The role of a mix engineer and how it’s evolved: When I was starting out in recording studios, the role of the mix engineer was fairly well defined. A few weeks of lock-outs (24hr. sessions) were booked at a studio of choice, the tapes arrived a day before starting, the multitrack machines were aligned, and all of the extra outboard gear was hooked up and tested. On day one the mixer would arrive, set up their effect sends and returns and the mixing would begin. Typically, a day to a day and a half were required to complete a mix. At the end of a mix, the assistant would document everything in the room. Everything. Every setting on every piece of outboard gear was written down. It was very tedious and extremely important to get all of it 100% correct because this documentation was used to recall a mix at a later date to make some very minor changes. There would be a recall or two and the mixes were then sent off to a mastering studio. The mix engineer mixed. There was an occasional overdub, but the mix engineer was just that. The role has now evolved to a combination of a few disciplines. The mixer now is an editor, a vocal tuner, arranger along with the role as mixer. I have embraced these extra responsibilities with gusto. The speed in which I am now able to work in pro tools is exponentially faster than the analog days. It is by no means cutting corners, but hours a day are saved alone by not having to sit idle as 2 24track machines rewound and locked back up. That time is now used for the editing and tuning which I feel gives me a bit more insight into each song. Digging into the structure of the song bridges the left brain to the right brain. For me, mixing is a battle between the two halves and having that occasional bridge to cross is beneficial in giving each half a break every once in a while.
I’m not going to get on my soapbox, but I do feel it necessary to mention a few thoughts about the rights of artists to be compensated for their work. There is ceaseless discussion on countless message boards (more like whining) about illegal downloading of copyrighted files. It would behoove all of us to do our small part in the education of the consumer of the wrecking ball effects of illegal downloading. A short message on all of our homepages explaining that not only are record companies hurt, but there are thousands of people behind the scenes and their families that get affected by stealing music. They are very real people that perform very real jobs that have very real bills to pay. Studio owners, engineers, assistants, equipment manufacturers, the vendors, managers, independent promoters etc… If there is anyone that can articulate this message in a few small sentences, please send it to me. I will be proud post it on my homepage. Nothing preachy. Just a short and simple request to discourage this practice. This is an issue that cannot be litigated away. I think the message has to come from the source: all of us in the music business. Now, back to mixing…
I’ve been receiving a lot of questions regarding online audio engineering programs. There is desire amongst home studio engineers to learn more about their craft. Bit there appears to be a limited amount of options available. The two most common sources for such an education are the big name music schools and instructional dvd’s. There doesn’t seem to be many other alternatives. After years of fielding the same questions, I’ve developed an online program that I’m pretty sure fills the gap between the two. It is designed to increase your skill set as a mix engineer. I’ve drawn from my 23 years of experience in recording studios to assemble what I think can be of tremendous value to home recording enthusiasts and established mix engineers who want to advance their careers in the music industry. The technical details are being finalized and within the next week or two and the program will be detailed here. Please check back and feel free to contact me as your input will help me shape the program
First and foremost, vocals are the most important element in modern music, with the obvious exception being instrumental music. The drums are the motor that drives a mix and the vocals are the navigator. One of the biggest challenges as a recording engineer is the get a great vocal sound.
To start, the most appropriate microphone should be chosen, not the best. Often the most expensive tube microphone will not sound as good on a particular voice as an inexpensive condenser mic. If given the luxury, set up 3 mic’s next to each other and have the singer run through the song acapella. Switch between the three mic in the control room (make sure the singer doesn’t have headphones on, this will drive them crazy) and one of them should jump out as the obvious choice. One chosen, have the singer run through a verse or chorus with their headphones on and listen to how the sound of the vocal “sits” in the track. No that you’ve picked the appropriate microphone, it’s time to place it. First, raise the mic to the height of the singer’s mouth. Then flatten your hand and hold it parallel to the ground and place in between the capsule and the singer’s mouth. This is usually a good distance to start from. Finally, place a pop filter in between the mic and mouth and you’re ready to record.
What does this have to do with mixing records? Well, we don’t spend all of our time as audio engineers mixing. A well recorded vocal will make your life exponentially easier when it comes time to mix.
When I’m asked what I do for a living, there is a now familiar look of confusion when I say that I’m a mix engineer. Or a recording engineer.
Mixing records is a very difficult concept to describe to someone who has no idea what a recoding studio is, never mind what an audio engineer does. Once that difficult task is overcome, the next challenge is describing what makes a great mix.
Most people will know a poorly mixed record when they hear it, but will not be able to describe why. But I’ve never met a non-engineer that understood what a great mix is and why. In my opinion, formed over two decades in recording studios, a great mix is one that is transparent to the song. The listener should never “hear” a mix, they should “hear” the song. A bad mix is easier to identify than a good mix. They sound cheap, or like a demo. A good mix sounds “nice” or “clean”. A great mix should create an image, a visual to put the listener in the setting of the story of the song. And it should do this without being obvious. A great mix engineer is able to pull the listener into the story. A great mix should have the same effect that a great movie does: it should pull you into a space where you forget where you are. My favorite example of a great mix is that of “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel (engineered by Roy Halee). It’s a visual masterpiece. Pro Tools has given me the ability to create unique spaces easier than when I was working solely with analog gear. “My Own Zero” by Zap Mama is a mix that I feel that I created a stage for the lyrics.
Monitors: The ears of your studio.
A question that’s often asked when someone is putting together a recording studio or mixing studio is what monitors they should use. I think your monitors are the most crucial piece of gear in your studio. They need to be comfortable to listen to, but more importantly, they need to be accurate. I use Genelc 1031a’s because they “fit my ears”. That is to say that I find that when I take mixes out of my studio they sound as good as they did in the studio. You can have all of the best plugins in the world and the best analog compressors built, but if your speakers aren’t telling you the truth, the results of all of the time you spend mixing records might be misleading. While most speakers in every price range are pretty accurate in the higher frequencies, the achilles heel of all monitors are the bass frequencies. Some have too little and you’ll end up adding too much bass to your mixes and some are the opposite giving you a false sense of low end.
Spend time at your local music store listening to your favorite mixes on different speakers. Remember, expensive doesn’t always mean better. There are some very affordable self powered monitors that sound really good. A lot of this is a matter of taste. Find a pair to use in your recording studio that translate to the real world. Next installment: your studios acoustics and how they relate to your choice of speakers.