Mixing

Mixing audio (music) is an art.

There is much more to a good mix than just turning every track’s volume up until you can hear it.

Lets just imagine you have an old school 24 tracks to mix. Two inch tape, analog console, no automation of any kind. (I know nobody hardly does this anymore but hey, think of it as a history lesson)

Three guitar tracks, seven drum tracks, six vocal tracks, a bass guitar track, three keyboard tracks, that sax track, two percussion tracks, and a vocal dbl track.

Now in the older days, mixing these 24 tracks would be an art form in and of it self.

The engineer would be using an analog console. Once the artist or producer says all the tracks sound good, and they were done tracking, the song is ready to mix. So she or he would get all the different eq’s, effects and other signal processing to where they liked it on each instrument and then mix it a bunch of times to get one with the right feel.

If some of the fader moves and pans etc were intricate, they might mix it in sections and edit it together. Which ever the case, most of the fader, pan and other moves would be in real time. As you made each mix, you might get most of them close to the same level on a few mixes, but for the most part there would be slight differences in each mix.

Sometimes, the engineer would illicit the help of others in the room. If the engineer had ten fingers already manipulating faders someone else would have to do anything requiring over ten fingers.

This made for exciting mixes.

The artist or producer might tell the engineer (or one of the other helpers) to turn the guitar solo up just a hair on the next try. Then he, she or possibly they would have to recreate the entire mix that was liked (all done by hand in real time) but nudge the solo up oh so minutely.

Just crazy.

Sometimes there would be dozens or more mixes of a song. Then came the daunting task of picking the right (best?) one.

In a studio that was busy, once the mix was done, assuming there was no automation, that was it. How ever many mixes you made is what the artist had to chose from because the console settings would be changed for the next session. If you wanted to re mix, all the preliminary work of effects, eq’s and processing would all have to be re done.

Some studios would go to lengths to try to capture setting of the console and outboard gear before they changed everything for the next session. I heard of studio’s mounting cameras above the console to take pictures of all the settings.

The way I dealt with this is I had made a grid/log sheet in which I documented every knob and fader position as well as each outboard effect and their settings. Very time consuming.

Many artists would take the tracks to another studio to re mix if the first time didn’t work for them. For very top tier artists, they may have decided before hand on a dedicated mix engineer (like Bob Clearmountain) to do the mixing.

In my world, with the budget restraints that applied, I would have the artist with me while I mixed and for the most part, most of them liked what we came up with. We would usually have a number of mixes with vocals and solo’s louder and softer to choose from.

When computer recording became popular and affordable, life as I knew it (in the studio) changed dramatically.

With the push of a button I could save everything that I’d been working on and could call it back up at any time exactly like it was the last time I worked on it. This really made working on multiple projects easy for me.

Also my mixing style/attitude changed dramatically when I began using a DAW. I was mixing from the beginning of the project, even while tracking, as everything I did would be saved. So come time to mix, I had many of my effects, eq’s and processing nearly completed.

I also now have the luxury to let a mix ‘simmer’. I would get a mix where I liked it and walk away for a while (could be hours or days) and come back to it. For me at least, this was one of the biggest advantages of computerized recording/mixing.

If I was having an off day I could come back later and call up the mix and re do all the crazy stuff I did. And in the interim, I could be working on other projects.

Very cool.

Many younger people who have only ever worked with a DAW format would have a hard time understanding how powerful the editing capability of a DAW is.

Think of driving a Model A Ford, then hopping into a Mercedes S class. Both will get you from point a to point b but the way and ease…

Staggering.

You can splice up anything, experiment to your hearts delight and still go back to the original at the touch of a button.

FABULOUS.

If I am working on a multi song project (say 10 songs by same artist) I can come back again and again and tweak mixes I have already done.

I love it.

But I do have to know when to say enough is enough.

That brings me to my next point.

How do we know when we have a good mix?

Quite simply,’when it sounds and feels good’. It makes folks want to hear it again. It makes you pay attention.

Unfortunately, a great mix can’t make a bad song or a bad performance magically become something it is not. That is something you have to realize and live with. I had to figure that one out the hard way.

There used to be a studio saying, ‘we’ll fix it in the mix’.

That never worked for me.

You can’t make a hot dog taste like a t-bone.

I remember working on mixes, splicing together edits (on tape with a razor blade) working eighteen to twenty hours just so I could finish a project so I could start another project the next day.

Those golden days are done. I might work long hours, but it is because I want to, not because I don’t want to loose all the time I had invested in a mix because I have another project coming in.

The DAW has revolutionized mixing.

There are still folks out there who do it the old fasion way. They like it.

And many of them are quite successful.

In essence, mixing is taking a number of audio tracks that you have nearly unlimited control over with a nearly unlimited amount of options for each track and putting them together in a cohesive way that makes it hopefully pleasant to listen to.

And what makes it more incredible, is that everyone does it a bit differently.

Mixing is an art.

Happy mixing.

Author: Chad