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.
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 ou the bass and guitars so that you are listening to drums and vocals. 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