You’ve been cutting album tracks in the studio and the band members have played like gods. Finally the last overdubs have been put down for the lead guitar and vocals and everybody’s feeling great about the project. It’s time to kick back and…
Hold it! No it’s not! It’s time to really focus on the mix, a process that you hopefully began even before the first note was played in the studio. Great sessions can live or die by their mixes. Mixing is a true art form that can help define the vision of a band or performer, or drive it straight into the gutter. Sometimes great performances can persevere despite a terrible mix. Example: the original issue of Iggy Pop’s Raw Power. But the hard work of recording tracks deserves to be complimented by careful and well conceived mixing.
Here are 10 things to consider before mixing your next album or song:
• Plan ahead: Envision what you want your album to sound like before the first note gets played in the studio. This will influence your arrangements, guitar tones and overdubs and a wide variety of other factors. One way to draw a bead on this is to pick a favorite album and use it as a model. Analyze what the engineers, producer and performers did on that album and think about how you can get similar results with your budget and the studio you’re using. Of course, over-thinking isn’t healthy and neither is trying to create a near-carbon copy. Leave room for your own brand of creativity and spontaneity, but in a well-developed context or game plan.
• Choose Your Battleground: Consider where you’ll be mixing. Home and even professional studios may have sonic pitfalls — areas in their physical construction that create reflections, bass traps and other problems that can interfere with the accurate reproduction of sound. There are pro audio products, like the KRK Ergo, that are designed to compensate for these problems. These are especially valuable to home recordists, who might not be able to rip out the walls or redesign the ceilings of their basements. But try working in a place — or creating a space — that minimizes or eliminates these pitfalls in the first place if that’s possible.
• Examine The Angles: Some engineers like to build their mixes from the drums up. It’s not necessary to do that. In fact, obsessing over certain sounds before you’ve got an overall picture of what’s on tape or virtual tape can drain the energy from a mixing session quickly. There’s no right way to do this, other than what’s right for each song. That might mean building the mix around a guitar or vocal performance, or simply having all the faders up right from the git-go and orchestrating the mix like a puzzle, determining where the pieces fit best.
• Use Subtraction: Sometimes less truly is more. Even if you’ve spent hours layering overdubs or creating interlocking parts, you might need to make some of them go away for all or a portion of a song in the final mix. Try not to be married to what you’ve recorded. If parts are in question, mute them in and out during playback to hear how well they fit and then decide their fate.
• Listen well: To get a real sense of how a mix is going to work, especially since there’s a good chance your music will be heard via ear buds, computer speakers and car systems, it’s crucial to listen to your mixes at different volumes through different types of monitors — and in a moving car and on an iPod. Ideally you should have a set of near-field monitors in the studio as well as a set that creates another kind of listening experience, whether it’s paired subwoofers and near-field monitors, or a mounted set of four-inch car stereo speakers. The choice is yours, and a quick visit to the KRK Systems web page, for example, reveals a wide spectrum of possibilities. To learn more, consult this story on choosing studio monitors. If you’re interested in a highly creative mix that involves sonic movement, effects treatments and texturing, you’ll also need to listen back on headphones. Those should be flat response headphones rather than the extended bass phones popular with many listeners and pro DJs. Those are for a different job, even if you’re mixing for hip-hop or R&B.
• Be Human: Just because you can pitch correct a vocal or lock a rhythm track to a grid doesn’t mean you should. Music isn’t made by robots — most of the time. The rhythm tracks of classic recordings by the Rolling Stones and others sometimes rush the beat a bit or accelerate as they go on. And if you lay too heavily on vocal pitch correction high notes pushed hard tend to have a bright metallic patina on top. Small changes in rhythm and slight errors in pitch can add humanity and personality to a recording in ways perfection can’t.
• All Things Being Equal: Equalization can be a powerful tool, but be aware that changing the sound of an instrument with EQ will change the overall sound and texture of a mix. Think about subtraction, once again, rather than addition when using EQ. If a guitar’s got too much distortion or doesn’t punch through, scoop away some of the lows and low-mids and examine the results. The same goes for adding effects. It’s like Jenga. Remove or add the wrong piece and things can get unbalanced enough to crumble.
• Let Dynamics Rule: Creating passages that are both loud and soft allows a song to breath. A sense of space and changes in volume are appealing to the ears, and more natural. So be careful when adding compression. It can help sculpt the sound of a guitar, but also rob a six-string or any other instrument of personality. A lack of dynamics is a rampant problem in sampled loops and beats, lending too much of contemporary R&B, hip-hop and electronic music an artificial sheen. If that’s what you’re going for, fantastic; if not, manipulate samples until they sound like instruments.
• Be Kind To Your Ears: Don’t listen to mixes at punishing volumes all day long. You’ll get ear fatigue and start making bad judgment calls. Be sure to vary the volume frequently as you listen to mixes, take breaks and don’t fixate on any single song for too long. You can always return to it later after your ears and brain have experienced some new, refreshing territory.
• Go Wild!: Or at least experiment. At minimum you’ve got the entire stereo spectrum to play with, so use left and right positioning, panning and other techniques to help bring your mix to life. There’s nothing more pedantic — and lifeless and crowded — than a mix with all of the sounds coming out of both speakers dead center and up front.