The Perfect Mix
There are many ways to get your songs to final form. Lets assume, for this article, final form means a beautifully polished piece of music in 16 bit 44.1 khz digital audio (i.e., the "red book" cd audio standard) or a standard wave file. You need to start, of course, with a fully or almost finished song. This is the point where the writing ends and the TweakMeistering begins. I'm going to give you some hard earned tips on Mixing and Mastering.
Mixdown and Mastering, traditionally speaking, are two very separate processes. Mixdown is the art of leveling, equalizing and effecting all the various sources from many tracks down to a stereo Mix. Mastering is the process of taking the stereo mix and putting it in the final album-ready form. Recent software and hardware developments make these processes easier and less expensive than they ever have been in the history of making music. Given that much of the time we can stay in the digital domain we can add processing to our heart's content and maintain a high signal to noise ratio and achieve optimum dynamics for the piece at hand.
TweakHeadz "Overall" Power Mix Parameters.
Please consider these parameters not as rules but a starting point for you mixes for the standard pop song or ballad. Of course the instruments change if you are doing techno or symphonies, or ambient stuff, but the reference may still be helpful.
Match the following instruments when soloed in place to the db markers on your mixing desk or your mixdown deck or software.
Set the trims: Solo each instrument in succession and set the trim so the signal peaks a 0db.
Kick drum 0db +3 eq at 50 Hz +1 db at 3khz -3db 275 hz No FX except maybe subtle ambience You will tweak the kick again, this is just to get you going.
Snare -2 db eq to taste in the frequencies above 4khz. Add reverb if the song calls for it. Do the best you can to keep it out of the way of the vocal, even if you have to pan it a few degrees.
Lead Vocal 0db use a low cut filter to eliminate rumble and plosive pops around 100-200 hz. Carefully enhance the delicate high end around 15khz to add air and sheen and don't overdo it! This is the trickiest adjustment and may often spell hit or dud. Perfectly center the vocal and pan it not with pan controls, but with very subtle left/right hi freq eq's. Put on the cans (headphones) and make sure its in the absolute center of your forehead.. Every word must be intelligible. Add reverb and delays but don't let it get smeared.
Cymbals -25 db Avoid letting these get in the way of the vocals. Pan them to 2 o'clock and remember their main function is to add the glue to a track to hold the music together--they do not have to be loud or present
Synth pads -20 db Do these in stereo and hard pan left and right with generous effects if needed. However, keep them in the back. Pads indeed are beautiful additions to a song but don't let them overshadow any of the main elements of the song.
Bass -10 db Always front and center. If you use FX restrict yourself to chorusing or a light flange--no reverb.
Rhythm guitar -15 db pan off center eq: use a low cut filter to get rid of any bass and add a mid range eq for a slight narrow boost, but make sure it is not competing with the vocalist's sweet spot.
Percussion -20db- put these elements off center unless they are essential to to basic beat. EQ in a tasteful way if necessary.
Watch the meters when you play the whole mix through the board. You should have peaks at +3db. If what you have is more notch down every fader in 1 db increments until you get there.
Mono Check: Always check you mix in Mono and look for sudden drop outs or instruments that disappear. That's phase cancellation at work, and it happens with stereo tracks and effects.
No faders above 0db rule: When getting a mix started follow this religiously. If you find your vocal doesn't sound good unless its at +5db then move everything down 5 db. Conserve headroom. You don't want your mix compromised by that awful crackle at the peak of your song.
Now you fine tune to taste. Listen for the quality to "lock". A great mix of a great song will fill you with absolute elation. You'll be blown away and in awe. You will feel in love with it. No kidding. Might sound corny to the less mature among us, but I assure you its true. A great artist friend of mine puts it this way. Greatness in art depends solely on how much love you put in to a work. You put it in, it pays you back, your friends back, and everyone who listens. Moral of this lesson. Never take mixing and mastering lightly. The tiniest fader movements make a difference. Be exacting!
The Mix is a Dynamic, Moving Process
Don't just sit there while your mix goes to tape, or disc, or DAT. If you are using a board, assign the faders to subgroups. For example, if you have 4 subgroups you might want to send your vocal tracks to groups 1 and 2 and everything else to 3 and 4. This way you can slightly alter the balance between the vocalists and the band as the piece goes to tape. This technique, while tricky, can yield outstanding results. You can give the vocalist a touch more edge just when they need that ooomph and when the vocalist takes a break you can subtly boost the band a bit. If you have 8 busses you might dedicate 5 and 6 just to drums and 7 and 8 just to effects, nudging each as is appropriate.
The Role of Compression at Mixdown
On it's way to the recording device, you can patch a compressor/ limiter/gate. The Gate simply cuts out any audio below a certain threshold so that any hiss or noise coming from your synths or mixer is eliminated before the music starts. The limiter keeps your peaks under a certain fixed level and will not let them go higher. A Compressor is a volume slope applied to the audio material goin through it. It can amplify the "valleys" and attenuate the "peaks". Essentially compression reduces the dynamic range we have just struggle to achieve in our mix. You might wonder why you would want that. In many circumstances, you don't want it. However, in the majority of cases you will find it useful, especially if you want your music to be "hot", "have punch" "be as loud as possible", or have the consistency of a radio mix. The stereo compressor also helps balance the song and give it a uniform character we are so used to hearing in commercial music. It essentially gives you the strongest and smoothest mix and calms down some of the 'jaggged edges' that might disturb the casual listener. However, it is also very easy to make a mix totally lifeless with a compressor and reduce its dynamic power. What started as a powerful orchestral arrangement can end up a wimpy piece of Mall Muzak so be careful and bypass it frequently to make sure you like what you are tweaking up. I think compression works best to attenuate that occasional peak that rips through the roof of a digital audio recorder and ruins the track.
The Role of the Mastering processor
Mastering processors are becoming more popular these days. The TweakMeister likes them. I have noted over and over how the effective use of a mastering processor can transform a good mix into a great master recording. If you have one, you might consider using that in lieu of a compressor at mixdown as mastering processors usually have all the functions and additional functions such as mastering eq, multi-band compression (that is adjustable compression for the bass, mids and highs) as well as limiters and gates. These mastering tools can go a long way to giving your music a unique sonic imprint. There are many uses. In addition to adding the refining touch to your mix as it goes to the recorder, it can be used to give all your songs on an album a consistent uniform character and balance the volume between widely different songs giving your project a professional touch. Using narrow band mid range eqs can give you a very contemporary sounding presence and make your dance tracks come alive with freshness. Pumping the compressor a little at 50-60hz can give you the "kick in the chest" kik drum without wrecking the delicate dynamics of the high end vocals. There are many more applications such as using them to send midi tracks to your digital audio mixer compressed optimally, ducking for voice overs, de-essing, warming through "tape saturation" parameters and Hard Gate effects on individual tracks. Remember Tweakheadz rule of thumb: Any piece of gear can be used in any way as long as it enhances the quality of the final product.
Software Mastering and Post-Production
A good digital audio sequencer will let you master in the digital domain of your computer. Some softwares that I think are of particular merit for mastering are Logic, Cubase, Sound Forge and Vegas. I'm just going to look at Vegas here, because I am enamored with it right now. The main thing is to be able to draw a volume envelope over the whole waveform. Rather than botch a fade 20 times on an analog mixer, simply draw in the perfect fade with the mouse. Where the piece loses intensity, notch it up a tad, to restore your intended dynamism to your mix. Say you have the perfect mix except for one horrible "sp-p-p-lat" where your sequencer choked at bar 72. No prob. Just remix the offending bar again, cut out that piece in Vegas and drop in the new one and let the automatic crossfading give you the absolutely perfect, digitally calculated crossfaded splice. Works! Need to touch up the EQ and do your compression in software? Tweak it in. It's all undoable, so your not going to ruin anything. Decided the mix you did last year really sux? You need to cut out a chorus or fade 5 seconds earlier? Say you did a trance piece but the kick is so wimp that it makes you cringe? Just drag in a looped 808 kik and paint it on the next track, setting the volume and compression to make the whole song whupass. :) Vegas gives you the tools. In fact, I like it better for post pro than as a multi track.
Whether you are writing industrial hardcore or the darkest ambient, a 100 piece orchestra or a stark minimalist a capella mix, always keep your ears tuned to making an artistic statement, a work of unforgettable beauty. This is the bottom line. The more control your Mixer gives you, the better you can paint the overall image. Working with compressors and mastering processors gives you a shot a polishing that image much like we polish a stone to bring out its colors. Hope this article helped you get a handle on the concepts of the perfect Mix, mastering and post-production
All the Best!
Rich the TweakMeister