Mixing and Mastering is tough. And it’s annoying, too, because you sit down and write all of this really great music, but at the end of the day it can really all go to waste if it doesn’t have that “right sparkle.” And no, I don’t mean over-compressed limit-breaking overdriven mixes are the only way to get a good sound (see what I did there?). Still, nearly every mix can use some sort of sonic adjustment, and this holds true for nearly every type of recording. There’s nothing wrong with being a ‘purist,’ of course – unfortunately, in our age of composition, we are unable to solely rely on our wits, pen, and staff paper. Enter, stage-left, those swanky audio engineers who have a fine-tuned ear and gift for the precision of acoustics beyond our own ears, and beyond our checkbook. So we come to the question, how do we get the same edgy kick from our guitars, the uplifting soar of the strings, and that heroic heart-melting character from our horns?
Well, there have been many great articles on this subject, written by many a more gifted-engineer than myself. I will also confess that I believe true the same as many musicians, that there really is no substitute for someone else doing your masters. I am notorious for picking a sound or thinking something sounds really great that, simply put, sucks. I know I can do better, so that’s why I keep listening to new music, reading up on the subject, and practicing.
So, let’s get on with it shall we?
Mixing isn’t too hard, but there is one consideration that I’ll give you right off the get-go. Nobody can make the sewer shine (read: you can’t polish a turd). Put into more applicable terms: you need to start with clean source material. This seems SO obvious, and for the longest time I thought I really understood it, but I don’t think it really dawned on me until I started working with synthesizers like Zebra 2 and libraries like Symphonic Orchestra.
There are few quick tips I’ve got that might help you get a good mix (and I’m not saying any of these are the RIGHT way to do anything, but they are good suggestions to getting a cleaner sound):
- Reverb and delay, these things are good in moderation, as any effect is. As a general rule with any effects I tend to apply them to a level I find desirable, and then turn down the effect a few steps more. For example, I’m sending my snare drum in the included song, “12-Gauge Rave” to a bus that has a reverb effect on it. I found a good setting for it so I felt that the snare had enough presence, let’s call this send setting -14db. From there, I would probably have cranked it back about 2.5db further, beyond what my ear might consider discernable. While the effect maybe not have been so clear at the time (I was sitting in front of the computer for a few hours at this point), it definitely was come master-time. As soon as I put that final limiter on the mix I was comfortable with once again feeling the space of the snare but not having it overdone. That was automatic victory #1.
- Equalization is your tedious but extremely powerful friend. I consider it like a really annoying friend who happens to have design skills I really, REALLY like – maybe it’s annoying to work with them, but I’ve known them long enough that I know how to communicate to then what I’m looking for without compromising their original vision (which, in this case, would be the original sound?). Okay, maybe this is a bad analogy, because I don’t treat my friends this way – but the point is this: Every sound, coming from a synthesizer, library, or something you recorded in your backyard – they all fill a space. Besides filling the right spaces, though, they also fill some spaces you probably aren’t even aware of. Like that awesome lead you have skyrocketing through the 6th octave may have some character in the 200hz range where you’ve got your pads, percussion, and other accompanying instrumentation. But hey, you can’t hear that stuff, so why in the world is it there? The same thing applies with vocals – unless you’re working with James Earl Jones you can probably afford to drop some of those bass frequencies entirely, it’s simply not helping you, and they ARE there in your mix (use a graphic equalizer to show you). Find your ideal space for any given sound and carve around it.
- What about guitars!? Guitars may be the most annoying instrument to mix in the world because of how versatile they are. Before I tell you what I do about guitars, I’ll send you to an example of a track with pretty smooth rhythm guitar by my friend Danny Baranowsky.
Listen carefully to how, particularly in the right channel, you can hear artifacts on the performance of the guitar, like occasional fret-slides or discrepancies in the playing from the left channel. Wait, wait, WAIT! Josh, you are in NO place to criticize this man’s … On the contrary. If he wanted identical guitar playing in both channels, he would have used identical recordings. What you’re hearing is two separately recorded takes of the same material hard-panned in both channels. In layman’s terms, he’s recorded the guitar twice, and panned each recording hard left and hard right. As you can tell, this gives Danny a lot of space to work with in the middle of the mix – maybe for a lead guitar, lead synth (as he has), or whatever he’d like. I apply this same technique in “Gloria Fatalis,” and nearly every other track with guitar on the GunGirl 2 soundtrack.
- Another useful guitar tip requires a story. I was working on a very old song called “Let it Live,” which probably had some of the first guitar recording I had worked with, and now lives on my harddrive in 21 different draft versions. Back when I was recording it, I would show the different renditions to my girlfriend, and one of the first things she loved about the guitar presence was how heavy and edgy it sounded. However, much to her dismay, in the following revision of the song, I had cut out nearly all of that crispy beefy sonic-meat by EQing it to daybreak to fit in other elements that I thought were important, pads, synths, or whatever was sounding good at the time. Of course, having your girlfriend say she liked one thing and then taking it away sort of makes you want to strive to get that sound back, regardless of your better judgement. Okay, here’s the point: Sometimes, in the pre-master stage, and in general when assembling a soundscape, you have to make compromises to get the end-sound you’re seeking. The reason the sound got less-edgy in regards to the guitar was because I pulled down the mid-frequency range to fit in space for pads, synths, and the drumtrack. If I went back to re-record “Let it Live,” there would be a LOT of things I’d do differently, sure, but this is one choice that ended up being beneficial come the mastering phase, where adding limiting and dynamic compression were able to bring everything back up to that hot, edgy sound that I had premaster. Long story short, despite having a REALLY BIG NASTY AWESOME sound in your rhythm guitar, there absolutely is such a thing as over overdrive. And as I said a few bullets back, everything’s better in moderation. (and if you really MUST know what Let it Live sounds like, you can check it out here… but don’t say I didn’t warn you)
- PANNING IS YOUR FRIEND (too, yes I know you have a lot of friends), and the real reason I know this is because I was homegrown on tracking, when mixing and postproduction really weren’t the focus (this is not an excuse, I still should have paid more attention to these things, but I was 16 and not exactly genius). The way to make sounds fit without real EQ back then was to move them around through the stereo-field until everything was able to sit. I once took a course on songwriting where there was a little bit of a detour week where we talked about production in a DAW, which I didn’t really see the point of at the time, and I managed to learn a lot of important things. One of which was this analogy: sound is like a 2D grid, where you have your stereo-field from left to right on your X-axis, and you’ve got your frequency spectrum on the Y-axis, running up and down. Imagine stuffing a single moving box with everything you own. You’ve got your valuables, and then those things that just kind of fill space, like loose paper, maybe decorations you picked up, who knows. Well, then all of the sudden you have this glass vase which has been an heirloom in your family for decades, and you just can’t part with it. Ideally, you’d place the vase in first, and somehow give it room to sit with other things bumping into it. Practically, you or I would surround the vase with some sort of cloth, pillow, or sufficient padding to make sure it didn’t crack, but what if we could place the vase in the box with an invisible force field that would guarantee that nothing else in the box would touch it. Wow, that WOULD be awesome! Well, this is EXACTLY what you can do with sound in our grid! If you’ve got guitars panned hard-left and right, they could fill most of the height of the grid (occupy most frequencies, from high to low). Your bass, kick, snare, and vocals could sit stacked on top of the other (of course there is some overlap), without bumping into the guitars, and your pad has enough stereo-space that it turns the otherwise white background into a very light shade of gray.
These tips really apply across the board to every genre, even though I’m very aware I’ve used a language more conducive to electronic rock. I follow the same rules when I imagine how I want my performers to sit in a live performance.
My colleague Andrew ‘zircon’ Aversa has compiled a pretty handy set of tutorials and guides on Overclocked ReMix with plenty of audio examples that I highly recommend you read – he touches on a lot of elements of mixing and production that I do not. Conversely, I believe there is a lot of information there targeted at musicians that are new to the trade, but still extremely helpful nonetheless.
Next time I’ll talk specifically about mastering and use dirty words like limiter, exciter, stereo imaging, and… compression.