Concepts of Mixing (Studio)

I’m going to kind of jump out of any logical sequence and give a few of my thoughts on mixing.

Too many people look at a “mix” as a static situation where you adjust a few things, and then don’t touch the console during the mix. You don’t stand and stare at your guitar while you are “playing,” and you shouldn’t just look at the console while you are “mixing.” It’s a verb. You should be doing something.

First let’s look at a studio mix, and then we’ll see how a live mix differs (and it does, a lot).

To get an idea of what I’m going to describe, you’ll need to visualize a little bit. Imagine that in front of you is a 3D “shoebox” shape, which is your ‘mix’ boundaries. The left and right sides are bounded by the left and right speakers. The top and bottom is the floor and ceiling, and the front and back are some arbitrary distance from you (from ‘your nose’ to ‘really far away’). You have a 3 dimensional ‘sound canvas’ on which to ‘paint’ your mix.

The up/down dimension is frequency. Low frequencies toward the bottom going linearly to high frequencies at the top. Left and right are, well, left and right. The front to back dimension is ‘distance,’ which you have to create.

If you can visualize this ‘shoebox’ shape, and think about what the 3 different dimensions represent for a minute, you’ll see that there is much more to a mix than merely panning and volume. And, just as it would be in a picture, you don’t want everything jumbled together in one spot of your ‘canvas.’ There would be no way to distinguish between any of the different elements of the “picture.” Forgetting to take this into account is one of the major causes of an indistinct mix, where you can’t really pick out individual instruments, and everything seems to be jumbled together.

One of the marketing tricks used by the manufacturers of digital synthesizers is to make patches which sound enormous in the music store. But when you try to put one of those patches in a mix, as soon as you get it loud enough to hear it distinctly, it covers up other instruments in the mix and turns the whole mix into mush. Using the 3D Mix concept, you have a way to eliminate this problem. For example, if your synthesizer patch is covering up the lead vocal, figure out what frequency range the lead vocal ‘lives in,’ and CUT those frequencies in the synthesizer. All of a sudden, you can hear both the synthesizer AND the vocal. Why is that? Well, visualize the 3d “sound canvas.” The synthesizer is taking up most of the vertical space, and in that frequency range where the vocal is, they were competing and jumbling together. It’s like two elements of a painting trying to be in the exact same location of a picture. You can’t see either one clearly unless you have a way to move one of them out of the way.

The ‘left-right’ aspect is a little more intuitive, but involves the same concept. You don’t want two instruments located in the same spot in the picture. Try to balance the picture. If you have two guitars, don’t put them on the same side of the mix, for example. Drums are kind of the exception, since they will be panned from hard left to hard right. If you are having trouble getting the toms to be punchy and stand out in the mix, find out what frequency each one is, and cut that frequency a little in whatever instrument is covering it up. It usually only takes a little bit of cut to make a huge difference. 1db-2db of cut can do wonders, and you will never notice this amount of cut in an instrument. Just remember, it doesn’t matter what each individual instrument sounds like when you solo it, it’s what how the overall mix sounds that matters. The listener of the CD (or show) you are mixing will never be able to solo an instrument and pick it apart, so you shouldn’t be too concerned.

When it comes to the “front to back” space in a mix, think of it as the distance from the listener to the instrument. If you want something to sound “in your face,” you don’t want it to sound like it’s behind other things in the mix. Reverb and delay are the primary tools you can use to change how far back in a mix something is placed, but frequency plays a part as well. Think of the reverberant field in a large room. If you are standing right next to an instrument, acoustic guitar for example, you are hearing almost all direct sound. The further away from it you get, the higher the ratio of reverb to direct sound you will hear, and the less of the very highest frequencies (10K and up) you will hear. So, if you want something in your mix to sound very close and intimate to the listener, it should sound fairly crisp and bright, and you probably don’t want much reverb on it. Conversely, if there’s an instrument that you need to move back in a mix to get it ‘behind’ the vocals (for example), lower the level, add some reverb (which increases its overall volume), and darken it up a little.

Getting back to the picture analogy, you don’t want any blank areas in the picture. If you looked at a painting of a landscape, and there was one 4″ area that was completely blank, it would look really odd. It’s the same with a mix. If you have one frequency range, for example, that you have cut out of every instrument, it’s going to sound peculiar. Try to “paint in” every area with something. From the lowest frequencies (kick and bass) to the highest (cymbals etc), there should be no gaps in the area from top to bottom. If you have a gap, the mix will sound really thin or hollow. The same concept goes for the other two axis. When you hear a band, not everyone in the band is standing the exact same distance from you, so don’t create a mix where they are all exactly the same spot from front to back. People tend to put too much reverb on lead vocals, in my opinion. The lead singer is probably not the furthest away from the listener, so it would make sense that he is further forward in the mix than most other things.

If you give a little thought to this, and “layout” your mix, you will end up with a full sounding mix, with space filled by different ‘elements,’ but nothing will be covering anything else up. It will be punchy and full, and you’ll be able to pick out each instrument and part.

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