As a beginning mix engineer, I found a few records that I loved the way they sounded. Some of them being Earth Wind and Fire’s “All n All”, Donald Fagens “The Nightfly” and Peter Gabriels “So”. You should try to find a record that you really love and use it as a reference when mixing. Don’t try to copy every part of I, because that is an impossible task. There are literally thousands of decisions that go into the sound of a mix, including all of the thousands of decisions that went into the recording process. Choice of mic, mic placement, mic pre, compression, eq, room, etc… on often 40-70 instruments adds up to a lot of decisions during the recording process. And an equal amount of decisions go into the mixing process. So to try to replicate what a mixing engineer has done to arrive at a mix is difficult if not impossible. I am suggesting using a song or a record as a reference of the overall balance, sound or mood. Also, it’s important to develop your own style. Pick your record and close your eyes and listen. Listen to a lot of records. Listen to the relationship between the rhythm track and the vocals. Figure out which of the harmonic instruments (keys, guitars etc…) are more “up front” and which are tucked in/back. These relationships are important because they create dimension. Borrow different sounds or uses or reverb that create these dimensions in your mixes. And don’t be too concerned about genre. It’s actually incredibly useful to be able to cross reference instruments across genre lines. I can’t stress the importance of listening to as many records as you can from as many genres as you can handle. (There are some genres I can’t listen to, but they’re very few). Happy listening.
When mixing a demo, treat it like you’re trying to beat Sgt. Peppers or Pet Sounds or any of your favorite recordings. Any mix engineer worth their weight in patch cables should never put anything less than 100% into their demo mixes or rough mixes. There are numerous instances in my career as a mix engineer where the rough mix was as good as if not better than the final mix. As mixers, we tend to get in our own way when attempting to make a mix perfect. I find that it’s often the imperfections in demo mix or rough mix that give a record its charm. There certainly are instances where the arrangements are far too complex nail a mix when doing a rough. Mixing records that are complicated require much more time to realize than an hour or so. But there are plenty of occasions when putting together a rough mix that the mix kind of falls into place. Sometimes its unconscious and there is something to be said for that. It’s a good tool to have as an audio engineer, that tool being the ability to “get out of your own way”. Also remain conscious of the fact that there is always a chance that the rough or the demo might become the actual record. Never underestimate your own abilities when mixing demos. Mix every song, be it a demo, a rough mix or a final mix as if it’s going to be the one that get’s you the Grammy award.
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.
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.
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!