November 5, 2015
Some people say the sexiest part of making a record is tracking. And while this might be true for the artist, for the engineer on the other side of the glass, it’s often what comes after tracking that is the most thrilling. After recording is over, mixing begins. This process is often a mystery to musicians so I’m going to break it down for you into three stages:
- Rough Mixes – These are the tracks you get before mixing begins on a granular level. You typically leave the studio with them when you finish recording. The engineer has zeroed out the individual volume levels so that they are relatively flat and contain little or no compression, equalization or effects. The levels of each instrument haven’t yet been crafted in to a finely tuned mix. At this stage of the game, listen specifically to the arrangement and performance. Are all the guitar solos correct and in tune? Have you chosen the best vocal takes? Do the drums need editing? Are there wonky vocal parts that require pitch correction? If parts need re-arranging, this is the time. If the performance isn’t quite there, you’ll need to re-track. This is a critical moment for fixing performance issues before the heavy mixing begins. There is no amount of compression or auto-tuning that will correct poor or non-emotive execution.
- Mixes – When any necessary re-tracking is done, arrangement is complete and rough mixes are approved, the second stage of mixing begins. This is where the fun stuff happens. Some artists attend these mixing sessions. Others have no interest. I think having the band in the same room for at least one round of mixing is beneficial. You are able to answer questions and try out ideas much more efficiently and, in the end, you save time and money with unnecessary revisions.Most of the heavy lifting happens in the initial round of these mixes. We’re setting the pan, adjusting the volume, and applying compression, equalization and effects to properly allow each instrument to sit where it best suits the song. At this point, you are listening for the vibe of the song. Does everything gel? Is the bass too loud? Do the drums punch through? Can you hear the melody of the guitars and piano? Are the vocals intelligible? It’s in this step that the song starts to take its final form. You’re starting to hear what you’ll be listening to a month from now. It’s still not complete, but this stage should get you 90% there. Subsequent revisions typically just have minute level changes.There are a few crosscheck steps I take when I’m almost done with mixes and this is something I recommend bands do at this stage as well. First, I like to check the mix on earbuds. Any inexpensive in-ear buds will do. Many people will be listening to your music in this manner, so you should always see how it sounds while in the mixing stage. Then, it’s a good idea to check the mix on a boombox or cheap speakers. Oftentimes, listeners enjoy music in a less-than-ideal setup and checking on a middle-of-the-road home stereo can help you prevent issues that may arise in mid-range frequencies. Finally, I listen to my mixes at a very low volume. Our ears and brains process audio differently at different sound levels. At lower volumes, your ears aren’t fooled by loud (and often overly boosted) frequencies. After each of these critical listening steps, ask yourself: What stands out? What bothers you? Audio can be distorted by each of these listening environments so consider what tweaks you want to make before finalizing the mix.
- Masters – Once the final mixes have been approved, they get sent for mastering. Typically, the mastering engineer is someone who didn’t also mix the record. This enables the mastering engineer to listen to the tracks with fresh ears. At this point in the process, you have a collection of songs or puzzle pieces that will ultimately come together as a complete, cohesive record. The engineer applies multi-band compression, equalization, limiting and sometimes stereo- and spacial-enhancing. When listening to a master, you’re checking for overall sound cohesiveness and level consistency across all of the tracks. The final product of mastering is ready for distribution.
Each step in the mixing process is critical and sets itself up for the next step. Tracking may be done, but you still play an essential role in crafting your record by listening at each stage and providing creative direction and feedback to the engineer. Before you choose a studio for mixing, have a conversation with the engineer about his/her mixing methodology and consider whether it fits with your workflow.