Mike Elliot's Guide to Mixing
The art and science of mixing, Part One by Mike Elliott
Mixing: probably the most misunderstood element of the recording chain. Some believe it to be completely incomprehensible, an arcane art form best left to those who are somehow more gifted than mere mortals. Others believe it to be a matter of just setting everything the same volume, add some reverb, and turn up the bass, done. Simple. Neither is anywhere close to the truth.
These are the facts. Mixing is a blend of art and science. A manipulation of textures, musical colors, and the application of ones own personal taste in music. It is also the understanding and application of a mind bending plethora of electronic gear to enhance the music. (The "science" part). The result is simple. Something homogenous, brilliantly executed, and most important, invisible! Something the listener may ignore, indeed be virtually unaware that anything like "mixing" ever took place, while enjoying the music. If the listener can "hear the mix" (other than pros listening to pros), it's a poor mix.
No one can "just start mixing". There is too much to be learned and experienced. It's not magic, but there is much trial and error, experimentation, and "it's almost right, but something's missing", to be gone through before you can actually lay claim to being a mixdown engineer. I suspect that I was at it for at least five years before I turned out my first respectable mix, even though some of my early efforts found their way on to major label releases. I finally arrived at that point only through experience, and the good advice I received from many helpful and patient people already well skilled at the task. It is some of that good advice that I will endeavor to pass on to you through this series of articles.
Starting at the bottom.
A good mix starts at the bottom. The sonic bottom is, the kick drum and bass. It is the bottom end that will determine if the mix is to be successful. If you miss it at this point, you will never get it right. All the automated fader moves in the world, EQ, compression, reverb, chorus, panning, doubling, sonic mangling, and/or anything else you might do after this point will not save you if the bottom end isn't right. Welcome to mixdown hell.
Kick starting your mix:
How many times have you reached a point in your mix where everything has become too loud, and you want to pull everything down a bit? Of course doing that, being a pain in the posterior, will mess up your mix anyway. How to avoid it? Start by setting the kick drum at -6 to -10 at the master fader. The kick channel fader level doesn't matter, unless of course you can't GET to -10. (Time to re-cut the kick). If you start with the kick at between -10 and -6, after adding everything else your final mix will magically be within a db or two of zero, every single time! It doesn't matter if you're mixing rock or country, jazz or pop, dance or trance. Every form of "conventional" music shares this application. Ah, if it were only that simple. Now comes the hard part. (Read "experience"). You must, at this point depending on the musical genre, and to the best of your ability, set the sound of the kick drum. Decide on the EQ: "Big" bottom? Maybe a bit of "Smack"? How about "Hip Hop" low mid? And how about compression? Will you use it? How much? There's the experimentation part. A good understanding of EQ and their functions will help immensely here. You might want to take a look back at one my earlier columns, on EQ. Once you've decided on the sound of the kick drum, NOW set that kick fader so that you are getting between -6 and -10 at the master fader. Never touch it again. Make the mix cooperate with the kick. If somewhere along the line you find you mist change the kick sound, do that WITH the mix, then solo the kick, and reset the level. Now reset your whole mix. (There's that nagging "experience" thing again). By the way, I can almost hear you asking, "So, what is it...-6 or -10?" Well, it's not that exact a science, but most cases, probably closer to -6. Ok, let's add something else now.
It takes two.
Now for the second element of the bottom end, the bass of course. It's time to match the bass to the kick. Just how that match will be done is entirely dependent on the type of music you're working with. In Country music for example, you want the bass "just inside" the kick. That is to say, the kick should sound essentially as if it were the attack of the bass. For rock, more evenly matched. For Dance, most likely more kick than bass, and the bass will be playing a different role here anyway. More n that later. Here's a biggie. DO NOT use the same EQ on both the bass and the kick. You are definitely going to want to create an individual sonic space for each. For instance, if you're looking for "thunder bottom", you might be tempted to boost 50 to 80hz on both the kick and bass. Don't do that! My personal preference on most types of music is to use the bass instrument for the extreme low end, and the kick for definition. For the kick, cut (yes, I said cut) , 60hz and down significantly, say -15db or so low shelf, and put around 3-5db boost at around 3k, narrow Q. Assuming electric bass, add in 3-5db at 80hz, again with a narrow Q. Match that with the kick, and see how that suits you for a bottom end. Again, I refer you to my prior article on EQ.
Now that we have set up a solid foundation to build our mix on, let's mute the bass for the time being and go on to the drums.
As the drums go, so goes your mix!
The drums are the single most important element of any mix. Be prepared to spend as much time getting your drum sound right as the rest of the mix put together. Of course we want to start with a great drum sound in the first place. (See last month's column on mic'ing). These days we must be prepared to work with drum samples as much or more often as live drums, but the way we treat them in mixing once again remains the same.
No gates. First, unless you have some sort of tragically recorded drum sound, avoid the use of gates. You really want to use the complete mic array to get that great sound of the drums. We have the kick (don't touch it), so let's add the snare next. First, pull up the snare to slightly below the desired level in relation with the kick. Make any compression settings you want to the snare at this point. (More on this in part two). DO NOT make any EQ settings at this time. Now mute your snare and pull up the overheads. (solo) and make EQ adjustments for the cymbals. You will probably want to add a bit of 10k or so to shine up the brass overall. Try phase reverse on one channel of the overheads and see if you like the result. (Keep checking the overhead phase as we add the rest of the kit).
Next, add the snare and listen your complete (almost) snare drum sound for the first time. (The level with the kick should be about right now) You may now start to play with the snare EQ. You will most likely find that you will not need to add any high end to the snare, as it will be showing up nicely in the overheads. This also has the added benefit of not pulling more hat into the snare channel. (Don't mess the overheads right now; remember they are set for the brass).
Next, with the kick, snare, and overheads all in pull up the hat. Hey, how about that, you hardly need to add much hat at all, as it sounds great in the overheads. Up till now we haven't panned anything. Kick, snare, and bass are all straight up the middle, and the overheads are panned stereo full. So now we use the pan on the hat to place it in the proper perspective with the kit. Don't pay much attention to the position of the pan knob, just put it in the right place aurally. (Remember the overheads?). You might want to lose some low end (100hz and down) from the hat. There's nothing much down there on the hat anyways, and it will help separate the hat from the snare.
OK, are you pretty much happy with the "time" elements of the drum kit now? If so, let's add the toms. It helps if you can find a nice tom fill section on the track and loop it, so you don't have to wait all day for another tom hit to come along. We are looking for two basic elements from the toms, attack and decay. The latter can be impacted greatly by compression, but we will have to get to that in part two of this tutorial. Depending on the way they were played, you might want to EQ a bit of attack on the toms. Look for that in the 2.5 to 4k area on all toms, small to large rack.
You will find that tuning on your toms has affected your snare somewhat. Probably not a great deal if they were well mic'ed in the first place, and you will not have to turn them up louder either. How about those overheads! Don't you dare gat those toms! You don't really want the sound of the entire drum kit changing completely every time the drummer hits a tom, now do you? You are ready for small tweaks across the whole kit now. Work slowly, and listen for any impact on the other elements of the kit other than the one you're currently tweaking.
For all of you drum SAMPLE users out there (that's me too), getting jealous of all this live drum tweaking, check out the excellent MixTended kits at wizoosounds.com, and you can join in the fun too. They are awesome!
Alright, and the bass back in and turn up the rest of the tracks up real loud, throw on lots of reverb, and you're done...NOT!
We have much more to talk about concerning drums, like compression, EQ reverb and more, but that will have to wait,along with adding some more tracks to the mix and what to do with them, until part two, next issue.
Until then, happy mixing, and check out my website at mikeelliottjazzguitar.com