BIG PICTURE FOCUS
Technical Articles/November 11, 2015
Whether it takes an hour or a week, there eventually comes a time when a mix seems ‘finished’. All your effects are working well, the panning balance is locked in and sounding imaginative, and all the compression settings and EQs have been honed to everyone’s satisfaction. We’re done… aren’t we?
Mixing audio is one of those art forms where the workload and focus tend to progress from coarse to fine as the sound evolves. Typically you start out working on big picture stuff and end with discussions about the pros and cons of adding 0.3dB of 10kHz to the vocal… that sort of thing. Nothing wrong with that.
It’s like building a house. You don’t work on the trims and paintwork first and then afterwards contemplate the foundations… there’s a natural order to the process that most of us inevitably follow.
THE BIG PICTURE
But a curious thing can happen to your mix as you wile away the hours in front of plug-ins and outboard gear, and your focus leans more towards fine detail. Things can get boring, static, and sometimes even unbalanced… and that’s not good.
Like a bullant at a picnic, this nasty little problem can sneak up on you while your back is turned. As you become preoccupied with details about compression settings and micro adjustments to EQ, a mix can sometimes lose its immediacy, focus and dynamic. Complex and detailed mixes that earlier seemed full of great melodies, backing vocals and intricate arrangements can suddenly sound flat and uninteresting.
How has this happened? Two hours ago things were sounding great and since then you’ve only made fine adjustments!
Ironically, you caused the problem by being too good at making things fit just so; by fine-tuning things so that everything gelled nicely together.
That ‘glue’ you’ve so deftly applied has ironically brought you unstuck.
FAMILIARITY BREEDS CONTEMPT
Unfortunately, your intimate knowledge of the various mix components can sometimes warp your perception of where they reside in the soundscape.
For instance, that cool keyboard sound you recently added that, to your ear, seems modest in level can be all but inaudible to a punter, or worse, have the detrimental effect of simultaneously clouding their perception of something else. Now you have two sounds in the mix that punters can’t hear!
While all those subtle tweaks and layered effects are sounding great to your trained ear, they’ve inadvertently filled in the space that once framed the key ingredients with stark contrast. Good mixes need to maintain this contrast to hook the listener in.
Making things sound too subtle and nicely blended can leave the average punter with nothing to latch onto. It’s like sticking a whole host of fabulous fresh ingredients into a blender and flicking the switch. Before you know it – and despite how nice the produce was – you’ve got grey mush. No-one wants that.
But don’t panic. All your hard work hasn’t been for nothing. There’s simply more to do…
The key now is to step back, perhaps go and make a cup of tea or throw a ball for the dog, and return to the mix chair with one clear aim in mind: to find the key focal points of the mix and push them forward. Forget compression settings and pre-delay values for a moment and just ask yourself: ‘what is the musical focus at this point in the song, and is it clear?’
INTO THE LIMELIGHT
The key is to make sure you orchestrate the automation so that every time the song’s musical focus shifts, there’s a dynamic move to highlight it. Whether you’re doing this manually via physical fader moves or drawing automation on a timeline, the key is to work through the song, constantly asking yourself: ‘what is the central ingredient right now and does it have enough impact?’
Sometimes the solution is as obvious as simply turning up the vocal. Other times it’s about a lost drum fill or cymbal hit that has suffered under too much compression. Pushing up the drumkit’s first downbeat in the change from verse to chorus might be the solution, or you may discover that the drums are better turned up a couple of dB for the whole chorus, rather than just the first beat.
Guitars too can often have a tendency to drift into the background while your back is turned. More than just about any other instrument, if they’re too low in a mix, guitars can reduce mix clarity like nobody’s business, washing away the focus while contributing very little. Often they need to come forward or be loosened up dynamically, especially if they’re playing a lead break and/or replacing the vocal as the song’s main focus.
Riffs can get lost and vibrant performances turned to wallpaper if they’re too low and/or compressed. This can be particularly problematic when there are several guitars in the mix. Together they can reduce one another to a bunch of inarticulate noise, especially if the mix engineer isn’t especially au fait with the nuances of the individual parts.
Automation can, however, quickly pull a musician’s hard work back into focus and provide detail and clarity where there was previously pea soup.
Lift out the detail and restore some movement back into this picture.
COMPRESSION VS DYNAMICS
Another big picture thought be mindful of is the fact that lots of instruments combined with lots of compression have a tendency to flatten a mix, and ironically make a song sound quieter overall, rather than louder. To compensate, mastering engineers will attempt to restore the song’s competitive level with even more compression, and before you know it the song is sounding distorted and brutalised.
The point here is that some of the loudest songs have the simplest arrangements.
So remember, once you think a mix is over the line, look carefully at the big picture and ask yourself this simple question: ‘does the song have impact and do all the focal points and key ingredients punch, move and sparkle like they ought to?’ You should be able to start the song anywhere along its timeline, and whether you start in the middle of a chorus or bridge or verse, the focus of that section should be immediately apparent to the average listener.
Now you’re ready to print the mix and go for a drive in the car… you do have a good car stereo I hope?