Every mix presents a challenge. Most mixes present several challenges. But there are a few that challenge you every step along the way.
Here are the four horsemen of the Mix-Pacalypse, and how to conquer them.
1. The Under-Produced Record
You get the session, you pop it open, and it’s a kick, a snare, hi-hat, vocal, bass line and a single lead instrument. The parts don’t really change, there’s no special moments or events, the transitions are underwhelming. The chorus is basically the same as the verse. Yikes!
What do you do? Well, the first step is fairly obvious. Get everything that is there sounding pristine. There’s not a lot of camouflage for something that doesn’t sound great, so you really have to be meticulous. Once everything is sounding good and balanced against everything else, that’s when the fun starts.
In a dense mix, there’s little reason to craft a uniquely nuanced set of reverbs — because the nuances won’t be heard. But in a mix with tons of open space you can really work out beautifully crafted reverbs/delays and the end listener will appreciate it. This will help fill out some of the space and give the listener a little more ear candy and dimension.
Next, get those faders working. Automation is one of the most powerful tools in any mix, doubly so when you only have a few elements. Strong automation choices can turn a mix from dull to moving.
Automate in unique delays or effects for transition points. Bring your lead up during the chorus. Automate some subtle panning in the hi hat or vocal delays. Whatever. Create that movement and contrast that makes a record interesting.
Lastly, understand that the producer most likely intended for the record to be sparse. The benefit of a sparse record is that what is there really shines. So embrace that lead vocal.
In an average mix, I may spend an hour or even two on the lead vocal. In a sparse mix I may spend as much as three hours, or however long, to make sure the sound is perfect, the automation is perfect, and the effects are perfect. Fit the lead element perfectly around that, and allow the record to be a simple “piano and voice” or “808 and rap vocal” or whatever it is.
2. The Over-Produced Record
The other side of the coin is when the record has layers upon layers of instruments, swooshes, crashes, kazoos, animal noises… it can seem overwhelming.
Here’s what you do: start with session organization. Take a little extra time to be very precise and neat. Color code instruments that live in the same space. Start assigning roles — figure out what the really important stuff is. Once you have this together the producer has given you all the paint you need.
We live in an age where “clarity” seems to be held in the highest regard. But this isn’t strictly true. Clarity is a sign of a good mix in respect to the lead elements. That doesn’t mean everything needs to be crystal clear. Great orchestral works are usually favorable when the entire orchestra feels connected, almost like one instrument. If everything sounded separated in an orchestra it would feel weird.
Similarly, a dense production doesn’t need to have perfect clarity. Certain elements are likely to sound best when they blend together and form one homogenous sound. Remember: the opposite of separation is glue!
Once you have layering elements grouped together and working as one sound, you’ll start to see that the mix isn’t as complex as it first seemed. Four cellos, three guitars, and two horns could easily be one “ensemble group.” In fact, outputting that kind of stuff to group channels and doing most of the mixing from the groups may be the way to go.