In my years as a sound engineer and studio owner I find it very interesting how mystified and misunderstood the mixing and mastering process is for most composers and musicians. On the one hand, working in the studio and recording one’s music is an intuitive process but there is also a great deal of stuff that happens afterwards that is a lot less innate in knowing what to do. Mixing and mastering is a learned skill that very few are born with (if any at all!). I believe this to be true for a few reasons:
What we have going for us:
- Performing and recording are really one in the same.
- The recording process is a natural progression from musical performance. Instead of performing live, performances are captured to tape or hard disk. Therefore, recording is really a natural experience for a practicing musician.
- The procurement of good recording equipment is just like purchasing a good instrument.
- We all want to get better tools to increase and inspire our productivity.
- As our competence in our musicianship and compositional skills mature we invest in better gear to create better professional sounding music.
What we have going against us:
- Once we’ve reached the limit of our skill set and knowledge of the technology we are using, we stop where we are.
- What I mean by this is we get to a roadblock in using the technology we have and we can’t intuitively go further. Some take this challenge on and learn how to use the technology while others leave it to professionals to finish.
- Fear of the unknown: Mixing and mastering is an art form and is something that is learned and practiced before becoming good at.
- It can be a very frustrating experience when you’ve laboured over your recordings to get them to sound good but your mix doesn’t end up sounding good. Knowing what to do to get it sounding like a professional product is an acquired skill.
The discrepancies can be found in not understanding the process of mixing. The only thing to do is to learn about the process. Get a book on mixing, apprentice with a mixing engineer or go to school for audio production. There are many aspects to mixing and it is also such a highly subjective process that everyone develops their own unique approach. Nonetheless there are some basic steps you can start with that will improve your mixes and start you in a direction to discover how you mix. Here are some mix concepts:
Intention: what are you intending to create? What do you need to do in order to get the mood of the composition across? Aggressive, mellow, light or heavy? You can interpret the same recording in a few ways that can alter the mood simply by effecting the instrumentation with compression, EQ and levels. For instance, by compressing the drums and putting them up front makes for a more aggressive sounding mix than if they were not compressed and sitting in the back.
Know what your effects do!
Compressors: It took me a long time to know how a compressor changed the quality of the instrument I applied it to. It often is a subtle difference but it can make a tremendous difference in how the instrument is perceived in the mix. Too much compression alters the timbre of the instrument and also brings up the noise floor or other artifacts that are un-musical or un-wanted. A little bit of compression might be all you need. Hearing the difference a little compression adds to an instrument when it is soloed may be practically imperceptible however in reference to its position in the track, it can make a huge difference. Getting an acoustic guitar to sit in a track is a great example. The dynamic range of an acoustic can be large. Strumming whole note chords gives us lots of signal during the strum but the sustain of the chord might fade out and the sound of the guitar goes missing. Compressing the signal evens out the dynamic range of the strum compared to the sustained sound making it much easier to sit the guitar in the mix where it is neither too loud during the strum nor too quiet during the sustain. Conversely, smashing a vocal with an 1176 compressor excites the upper harmonics present in the vocal to the point of harmonic distortion. This emphasis on the upper harmonics is not the same as if you were to boost the upper frequencies with an EQ. The sound is very different. Excessive compression in this case might be desirable for the timbral quality it creates as well as the dynamic effect the compressor provides.
Equalization: The most effective way to describe EQ in the shortest amount of space is use it to emphasize a frequency range of an instrument and cut away what you don’t need. Each instrument needs its own space in the mix. When you’ve got many instruments playing in the same frequency range, and they all happen at once, the mix will end up convoluted and muddy. Every instrument has a frequency range that can be considered usable. EQ is used to carve out a niche for each instrument to have its own space. Using the acoustic guitar as an example in a song where it is not the featured instrument but more of a pad to the rest of the instrumentation you can filter out most of its bottom end (possibly up to 300 Hz) and add some of its upper mids and highs. This will get the guitar out of the way of other instruments where the lower frequency range is more important to them. Chugging electric guitars will imply the bottom end that was taken away from the acoustic anyway and our brains won’t know the difference. Using EQ is especially significant when differentiating instruments that are at the same amplitude in a mix.
Level and panning: boosting or lowering an instrument’s level prioritizes an instrument’s importance. The louder it is in level the more important it becomes. Hence, vocals are usually way out in front for pop music. Panning allows you to put instruments spatially in the left to right field. Separating doubled instruments hard left and right really accentuates the texture of each part. Having them both up the middle doesn’t let you hear both parts as being unique. Separating instruments left and right that share frequency ranges is an alternative approach than EQing.
Mixing with your control room volume at different levels is also an excellent gauge in finding if the levels or your tracks are good. Our ears perceive frequencies differently at different levels. At louder levels, we hear lower and higher frequencies. At quieter levels, we don’t hear bottom end or very high frequencies nearly as well. When we listen to our mix at very quiet levels we won’t hear the thump of the bottom end but we do notice very easily if a particular instrument is too loud in the mix or too quiet. For instance, when we bring our monitoring levels down and the drums drown the bass instrument out, we know the bass is too quiet. At louder levels, we start to hear the bass frequencies and we think it is at a good level but it really isn’t.
Spatial effects: Reverb, echo and delay: Reverb and delay help create a third dimension to your mix. High frequencies sound as though they happen up high in the sonic image. Bass sounds as though they are down low. Adding reverb gives the front to back dimension and provides a sense of realism. A really well mixed piece of music allows you to localize where the instrument is coming from.