Fixing Phase problems


Recently I have noticed that there have been a growing number of searches coming to my blog that relate to fixing phase problems. Although I have mentioned the importance of phase in recording I do not believe that I addressed fixing phase problems.

Ok let’s get started.  You have a multitrack recording and somewhere there seem to be phase problems. Are you sure? Probably not.  Let’s review for a second.

Phase is caused by two or more microphones being used on one item that you are recording. In some cases the varying distances between the mic cause the sound waves to line up peak to trough and this means they are out of phase.  If you are in the process of recording this sound then you fix the problem by moving the mics around until the sound falls into phase.  Also it should be noted that EQ adds phase problems to any signal it is used on. This is an absolute as far as I am concerned although I have been corrected by engineers on this point they are wrong and I am right damn it. If you add EQ it adds some phaseyness. Usually this is acceptable and part of the sound. Sometimes too much EQ makes a thin phasey mix.  How do you fix this problem? Drop all of the EQ it’s that simple.

The most common situation for phase problems is recording multiple tracks of one particular instrument on one pass. When do you do this? Every time you cut drum tracks. So let’s assume that you cut four simultaneous tracks of drums last night and know it’s time to mix and damn it sounds out of phase.

The first thing you do is prove it to yourself. Drop every track except one. Now listen carefully. Does the track sound fat? Does it have bottom? It does, ok move on to the next track. Most likely all of the individual tracks will sound fat and have bottom. Now start putting up combinations of tracks two at a time. One you happen upon one combo that sounds thin, phasey and has no bottom mark it down and move on.  There may be multiple problems. Sometimes, but not usually the problems may be between two tracks recorded at different times.  Remember listen closely.  You are looking for thin sound with no bottom. If you are unsure what phase problems sound like put up a track and then switch the positive and negative wires on your studio monitors. Step back away from the speakers and play the track. That’s the sound of a phase problem.

So now you know what phase sounds like and you have two or more tracks that are definitely out of phase with each other. Can you rerecord? No ok then let’s fix it.

In all likelihood the sounds are not perfectly 180 degrees out of phase. They rarely are.  It doesn’t matter. If it is enough of a problem to be heard as out of phase correcting the phase will help.  In short what you need to do is reverse the phase on one track and then listen. Does your board or software have a phase switch? If it does you are all set. Switch the phase on one track , it doesn’t matter which, and then listen to the offending tracks. When it comes into phase you will hear much more bottom and the thin wavy quality will disappear. If you have more than two tracks at issue you may need to mess around with various combos of phase switching in order to find the best phase situation.

What do you do if you don’t have a phase switch, which is common with many boards. Does the board have an insert section with paired plug ins/outs? In this case you take a cable open one end up and cut the two or three wires. Switches the connections on the positive negative. Now use this cable to flip the phase on the individual channels. Use the same process I outlined above.

What do you do if you have a board with no phase switch and no insert section? Shot yourself? No, calm down.  Try doing the same trick with a basic guitar cable. Then send the sound out of one channel and record it on the next open track with the phase reversed.

Now I will address the more complex method since someone that thinks they are smart will certainly post a comment about it. I may even decide to approve said comment if it contains a good joke or the new home phone number of my high school girlfriend.

There are phase relationship altering outboard and inboard equipment. They allow you to dial the phase around 180 degrees. They are magic. Let an engineer run them, preferably an engineer that would never record two tracks out of phase.

Finally I’ll talk about phasing in a mix. A depressingly common problem is a mix that sounds shitty. It sounds muddy, or phasey or both. How do you fix this? Well if you are trying to fix a mix that is done and is a stereo master than take it to a good mastering house. If you are trying to fix a mix that you are working on then there is still hope.

Let’s say you have a home studio. You do a mix. The next day you take the CD of the mix and pop it into your car stereo and, jeez, does it sound like shit. Don’t worry everyone does shitty mixes. It’s only a problem if you release it  to the world.

Ok try this. Put up the mix. Eliminate every EQ that is engaged. This alone may solve your problem. After you remove the EQ’s the sound may very well clear up. Try running a mix with no EQ on anything just rebalance the tracks and call it a mix. No compare the two. Which one sounds better? The most common problem I have seen in mixes is too much EQ. If this doesn’t help the mix try adding the tracks one at a time listening specifically for the phase problem to appear. When you find the offending track strip it down to the basic track without effects. How’s that?  If it isn’t caused by some kind of outboard effect then the most likely problem is that the offending track(s) sound too good. What!!??? That’s right. A common problem with recordings is that every single track is recorded as if it the only track on the recording, that is to say tons of bottom, tons of mids tons of top. If you do this on every track then the mix will sound like shit. Remix engineers make great money taking multitrack tapes and removing various frequencies in order to make them sound clearer.  Try removing a little bottom from a few tracks with the eq. Try cutting some of the mids. EQs are much more beneficial when used to remove frequencies then when they are used to add frequencies……..

© Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2013

How it works….getting to the top………


I spent last night with a new band that I will be producing. A bottle of good whiskey a couple of marginal vintage acoustic guitars and a good meal naturally evolved into a people taking turns showcasing new songs or playing masterworks of America’s rock history.  The band had just fired their most recent drummer for being an asshole. The new drummer, an old friend, of course, fit in perfectly. This band is playing Alt Country. The drummer rose to the occasion and shaved the middle part of his beard to create truly impressive mutton-chop sideburns.  He fit right in with the bands look and attitude. To take the gig he dumped a girl, walked away from a job he hated, put down the guitar and picked up the drumsticks. Those are the actions of a real musician.

It's a brawl motherfucker! First you better pay at the door!

Later in the night, as the band got remarkably drunk, before they reached the stage of sending me nonsensical text messages, the conversation turned to how to get ahead, how to get to the top, how to put on a better show etc. I of course, being an arrogant ass, gave them plenty of advice. If you are reading this blog some of the points that came up may be news to you.

The band are amped up. They’re flat-out excited. A producer had come to see them play, loved the show and agreed to produce some music for them. This is an exciting moment in any band. We hashed out the basic plan before the Johnny Walker ran out. Was this their big break? Perhaps. Time will tell. It also could be the wrong move. No one will know until years from now. One thing I have seen repeated with every band that succeeds is the series of small breaks that lets the band climb to the top.  This is the true system to becoming a star and a working musician.

Let’s use this band as an example. They have a manager/producer, a completed album that is released locally and a full gig schedule. All of this happened before I ever heard their name. How did they get that far? Hmm… it’s easy to guess. They all spent countless hours learning to play and listening to music. They fell in love with certain bands, particular songs and the stories they heard about other bands they admired. They all played in shitty bands. This taught them the difference between good and bad from the inside looking out.

Sure, this is how everyone dresses...right?

They all played in bands that were better. This is the winnowing process that every musician lives through. Some of them switched instruments as they realized where their true talents lay. They all played some local shows. Some of these shows sucked, bad. They learned how to get the audience engaged and how to make the girls shake their asses.  They all came to the realization that their heroes didn’t dress like the audience so they cautiously start to acquire stage clothes. 

As their set became a winner they started to branch out to new towns. Soon they won fans in these towns too. Then they heard of a studio owner/producer that seemed to have something good happening. They booked time and soon he was a fan too. They talked him into being their manager. This caused the local press to start to mention them.  He produced a brilliant but spotty first record. He dropped by my house for dinner with two of the band members in tow. By the end of the dinner I could see they had talent. I hadn’t even heard the recordings but I was interested. All I had to do was talk to them and I could see that they understood how it worked. I could see their passion and their ambition. So now they have a new producer.

The point to this little history is that you get ahead with mountains of little breaks. You create these breaks by working hard to make music, by getting yourself talked about, by not fitting in, by being a little bigger than the stage you step up on.  If you work hard enough and have lots of luck you make it to the top. At that point looking back down the mountain you will see that there is never a big break. There is never one thing that gives the band the attention of the world. You hear stories of big breaks because this myth is manufactured by the big labels that need people to believe that they create stars.  They never mention how many great musicians they bury.

Summing it all up – work hard for lots of small triumphs. Pile these up and you have a story of how a band succeeded at rock………

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011

The Ramones on 40 gram audiophile vinyl………………….


I am going to veer off task and give little or no advice on practical matters, that is to say, I will rant about music and listening to music rather than saying something dreadfully clever about landing a gig or firing your bass player. (Go ahead and fire him… all bands must come to an end)

The interwebthingy that offers evil bastards like me the opportunity to warp young minds also aids the giant zombie musical death machine daily opportunities to track your movements and attempt to pick your pocket. At the mega labels they are just figuring this out.  If they truly understood the power of it they would have killed off rock and emptied every chicken out of every pot in the western world. It is a great stroke of luck that the Major Labels  have largely been staffed, in recent years, by complete imbeciles. Despite this handicap the labels are starting to spread their vampire wings across the cyber sky and circle around your carcass with other vultures like Google or Microsoft or The Council on Foreign Relations.

Lately, as I have been drifting along from webpage to webpage I noticed that Rhino Classics label has been following my every move. I’ll admit that I have actually visited their website. And yes, when I glanced at their page they stuck a homing tracker suppository in my ass and have been bugging me ever since. This kind of action falls under the principle of “If I can do it to you I will do it to you”.  The utter retards in the label marketing departments, drunk on their own power, had the same brain flash that all of the other megafuckulists have had in the past ten years – that is to say – they decided that the web was there to allow them to pick your brain and your pocket. It will never occur to them that we, the music listening public, do not see it this way. It will never enter their rodent brains that this is somehow immoral, in poor taste and extremely bad manners.

Now for an obligatory disclaimer. Rhino Classics is Warners Music, ie WMG.  The reason I happened to go to their leachlike website was to find their damn phone number so I could call them up and scream at them. It wasn’t actual screaming it was hyper polite since I have manners. I called to tell them I was suing them for failure to pay royalties for two years and for sending me fairy tales as royalty statements. That, in the music biz, is considered screaming. So there you have it, I am suing these gentlemen. In fact, since they, by being complete turds, forced me into a situation where I had no other choice, I am going to sue them for lots of core issues that matter to all artists as well as to me.

So back to the “If I can do it to you, I will do it to you” school of business practices. This attitude has nothing to do with ethics. For example I can try to sell you an ice cream cone on the street. If you refuse I can then beat your beloved dog with a shovel to influence your actions. As another example that is, perhaps, closer to the case in point – if I sold toilet paper I could place a camera in your bathroom to study your personal hygiene. I then could sell this valuable info to all interested parties.  Just because you can do something as part of doing business doesn’t mean it is right.

For the past few weeks the ads that have followed me have pitched The Ramones on heavy vinyl – a dream come true for audiophile collectors. They are trying to be oh, so clever. They know that you can just download the music. Since it will be a digital copy it will as good as the next downloaders copy. They also know that on some levels digital audio is just not as good as analog (ya know vinyl..) copies.  So when they pooled their collective brilliance together they came up with a plan (pronounced scheme) to sell you these rare jewels at these exorbitant prices.  They are desperate to sell you anything since they are all going broke fast. Soon, if things continue on the current path, they will be in such trouble that they will lose control of what’s playing out of your radio and which band you will hear about being the next big thing.  Shortly thereafter they may be forced to get real jobs. This sucks for them since they have heard rumors that there are no real jobs.

This brings me to the Ramones. The Ramones were great. They were one of the creators of punk. They rocked. I once saw them do 31 songs in a 65 minute set. I recommend that you acquire every Ramones record, even the one produced by Phil Spector the brilliant homicidal producer.  Do not buy them from WMG on 40 gram vinyl. It’s the fucking Ramones for god’s sake. Buy their records at thrift stores, garage sales and out of luck friends that need to raise cash for dope. This is the only way to buy Ramones records. You don’t own a forty thousand dollar stereo do you? Why, in God’s name would you want a slab of vinyl that costs twelve times the cost of a cheeseburger?

As a sidebar here I will say that I have met a few rich audiophiles. Ya know the type. Perfect apartment, expensive car, fancy pants yobs that have the absolute peak of audio perfection to impress their lady friends.  They invariably have eight audiophile records hermetically sealed in some kind of astronaut album sleeves. These recordings were carefully chosen for their recording clarity and the recommendation of some writer that also owns a sound system with its own mortgage. Oddly, one of the titles is always Dark Side of the Moon even though the guy has never smoked a joint. The only other guys that own audio systems that involve CIA Black Program technology are record industry executives and they never listen to music.  Well they might listen to the 40 gram vinyl version of Rocket to Russia and wonder in quiet terror whether you will buy it……………….

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011

How to release your own music…………


I asked for suggestions. I received quite a few.  I start by covering Dave’s suggestion that I provide a timeline for a band releasing their own music.

Let me start by repeating some advice I have proffered in the past. Releasing your own music is an excellent idea.  There seems to be an old wives’ tale that if you release your own music this will scare away labels. This is utter crap. Often people who have never worked in the actual record business will act as if they have all the answers. Invariably they will tell you “wait! shop the labels, wait until the market is ready…” – it’s all the same idiotic claptrap.  Thousands of worthy bands have expired waiting for their “big break”. The term “big break” points to the stupidity and misunderstanding that underlies this philosophy. Band’s don’t get a big break. They get ahead by hundreds of little breaks that bring them into a position to move to a large label and finally sell millions of records.  If you ever get to that point, don’t worry. The music business will go out its way to advertise the fact that the label created all the buzz and lifted you out of obscurity while ignoring everything the band and its fan base did to get ahead.

Think of any huge band. There are always “early recordings”, “demos”, “bootleg recordings” etc. These are all recordings created as the band rose to the top. You often can find members of any huge band appearing in unknown bands before they make it big. All of this illustrates that the path to the top is a series of small steps and the associations you build with other musicians on your way up.

One final thought on recording and releasing material. Just do it. Don’t fuck around. Don’t wait for that producer to find time for you next year. For any new band the first year should have fifty gigs and at least one full length recording.  Write the material, practice it and then record it. Certainly take the time to get it right but get it down on tape.  You can always rerecord material later.

Okay let’s move on. For this blog I will assume that you are recording a full length release and all of the sessions are worked out or complete.  Often bands concentrate on recording and ignore everything else. This works great if you are U2 but it causes problems if you are a little band. You need to be thinking about releasing the record as you record it.  You should be setting up a mastering engineer. They often are booked months in advance. Mastering is expensive and necessary. It often makes your material sound pro and much, much slicker.

 At the same time you MUST be working on cover art. It takes longer to manufacture the CD sleeve than to duplicate the CDs. I recently had dinner with a alt country band. They have tons of talent. More songs than they could ever use and a gig schedule that would make any young band jealous. They fought for months over the album art after completing the recording of their first record. This delayed them months and, in the end, they ended up with a lousy cover that has little to do with their music. Work out your cover art while you are making the record.  By the time you finish your mixes and are working on a sequence you should have your artwork locked in. Make sure someone is taking notes for the album cover. These notes are the classic choice to contain a few inside jokes.  Please remember that these jokes will not be understood by your fans. Do not make the whole cover an inside joke. This invariably leaves you with a cover that the fans hate and do not understand.

Now you’ve reached the point where you have a finished set of mixes and an album cover. Pick a date about four months in the future and decide that will be your release day. Book a date at one of your strongest venues.  This will be your release party. If you don’t give yourself a release date as a goal you and your band will likely stall and delay yourself into obscurity.  SET A DATE!

Once you have picked the date count backwards from this date six weeks. This should be the date that your promo copies (and your copies to sell) should be in your hand. Now that you know the production date (that’s what it’s called after all..) you can contact the CD duplicator and find out how long it takes them to duplicate the master and produce the art. It’s usually best to give both these duties to the CD duplicator. Yes you can save some money if you find artwork manufacturing separately but putting 2000 cds into their sleeves sucks so just skip it. At this point you will likely notice that you are already behind schedule. Try not to worry about it and just press ahead with mastering and setting up various things to promote this magical recording.  As you move towards the actual release don’t be surprised if you grow to dislike the recording. THIS IS COMMON AND YOU MUST LEARN TO NOT SECOND GUESS WHAT YOU HAVE DONE! If you do start to meddle and change things you will fall down the black hole that often consumes bands and leads to purgatory.

With all of this behind you it is time to work out how you will promote the recording. Here’s some standard ideas:

1. Book a tour that covers every market where you are known and any geographically related market where you can scam your way into a gig.

2.Collect lists of every magazine, E-zine, website and blog that writes about music similar to your band. These will all receive a press pack (see my blog on this) photo and CD in the weeks before your release.

3. Set up an account to upload to Itunes and other sites. (CD baby is quite popular) Design and arrange for your website to have a new look and copious verbage about the brilliant release, all primed and ready to go on the day of release.

4. Dig around on the internet for info on Indy distributors. Call other bands, ask how they sell product. Take notes. (product is one of those nasty music industry terms for music…)

5. Design a tour shirt and some kind of Choch-Kee (sp?). This is some small cheap item that has the album art or title or band name that can be given out to people to promote the release. (I have suggested fortune cookies that contain the band’s album title in some clever way. No one has ever used this idea so maybe it’s a tacky idea …hey you can be the first) Be creative, hand puppets? key chains? Kites? Hand grenades? This is your moment to shine.

6. Think of possible promo stunts…. the album is called Pig Fuckers? Hmmm…. what could you do? Creativity goes a long way towards getting people talking. When people talk CDs sell.

So now you’ve got the machine in gear. All of these things need to be timed to happen in and around the “Album Release Date”. It doesn’t matter much if you are a little early or a little late. You need college radio play (oh yeah get a list of college stations for mailing), press and local TV during the two months when your release will be new.  Don’t worry about shopping the release to labels. You can send out mailings if you like but the way to get signed is to get more popular. It’s a simple as that.

Columbia Records “discovered” Janis Joplin, the legendary blues rock singer at a show in San Francisco. She was given one of the most lucrative contracts up to that time. No one mentions that Columbia A & R guys first saw her at a 7000 seat theater show.  Those guys were a long way behind what every kid in Frisco had known for a year…Janis Joplin will melt your shoes….that’s how you get discovered.

I am sure I missed some points. Post questions, I’ll answer promptly….Oh yeah…if you are putting out a record you better be writing the next record or you will once again fall into the black hole……..

©Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011

How to create a final mix (pt 2)


So now we move on to adding the effects, compression and fader moves to your mix. I am assuming that you have read and understood part one. You have your mix up and running and it sounds completely balanced with drums, bass, guitars and vox. Now it’s time to add in all of the other ear candy such as background vocals or car crashes – whatever is left. As you do add elements find their proper position in the stereo field first, then find their level. This is important. If you set level first and then pan it somewhere it will be very hard to achieve balance.

This is the point where you sit back and think about the mix. Does it feel right?  Too dry? What does it need? This is the point where you may decide to add effects to instruments to achieve particular colors or atmospheres. Don’t add reverb to the vocals because all vocals have reverb. First this isn’t actually true and second it should be added in an attempt to achieve something particular.  Over the years I have spent endless hours screwing around with effects at the demand of musicians, all of that time was wasted. It rarely comes out better. On the other hand when a musician has something in mind you can quickly move towards a better mix. For example the singer might say “the vocal needs to sound more lonely”. Well that might seem vague but it gives you somewhere to go. You might add a small room reverb and pan the instruments slightly away from the vocal so it seems like it’s by itself.  By contrast the guitarist might say “the solo needs to sound grand, like a choir or something” . This leads you to push it back in the mix and add big church reverb. Most musicians understand how things should feel. They all use different terms to describe these variables. You need to take the time to understand what they mean by “it needs punch” or “it has to rock more”. Everyone seems to use these kind of terms differently. if, on the other hand, the drummer says, “I wanna sound like Bonham on When the Levee Breaks remind him that he plays like a pussy, Bonham was no pussy and that he still owes 9 bucks for last night’s food. In short ignore him.

Now is the time to think about EQ changes. Does the bass lack bottom? Is the vocal dull? When you identify a problem like these two attempt, at first, to remove things from the mix to see if the problem goes away. The most common problem that I have seen in mixing is caused by each individual element having too much top, bottom and mids. When you put it all together it makes mud.  THIS IDEA IS IMPORTANT. LEARN TO THINK ABOUT IT!

All of the great remix engineers spend most of their time removing frequencies from tracks to achieve clarity. Muddy mix? Take things out.

Now this doesn’t mean you need to lose the guitars. Instead you may need to EQ them and remove some well-defined frequencies. As you rebalance the mix and add in effects be careful to carefully remove bits and pieces of the different tracks frequency spectrums to allow other elements to shine. If you follow the rookie system of adding top and bottom to every track as it enters the mix you will end up with mud that smells of shit. I guarantee it.

Another important point about effects. Less is more and whenever you add reverb to a track it makes that track LOUDER. That means you must lower the dry track and add the reverb return track. Then rebalance the two elements, then rebalance the whole damn mix. If you put effects on everything then the mix will become an insoluble rubic’s cube. So don’t do that.

Next element to consider is compression. I am a big fan of compression. It makes tracks flatter dynamically and as a result adds detail which makes them stand out in the mix. It also controls big jumps in volume (very useful on vocals). This allows you to get a balance that continues throughout the whole mix. Again, if you compress a track you need to rebalance the mix.

Often I will run the mix through matched compressors to flatten the whole mix and make it all sound louder.  In this case both compressors must be the same with one unit “slaved” to the other so that only one set of controls runs both units. If you know how to do this and have two nice matching compressors give it a try. If not it’s best to leave this to the mastering engineer.

One final comment – always listen to the mix on as many different stereos as possible before deciding it is done. Play it in the car. Play it on your iPod through your girlfriend’s clock radio, play it on your kid brother’s karaoke box, play it anywhere that is a challenge. This will show you what needs to be changed and will show you how it will be listened to by your fans. Remember, no one is going to listen to your mixes on a studio rig so get used to it and mix it so it sounds good on ANY system……….

©Copyright 2011 Brad Morrison/Billiken Media

How to create a final mix…….(stage #1)


I spent a good portion of today driving on the marginal highway system of New York’s five boroughs.  Driving is a great way to think. It is also a great space to work on mixing down recordings. I am about to rerelease a few records from the mid 1980’s on I tunes so the task of listening to final masters falls on me. 

In this case the recordings were originally 24 track 2″ multitracks that had been mixed down to 1/4″ two-track masters.  Back in the good ole days this was a standard set up. The masters were then used to cut “lacquers” which are a negative copy of the actual vinyl LP. These lacquers were then used to create metal master copies. The metal masters were then used to create a metal stamper. This, of course, was used to press vinyl records.

In the old days mixing was done with the various stages of mastering, lacquers, stampers etc. in mind.  I’m tempted to claim that there was some exacting scientific system that was used to anticipate all of these processes. If I did claim that it would make producers and mastering engineers of the 70’s and 80’s seem like evil geniuses. (the best kind) Of course, this was not the case. The system used was called “a good ear”. in short, by trial and error you learned how much extra top and bottom you needed to add to recordings in order to end up with a vinyl record that sounded great.

Remember grasshopper - balance...it's all about balance..........

Now, twenty-five years later, I find myself trying to recreate that sound by remastering the recordings for the digital age. Once again it is a matter of “a good ear”. Sadly it is impossible to put the warmth of analog recording back into digital masters. I know that everyone tries. I know that I try and my mastering engineers try but it is never the same. Digital sounds like digital and analog sounds great. If you are young and you are recording you have probably never heard really great sounding analog recording. Take my word for it – it blows digital away.

I started by mentioning working on mixes in my car. This wasn’t some form of fiction I was actually working on mastering. How did I do that? I was using my crappy car sound system as a reference. What the hell does that mean? Well, I was comparing the sound of the mix on the car’s sound system to my memory of the same mixes in my home studio, my home sound system and a cheap boom box in my barn. In the ideal world the mixes should sound about the same on all of these different playback systems.  This is a critical measure of any mix.

Look at it this way. If you mix down a multitrack and play it back on a $50,000 audiophile system it will sound great. Of course it will. The system adds in its own clarity and resolution. The bass sounds huge, the high-end is crisp and clear and the mids are beautifully defined and warm. It’s so easy to make a great playback system sound great. A really great mix should make your 10-year-old cousin’s fucked up stereo sound great. How is this rare magic created? Balance, careful, meticulous balance and compression. These two items make a rock mix rock.

So now I will continue on with attempting to write about mixing. As I started this post I realized that explaining in words the process of mixing may prove impossible. I am going to try real hard and I hope that my determination will win through. As usual I encourage questions. This will help me fill in holes in my explanation.

For the sake of this blog let’s assume that you have already created a multitrack of a song. This multitrack has all of the meat and potatoes of great recording, that is to say, drums, bass, a couple of guitars, lead vocals, background vocals, Hammond organ, the sound of guinea pigs being run through the spin cycle of a dryer and, of course, tambourine. All of these tracks have been recorded properly. When I say properly I assume that there are no phase problems, and all tracks are recorded on decent mics and then compressed.  Let’s also assume that none of the tracks are recorded with effects on the original track.  There are times when recording effects on the original track makes sense but in this discussion we will assume that each track is dry. So now that you have all of these tracks how do you put together a mix?

Here goes… you can follow along on your console if you have a mix that needs mixing.  First, make sure that all EQ and effects are not in the mix. The early part of any mixing process should be FLAT. I am deadly serious about that. trust me ’cause I have done this a couple of thousand times. With all of the EQ’s and effects out bring up the individual channels in groups. Drums are usually first. Bring up all of the drum tracks and listen for BALANCE.  When I use the term balance I mean that the tracks when played back seem to fill up the stereo field without leaning to the left or right speaker. Here is a typical drum arrangement with the idea of balance being foremost in your mind. The kick should be panned to 12 o’clock. (that means the pan pot is straight up the center) The snare drum is also panned at 12 o’clock, straight up the center.  Now we add in the overhead mics. There should be two of them and they should be panned hard left and right. (we’ll call hard left 8 o’clock and hard right 4 o’clock) As you add in the drum tracks be careful to listen for phase problems. Drums are notorious for phase problems since it is the one instrument that always has multiple mics recording the same sound source. This is the classic set up for phase problems. (please read my posting about phase problems if this doesn’t make sense to you) When I say listen for phase problems I mean to say listen for an apparent loss of bottom end when a track is added to the mix. This is often the most obvious indicator of phase problems.  As you add in the overheads try flipping the left and right pans to see which arrangement sounds more balanced and natural.  Next add in the hi hat mic if you have one. This will usually make the snare drum seem to move in the stereo field. This is caused by the hi hat mic having tons of snare in it and as a result will mess with the snare balance. The usual solution is to lean the hi hat a little to the right and the snare a little to the left. This should bring the snare back to the center of the stereo field. It is important that you maintain the snare up the center since it is often the loudest item in the mix. Yes, the Beatles put the whole drum kit in the left speaker and the sound of tripping Scotsmen in the right speaker and it worked. But you are not the Beatles. If you are one of the surviving members of the Beatles you do not need me to tell you how to mix. Sorry I digress……..

Ok so now you have the kick, snare, hi hat, and overheads in the mix. Ask yourself, “Do I need more?”. Often you can have a smokin’ mix without the tom mics. If you feel that you must have the tom mics then carefully add them in making sure to pan the individual drums so they appear to be in the proper place in the stereo field. What is the proper place? They should sound like they do on the kit, floor tom to the hard left (maybe 9 o’clock) rack #1 at 1 o’clock and rack two at 11 o’clock.

Now that all the drum tracks are up and running play with the relative volume of each track until the kit sounds BALANCED and the apparent volume of each element of the drum kit is where it should be. Remember Do Not add EQ or effects at this point. The whole early part of a mix should be about balance.

The next item is the bass. This gets added straight up the middle.  Often bass is recorded with both a DI (as in direct line input) track and a mic track.  I personally think that this system sucks. If you record a DI and a mic of the same instrument they will be out of phase. The difference in phase will be small but will be significant nonetheless. I have solved this problem by running the DI line through a very fast delay and messing with the delay timing until the phase issue disappears. It is much easier to make a choice use a DI or use a mic. The more experience I acquired the more often I choose the mic.  No matter which method you use the bass gets mixed straight up the middle.  If you try to pan it the whole mix will start to lean-to one side. This will make the mastering engineer use your name as a common cuss word for years after completing your project.

As you add in the bass pay careful attention to the balance between the kick drum and the bass. Neither the kick or the bass should dominate. Instead they should work together and feel…you guessed it….balanced.

Ok, time to move on to the guitars. At this stage you can start to think about how the final mix will be balanced. For example, you might have two rhythm guitars that work against each other. These could be added as left and right in the mix, say at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock.  Or you might have one dominant rhythm guitar and this is added in at 2 o’clock. In a situation like this it may be balanced with the lead vocal being added at 11 o’clock so the mix seems full.

As you add in the next elements use the pan pots to place each track in its own space in the mix. Stereo is a wonderful thing. Use it. I have heard many mixes through the years that sounded lame solely because the mix engineer never bothered to pan the various tracks so that they used up the stereo field in a creative way.

So the drums bass and guitars are all in the mix. They all feel balanced and their relative volume is where you think they will work. Now add the lead vocal. Skip the background vocals for the moment. After you add the lead vocal and find the proper level for it drop out the bass and guitars so that you are listening to drums and vocals.Listen to this down through the whole track paying close attention to the way the drums work with the vocals. Make sure that there are no moments where the kick and snare interfere with the lead vocal. The most common problem is that the kick or snare are “out of the pocket” and make the lead vocal seem out of time. Sometimes it is the other way around. If you find any of these kind of problems mark down the time and make a note that you will need to move either the drums or the vocal at that spot to make up for the problem.

Add the bass and guitars back in. Now add in any other elements. You should now have a well-balanced mix with all of the little things that often put the polish on a recording.  Spend some time moving different elements up or down to achieve a mix that works without having to touch the level of any element. Yes, i know that everyone has programmable faders nowadays but the key to a good mix is that the whole mix should be balanced and clear WITHOUT ANY FADER MOVES. If you achieve this goal then you are on your way to a great mix.

This is the first place where it is time to take the mix out of the mix room and listen to it on a car stereo or a boom box. Print a disc and take it somewhere to listen to it. Listen for…you guessed it again…Balance and, now, as the mix is starting to be complete, listen for clarity. Does it sound dull? Does it sound muddy? Does it have too much top end or too much bottom? When you identify a problem go back to the console and try to alter the fader levels to solve the problem. Do this first. Do this before you even consider using EQ.  Many general EQ problems in a mix can be solved by playing with the levels.  Change the mix slightly and once again take it to another sound system. The goal at this stage is for the mix to sound SIMILAR on every system you play it on.

As you finish this stage of the mixing process you should reach a stage where you have gotten everything that you can get out of balancing the fader volumes and the pan positions. When you feel that any improvement must come from somewhere else and that the MIX ALREADY SOUNDS PRETTY FUCKING GOOD then it is time to move on to EQ, compression and effects. These processes will be covered in the next blog. I hope to have that blog up and running in a day or two.

© Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011

oodles of recording noodles……………..


So let’s swing back to the core of what a band does to promote itself – recording music.  Recording, the private, back room activity that an active band engages in, should be central to a your band’s development. You should always be setting something down on tape. This could be demos, live tracks as the band plays out, major sessions with a producer, a running project to rerecord “Dark Side of the Moon” as a salsa album or collaborations with other artists. It all counts. It is all central to being a great band and it all should be DONE WITHOUT DELAY!!! Stop fucking around and make the record.

Over the course of my career I heard the same lame excuse with sickening regularity. There are many variations but it basically goes like this ” We’re waiting for Tyrone Mablamawitz to find time in his schedule so we can work on some tracks” The key word is “waiting”.  Your waiting for the studio. Your waiting to finish writing two more tracks. Your waiting for label to show some interest. Your waiting until you buy that new compressor. Your waiting for your lucky groupie to get outta rehab…..Bullshit. Why wait? Never wait. If you are going to be a band that records songs then FUCKING RECORD AND DON’T BE AN IDIOT ABOUT IT! Great records are made by bands that actually push the RECORD button. If you are too timid to do it, if you are always finding an excuse why you’re not ready, then you’re not a great band.

You have to feel the fierce urgency of NOW!

Look at it this way. You’re in a band. You have the lives of four or five people tangled up and committed to the crazy campaign to make great rock. How long can this last? How long will the band hang together? How long until someone pisses off everyone else and things change? I have thirty five years experience in this subject and I can tell you with no reservation that answer to all of those questions is “Not long at all”. All bands are temporary. The only ones that stick around for decades are the ones that make it big. Once that happens you will have already figured out that you need to get it down on tape.

All of the arguments that you are not ready don’t really add up. For example if you find yourself arguing that the tunes need to be practiced in order to have enough polish then get to it and knock out the practices. That is part of the recording process. There is a subtle but important difference between “Yeah we have just been practicing” and “We’re doing preproduction practices”. One is the humdrum pace of a band wasting its time and the other is a band working towards a short-term goal.

Let me sum up this rant. ALWAYS RECORD WHAT’S GOING DOWN IN THE BAND. It all has use and if you are not recording then you damn well better be playing out live. Oh yeah, if you are playing live you damn well better be getting some of the shows on tape. Listening back to a live shows tape is a great way to figure out that it’s time to fire the drummer or that “I’ll cry over your puppy baby” really sucks and the band should finally drop it from the set list. (which, of course, will mean you can finally fire the drummer since it is his only song)

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This post looks like a few random recording topics. Since there are always lots of brief comments rattling around in my skull I will occasionally spit out these disjointed posts. I hope that they fit in with all of the other more structured posts.

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How do you get good tracks in the studio? How do you make a recording really special?

Getting great tracks

This, of course, could be a huge post with lots of subchapters and scores of stories. Tonight, at least, I am going to give a few quick and dirty tips and rules to help ensure cutting great tracks.

1. Great tracks are based on great, relaxed, well centered playing. It all starts with everyone in the band being in a great mood (by great I mean appropriate and intense in some way) Everyone should be well fed, and focused. The band should try to record at the hours where everyone involved is working at their best. If your bass player just spent 14 hours unloading UPS trucks and arrived with no sleep and utter exhausted then you are on course to cut lousy tracks. Another piece of this core idea is that you should never work really long sessions. I have seen it tried hundreds of times and it has never worked. The best tracks are always cut when the band is relatively fresh and everyone’s ears are fresh.

2. Always keep practice takes and shoot for cutting the base tracks in one or two takes. If you find yourself playing a song again and again then you either need to go back into the preproduction rehearsals or the band needs a break.  The ideal session should run around 10 or twelve hours maximum. This is important. If you think you are smarter than me on this one good luck. You will spend lots of studio time banging away at the same song  and the tracks will sound lame when you go back and listen with fresh ears.

At my residential studio, Morrison Hotel, I always recorded from noon til twelve with a two-hour break in the middle. During the break I would cook a big meal. Get the band loose with substances of their choosing and tell them a bunch of rock stories to get everyone in the proper mindset. 80% of the tracks on my recordings at Morrison Hotel were cut during the two or three hours after coming back from break. The really great tracks, the ones that I can look back at and say they really rock were first or second takes.

If things start to get stale while recording take a break and do something fun. Go throw snowballs at the Hookers on the Avenue or go to the piggly wiggly as a group to see what trouble comes up. Stick together but take a break.  When the lead singer needs to “go for a pilgrimage into the woods for five hours then you are going to be getting a new singer soon.

3. Break the rules and experiment when you hit a roadblock. Every band finds themselves frustrated and stalled at some point while trying to record. When this happens use some strategies to break out of it and reenergize the session.  I think the key here is to do something creative and impulsive.  Try to rewrite a Beatles song. Record the song with the structure backwards. Cut out the chorus and try rewriting a quick and dirty version of the song with new verses and a new bridge.

Brian Eno, one of the world’s most creative producers, invented a set of cards called Oblique Strategies in the early 80’s. The purpose of these strange Tarotlike cards was to shake up the creative process. I believe you can still buy them if you are curious.  They looked like a Taro set. On each one was printed a command like “Erase and Start again” or “Take a minor element and make it a primary element”. When you got stuck you cut the deck and did what it commanded. Simple, brilliant, inspired. If you want to hear the result listen to “The fly” by U2 or any of the tracks on the Talking Heads “Remain in Light”.

4. Work on the band’s sound and get it to sound amazing before you put mics on it. Yes, the recorded tracks should be cut with the best mics and compressors you possess but the secret to a great sounding recording is to get the band sounding amazing and then capturing it. The mics, compressors, recording console and effects will not create world-class recordings by themselves. They can add to the sound. They can sculpt the sound but they can’t make it sound great when it sounds like shit in the tracking room.  THe first thing you do is get the drums, guitar amps, bass amps, leslie cabinets etc. sounding like the Voice of the Great God Jupiter. Once you do that it becomes a simple process of capturing the sound on tape.  Another way to put it is great tracks are not created in the mix room they are created by the players themselves using gear they understand.  GET IT RIGHT IN THE RECORDING ROOM FIRST. MAKE THE AMPS AND DRUMS SOUND LIKE MAGICAL SPIRITS AND THEN PUT MICS ON IT AND HIT RECORD!!! That’s the way professional, world-class records are made.

OK that sums up tonight’s advice. Of course there will be more to say in the coming weeks…. stay tuned…..

© Brad Morrison/Billiken Media 2011