Approaching a Mix

Q: When you start your mix do you bring all your faders down to zero and then bring them up one at a time from there? Also, when balancing out sounds, do you try to get that balance at first without using any plugins?

I’ve seen videos where engineers are able to get a decent balance without using any EQ’s compressors, or plugins at all and it was a huge eye opener for me. I always thought that in order to get a good balance it was absolutely necessary to have these plugins. Once again however I’m underestimating the volume faders.

Finally… at what stage of the mixing process do you begin to add effects like reverb and delay? Do you add them AFTER everything has already been compressed and EQ’d or do you not really give AF and just do it all at once?

A: Whether mixing live or mixing a recording, an engineer is always having to consider two sometimes differing interests: the craft of mixing and the art of mixing. The craft of mixing includes preventing and solving problems while the art of mixing is the process of making a mix sound good using the creative tools available to an engineer.

Start With The Craft, Start With The Art

If during recording you started with the craft, you should start with the art in mixing. In an ideal world you’re recording good musicians playing good instruments with good equipment in a good room. Spend time with placing the instruments and musicians in the room. Spend time picking and placing microphones. Spend time considering phasing. These days a lot of engineers (including myself) prefer to do most of the work in the box, but if you really want to use a Distressor, spend time getting the settings perfect.

Once you have a solid recording, you’ve edited together your takes, and you’re beginning the mix, listen to each track. Slight adjustments to EQ and dynamics could be made now, but be reserved – you still don’t know how the tracks will play together. Then listen to groups: listen to just drums, then just guitars, then just vocals. Start making slight adjustments to get the individuals tracks fitting together with the group. This is a good time to setup reverb busses and start sending a little to them. Make a rough mix of everything, and now you’ll start noticing problems with how the tracks are playing together.

Of course this is all applicable to live sound, you just will have to do all of this a little faster.

Effects as an Instrument

If you’re working with a song that utilizes a very dramatic effect or processing technique, the effect to should be treated as a key element of the song and should be included early in the mix. For instance applying some light reverb to background vocals could be added in any stage of the mix, but a long, dub-esque delay on the snare should be added early. It’s a very noticeable addition that will be a defining characteristic to the song. As such it should be a part of the mixing process as soon as possible. The same goes for processors; if you’re adding light gating to a snare to remove bleed, that could be done later in the mix, but if you’re adding an ’80s style gated reverb effect, it should be done sooner rather than later.

The Typical Rock Band Flow

Stylized effects aside, I like to approach a mix with a minimalist mindset. A perfect recording shouldn’t require a plug-in intensive mix. Listen to each track, note the trouble areas, and then make a rough mix, grouping together similar instruments. You will probably notice things that sound wrong (the kick is inconsistent, there’s too much hi-hat) but a lot of things you thought were bad might sound good in the mix (electric guitars were thin, leaving out the hi-hat is fine because of the bleed into everything else).

Even if you do need to fix something, now you have plenty of space to fix things. I’ve often noticed new engineers in a live environment begin mixing and immediately reach for the GEQ. They finish the drums and with a scooped out low-end wonder why they can’t hear the bass. At that point they have no where to go. The same is true on an individual channel, if you walk in and immediately cut 250hZ on a guitar, you use up part of your EQ that you may not have needed to use and that you may need to use later.

A Moment on My Soapbox

If there’s any rule to audio engineering, it’s that there are no rules to audio engineering. Your loyalties should lie with one thing: the song. A lot of people come in to audio engineering asking “what compressor should I use on a kick?” or “what’s the setting for limiting a singer while recording?” Well … it depends, doesn’t it? Just like every song is different, every instrument, musician, microphone, and room is different. It’s my opinion that the first priority is getting a clean signal to your console, after that start correcting problems. No one listens to an album because they heard the engineer used xyz compressor, so have no loyalties to gear. No one cares if you used zero plugins or two hundred, so use them when you need them or don’t use them at all. If I can make any point, it’s that you should be making adjustments when your ears tell you to make an adjustment, never on principal or precedent.

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