Observations and strategies on mixing, from our longtime Readers’ Tracks curator
By Marty Peters
The art of mixing has been described in many ways. “Painting a picture with sound” may be one of the best. But just like a painter, a mixer needs knowledge, tools, techniques and an end result in mind to achieve good results.
So just how do we go about this challenging and sometimes frustrating task? Each of us who sits down behind a console, DAW or control surface approaches a mix in their own unique way. What follows are a few thoughts and tips that I’ve picked up over my 20-plus years as a mix engineer. Many of them are probably familiar to you, but a little refresher never hurts.
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Let’s start right off the bat by saying that mixing can often be a pain in the butt. Literally. So be sure that the chair you intend to occupy for the next 10–12 hours provides a good cushion and lumbar support. ’Nuff said!
You probably have heard the term “sweet spot.” This is not a great place to consume copious amounts of dark chocolate (though some would beg to differ). No, it’s used when describing the ideal listening position in front of your console. Think of it as one point of an equilateral triangle, the three points being the two monitor speakers and your head.
Measure the distance between the two speakers, then draw an imaginary line of the same length to a center point in front of your console. That’s the sweet spot, that’s where your head belongs. The tweeters should be at ear level. Incorrect speaker positioning, and reflections from the console surface and other nearby surfaces may compromise the accuracy available at this position.
Faders and such
Once I’ve established the sweet spot, my first order of business is to make sure that everything is normalled. In other words, all of the equalizer pots are in the center position, the aux sends are at zero, and the pan pots are in the center position. Following that, I begin to bring up all the faders to the zero or null point on the console, and then I begin sending signal from my multitrack recorder.
The next 15–20 minutes are spent evaluating: what’s too boomy, what’s too bright, are there phasing issues, what about any levels that are into the red, etc. After years of mixing I have developed a working method whereby I prefer to have the drums on the far-left console faders, followed by the bass, guitars and vocals. The more esoteric instruments usually wind up on the right side, followed by the aux returns. This arrangement often requires some repatching or rerouting, but I find it to be a real advantage in terms of organization.
Before moving on, a little reminder of gain structure is probably in order. The theory behind this is really quite simple, but lack of attention at this point can lead to trouble down the road. The easiest way to manage those tricky fader moves is to have your faders in as near a unified straight line as possible, and the easiest way to handle this is by adjusting your channel input trims. One word of caution: too much trim input will cause the relationship between the input trim and the channel fader to act like a master volume/gain knob on a guitar amp, resulting in overdrive and distortion.
Grab the EQ? Not so fast, friends
There are a few more areas to investigate first. Have you ever thought of panning as a type of EQ? Before you grab at that hi-mid knob, try moving some of the sound sources with competing frequencies out to the left and right sides of the stereo field. You’ll be amazed at the amount of clarity and distinction that can be achieved without resorting to EQ.
To mult or not to mult
Ever wondered why those top-flight engineers and producers need those huge consoles and incredible numbers of faders? Well, it may have something to do with the fine art of multing, that is, assigning a single sound source from your recording deck to several channels on your console. Why would you do this?
Consider a mix where you want your lead vocal to be slightly louder and more processed in the chorus than in the verse of the song. Option One would be to wait until the chorus came, then furiously raise the fader while simultaneously turning up the channel aux send, only to have to reverse the process at the beginning of the next verse.
Option Two: With multing, you would simply set one channel for your (regular) lead vocal and another for the lead vocal with the slightly different parameters for the chorus; then you use your channel mutes to switch between the two. This method can be equally effective on guitars, snare drums and other sound sources.
Setting up a mult can be accomplished by using a simple one-into-two splitter or by using the internal routing features that are available on pretty much every DAW that’s out there these days.
Spare faders anyone?
Before we move on (I know you’re itching to get ahold of those EQ pots…), a few words about aux returns. Many people are surprised to learn that they are free to use these channel returns creatively. Consider them to be another sound source that can be EQed, panned, compressed, limited and ridden or automated. Save more fader space than you think necessary for these returns; even they can be multed!
We all know that green means go and red means stop; it’s just that some of us like to challenge fate a little more than others. So here’s the deal: when dealing with volume, use your eyes and your ears. If it sounds distorted, then it most likely is distorted. Trying to approximate how much headroom is left on your console or mixdown deck is risky at best.
Remember that VU meters give you an average; there are plenty of variations in that average that can affect the overall picture. Peak metering gives you a ceiling but cannot tell much about what is going on underneath, so leave a few dBs for the mastering engineer; they will love you for it.
Now the EQ?
Not quite,yet. Before you start on that journey, stop to reflect on your last mix. You know, the one that sounds different on every listening system! It’s time for a little something called source referencing. Find at least two of your favorite recordings in the style of the song you are about to mix and play them through your monitors. Are they too thin? Too boomy? Just right?
This one step may save you more trouble and teach you more about mixing than anything else, because it gives you a target. As many of us move from large commercial studios to our bedroom and basement home studios, the chances of our mix position being acoustically accurate diminish. Does that mean we can’t achieve good results? No, it simply means that we need to study good results.
Think that this is a crutch? Just ask the hundreds of engineers who carried Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly CD with them to studios all around the world. It worked for them and it will for you as well.
Drum roll, please
Patience has its rewards—yours is EQ. This is make-it-or-break-it time, folks. Too much EQ, and nasty artifacts and phasing enter the picture; not enough, and the individual elements in the mix fail to speak.
Volumes have been written on EQ. My take on it is as follows: subtraction can be as effective as addition. Carving out frequencies is often preferable to adding gain with EQ, and if your console or DAW has an EQ on/off or bypass switch, find it and use it.
I’ve been in sessions where an engineer or artist has become fixated with soloing and EQing a particular sound source for hours only to discover that the EQ is totally wrong once the solo button is turned off and that source returns to the entire mix. A successful mix is the sum of all the parts. Some are stars, some have supporting roles, how they work together is the key.
And in the end
These are a few brief thoughts. Hopefully they shed a little insight into the mystery of mixing. As anyone who has attempted a mix can tell you, few things are as frustrating or as rewarding. So—happy mixing, we’ll see you out on the sonic trail.
Some of you may recognize Marty Peters as the author of Recording Magazine’s Readers’ Tapes review column. He is also an active engineer, producer, musician and fellow traveler in the world of audio.