Technical Articles/May 11, 2016
Everywhere I go there are people singin’ the blues about why they can’t seem to mix they’re own music. It’s one of the most persistent complaints in audio and it’s not going away any time soon.
I’d like a dollar for every time someone’s said to me: “my mix is muddy” or “it’s all too wet.” These are the two most common ailments afflicting the mixes of self-taught, at-home D.I.Y.ers, but thankfully there are a couple of simple cure-alls that can get a mix rolling in the right direction before the wheels fall off.
Frankly, I think people should always get an outsider to mix their music for them – dare I say it, by an expert – but when someone has their heart set on doing it themselves it’s often hard to convince them otherwise. It’s like someone telling me to hire in a professional builder to do all my house renovations. Forget it! I want to do them myself thanks very much.
D.I.Y. WITH FADERS & FILTERS
I both generally disagree, and genuinely sympathise, with do-it-yourselfers. It’s precisely why I write so many articles about audio, and how I came to be in the audio business in the first place.
Back then I was always frustrated by engineers and producers (so-called professionals) who seemed incapable of pulling the kinds of sounds we were after. Eventually I thought: “Stuff this, I’m doing it myself!” But I’ve seen too many albums thrown on the scrapheap courtesy of D.I.Y. mixing to widely condone it. Having said that, if you’re a musician determined to mix stuff yourself, in the end, it’s your choice. Just don’t kid yourself: there are risks involved, and far more to this mixing caper than you might think.
Two of the simplest aspects of audio mixing that offer the greatest benefit to D.I.Y.ers are fader levels and EQ filters. These two fundamentals of audio mixing are simple to learn, provide a great platform to work from, and can get you a long way down the road before you need to look for more complex mix solutions.
It obviously goes without saying that fader levels are critical to any good mix, but somewhat incredibly, experienced and inexperienced engineers alike often overlook them. When a mix problem proves elusive, D.I.Y.ers in particular tend to gravitate towards complex solutions like parallel compression, layered effects and various other disaster-prone options that are easily mishandled by beginners.
But nothing is more crucial to a sound than its level. When your fader levels are out of whack, so too will be everything else relating to that sound: the automation, the EQ, the effects levels – everything. If you only remember one thing about this article, remember this: if there’s something wrong with a sound in your mix, try turning it up or down first, regardless of whether you’re five minutes, or five days, into it.
If you have a recording that you want to mix yourself (or one that you’ve already tackled and come away from battered and bruised), dispense with every other technique and work on fader levels only. Forget adding countless plug-in inserts, bus compressors and EQs, sends to parallel returns and so on. Try mixing your work as if the faders are all you have. Consider it a dry run to see how far you can push things before you feel compelled to pull up an effect, compressor or EQ.
Unfortunately there’s no possible way I can tell you how loud or quiet things should relatively be in a given mix; that’s something you need to teach yourself, and the best way to develop this instinct is through practice, countless mistakes and hard work. And while you’re working on these basics it’s best to avoid the more complex aspects of mixing that typically lead a novice up the garden path.
Like learning to ride a skateboard, you don’t start out trying to the most dangerous tricks first. You start on the fundamentals so you don’t break your neck.
Faders are the skateboarding equivalent of rolling up and down, and they’re never irrelevant. One simple technique to employ when you’re concerned about a particular sound’s volume is to close your eyes and pull its fader down to silence. If you’re using an analogue console, by all means mark where the fader was beforehand, but once that’s established, go ahead and dump the old level. Now slowly turn the fader up again with your eyes shut until the level of the sound in question is about right, to your ears only. Open your eyes again to check the level and see where you ended up. (If you peeked during this process, start again from scratch!)
You may have ended up back on your original mark, or you may be out by 6dB; who knows. Either way, make a mental note of where the fader came to rest and repeat the exercise a couple more times. If you achieve the same basic result each time, great. Chances are the level under scrutiny is about right… for now. If you’re all over the place each time, it may just be that the mix is tolerant of that instrument sounding good at a wide variety of levels, or you may be struggling because other elements are out of whack too. Don’t despair. Leave it for now and work on something else. Come back to it when the balance has changed.
If you’re disciplined, you’ll be amazed how far a mix can be pushed with nothing more than good fader technique.
HIGH PASS, LOW PASS & HOSPITAL PASS
The other tool to consider using while you’re still trying to avoid complex solutions is an EQ filter. These are great tools of trade because they’re relatively simple, powerful and effective, and quickly train your ear about what’s essential or unnecessary to sounds in a mix. Got problems with mixes sounding muddy? Filters to the rescue!
Filters, be they high or low-pass, essentially limit the tonal bandwidth of a sound. High-pass filters attenuate the bottom-end extension, while low-pass filters control the tops.
Filters are brilliant at quickly opening up space in a mix by encouraging instruments to occupy different tonal regions, rather than allowing them to grossly overlap one another, a phenomenon commonly known as ‘masking’.
For example, most ‘muddy’ mixes are the result of too many instruments being allowed to possess uncontrolled or irrelevant bottom end. When an instrument’s musical focus is elsewhere, say in the upper midrange, there’s often little point for that instrument to also voice energy down at say 50Hz, particularly if that energy primarily consists of woofy, inarticulate sound made up of a combination of vague bottom-end from the instrument, proximity effect from the mic, and traffic hum from down the street. Get rid of this stuff and your mix will vastly improve in no time flat.
REVERB FREE ZONE
When things get cluttered or ‘masked’ in the bottom-end, way too many beginners quickly reach for reverb – something they also typically know very little about – in a desperate bit to create space. But mistaking the need for tonal clarity for a lack of reverberant space only heaps tonal confusion on spatial confusion… great! Now we’re really in a mess.
The trick is to resist the temptation to reach for reverb every time you think there’s a spatial problem. Learn instead to craft each sound to emphasise its tonal strength first. Discovering an instrument’s natural mix focus can provide a vast array of tonal signatures that can transform a mix into a compelling and fascinating landscape, without the need for more so-called ‘depth’ or three-dimensionality.
CLEAR AS MUD
Take the example of a song comprised of an acoustic guitar, bass guitar, piano and main vocal. These ingredients may sounds very simple, depending on the musical arrangement, but here already we have tonal complexity that can lead to a train wreck in the hands of the inexperienced mix engineer. All these instruments have the capacity to generate low-end into the sub-harmonics, as well as top-end out beyond the capacity of human hearing.
With nothing but faders and filters at our disposal, we can quite easily determine which of our four instruments are most capable of providing our mix with articulate bottom-end, clear high-end focus and detailed midrange.
For the purpose of this example let’s say the bass has a good solid bottom end when soloed, but it’s difficult to hear in the mix thanks to some pretty ordinary boominess in the acoustic and the occasional thump from the vocal. The trick here is to insert a high-pass filter across the acoustic at, say, 90Hz, and gently rock it back and forth above and below this point (below which the sound will drop away rapidly depending on how steeply you’ve set the filter gradient) until you’re satisfied that the boom is gone while the essential tone of the instrument remains intact.
Do the same to the vocal and suddenly the bass becomes clearer in the mix without the other instruments noticeably changing. Now put a high and low-pass filter across the piano to give it more midrange focus, less of that glassy top-end and woolly bottom and suddenly all the instruments are clearer in the mix, without any of them really appearing to change much overall.
Faders and filters might seem boring, or only for beginners, but in fact they’re crucial to good mix practise. Particularly if you’re a D.I.Y.er, they’re a good way to teach yourself about the inherent strengths and weaknesses in a sound, and how a mix fits together without it necessarily relying on reverb to create space and depth.
A warning though: filters can be something you overcook quite easily when you first try them out, but like anything to do with mixing practice, the trick is to keep listening, adjusting and finessing until everything falls into place.