Stereo Mixing: The Art, The Science, The Fiction (Part 1)
Mixing is becoming more and more complicated as the years progress. With track counts inevitably on the rise what do you do when faced with a complex mix, and how do you learn to do it well?
Combining sounds into a single stereo computer file or two-track tape master is a fascinating and almost infinitely diverse art form. Being an artistic pursuit, I’d contend there are probably more ways to approach mixing than there are golf swings, and like a golf swing, in the end it’s the results that matter more than any particular method or style. In golf, no-one cares two hoots how you hit the ball, provided the result is always a perfectly straight 300-yard screamer. If this is also true of mixing, how then do you learn it and what makes a particular combination of sounds something that others might consider a ‘great’ mix?
NO SIMPLE ANSWERS
Well, if I could answer that question easily, I’d be running down to the local brewery right now and getting them to bottle it. The fact is, there are no easy answers, no infallible methods. Mixing is no different from painting or writing. The main ingredients perhaps are passion and drive, imagination and skill. Then of course, there’s learning, failure, hard work and persistence, not to mention commitment and honesty, humility and knowledge… oh, and good material helps… and listening, let’s not forget listening.
But talking about mixing like it’s Greek philosophy is no good to anyone either. The way to learn to mix is basically like any apprenticeship. First of all you must get involved, and from there it’s all about working hard, listening and learning, and being prepared to get it wrong, while always striving to get it right. But above all else, it’s about doing it…
WHAT IS MIXING?
A very talented artist friend of mine recently said that painting pictures was ‘all about problem solving’. What he was inferring – at least in part – was that working on a painting was all about addressing problems as they presented themselves, and having the perception, skills and conviction to solve them. The same principles apply to mixing audio.
So how do you gather together a collection of audio channels and make them into a something worth listening to? What is a ‘problem’ in the first place, and how do you ‘solve’ it? Do you simply mix from left to right, or loudest sound to softest sound? Is it more important to address the most obvious things first or should the details of a mix be considered right at the beginning? Perhaps it’s all about throwing Tarot cards on the console and, with your eyes shut, attributing each card’s characteristic to a fader (you think I’m kidding?). You might want to push all the faders up and just ‘go for it’ or you might prefer to plan everything, label everything clearly, patch all the effects and push up one fader at a time. Whichever way you approach it, the important first step with any mix is to just simply begin.
NO RIGHT WAY
The point I’m trying to make here is that there is no ‘right way’. Learning to mix is not like sitting in a classroom and being told that: ‘the kick drum must be compressed first… now let’s consider the snare… now let’s tune the hi-hat’. This is what I call the ‘Sergeant Major’ approach, where all the channels of audio sound off one at a time like a roll call of privates. This approach works for some people, of course, but not for everyone. And that’s the beauty of this whole caper – learning what works best for you, and more importantly, your mix.
What I don’t like about the ‘Sergeant Major’ approach is that it implies a certain methodology and ‘right way’ where none exists. It’s usually an approach borne out of a desire to create method and order from the chaos, and is a direct spin-off from our basic cultural approach to learning, where everything works from left to right: reading, writing… you name it. This is fine of course, if the results are always great mixes, happy clients and eager listeners. But it’s potentially disastrous when the method is replacing an open mind or a sensitivity to what’s coming out of the speakers.
COMMUNICATION & SENSITIVITY
To illustrate this point, let’s say for instance, you’ve just walked into a studio to mix a solo artist and when you arrive they’re already sitting on the couch in anticipation of the day ahead. What do you do first, sit at the console, turn your back on them and start fiddling with channel one? Of course you don’t. What you should probably do in that circumstance is have a quick conversation about how you both anticipate the day unfolding. If that person is the singer, you might like to hear their thoughts on how they’d like their voice to sound: how loud they’d like to be in the mix, their overall tone and the sort of space they imagine their voice might inhabit. Not a bad start, provided you actually listen to what they have to say. It would be ironic to think that someone employed to listen all day and make informed judgements would fail to ‘hear’ what people want right from the get-go, wouldn’t it? Yet this is precisely the mistake many mix engineers make. They don’t listen.
Good mix engineers are no different to good co-workers, good parents or good governments; they listen to what others want with sensitivity, empathy and respect. I’d contend that good mixing is as much about communication as it is about compression. Many mix engineers walk into the studio with their heads so full of methodology that any external influences just bounce off them like Flubber.
So whether you already know the song you’re about to mix or you’ve never heard it before, your mind should be supple enough and your attitude sensitive enough for all these types of factors to have some affect over how you approach the starting line.
BANG, & THEY’RE OFF!
Now that we’ve established that there’s no right way – at least, none that’s universal – we must now dive into ironic territory and try and establish some concepts that do work for most people. Here again, it’s the way your mind approaches the task ahead that matters most, and a thinking mind is always what you need engaged in order to mix something well (as Stav always attests).
But let’s just get one thing straight here. A thinking mind is not an ‘all-knowing’ mind, nor is a thinker merely a scientist who lacks vision or flair. It’s naïve and stupid to imply that ‘to think’ is to always act from an analytical point of view. That’s an adolescent philosophy best left in the schoolyard. If you’re establishing an accurate delay time you need to use your brain to work it out. Alternatively, you might decide to just ‘feel the beat’ and use a tap delay. Either way, your mind makes the decision. So don’t be afraid to think, just remember that there are boundless ways of thinking – working with your mind and artistic endeavour are not opposites of one another.
PRACTISE MAKES PERFECT
Like good painters and good golfers, good mix engineers practise their art. Some mix so often that they never bother hitting the practise fairway at all, while others might spend half an hour practising one type of technique before every session. Either way, the one thing that’s crucially important is to know your tools, whether that be an analogue console and a pile of outboard gear or a particular computer program and plug-ins. Familiarity with your tools is key – knowing the strengths and weaknesses of how each individual device functions under different circumstances and with different impetus is vitally important. And the only way to develop this knowledge is to work, work and work some more. Building up a sonic memory of all these different experiences is what you then draw upon when a particular ‘problem’ needs ‘solving’.
Practise and experimentation are, needless to say, cornerstones of good mixing technique. Mixes don’t just come together by chance – although certain elements invariably do at one time or another, and there are occasional holes-in-one, but these are very rare. Learning how to create clean sounds, distorted sounds, wet sounds, distant ghosts and phantoms are all techniques there to be discovered, either by chance, by lateral thought, by necessity or desire. Applying these techniques appropriately to the ingredients of your mix is the next big step.
PULLING A GOOD MIX
I hate the term ‘pulling a mix’ but however you like to describe the process, a good mix is one that translates well across different systems, presents the music as the musicians originally intended it (in some form or other) and is finished within a certain time frame. Your mix might be very simple and devoid of complex method or full of hi-tech trickery and multi-layered sounds. Either way, some of the key components of a good mix are understanding its overall ‘tone’ early on in proceedings, confidence in your own abilities and a good grasp of what’s required by the song, where it’s intended to be played and what volume it’s most likely to be played at.
To me the most critical aspects of a good mix are probably knowing the tone of your workplace speakers (so you don’t make the mistake of tonally adjusting speaker X to sound like speaker Y), and making sure you listen to what everyone involved in the recording wants from the final mixdown. It’s easy to forget that the artist’s opinion is fundamental to a successful outcome – the worst mix engineers are those who don’t listen to what everyone wants, and later, when that’s not delivered to the client, they’re defensive and precious about the mix they’ve ‘pulled’.
SOME SIMPLE TECHNIQUES
Mixing techniques run as deep as Loch Ness. There is no possible way that a single article on the subject can hope to cover even one small facet of it. All this article intends to impart is the simple notion that thinking and acting for yourself is the best way forward. So let’s now look at a few basics of mixing, keeping this clearly in mind.
One of the most fundamental aspects of mixing sounds together is establishing a ‘tone’. Whether you’re mixing a song, an album, a film or an installation piece, the tone of the mix is a fundamental aspect of the outcome you’re driving towards, and the sooner you know where you’re heading in this regard the better. More mixes stall, disintegrate or go on ad infinitum over disagreements about tone than almost any other issue.
For those of you who don’t know what I mean by ‘tone’, it’s essentially the overall balance of frequencies the elements of a mix combine to create. A ‘big & round’ tone, for instance, might involve bass frequencies being shared among a wide variety of instruments and sounds – kicks, snares, guitars and voices – and might even include tracking or mixing to tape. A ‘clear & clinical’ tone, on the other hand, might emphasise midrange and hi-end frequencies that shine clear light on individual instruments. Suffice it to say, tone can vary greatly from record to record, and song to song. Choosing your tone early (and this decision should be made very carefully) will save you many long hours of searching and heartache.
Of course, let’s not forget that it’s also commonly the recording process that plays an enormous role in establishing the tone of a project. Provided the individuals involved in this stage of proceedings knew what they were doing, the tone should be pretty well established at the beginning of the mix. But this isn’t always the case. Simply put, whether you’re making minor adjustments to the source material or wholesale reparatory changes, knowing the tone you’re after is vital to your efficiency, time management and the final outcome.
One of the simplest ways I know to establish tone is to pick a song (or group of songs) from some of your favourite mixes (whether they’re yours or someone else’s) and have them constantly playing (all day if necessary) via a CD player or similar while you’re mixing, paying careful attention to the input path you’ve patched it through. (After all, there’s no point matching your tone to a song that’s accidentally passing through a radical EQ or heavy compression!) By switching between your own mix and that of your ‘benchmark mixes’ (with the levels matched) you’ll be able to tell where your tone is lacking or exaggerated. This will keep you on track, particularly if your surroundings are unfamiliar.
Another fundamental aspect of any good mix is your management and perception of phase issues as and when they arise. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been called into a session to listen to a mix, only to discover in the first 20 seconds that the whole stereo image is out of phase.
If you find phase hard to hear – and some people do – look for the telltale signs. When a whole mix is out of phase, strange things happen. Apart from there being no solid centre and typically a lack of bottom end, things tend to bunch up at the extremes of the stereo image, rushing to the left or right inexplicably. Pan pots seem not to direct the sound where they should; things supposedly in the centre of the image seem lopsided or indeterminate; instruments that should be only slightly tilted left or right seem inordinately wide, and so on.
If you have your suspicions about the stereo image’s phase integrity, hit the phase button on the stereo output – it might be on the console’s stereo bus, or if you’re mixing ‘in the box’, on a plug-in stereo output compressor or similar device. Wherever it is, get in the habit of toggling it whenever you’re suspicious about a sound’s inadequate performance. If a sound seems weak, hit the phase button, if it’s too wide, hit the phase button. If you’re scratching your head in wonder, hit the phase button. No harm will ever come of it, and you’ll save time, money and potentially a whole lot of embarrassment by making it your best friend. One thing’s for sure, mixing with two speakers that are out of phase with one another is a dead loss, guaranteed.
Phase is important wherever a single sound is shared by more than one microphone or speaker. So if your guitar sound is comprised of two mics in a mix, be acutely aware of the phase relationship between them. If your bass sound is made up of a D.I. and a cabinet mic, for instance, pay careful attention to the blend of the two signals. Sometimes the two sounds will combine to cannibalise one another’s tone, and this is usually (though not always) undesirable. The same applies to stereo overheads on drums, and anywhere else two or more mics make up a sound. It also manifests itself in reverbs and synth sounds, for instance. Many wide sounds like reverbs are contrived from out-of-phase information. When the phase on these sounds is flipped, or the mix is played back in mono – on TV or AM radio for instance – these sounds will all but disappear. So, again, be vigilant about phase at all times, in the same way a good driver regularly looks in his rear-vision mirror.
Panning is another aspect of mixing that often leaves people floundering. I’ve seen mix engineers (myself included) sweep sounds back and forth like search lights with little understanding of what they’re hoping to discover. It’s not the easiest aspect of mixing that’s for sure, and from personal experience I’ve known countless mixes to change several times with regard to the stereo placement of instruments.
Panning is a very subjective realm. From a personal standpoint, I like to establish panning placements while listening in both headphones and speakers. As an aside, if the panning of instruments in a mix won’t settle down, I’ve often found that the solution is best discovered in the morning when you’re fresh.
Headphones are probably the most common form of playback on the planet nowadays and yet many mix engineers neglect to put them on during the course of a mix. I like to use them at various stages of mixdown to make sure the image of the music I’m presenting isn’t too wide, especially during things like guitar intros and so on. I’m not a fan of things placed hard left or right when they’re on their own, and this is something I’m particularly allergic to in headphones. In that situation I like to add a bit of reverb in the opposing speaker, or pan the instrument slightly back from hard left or right. Another thing to remember about panning is that, particularly in the digital domain – like everything else – it’s infinitely (and dynamically) adjustable – things don’t have to remain static.
Panning and left/right balance are, needless to say, inextricably linked. For many, one important aspect of a good mix is to achieve a balance of tone, volume and focus equally in both speakers. In the same way old-fashioned scales were balanced with small weights, the general vibe is to ensure that the stereo speakers remain ‘stable’ throughout the mix. Inevitably, instruments like lead guitars or toms, backing vocals or whips cracking might tilt a mix one way or another, but overall, the scales shouldn’t tip too far or for too long. That’s why main vocals, kick drums and bass guitars are regularly placed in the middle of a mix; they stabilise the image and provide a foundation for the inevitable left and right swings of other instruments and sounds. But like all of this philosophising about mixing, the convention here should be a guide only, and no one should feel obliged to follow it.
My own take on panning and balance is to share the focus around. So if a smooth guitar overdub drifts in from the left to draw your attention during a verse, the next main point of focus might come in from the right, followed up by something driving down the middle of the image. But that’s just me. If a mix is focused to one side for too long I start getting edgy, and this tension is only released by being offered something tasty from the other side of the image. Other people might feel differently.
VIVA LA DIFFERENCE
Mixing audio is an endless pursuit in many respects. Sure there are genres and styles, level issue and tonal constraints, but for many it’s the point of difference in a mix that makes… well, all the difference. Some mix engineers indeed pride themselves on creating ‘new’ sounds; any point of departure from the norm that the listener can connect with. For mix engineers like these, ‘convention’ and ‘style’ are terms to be avoided at all costs! Conversely, others prefer to mix with genre, clarity or longevity in mind, and find the endless pursuit of ‘new’ sounds gimmicky and pointless. In the end it’s all about what you do with the sounds in front of you, and how sensitive you are to your client’s wishes and the task at hand. If you’re mixing Brittany’s comeback single, something ‘new’ might be vital to its success, but Bob Dylan probably couldn’t care less… usually the way forward in this regard reveals itself pretty quickly.
FINAL HINTS & TIPS
When a mix is being finalised, whether at 2pm or 2am, remember to listen with renewed vigour to the final two-channel signal, preferably off the medium you’re printing to. One thing I like to do right at the end of a mix is mute the main vocal (or other main feature sound) and play the song without it, just to double check that nothing untoward is happening to some ‘lesser light’ in the mix. The main vocal tends to hide small failings towards the end of a mixdown, and by muting the vocal and revealing the sounds behind it, a few last tidy ups can be addressed that you might otherwise have missed.
If you’re mixing down to digital, don’t let things get too hot or too slammed, and if the signal is coming from the analogue domain, make doubly sure you’re not caning your analogue output to achieve the digital levels you aspire to. (If I’m mixing from A to D, I usually calibrate 0VU to –16dBFS). Calibration of the audio system, which should have been established at the beginning of the mx, is vital if you’re going to get the mix in the can as intended. There’s no point pushing the analogue domain into heavy distortion just to get enough level on your digital meters! If that’s happening, your calibration is out of whack and must be addressed before the mix is ‘printed’.
One last tip, if you’re mixing an album, try and refer to previous mixes as you progress through the songs, to keep you within a certain threshold of tone, and keep referring to your ‘benchmark’ mixes. You may not like uber consistency of tone, and indeed, the songs mightn’t warrant too much A/Bing. Nevertheless, considering the album as a whole is usually one of the ways a good mix engineer separates him or herself from the herd. When it comes to the mastering session, consistency of tone, volume and balance will be the general aim for the mastering engineer. Delivering wildly disparate tones and levels of compression to the mastering house will only make their job more difficult. And lastly, if you find yourself defending your turf during a mix session and revert to the old adage: ‘we’ll fix it in mastering,’ just make sure you’re right about it. There are very few situations where this hoary chestnut holds true. If the statement is only passing your lips to get you out of a sticky situation, walk outside, stick the kettle on, and while it’s boiling, make sure you’ve covered every possible solution in your mind. The remedies to mix ‘issues’ should nearly always be addressed during mixdown.
Whether you’re mixing part time, full-time, occasionally or for the first time ever, remember one thing: no one knows it all. If 100 people mixed the song you’re working on today, the result would be 100 different mixes. Making sure yours is one of the better ones is all about practise, confidence and listening.
So listen and learn, think about what you’re doing and make the phase button your best friend. A/B at regular intervals to keep your tone on the right track and above all else, back yourself. Keep your eye on the ball and swing with conviction. If the ball goes into the bushes or out of bounds, you can always tee up another!
Next issue we’ll look at some other facets of mixing like compression, reverb and EQ. Until then, enjoy.