November 10, 2013
While I don’t feel like any step in the recording process (tracking, overdubbing, mixing, mastering) is any more important than another, I feel like the mixing of a record can make or break it.
There are two main steps in mixing that I give the most attention to:
- placing instruments (space and level)
- spectrum or eq
When working with levels one must find a sweet spot for each instrument. Where is the instrument going to be placed in the sound field? This does includes panning. For example: typically I like to mix the hi-hats of a drum kit to the left (like a drummer hears when playing). When overdubbing a tambourine (or other high frequency rich instrument), I like to pan it to the right slightly. Their frequencies overlap and if they are in a similar sound space (and level) they start to blend too much and their intelligibility, contrast and impact are diminished. Mixing levels is something you want a trained engineer to work with. The bass drum needs to lock in tightly with the bass guitar. The vocals must not blend with the synths too much. The guitars must not get lost over the vocals. The bass must not over power the drum machine. I think you get the idea. The goal is to find a sweet-spot for each instrument, so that in the end the listener isn’t hunting to find a sound that isn’t there.
EQ works similarly to that of finding levels. But it’s more about the frequencies and subtleties of the sounds. Sometimes you have a bass guitar that’s a little too boomy. So you pull out a little in the low-mids. Sometimes you have a little too much sibilance (that high-end sound that hovers with “th”, “sss” or “shh” sounds. So you pull back from 4-14khz, depending on the voice and timbre. I find I take a away more EQ than add it. Like photography it’s much easier to take away from something you have than to add something you don’t have. (IE. An overexposed shot is easier to salvage than an underexposed shot) But sometimes you must boost EQ and in doing so subtlety is key. Boosting (or cutting) too much can lead to unnatural sounds. But there are no rules, and using more drastic settings can lead to interesting effects. So don’t ever rule out anything.
In the end, there are many factors that lead to a well-mixed record including other effects like reverb, compression, limiting, reamping. Not to mention, the player, the tuning of the instrument, the room, the preamps, the mics, etc… We will touch on that another time. But setting levels and EQ are a good start, and if done with thought in mind (and with a trained profession) it can be a wonderful experience for the listener.