Tips for Better Mixing

One thing’s for sure. You will only learn how to mix multi-track songs together by doing and reading and learning and failing and reading some more.

The reason for this little article is not to discourage, but rather to ENcourage you to go for it!! You won’t be able to magically pull up a great mix out of thin air, ya just gotta dig in and get to it! If you’re not in the position to work in a studio or to record tracks at your place, then there are plenty of multi-track recordings for free you can pull from the internet.

Mixing is an art form that begins with understanding the architecture of the final product before or as recording occurs. Or, if a mixer is for-hire and not involved in the recording, the mixer should receive specific notes from the producer as to what the final product should sound like; what instruments are to be featured or what tracks are experimental and not final. In the absence of any direction, the mixer is going to create what THEY feel and hear is the best representation of the song. It’s all about the song! The producer may or may not agree with the mixer’s assessment. Since a huge part of THAT equation is all about successful relationships, here’s hoping for some great communication between the two.

On the other hand, some very well recorded material is going to speak for itself. When microphones are set up well and then engineers just get out of the way of good musicians, real synergy is created between heart, mind and soul! You will hear exactly how a song should be presented. Sadly, this is not always going to be the case, but we hope for the best.

To quote a famous engineer psuedo-named Mixerman:

“A great mix is one that brings the production of a great song to it’s fullest potential while effectively manipulating the listener’s emotions and focus, thereby forcing an appropriate and desired physical reaction while simultaneously causing the listener to sing.”

What a mouthful! I guess the best way to explain that is for you to pick up a copy of his book, Zen and the Art of Mixing.

But just to continue this line of thought: Remember, it’s all about the song. If the song is weak, the mix is irrelevent. A well-written song is going allow for a great mix. If a song is not well-written, it may turn out to sound OK, but a thoughtful approach to the desired end result when writing the song is going to make all the difference in the world as far as the potential of the mix.

Mixing is more about an attitude than it is about the technical aspects. Sure, you need to know some technical aspects. You need to yearn to GO BEYOND thinking that a mix is only the technical aspect.

A well-written song is one that takes the listener on a journey and pulls at the heart. A good sounding mix can come from less of a song, but a GREAT sounding mix is borne from the best written ones.

Tips for Better Recording

There are MANY recordists and mixers out there with a better understanding or more experience than I in the world of recording. The more I read from the pro’s, the more I realize just how natural many of their gifts are in regard to engineering. So many try and become a studio engineer by purchasing all of the latest and greatest equipment with the idea that they’ll somehow learn how to record through their purchases, or that somehow by osmosis the school of hard knocks will smile kindly on them and grant them a special exemption.

The great ‘leveling of the playing field’ that has happened over the last 20 years with the affordability of recording equipment has indeed sparked a revolution: the revolution of creating a cash cow industry for music equipment manufacturers!

But enough of beating that dead horse. We can all still benefit greatly from learning from the masters of the trade. And rest assured, we ALL DO have to go through the school of hard knocks and make mistakes. Failure is the greatest teacher. Just ask Thomas Edison, who after inventing hundreds of items finally invented one which was successful. So it is that we will eventually learn how to record music well after we record a few hundred songs.

The greatest lesson that I’ve learned over the years is that in order to be a great recordist, I need to understand and learn more about microphones. Specifically, how to set up one mic and use that one mic to capture the subject well. Specifically how to experiment and find just how different the microphone sounds when set up at different angles and distances. Specifically how to record without overloading the microphone. This is lesson one, and the real experienced people out there that are reading this are rolling their eyes and saying what a idiot I am for saying the obvious. But I hope this helps someone.

There is one huge sub-lesson on recording microphones: learn about the recording level going in. There’s plenty already written on this subject, but let me just say one sentence in this regard so you can ‘google’ this: 0dB FS = -18db VU.

The next best lesson I learned, just about basic recording and mixing, is to pay CLOSE attention to gain staging. What I mean by this is amplifying the signal only certain amounts at each stage; not over-driving the signal into the next amp stage. Again, the experienced are groaning at me for being obvious. But I tell you, for those of you reading who didn’t know these two items, your engineering world just woke up.

There are so many other lessons to learn in recording: the uses and tricks of compression, the uses of equalization, the use of effects. What the many jobs of a mastering engineer include. But do yourself a huge favor: concentrate on the first two. I’ve read many an engineer’s notes who have said that the best thing they’ve ever done to a record was to just set up mic’s and ‘get out of the way’ and not try to do anything at all but capture the artist in the best way possible.

Recording and mixing is a serious and a fun science. The pro’s often don’t have the time, nor the incling, to explain these basics to the novice. But without this knowledge, the hobbyist or the learner will remain in the dark and make bad recordings and mixes. Wake up and smell the coffee about the basics!  Learn about microphones, recording techniques of certain microphones, 0 dB FS = -18 dB VU and gain staging of each amplifier in the chain!

Preparing for the Studio

Simply stated, what you need in order to record music in a studio is to ask yourself ‘why do I want do this’? Whether you’re a songwriter getting a demo cut or a solo artist or a band, you need to know why you want to do this. Secondly, have an understanding of the process.

There are plenty of good articles everywhere that tell you some ins and outs of ‘how’. Let’s stick with the ‘why’ and some of the background stuff so you know what you’re getting yourself, and possibly your mates, into. After these questions are answered you can get more into the ‘how’.

What are your goals?

Why do you want to record you or your band? Are you a songwriter that needs a demo? What are the goals for doing this? Answers to these questions will help you decide how to proceed. For example, if you are a solo guitarist and your goal is to just have some CDs of a couple of songs to pass out to friends, why not ask around at the local guitar shop or ask friends of someone who has a decent recording set-up that would be willing to make a few extra bucks?

Let’s look at the larger picture. If you want to record with intention of replication and distribution, then be totally aware of copyright law. It would be illegal for you record a song that someone else wrote with the intention of distribution. Go to the Harry Fox Agency and google on ‘how to secure recording rights’. The answer on how to secure recording rights, in a nutshell, is this: pay for the mechanical reproductions you are making by contacting the owner of the rights of those songs. The cost is usually very reasonable.

If your songs are original compositions, protect yourself by getting the songs copyrighted before you record. This is job #1 for the serious songwriter. It takes sometimes up to 6 months to receive a copyright registration, but proof of your submittal is good enough for government recognition of your work.

Ok, back to the topic at hand. Why do you want to record? Are you a solo artist that is recording a project for demo purposes? Then maybe you don’t need to spend huge bucks on a top-of-the-line studio, maybe you need to find a smaller studio or a recording geek to help you out. Are you part of a full band that wants to record for the purposes of getting a demo for distribution to bars? Then seek good quality, but don’t break the bank. Are you a songwriter in need of a great sounding demo? Sadly, a great sounding demo is what is expected. Make a list of the studios in your area. Call or surf and find out recording rates.

Have a plan before getting into the studio.

Do you want really great quality? Then be prepared to spend some money. But fear not, you will save a ton if you your sessions planned far in advance. Think of session planning as you would songwriting. A little incubation time is required.

Before even getting into the studio, contact and prepare the musicians. This means send them charts, mp3s, CDs tapes, whatever. Get them prepared for the parts they’ll be playing. Even if you want them to come up with some ideas, prepare them with whatever you have. Even if it’s only a description of the song.

Plan the sessions with the studio manager. After setting up the blocks of time, tell him or her what you’ll be doing that day. “Today we’re bringing in the drummer and he’s (she’s) gonna play these songs”. In tomorrow’s session, we’ll split the time between recording the bass part on x songs and the acoustic guitar part on x songs.” The session on that day will be all about certain players and certain parts of certain songs.

If you’re planning on recording your band all at once, no problem. Most places can do that. Just be prepared that there’s a goodly amount of set-up time.

Speaking of set-up time, this is all studio time as well. Be prepared because you will have plenty. Especially when it comes to drums.

Even if you’re a solo performer, make session plans. No matter whether your solo or in a band situation, you will need to be flexible and re-structure your plans. Things happen or things take longer than you expected. Learn when a part is good enough and move on. If you’ve got the time to wait for the ‘perfect’ take, then wait. Just remember that time is money.

Build the house. Start with the foundation and build upward. Begin by recording the drums, then get the bass track down. Then the rhythm parts, then any highlight or lead parts. Finally, get the vocals tracked (you may want to record a ‘scratch’ vocal track during the drum session for reference). There’s no hard and fast rules about producing this way, but this is what works well. If you don’t have tight tracks from the drums and a tight bass guitar track to them, nothing else will groove. These ARE the grooves! You might decide to record the band all at once, and this is ok. This also works well. Do what you think would be best for you.

If your band or session musicians are playing and recording a song all at once and you think it will take multiple takes to get it right, think about recording each instrument separately. You’ll have more control over the mix and less frustrations overall.  It just depends on musician availability, whether or not the band performs together better or other time constraints.