track’s impact on the other tracks already present in your mix. Listen from the new track outward.
For example, when you push up the fader for the snare track, don’t just listen to the snare, listen to what the introduction of the snare track does to the overall sound of the kick drum, and the rest of the drum kit. With leakage from the rest of the kit into the snare microphone(s), the snare track is sure to interact with the overall drum sound. When you introduce the keyboard part, listen first for any change it invokes on the vocal, the snare, the guitars, etc. The keyboard track isn’t just about the keyboard. It interacts with the other tracks too.
Second, satisfied that the new track isn’t undoing all you had achieved in the rest of the mix, you turn your attention to the sound of the new track itself. Process the track as needed to fulfill your vision for the mix, but don’t fail to notice how the other tracks influence this one. Sure, you might press the solo button to evaluate this track in isolation, but you make your final mix decisions based on the full context of the mix. You must decipher what the other tracks do to the new track, and make any necessary adjustments. You listen from the other tracks inward.
Get Louder, Without the Fader.
Place faders at the lowest levels that make technical and musical sense and make your tracks easier to hear through more sophisticated means than simple volume. Turning it up is too easy and mucks up the rest of the mix. One loud track makes it hard to hear the rest of the mix. Alternatives to volume include strategic applications of ambience, reverb, compression, gating, EQ, and more. Tailoring other qualities in the sound to keep them audible is more work and requires mastery of the subtle aspects of mixing, but resisting that urge to simply push up the fader means the other tracks won’t have to play catch-up.

Contrasts Communicate Clearly.
A passion for power and the desire to make a strong impression tempts the mix engineer to hype each and every track – to make the mix loud by making each and every track loud. This is a mistake. Thrill the audience with volume by including moments of quiet. Make things energetic through moments of calm. Make some tracks bright by making others less so. Make some mix elements wide by keeping others point-source-narrow. Pull some tracks forward, close, and in-yer-face by placing others more distant. You’ll best communicate the extraordinary by including a tasteful amount of ordinary.

Change Is Emphasis.
It is generally easier to hear things that are changing within a mix than elements which are static – level, panning, spectral content, delay, amplitude modulation (tremolo), frequency modulation (vibrato), reverberation, etc. Dynamic effects are very effective – tremolo, flanging, chorus, auto-panning, and similar. These effects have time-varying qualities built in, making them easier for listeners to pick out of a competitive, crowded mix. When two similar-sounding tracks fight to be heard, give one a bit of tremolo and – courtesy of this attention getting change – the two tracks become different enough to be heard independently.
Build-in song form inspired changes to your mix as well. A snare drum that gets a dose of extra ambience each chorus, returning to a slightly drier sound each verse, can offer the listener – even subliminally – an extra bit of sonic thrill courtesy of that slight change. A stereo piano that snaps to mono on the solo seems to grow stronger when it most needs it. The best mix isn’t a fixed collection of settings. It is an interactive performance – the mix moves with the music.
Perfection Is A Cruel Distraction.
The mix engineer is required to keep track of all levels of detail in the mix, to be zoomed-in to the highest resolution possible. That mastery of the details serves only one purpose: to maximize the musicality of the overall mix.
Visual perfection is all but irrelevant. Staring at a screen full of bright colors and flickering animations, we are tempted to click it until it ‘looks’ right – everything lined up and perfect. But the visual is supposed to be a tool for us in the creation of something sonic. What we see matters nothing if it doesn’t help us improve what the end-user hears. The temptation for some sort of visual perfection is strong, but off-mission for the mix engineer. While the meters and flickering lights beckon for our attention, we must defer to our ears to know what matters most. Sometimes it is best to close your eyes and listen.
Sonic perfection can be the enemy of sound art. Detail obsessed, we are tempted to right every audio wrong we find. We’ll want to replace every ugly sound, pitch-correct every sour note, scrub-out the noise between every phrase, edit the groove into a mathematically flawless tempo, etc. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should. Performance variations, blue notes, and messy sounds can be what the listener remembers most about a mix. Emotions often live in the near misses and the outright mistakes. Great sounds are, well, great. And bad sounds can be so bad that they are, um, great. It’s middle of the road mediocrity – where we fail to inspire the listener – that curses our mixes. Doing what everyone else does, playing it safe, and forcing your mix to imitate the same sounds that you hear all the time in other productions is a sure path to mediocrity. Keep your ear on the big picture, the finished product, the overall mix. Achieve a better artist to listener connection by focusing on the human expression of the performers over any perceived technical perfection in the mix.

Limits Are Opportunities.
You know it’s gonna get good when you are backed into a corner. Great music happens when musicians push the limits and bend the rules. A never-ending desire to be unique and to be better pushes all creators – songwriters, guitarists, painters, architects – to do something no one ever thought of, to use materials and instruments in ways no one thought possible, to find the limits of their own abilities and to stretch just a tick beyond. We must mix with the same work ethic, the same creative drive. When we are asked to choose between seemingly limitless possibilities, we wander, and the mix sags. When we find our options narrowed, when a device can’t crank it any further, we shouldn’t complain about not having another plug-in or a better box. Instead, we focus, we prioritize, and the music soars. Step away from the long list of presets on the digital reverb and convert the bathroom into a reverb chamber. Lacking convenient presets, chambers make you work – and think – for your reverberant reward. Stop buying more plug-ins and signal processors until you’ve mastered the ones you already own – until you’ve pushed them in every conceivable direction for seemingly every mix application. Every great studio has the same basic tools. You need to know how to use them well, in usual ways. But you’ll be a better mixer when you find out what each and every signal processor can’t quite do, and you explore your way around it. Great instruments respond well to unusual performance gestures. Our creativity grows more productive when we push on the edges. Your studio is a musical instrument. Know how to coax it to its expressive limits.

None Of The Above.
You’ve followed the rules – now break them. Rules aren’t very durable in art. Know what works so that you know the effect of deliberately doing it wrong. This does not give you permission to be sloppy. For every mix gesture that is a rule-bender, know the risks associated with the decision. Then be sure it has an impact on the listener that supports the intent of the artist, or compensate as needed elsewhere in the multitrack arrangement. When the guitars drown out the vocals (failure to follow the Stay Balanced credo), you sell fewer discs and downloads. When the lead vocal is panned hard right (a violation of the Attention: Front and Center credo), drivers and passengers listening in the car sitting off center have a compromised experience. But if the guitars might be more important than the lyrics, for this one tune, for this band, and for their fans, you might get away with it. If the first verse is a flashback or dream sequence, maybe this verse, and this verse alone, should be panned off-center for dramatic impact. When you have a reason – and you know the risks – feel free to go against the norm, stick it to the man, defy, protest, surprise, provoke, rebel. Have fun.

 

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