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Production Fundamentals: Mixing Psychology

Paul McKercher offers some sound advice on how to approach mixing, whether you’re in the band or the mix engineer.

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14 November 2005

Some time back, a record I’d produced was mixed in the United States. It sounded great, full of detail, energy and the requisite loudness that makes modern records sound like they do. Of the different mixes supplied, there were the usual vocal ups and downs, but also guitar, bass, kick, snare, hi-hat… in fact nearly every conceivable permutation of element up/down imaginable. And that’s where the problems began.

Come mastering day, the band could not attend the session. As a result, each member of the band, in turn, rang the mastering engineer and requested that he use the mix that had their instrument up, except the singer who, with all the predictability of hearing Jack Johnson in a Bondi cafe, asked for the ‘vocal down’ to be mastered. No surprise in any of this, though it does serve to illustrate that all but the most experienced of musicians hear mixes in the same way one views old school class photos; highly skewed by a loving or loathing of one’s own image. With mixes, muso’s tend to hear only their own parts. Listening without prejudice is the key then and that’s where specialist mix engineers earn their keep.

MIXING ENGINEERS

It’s fashionable to have different engineers record and mix records and the advantage of this delineation of tasks is the clear perspective that a good mix engineer brings to a record via the fact that, while listening and balancing, the mix engineer knows little or nothing of the human story, the dramas, the triumphs and failures behind the recordings. In that inoculated state they hear the elements without fear or favour, judging ideas without emotional baggage, and in so doing, finding the best way of presenting the music to its final judge, the listener.

Given all this, it’s wise, as a band member, to leave mixing to the mixer and, as a mixer, to take the reins and steer the mix in the direction that best flatters the song and the artist. Studio politics dictate that band members will be present during some or, God forbid, all of a mix session but only the most arrogant and foolish of musicians would assume that by sitting on the couch all day, giving voice to every half-baked idea in their head,  they’re actually contributing something of worth. An experienced mixer knows this and will usually manage to defuse potential clashes with such wide eyed novices by wily use of diplomacy and, if necessary, the authority that years of studio experience confers. That said, musicians certainly don’t have a monopoly on arrogance or ignorance and to repeat my mantra… “An idea should be judged on its content not its authorship”.

Some of the best advice I’ve been given to persuade band members to turn up when the mix is nearly ready to print is this: You only get one chance at a first impression.

As we all know when listening to music, first impressions are everything. That’s how the punters hear it and that’s the best way to judge a mix. If, as a muso, you want to hear your record as a punter hears it, ask the engineer when is a good time to turn up and you’ll probably be told, “late afternoon, early evening”. If, alternatively, you want to lose all perspective but learn about the mix process, fine, but don’t just assume that this is okay with the engineer. Pay them the respect and courtesy of asking them first because you will be looking over their shoulder all day. Some engineers are cool with this, others will be rattled. Personally, I don’t mind either way, but if the room gets full of idle chatter, I’ll politely ask that the room be cleared. A control room is a workspace not a social club.

As engineer, when it comes to the appropriate time for the band to offer opinions, have the humility to listen and accept good ideas and the guts to reject the bad ones. If you try to please everybody, you run the risk of ending up with a democratic but ultimately boring mix.

So much for the human side of things, here’s some practical suggestions for achieving better mixes.

STICK WITH WHAT YOU KNOW

All the best gear on earth is not going to help you if you are unfamiliar with the sound of the monitors. Knowing their characteristics equals making confident sonic decisions. There’s nothing more dispiriting than nearly finishing a mix, taking a burn home and finding that its sonic shape is nowhere near what you were hearing in the control room. It’s not surprising then to learn that the world’s best mixers work consistently out of one or two studios. When you know the gear and the sound of the room intuitively, you can work on an emotional level, and it’s the emotional power more than technical brilliance which is important to an engaging mix.

KEEP IT SIMPLE

If you have to deal with a massed array of faders, do a sub-mix back to whatever format you’re using and bring it back as a stereo pair. This applies well to backing vocals, strings and percussion tracks but perhaps not to drums, where fine degrees of control are required. Use sub groups of drums, guitars, keys, bass, FX and vocals. This makes for easy and quick rebalancing, and if the mix is hitting the output bus too hard, you can pull your sub groups back while maintaining your balance. The thing is not to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of faders and knobs so that you can mix creatively rather than technically.

MAKE THE VOCAL SOUND AWESOME

The vocal is, for most people the first point of contact, especially non-musicians and as such is, in my humble, the most important element of the song. It’s where the emotional content lives and you should leave no stone unturned to make it sound fantastic. Importantly, you should be able to understand nearly every word and the vocal shouldn’t be in competition with any other elements. Compression is part of the solution and for a vocal compressor it’s hard to go past a Urei 1176 or an Empirical Labs Distressor. If you want a breathy desperation to the vocal, use a fast release time; use the attack time to tune how much punctuation you want at the start of each line. Compare high ratio/high threshold to low ratio/low threshold to hear which suits. Sometimes you may need to really smash it, particularly if the vocal has to compete with a wall of highly compressed distorted guitars. It’s sometimes cool to mix a super compressed and distorted split of the vocal in with the unprocessed one. As far as EQ goes, the right amount of high frequency (10kHz and up) helps with intelligibility and detail, low frequency (250Hz and below) helps the notes carry but the real character of the voice lies in the mids and this is where you need to really dig deep to find that tonal magic that makes the singer sound special, unique and engaging.

De-ess if necessary. The DBX 902 is a great hardware de-esser and the Waves 24-bit plug-in is great too, if a little fiddly. If the sibilance in the vocal is of a similar level or slightly higher than the top end of the drum kit then that’s about right.

DON’T OVER COMPRESS

Many a good mix is ruined by the use of so-called ‘mastering’ plug-ins. The increase in average level they give can be seductive but it often comes at a price. Brittleness and a mashing of the top end are the most common. If you’re unsure what a global plug-in is doing to your mix, turn the output of it down until it’s the same level as what you hear when you hit the bypass button. Toggle the bypass, listen to the difference and make a judgement. I’m all for mix bus compression and the SSL or Al Smart quad comp is my fave, but it’s good to leave some dynamic range for the mastering engineer to work with. Remember too that over-compression can’t be undone. Mastering engineers are experts in the field of global compression and EQ and can get much better results with the high-end analogue gear they use than what you or I can with a plug-in. If it’s lots of average level you’re after, try printing the mix to tape which, being a fantastic peak limiter, will give you at least another 2dB of average level because tape lops off unwanted peaks when you print levels that approach saturation.

USE PARALLEL COMPRESSION TO BOOST AVERAGE LEVEL

When I set up the board for a mix, I’ll always patch in two stereo compressors with their inputs fed from the group outputs. One will be a fast VCA-based compressor and the other a slower opto type – an EL Fatso Jnr and a pair of Neve 2254s for instance. The fast one is for drums and the other, usually for guitars. The beauty of parallel compression is that when mixed in with the un-compressed sound, the uncompressed signal provides the punchy front of sounds while the compressed sound lifts average level and adds density. If you want to try this in ProTools, make sure that delay compensation is turned on, otherwise the phase between the two signals will be all wrong. If you don’t have delay compensation, print the compressed signal then manually realign the waveforms for correct phase.

CHECK MONO

Mono is how the mix is going to sound out of a clock radio, a small television or an FM radio on the edge of transmission range, since FM radio broadcasts in MS mode, not Left/Right. If things are disappearing or changing tone when you hit the mono button you need to find the cause and fix it. Out-of-phase stereo sounds (keyboards, guitars) are usually the culprits though some cheap reverbs create the impression of stereo by splitting their mono processor to the left and right then putting one side out of phase. With a view to good mono balance I’ll usually pan kick, snare, bass, vocal and something that supports the vocal dead centre. It’s also worth listening to the left and right of the mix separately to hear how it might sound in a café where the speakers are spaced ridiculously wide, though this is not nearly as important as getting good strong mono.

MONITOR SOFTLY

Needless to say, most people don’t listen to their music at ear shattering volumes and nor should mixers. Loud volume can be useful to check for excessive brittleness and bottom-end shape but beyond that, the excitement of loud monitoring volumes is misleading. Fine balancing decisions are better achieved at low listening levels where the ‘throw’ of particular sounds becomes more critical. Making it sound exciting at high volume is easy because at SPLs above 95dB the body produces adrenaline. The real trick is to manufacture energy which translates at all listening levels.

TAILOR THE BOTTOM END FOR SMALL SPEAKERS

A cheap boom box or some small bookshelf speakers are a great addition to a mix room; they’re ‘real world’ and ideally shouldn’t have much response under 80Hz. A kick drum that sounds bowel loosening on large monitors may well have all the impact of a marshmallow when heard on small speakers so you’ll need to move some of the energy from the deep subs into the hear-able bass regions, 80 – 120Hz. Try high-pass filtering below 50Hz and a bell boost at 100Hz to get kick drums and bass instruments audible and punchy if they’re getting lost on small speakers. Then, to help definition in the low end, filter out the subs from instruments that don’t need them. Similarly, filter out the super highs from instruments that have no need of them in an effort to concentrate more sonic energy into the mids which is where most speakers and, not coincidentally, human ears do their best work.

PRINT ‘VOCAL UP’ MIXES

Perhaps the most frequent mix mistake is not having the vocal loud enough. For whatever reason, be it over-familiarity with the lyrics and melody or the singer’s shyness or perhaps the monitoring; don’t leave the session without a vocal up. I usually do two or three vocal ups and move in 0.5dB steps. A half dB is enough for most people’s ears to pick, so this is the smallest increment I’d move in.

That’s about 3 – 4mm on an un-automated console with 100mm faders; otherwise do it via software, post the vocal compressor.

DO A TV/ KARAOKE MIX

To produce one of these, just mute the lead vocal (after the compressor so you mute its noise as well). You never know when TV mixes might get used, so have them mastered as well as the preferred mix. Similarly do an instrumental mix – again, you never know.

VOCAL ONLY MIX

This takes five minutes to do and could save you expense and embarrassment. Should you find you don’t have a mix with the correct vocal level, lay the ‘vocal only’ mix over the ‘TV’ mix in your DAW, rebalance the vocal and you’ve saved the need for a recall.

DO BACKUPS

Did I really need to say that? Apparently so.

Finally, make sure you check your CD burns before they leave the building, you’ll look like a real goose if they’re covered in distortion or won’t play properly. Burning at speeds greater than 8x is dangerous territory.

Don’t let your paperwork slide either; it’s of particular importance that the mix details on the reference CDs are clearly specified, so that people can give what they’re listening to a name. The words ‘un-mastered’ and ‘not for production’ should appear in the labelling along with the date and venue; be sure to label the spine of the CD too. Well printed CD labels provide a great ‘look’ for a studio and appear like something worth keeping but CD burns with hastily scribbled texta all over them are very down market.

CLOSING TIP

I’ve got a guitar-recording tip to share. When recording an amp with two mics, correct phase is vital so you don’t get cancellation of high frequencies. Using a ruler to measure equal distance is okay, using your ears and a phase switch then repositioning by degree is better, but by far the most accurate way is to record a little of both mics into a DAW, zoom in on the waveforms, and then adjust mic position according to the amount of misalignment. Repeat until exactly correct. Now hit your phase button. Spot on it is. Any other lateral uses for DAWs any of you out there may have, I’d dig to know them. Find me at paulmckercher@hotmail.com

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Issue 93

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What’s in. What’s out. What to expect.