The Perfect Mix | Step on How to Mix and Master Tracks
There are many ways to get your songs to final form. What matters is not how you get there, but that you do get there. Lets pretend you are enrolled in one of the world's fine universities and you are writing a Master's Thesis. This is not just "any" piece of drudge paperwork, but the culmination of you education. You know you have to write in excellent form, have to watch out for tiny grammatical imperfections, and make sure substance and style flows well. In short, you have to rewrite and edit, a lot. It may take several experiments to get this just right. You might be working for weeks, not going out to the clubs with your buds, even sending hopeful significant others away. Why? The darn paper is important--you have to do well!
Apply that same attitude to your mix and you will have a great mix. Tweak's axiom: The value underlying successful production is the same in all fields--art, architecture, music, quantum mechanics, even political science and business. Beauty has a tone. Its not a tone you hear with your ears or see with your eyes but that you realize on reflection. (That is, when you stand back and ask "what is this?"). When you sense the passion of the creator coming at you from the work of art they made for you, you begin to sense the piece at hand is great.
Lets assume, for this article, final form means a beautifully polished piece of music in 16 bit 44.1 khz digital audio (i.e., the "red book" cd audio standard) or a standard .wav or .aif file, perhaps at a higher resolution for later mastering. You need to start, of course, with a fully or almost finished song. This is the point where the writing ends and the TweakMeistering begins. I'm going to give you some hard earned tips on Mixing and Mastering in the old analog style.
Mixdown and Mastering, traditionally speaking, are two very separate processes. Mixdown is the art of leveling, equalizing and effecting all the various sources from many tracks down to a stereo Mix. Mastering is the process of taking the stereo mix and putting it in the final album-ready form. Recent software and hardware developments make these processes easier and less expensive than they ever have been in the history of making music. Given that much of the time we can stay in the digital domain we can add processing to our heart's content and maintain a high signal to noise ratio and achieve optimum dynamics for the piece at hand.
The Mix Process
Every mix is different. In reality, there are no formulas. None! But there are hundreds of "practices" a professional mixologist will do without even thinking about them. But I know where you are at and what you need. You need a map to get you started, and a flow of working. That is what this article is about. Please consider these parameters not as rules but a starting point for you mixes for the standard pop song or balladusing an analog mixer. (We will cover mixing in the sequencer in the next class) Of course the instruments change if you are doing techno or symphonies, or ambient stuff, but the reference may still be helpful.
Step one is always to calibrate the mixer however you can. You could use a test tone of 0dbVU (that's LOUD, so turn down the monitors). First, set each fader at the 0db marking on the board. When you apply the test tone, turn up the trim until the meter on each channel pegs at 0db. If you don't have a tone to use take the loudest sound that the channel does during the mix, Set the trims so that when this peak occurs, the meter pegs at 0db. Do this for every channel in the mixer. This gives you a reference. A zero dbVU signal (or your loudest signal on the track) should meter at zero db when the fader is at zero db. When you move your fader to -10 db, the meter should peg at -10db. Now you know what those numbers are for that are silk screened on your mixer! Do It!
Note: If you don't have meters on every channel then you have to use the main meters on the mixer for this. If you don't have a "solo-in-place" function on your mixer, you will have to mute every channel except the one you are calibrating. Yes, it takes time to do this, but it is well worth it.
Match the following instruments when soloed in place to the db markers on your mixing desk or your mixdown deck or software.
Kick drum 0db Eq to taste. No FX except maybe subtle ambience You will tweak the kick again, this is just to get you going. In an instrumental piece, the kick is the first and last tweaked. It's got to be just right.
Tip: If using a live drummer, you need to stop the kick drum from resonating too much. A pillow inside the drum may help. If you have an excessively ringing kick drum, you can add a gate as an insert to damp it.
Snare -2 db eq to taste in the frequencies above 4khz. Add reverb if the song calls for it. Do the best you can to keep it out of the way of the vocal, even if you have to pan it a few degrees. Near the end of the mix you need to come back here to perfect it.
Lead Vocal 0db use a low cut filter to eliminate rumble and plosive pops around 100-200 hz. Carefully enhance the delicate high end around 15khz to add air and sheen and don't overdo it! This is the trickiest adjustment and may often spell hit or dud. Perfectly center the vocal and, if this is a stereo track, pan it not with pan controls, but with very subtle left/right hi freq eq's. Put on the cans (headphones) and make sure its in the absolute center of your forehead.. Every word must be intelligible. Add reverb and delays but don't let it get smeared. Before you print to tape or DAT or whatever, check the vocal any make those tiny adjustments that are needed.
Cool trick: Split the main vocal track to two seperate faders. Compress the main vocal and send the secondary, uncompressed vocal to a reverb unit. This way the reverb stays out of the way until the vocalist gets loud. Hey that's they way it works in real life.
Note: It is often quite wise to use mono tracks for vocals simply because they they will stay centered better than stereo tracks, and are impervious to phasing anomalies that may occur with stereo tracks.
Cymbals -25 db Avoid letting these get in the way of the vocals. Pan them to 2 o'clock and remember their main function is to add the glue to a track to hold the music together--they do not have to be loud or present. Think about how horrible they will sound on your girlfriend's or boyfriend's car stereo if you let then get too loud. Remember, loud cymbals can wreck a whole mix.
Tip: Never let the drummer in the control room, except under extreme sedation, unless you want all your mixes to sound like Led Zepplin.
Synth pads -20 db Do these in stereo and hard pan left and right with generous effects if needed. However, keep them in the back. Pads indeed are beautiful additions to a song but don't let them overshadow any of the main elements of the song. Yet for a sense of dimensionality, let these create a "landscape" the listener can walk on.
Cool trick--you want a really BIG Pad? Delay one side of the Left/Right by about 10-12 microseconds. You'll be hearing a landscape if you do it right. Don't let any engineer tell you these have to be mono. Make him earn his pay by fighting the phase issues. Wassat? All you do is do a mono check on the mix and make sure the stereo pad didn't disappear.
Bass -10 db maybe hotter Always front and center. If you use FX restrict yourself to chorusing or a light flange--no reverb. Note that the quality we associate with "good" music is a tight syncopation of kick drum and bass. If you hear any duff notes make sure you fix them.
Cool trick: Bass does not have to hit exactly on the kick drum. But it a wee bit after so the listener hears the kick 1st. Do microseconds count? Yep. Ears are really good at detecting even tiny, tiny delays in what we hear. Are there more secrets in the micro-timing domain? Yer catchin' on dude--good work!
Big Bad Tip: Keep the bass and kick out of the way by giving each a different EQ. If the kick peaks at 65 HZ make sure the bass peaks somewhere else. You can use a spectrum analyzer to see where the loudest frequencies are for each.
Rhythm guitar -15 db pan off center eq: use a low cut filter to get rid of any bass and add a mid range eq for a slight narrow boost, but make sure it is not competing with the vocalist's sweet spot.
Hot tip: Bass KILLS, remember that. Get rid of ANY bass frequencies you don't absolutely have to have. "B-b--b-ut" you sputter, "my guitar now thounds like thiiit" Want cheese with your whine? Try it, the mix will sound better. Kill all the upper bass mud you can on any instrument you can do it on. These muddy frequencies around 250-400HZ build up fast and are a sure sign of an inexperienced mixologist.
Percussion -20db- put these elements off center unless they are essential to to basic beat. EQ in a tasteful way if necessary. I shoot to get a little skin sound on the hand drums if possible.
It's tricky, don't add too much.
The Mix itself
Now, watch the meters when you play the whole mix through the board. On an analog board you should have peaks at no more than +3db. If what you have is more notch down every fader in 1 db increments until you get there. Shoot for 0db for the whole mix. Now because we put the kick and vocal at 0dbVU, when all the instruments are added the final level might be quite high, like +7db. So now we notch down every fader 7dbVU. When you are done with this exercise, you should see your whole mix peaking at 0dbVU. You still have headroom on your analog mixer. You want to get the signal in the mixer's "sweet spot". Now you can start nudging things a bit higher, a bit lower. You should have a sense of what the song is asking you to do.
Mono Check: Always check you mix in Mono and look for sudden drop outs or instruments that disappear. That's phase cancellation at work, and it happens with stereo tracks and effects.
No faders above 0dbVU rule: Remember, we calibrated the board so the loudest sound of each track pegged at 0db (or we used a test tone) and the board markers represent 0db. Never move your fader over that mark. That's right. Never. Cutting a signal is fine, go as low as you have to, but never add gain at the fader (unless you have an ultra premium board that can do this). If you follow this you can make a great mix even on a cheap $200 mixer. Just pretend that 10db of boost each channel has available does not exist and don't go there. If you find your vocal doesn't sound good unless its at +5db then move everything down 5 db. Conserve headroom. You don't want your mix compromised by that awful crackle at the peak of your song.
Side Note: When people say "Brand X's Mixer sounds like crap" its nearly always because they don't know how to mix and added too much gain. Yes, inexpensive mixers don't add gain well, but they pass through a signal without gain perfectly and are able to subtract gain better than they can add it. Even $4,000 mixers have this issue. There is only one place where gain should be added--at the preamp's trim knob--and only add as much as you need, never more. Every other pathway should either let it pass through or subtract gain. Be really stingy about adding gain.
Now you fine tune to taste. Listen for the quality to "lock". There is a definite point where this happens. Suddenly it all falls into place, given you have good material. A great mix of a great song will fill you with absolute elation. You'll be blown away and in awe. You will feel in love with it. No kidding. Might sound corny to the less mature among us, but I assure you its true. A great artist friend of mine puts it this way. Greatness in art depends solely on how much love you put in to a work. You put it in, it pays you back, your friends back, and everyone who listens. Moral of this lesson. Never take mixing and mastering lightly. The tiniest fader movements make a difference. Be exacting!
The Mix is a Dynamic, Moving Process
Assuming you are doing a real time mix, don't just sit there while your mix goes to tape, or hard disk, or DAT. If you are using a board, assign the faders to groups. For example, if you have 4 subgroups you might want to send your vocal tracks to groups 1 and 2 and everything else to 3 and 4. This way you can slightly alter the balance between the vocalists and the band as the piece goes to tape. This technique, while tricky, can yield outstanding results. You can give the vocalist a touch more edge just when they need that oomph and when the vocalist takes a break you can subtly boost the band a bit. If you have 8 busses you might dedicate 5 and 6 just to drums and 7 and 8 just to effects, nudging each as is appropriate. If you have a digital mixer, this is where you want to automate.
The Role of Compression at Mixdown
First of all, if you plan to have your material professionally mastered, don't add compression at mixdown. A professional mastering engineer will have a better compressor than you do and they cannot remove the layer of compression you add. Just get the mix sounding great without compression, record the mix so it's top peak is several db below 0db. Let them make it louder, that's their job.
But if you are not sending the piece off for mastering, and aren't going to add a pass later through mastering processors, then, yes, patch in the compressor at mixdown or do a separate pass later with the mixed file.
On it's way to the recording device, you can patch a compressor/ limiter/gate. The Gate simply cuts out any audio below a certain threshold so that any hiss or noise coming from your synths or mixer is eliminated before the music starts. The limiter keeps your peaks under a certain fixed level and will not let them go higher. A Compressor is a volume slope applied to the audio material going through it. It can amplify the "valleys" and attenuate the "peaks". Essentially compression reduces the dynamic range we have just struggle to achieve in our mix. You might wonder why you would want that. In many circumstances, you don't want it. However, in the majority of cases you will find it useful, especially if you want your music to be "hot", "have punch" "be as loud as possible", or have the consistency of a radio mix. The stereo compressor also helps balance the song and give it a uniform character we are so used to hearing in commercial music. It essentially gives you the strongest and smoothest mix and calms down some of the 'jaggged edges' that might disturb the casual listener. However, it is also very easy to make a mix totally lifeless with a compressor and reduce its dynamic power. What started as a powerful orchestral arrangement can end up a wimpy piece of Mall Muzak so be careful and bypass it frequently to make sure you like what you are tweaking up. I think compression works well to attenuate that occasional peak that rips through the roof of a digital audio recorder and ruins the track. Also if you have the cash for a fine analog tube compressor. or even a high quality compressor plugin, there is lots of magic you can do at this stage.
The Role of the Software/Hardware Mastering processor
Hardware mastering processors are becoming less popular, now that there are software models of classic compressors and eqs. We will cover those in one of the next classes. Yet the hardware processors are serious tools and are particularly useful for a hardware based recording studio with an analog mixer. If you have one, you might consider using that in lieu of a compressor at mixdown as mastering processors usually have all the functions and additional functions such as mastering eq, multi-band compression as well as compressors, limiters and gates. These mastering tools can go a long way to giving your music a unique sonic imprint. There are many uses. In addition to adding the refining touch to your mix as it goes to the recorder, it can be used to give all your songs on an album a consistent uniform character and balance the volume between widely different songs giving your project a professional touch.
Using narrow band mid range eqs can give you a very contemporary sounding presence and make your dance tracks come alive with freshness. Pumping the compressor a little at 50-60hz can give you the "kick in the chest" kik drum without wrecking the delicate dynamics of the high end vocals. There are many more applications such as using them to send midi tracks to your digital audio mixer compressed optimally, ducking for voice overs, de-essing, warming through "tape saturation" parameters and Hard Gate effects on individual tracks. Remember Tweakheadz rule of thumb: Any piece of gear can be used in any way as long as it enhances the quality of the final product.
Software Mastering and Post-Production
A good digital audio sequencer will let you master in the digital domain of your computer. ou can do it in any digital audio application that lets you add plugin processors. Its a good idea to use one of the major sequencers that has mix automation and you can automate your way to you master just as you did with your mix. Volume automation: The main thing is to be able to draw a volume envelope over the whole waveform. Rather than botch a fade 20 times on an analog mixer, simply draw in the perfect fade with the mouse. Where the piece loses intensity, notch it up a tad, to restore your intended dynamism to your mix. Splicing and Crossfading: Say you have the perfect mix except for one horrible "sp-p-p-lat" where your sequencer choked at bar 72. No prob. Just remix the offending bar again, cut out that piece in your sequencer and drop in the new one and let the automatic crossfading give you the absolutely perfect, digitally calculated crossfaded splice. Works! Need to touch up the EQ and do your compression in software? Tweak it in. It's all undoable, so your not going to ruin anything. Decided the mix you did last year really sux? You need to cut out a chorus or fade 5 seconds earlier? Say you did a trance piece but the kick is so wimp that it makes you cringe? Just drag in a looped 808 kik and paint it on the next track, setting the volume and compression to make the whole song whupass. :) Your sequencer has the tools. Its just a matter of knowing the right mouseclicks.
The Final Touch
You've worked hard on a song, maybe several weeks, maybe longer. Its now in final form, just a matter of the last transfer to DAT, Tape, Wave or CD. Here we enter into the subtlest, but arguably, most far reaching of your tweaks. Sometimes it makes sense to compare the quality of masters to metals. Do you want a mix of raw iron? Steel? Silver? Gold? Of course we choose gold for most things. Gold is firm, strong, yet soft, malleable, pleasing. This takes you right to the heart of the digital vs. analog controversy. And you no doubt have heard the advice "use your ears!". And perhaps you've heard of engineers said to have "golden ears", indeed a point of much pomp and egosity in the field. What does the golden eared producer have that you don't? Listen close now, here's a secret, your reward for reading so far. What they have is an aural image in their minds of how things can sound beautiful, and they have the gear that allows them to get the audio to that place in their heads.
Think about that OK? It's like religion. The believers all see a truth that is obvious that no one else can. Is your audio like velvet? Silk? Or is it more like uncomfortable rayon, or dull like flannel or harsh like sandpaper.
The final touch is never easy. You are also fighting with "the audience in your head" on how something should sound. Finally, you have been working on it so long you might NOT be hearing what it really is as your brain is conditioned to filter what you want to hear. If you can't nail it by the 3rd or maybe 4th play in a session, can it for the rest of the day. Bring everything up to spec as close as you can and come back tomorrow. The most important factor in the final touch is not gear; it's the interaction between your ear and your mind. Yet having good gear at this stage helps your ear and mind "find" that doorway to quality, where you blow yourself away into sonic ecstasy, and your final master communicates that to everyone who hears it. This, my friends is the "holy grail" of audio. It's where a song becomes more than a song, it's an adventure, a voyage, a statement. I wish you happy journeys.
Whether you are writing industrial hardcore or the darkest ambient, a 100 piece orchestra or a stark minimalist a capella mix, always keep your ears tuned to making an artistic statement, a work of unforgettable beauty. This is the bottom line. The more control your Mixer gives you, the better you can paint the overall image. Working with compressors and mastering processors gives you a shot a polishing that image much like we polish a stone to bring out its colors. Hope this article helped you get a handle on the concepts of the perfect Mix, mastering and post-production, and the Final Touch.
All the Best in your music making!