BALANCE, BALANCE, BALANCE…
Technical Articles/October 11, 2016
It’s one of the hardest things to keep perspective on during the mixing process. But what does the word ‘balance’ even mean? Does it relate to left and right, tone, dynamics or what? Let’s find out.
There are several ways to look at mix balance, but let’s start by looking at it from a different perspective: hindsight.
When a song is finished: mastered and sent off into the world, it’s often only then that the truly big picture of what took place during its production comes clearly into view.
Beforehand, there have been endless distractions: debates about the tracking, discussions about overdubs, who’s gonna do the mixing and where, what the final mix sounds like, should that vocal be up 0.5dB or not, who should master it, and so on…
But then all that suddenly fades away, and you’re left with the thing you’ve been striving towards all along – the final outcome.
As scary as this might sound (and setting aside club remixes and the like for a moment), after all that hard work and endless late night phone calls, ultimately there’s only one version of events that the world hears.
There’s something about the finality of this perspective that’s confronting to even the most experienced musicians, producers and engineers.
Listening back from the perspective of hindsight can be one of the toughest gigs there is. It can be exhilarating of course; some of the mixes you create sound awesome no doubt. But then there are the times when the ‘if onlys’ gate-crash your party, crushing any hope you might have had of enjoying the limelight you now find yourself in.
The real trick is to learn from this sinking feeling, confronting it head on by asking yourself a couple of simple questions: ‘What don’t I like about this outcome, and how can I avoid making the mistake I’m hearing next time around?’
Regardless of any other external factors that might have contributed to your peceived unsatisfactory outcome, and without apportioning blame right now, it’s good to clarify what went wrong, when and how the problem arose, and why you didn’t pick it up until now. It might be a tough thing to dwell on, and you may prefer to just run and hide, but that’s not really a solution, is it?
What tends to happen in these demoralising circumstances is that the mix you imagined you’ve created has somehow been corrupted by a shift of perspective that you either didn’t notice during the mix, or predict might happen in the hands of the mastering engineer. No-one’s perfect of course, and you can be sure that every great mix engineer that’s ever walked the earth has felt like this several times during their career.
But you probably thought the mix was perfect, right? Or at least a thing to be proud of, and now it’s gone off the rails, fallen flat, fallen short of expectations… it’s extremely frustrating.
One way of learning from the power of hindsight is to listen critically to the way your mix turned out, as opposed to what you imagined it was.
REDRESSING THE MISTAKES
List the discrepancies and problems you’ve heard. Maybe the kick drum is too low, the vocals too bright, or the guitars too wide. It might be that there are far too many effects now, and in hindsight these should have been pulled back. Whatever the problems are, list them as clearly and critically as you can.
Now, if you can face it, call up the final mix that you sent off to mastering.
Listen to this version with your list of critical issues in front of you. Can you now hear any of these in your mix? Is it suddenly obvious that the mixing had these same problems, or is it true that the mastering has done a number on your precious work? Put a tick next to any of the problems you also hear in this final pre-master, and be dispassionate. Don’t try and pull the wool over your own eyes or this exercise will be pointless.
Often what you’re hearing under these circumstances is a lack of balance in your mixing that mastering has exposed: things too low, too wet, too loud, too bright and so on. If only you could go back a step and fix these problems before it was too late!
Well, why not?
Although I’m not one for dwelling on past failures too much, there’s a chance – particularly in this era of digital upload – of redressing any glaring issues by simply replacing the public version with an updated mix.
Provided the mastering engineer did to your song what was ultimately required to make it sound the best it could and compete with other songs in its genre, from there you can work backwards – assuming the mix is recallable – and repair the issues in question.
It might pay to have a polite, productive conversation with the mastering engineer first about what he or she thought were the ‘issues’ that needed addressing, and why the mastering outcome had left you feeling so demoralised.
Use this information to address the anomalies on your initial ‘failure’ list. Prioritise the most critical disappointments first, and work fast. Hindsight is a fragile flower that will wilt quickly, so don’t mess about or stray too far from your planned list of corrections.
Of course, most of the time – though not always – budget, or a lack of willingness on the part of others to step back into the mix furnace can prevent any hope of redress, and if the mix was analogue you may find it exponentially harder to achieve a thorough recall. But from a mix engineer’s perspective it might be worth attempting a ‘fix’ regardless, even if it’s never going to see the light of day. One thing’s for sure, if you can muster the courage to do this, you’ll learn a lot and come out the other side a better engineer.
It’s probably better to work alone in this circumstance too, fixing specific problems rather than allowing the whole box and dice to be up for debate all over again. The time for tolerating the ‘mix by committee’ has long passed. Perhaps that was partially the reason why the mix went slightly pear-shaped in the first place. Who knows? Either way, by using hindsight to rebalance your mix, you will develop a keener understanding of what’s involved in making a truly great mix survive right through to the airwaves, YouTube and your mate’s car stereo.
ONE LAST THOUGHT
One other lesson to learn here is that one of the hardest things to train yourself to manage during the building of a fantastic mix is stamina. Not all mixes come easily or happen quickly, by the sheer quantity of overdubbing, editing or decision making involved in a song.
It may just be that, for some artists or particular songs, your process should include two mastering stages, one that’s ‘in house’, and a second that goes public. It may not necessarily even be something you tell your mastering engineer, though of course, you will have to pay them twice!
By creating a ‘finished product’ that pushes your song into places you may not have expected it to go, you get the benefit of hindsight without the public humiliation. Of course, most of the time, their is neither the money nor the stomach for such a drawn out, exhausting double process, but if you can budget for it, it will give you the power of redress, and allow you to polish and correct the mix, bringing it up that last 10%, and making it great.
If you go this extra yard when circumstances permit, you may end up with the best mix of your career! Good luck.