Staying On Track
Technical Articles/February 20, 2016
There are so many editing and processing options available to engineers at the mix stage of a production these days that there’s a very real possibility they can take over your entire working method, corralling you and your mix down pathways you never intended to go.
Here are some techniques to help you combat the phenomenon, and stay in control of your mix’s direction.
ESTABLISH A PLAN
Not having a strong mix plan for the task at hand is probably the best way you can leave yourself vulnerable to the vagaries and corruptive influences of technology. There is so much potential for distraction during a mix session that the last thing you want is to be taken further off course by the temptations of the equipment around you.
Staying focused on your mix can be difficult when enticement lurks around every corner – plug-ins by the thousands and editing facilities that were once science fiction – especially when there’s no plan at all.
Diving blindly into a mix session with scant regard for the road ahead, trusting that ‘inspiration’ will always strike, can be a recipe for disaster. If there’s no plan for, or method behind, your mix you leave yourself wide open to the technology potentially skewing your perception, tempting you to do things to the mix that may only make things worse.
The most fundamental thing you can do to achieve a successful mix is listen to the track and develop an understanding of what makes it tick before you touch anything, and preferably with the artist and producer present. Once that’s established you can plan your approach and set goals for the mix.
Without a road map of this kind, even if it’s fairly broad – ‘I reckon this song is all about the beat, and anything that drives that is going to be crucial to the success of the song’ – you may find yourself up the garden path very swiftly.
Maybe the song is dominated by a big vocal group, in which case it might be wise to build the mix around the vocal sound from the beginning while your plan is clear and your mind fresh. Maybe a crucial guitar hook lights up the song, and this should receive some love and attention early on in the piece. Maybe it’s all about an established groove in the rhythm section, in which case you may want these elements sounding full-toned and strong in the mix within the first hour of the session.
Whatever it is you choose to highlight – and remember, being flexible about what’s important to any given mix is crucial to making the right observations about the song – try and stick to the plan as much as possible.
Write down the key points if you have to. Stick them on the side of the computer screen or chuck a few random Post-It notes around the room if that’s what it takes to keep the main aims from evaporating like a mirage (though you may draw comparisons with Metallica’s psychotherapist if you do that).
DEHUMANISING SONGS ONE TWEAK AT A TIME
One of the most insidious characteristics of modern technology that’s often overlooked my mix engineers is its extraordinary capacity to dehumanise a performance via its editing and processing facilities.
Regardless of the musical genre you’re working in, a good rule of thumb for combating this is to make sure you find problems with your ears, not your eyes. If you use your eyes to make decisions about an EQ setting, or determine what’s ‘loose’ or ‘pitchy’, panned incorrectly or too dynamic about a sound, you’ll often process things unnecessarily. And as has been well documented by now, too much processing can really mangle your phase relationships.
For instance, how a snare drum/tambourine combination ‘looks’ in terms of its timing on screen may not correlate with how it ultimately sounds. A kick drum and bass guitar alignment similarly might look like a shambles on screen, but if it sounds groovy, it is groovy! How it looks is irrelevant.
Some of the best vocals are imperfect in their timing and pitch, and some of the greatest grooves are apparently all over the shop with respect to their time-alignment, so don’t be tempted to meddle with any of this stuff simply because it looks messy. If you do you may kill the groove outright, and all thanks to the dominance and unconscious influence of technology over your work, and a lack of planning on your part.
Remember, some of the greatest records of all time are a bit ‘loose’ here and there and pitch-imperfect most of the time. But in the end none of that matters. It certainly doesn’t make the music inferior. On the contrary, in many cases it’s what made it great. And just as importantly, when analogue tape technology dominated the show it prevented this sort of tampering because there were virtually no facilities with which to tamper, and more importantly no-one was ‘looking’ at the audio, only listening to it.
MORE ON TUNING & PITCH
One plug-in category in particular that tempts almost everyone these days is pitch correction. The virtual eradication of anything resembling an out-of-tune instrument or vocal has become a compulsion to some, and in many cases to disastrous end.
Now while this is a very subjective realm, and despite the fact that one man’s perfect pitch is another’s poison, there’s no question that its overuse can dehumanise a performance. When taken to the extreme, pitch correction can sound quite unnatural, sometimes to great effect of course, but at other times to the detriment of the music. Here again it pays to have a plan for how little or how much you intend to use it, and stick to that plan. Remain the master of the process, not a sucker for it.
The obsession around pitch perfection can also affect your perception of instruments like guitars and bass. Where once upon a time things would occasionally drift in and out of pitch, often to great effect with the natural chorusing of stereo guitars and backing vocals etc, these days it’s often seen as a problem no matter what the circumstance.
But applying pitch correction judiciously is vital because, whether you realise it or not, the more you use this process on one element, the more everything else then tends to feel pitchy by comparison, causing a knock-on effect of more and more elements demanding it.
Some would argue establishing a slightly wider, more forgiving grey area either side of the line of perfect pitch can make everything sound fuller and, thanks to the affect of chorusing, thicker. The narrower this line of tolerance becomes, the more everything then starts requiring artificial adjustment.
NO PLUG-INS? SO WHAT…
Just because a channel in your mix window or on your console has no processing strapped across it doesn’t mean that channel is unfinished or incomplete. Not everything needs treatment or modification!
Again, judging a channel by simply looking at it is a dangerous practise, and as a general impression I would say some of the worst mixes I’ve heard have been over-processed rather than undercooked. Too much processing can start to dissolve the fidelity of a mix, again, often without the engineer necessarily realising it.
Going overboard with compression and limiting can be particularly damaging, especially when you’re less than confident about what these controls actually do. Sometimes the dynamics of individual performances, when played together, naturally highlight the important riffs and nuances of the music, leaving the rest to drift into the background where they belong. Compression and limiting can undermine this musicality, presenting every sound at the same volume from one end of the track to the other. Shoving all this information into a pair or speakers via so much compression can be confusing, fatiguing and sometimes indecipherable to the average listener. Louder is not always better.
The next time you’re mixing a song, make sure you start with a plan. That way you’re far more likely to get the result you want, rather than some other outcome that no-one really expected or likes.