By Freddy Gabrsek

This is my first post in a series of articles so I’d like to start at the beginning of the end. I’m talking about the “mix”. This is the last step in the audio recording and production sequence (aside from mastering) and it can really make or break the project. Mixing is a very subjective art form and there are very few rules. No two engineers will mix a project in exactly the same way. They might both come up with great mixes but they would be different, with each one reflecting the individual’s taste, personality, experience and methods. A good analogy would be to imagine Van Gogh and Monet painting the same landscape…they both see the same thing but the paintings would invariably be unique and probably quite different

There are only 6 basic elements in a mix:

  • Levels (volume of individual tracks and how they balance in reference to each other)
  • Imaging (panning left through right in a stereo mix and also perceived distance, front to back through use of reverb)
  • Spectral content (EQ of individual tracks, groups, and entire mix)
  • Compression (from gentle, transparent compression to heavy limiting for effect)
  • Effects (a huge pallet of FX choices are available from subtle “sweeteners” to all out mangling or transforming effects)
  • Editing – Corrective (includes noise reduction, pitch correction, trimming tops and tails and correcting performance issues i.e. timing) – Arrangement (includes re-arranging the flow of the song i.e. doubling the length of a chorus or deleting a section all together)

I find it psychologically easier to mix a project that I was not involved with in the tracking stage. I like being able to come to the table with a fresh set of ears, never having heard the tracks before and therefore having nothing invested in them. You can imagine that it’s a lot easier to cut a part that you feel doesn’t work, but if you were the tracking engineer and you spent a lot of time recording that part chances are you wouldn’t cut it so easily.

Let’s Begin

I’m not really going to talk a lot about equipment and gear mostly just techniques that will apply whether you stay in the box or not. But I have to mention the one piece of equipment that is absolutely crucial to achieving a good mix- the loudspeaker monitors.

Without accurate and trustworthy monitors, you will never, ever create a good mix. Period. Even with a good monitor system, you should listen to them a lot so that you become familiar with their response. Also, it’s a good idea to listen to your mixes on a variety of speakers at a variety of volumes. At the studio that I do most of my work, we have a pair of Meyers HD-1 speakers and also a pair of Genelec 1031a. These are not exactly cheap; each pair sells for over $5,000, but since I started mixing on these the quality of my work has gone way up. I will frequently switch between the two because the response in the midrange is different. If anything is really out of whack I’ll catch it on one or the other pair. I also have a pair of Yorkville YSM-1 speakers in my home set-up that I have become very familiar with. I even like to listen on my crappy little computer speakers (without a subwoofer) because bands put there mixes on myspace and people are going to hear it like that. A typical mix session ends with me burning a CD of the day’s work and listening to the mix in my car on the way home. My car stereo is the yardstick that I use to measure every mix. It is the system that I am most familiar with and if it sounds good to me there then I know its good.

Its important for me to be in the right mood or mindset when I start the mix. To quote Greta Garbo “I vant to be alone” meaning that I don’t like to have the client in the room hyping me up on the kind of effects they want on the guitar or whatever. I want my ears to tell me everything, not somebody else, at least not right off the bat.

Usually, the first thing I do is to just throw up all of the faders to get a rough mix. I keep everything centre panned, with no eq or effects, only fader levels. At this point all I am looking for is to hear is what’s on the track. I listen for things that bend my ear i.e. noise problems such as pops, clicks, high noise floor, single coil hum from electric guitar etc.

At the same time as I work on cleaning track problems I’m also getting familiar with the tune, and I listen for performance issues. For example, I might find that the bass guitar performance is not as tight with the drums as it should be. In the case of timing issues, I like to arrange the offending track (our poorly played bass) so that it sits in between the kick and snare tracks on my DAW. This way I can easily see where a bass note is ahead of or behind a kick or snare by just looking at the waveforms. If I have to move every note of a performance I will. You have to be careful though; you could end up with a lifeless, mechanical sounding performance. Sometimes slight timing variations are not performance problems, but a performance style. Think about John Bonham, usually he played just a little behind the beat, giving a real solid, authoritative feel. or exactly the opposite would be a drummer like Stewart Copeland who’s style was usually slightly ahead of the beat, pushing the band and creating a kind of hyped, frenetic feel. Would I go in and start editing performances with musicians like that? Not likely!

Now that I have things cleaned up I like to work on imaging. If its a pop tune, the general convention is to leave the kick, bass and lead vocal panned straight up the middle, but as I said earlier, there are very few rules (just listen to the Beatles). What I try to achieve with panning is to give each instrument its own space. When you listen to the mix with everything panned in the middle (mono) you notice that sounds tend to mask other sounds that share similar frequency characteristics. So, before I even think about reaching for EQ, I’ll try to find a nice space for the track by simply panning.

Imaging for a Drum Kit

I like to think of a drum kit as one instrument as a whole.
Have you ever heard a drum mix where the toms are panned to the extreme left and right?

To me, this sounds very un-natural. Here’s how I like to set up drum pans so that the image is natural. If there is a stereo overhead or room track then solo the stereo track and listen to where the drums are. You won’t hear Tom 1 way over on the right but somewhat closer to centre. Simply match the pan of the tom tracks to where they appear to be in the soloed overhead tracks. This way the imaging stays natural and believable and the panning of the individual tracks won’t conflict with the imaging in the overheads or room tracks. I might deviate from this by panning the floor tom closer to center than it appears in the overheads. why? Because usually the floor tom is used to give the deepest and biggest punch and the closer you pan to the middle the bigger and punchier it will feel.

Most drum kit recordings are done with multiple microphones, with one mic on each drum. While this gives the mix engineer good control of mix balance, it also introduces phase problems. Just think about what happens when the snare drum is hit, the sound reaches the snare mic first, the next closest mic second and so on all the way to the furthest mic. When you bring all the mics up in a mix the slight timing differences and resulting phase problems manifest themselves. So to counter this problem, simply time align each track to match with the snare mic. so the furthest mic track from the kit (usually the room mic) would have to be moved back in time in the DAW until the transient matches the snare mic. Then repeat this whole process with all of the other mics. If there is a stereo mic setup (i.e. overheads) then be sure to align them as a pair. don’t separate them from each other.

In my next post we’ll dive into the real nuts and bolts of tone shaping, including EQ and what I consider to be a black art – compression.

Stay tuned!

Freddy Gabrsek

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Approaching A Mix by Freddy Gabrsek is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

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