Mixing: The 2nd key process in music recording

June 18, 2014

This is the second article in a series examining three key components of the music recording process: tracking, mixing, and mastering.

Once the individual instruments and voices are recorded on tracks, it’s time to put them all together by creating the “mix.” There are several facets to the process of mixing a song or tune.

Volume

audio mixing board with slidersThe volume of each track is adjusted with the volume fader. Envision the analog mixing boards from the old-school recording studios… those sliding controls consisted largely of volume fader mechanisms. Today those sliding controls are simulated visually on the computer screen of the Digital Audio Workstation (for which the industry standard has long been Pro Tools). Each track will have a fader.

Equalization

The fine-tuning of vocal and instrumental sounds is known as equalization, or EQing. Watching a talented engineer shaping and adding desired texture to the musical soundscape is not unlike watching a skilled sculptor bring forth a fine statue from clay. The audio engineer adds here, subtracts there, tweaks here, tweaks there — all toward the goal of smooth, full sound free of any unwanted harshness (pick noise, for example). EQing is also performed during the tracking process.

Panning

Panning is the placement of musical sound into a stereo or multi-channel sound field, or the placement of the track between the speakers to create a locational aspect of the music when listening in stereo. For instance, the rhythm tracks are often placed in the middle with lead instruments placed on the right and/or left sides. This is much like adjusting the balance knob on a stereo, but making the adjustments one track at a time.

Effects

An amazingly wide range of sound effects are created using software plug-ins. Reverb and compression are two of the most common sound effect plug-ins. (The term plug-in comes from the analog era, when effects were provided by actual hardware: mechanical boxes which were literally plugged-in to the mix). Reverb plug-ins are generally designed to simulate the sound textures of a particular type of room. For instance, a plug-in might recreate the sound of the music being played in a cathedral, a stadium, or a small room. Compression, the result of certain digital audio standards (e.g., MP3 files), is a rather contentious issue these days. Many people feel that too much compression stifles the sound of music.

Separation

Through the use of EQing, panning, and effects, speparation allows each instrument and voice to be distinctly heard while not overpowering the accompanying sounds.

Editing

Editing is the process of selecting the best parts of a given recording through addition or subtraction/removal. One function of editing is to reduce sound “clutter,” or limiting the instruments and voices in the same basic range in a recording. For example, the dobro might be removed where rhythm guitar and octave mandolin — instruments in the same range — already exist. A back-up track might be added where the sound is relatively thin, thus resulting in a fuller sound.

The addition of tracks that would be difficult to reproduce live is a common concern in editing. For example, two fiddle tracks where only one fiddle would be playing live in concert. Another example is adding a back-up vocal from the same person who is singing the lead. While the result may be excellent, reproducing this during a concert would be virtually impossible. This is less of an issue for “studio” bands (those which record but don’t tour).

One major issue is that music sound genuine and not overly massaged, if you will. Using effects can make something sound interesting, but in going overboard the result may bear little resemblance to was originally recorded. I can remember leaving many a concert wondering where the band that made the CD went to. Sometimes a project will use a studio artist whose distinctive work is missing from the band in concert. I heard of one artist laying 47 tracks until he finally got one that he liked enough to use.

Some music you hear is “over-produced.” For instance, one might hear that Phil Spector added too much in the “Wall of Sound” behind the songs on the Beatles album “Let it Be.” This led to the release of an undoctored version titled “Let it Be – Naked,” with a very basic, old Beatles sound. When something is picked over too much, it can lose its sense of being real. There’s a special magic about certain music which can easily be lost as a result of being overanalyzed & overworked. There’s an old expression to the effect, Any engineer can make it complicated, but it takes genius to make it simple.

This post was drawn from a few sources I’d like to recognize:

  • Ian Shepherd’s Production Advice contains a wealth of information concerning all stages of the recording process. He also sends out great informational emails.
  • The Music Production Guide is a source that can gives the attentive reader a good feel for mixing.
  • Another general source is Sound on Sound, an online magazine covering all aspects of recording; see 20 Tips On Mixing for an in-depth article giving specific tips on the mixing process.

The upcoming post entitled Mastering: The 3rd key process in music recording will be the last in this series. We hope these posts are helpful.

Other resources — Mixing: The 2nd key component of music recording

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