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.
Eq. A favorite topic amongst audio engineers, veterans and aspiring alike. I’m often be asked what my favorite eq is. And the answer without fail is always the same: the one that gets the job done. It could be real Pultec EQP 1A or a free plugin. After some time, mix engineers build up a library of knowledge regarding the sound of dozens of eq’s and how/when to use them. Sometimes the gentle boost on the top end from a EQP1A is more appropriate than the more aggressive top end of an API 550. Knowing what to use when comes from years of experimenting. So here’s the tip of a lifetime. Always take out the trash before polishing the floors otherwise you’ll be polishing a mess. By this I mean always subtract before you add. To get a clear and present vocal sound don’t reach for the 10k knob and twist. Using a parametric, set the lo-mid frequency to somewhere around 300hz. Sharpen the “Q” to it’s narrowest setting and crank the gain all the way up. The slowly sweep the frequency up and down and I promise you you’ll find a really horrible messy frequency in there. When you find the problem child, widen out the “Q” a bit and start subtracting. The vocal sound will open up and breathe better. Then you can add some sparkle up top. You’ll be a star in any singers eyes!