October 08, 2013, by Bruce A. Miller
I’ve come to realize that many of my mixes follow a specific approach. The decisions made, directions pursued, imagery, sounds achieved, and overall production approach in each mix will vary greatly based on the musical genre and even my mood. The vocal on a lush ballad will most likely sound and feel very different from the “hype” vocal in a rap song.
Regardless, I will have probably used some or all of the following approach to get both sounds to their final state. Of course, there are always exceptions where I approach the mix in completely different ways, but for the most part this seems to be my pattern:
1. I usually start by trying to understand the overall feeling of the song (or at least my own interpretation of that feeling). This means listening to the song over and over again with general levels that let me feel the vocal and the groove. If I don’t have any clue as to what the song is supposed to feel like, I can’t do anything more than go for a basic “band” image.
I will often spend time working on the vocal sound first in order to define and understand the space I want for the entire mix.
Sometimes I will think of something interesting to do with a particular track that can push the song in a specific direction. A good example is adding a delay to the drums to add a side-rhythm that pushes the song in an interesting way. The delayed room that ET Thorngren put on the kick of “Hyperactive” from the “Riptide” album changed the whole song.
Once I was mixing a song for a band that was intended to be a Country Western mix, but I felt it would work like a Phil Specter mix. I added tremelo to the melody guitar by automating a fader going up and down quickly, and that defined the direction of the mix.
2. Once I get an idea about where to go with the mix, I break it down and spend some time with the drums, getting them appropriately punchy, transient, bright and ambient for the mix direction. I then toss up the bass quickly and then get the vocal back up. While I adjust the basic vocal sound, I may tweak the bass more. I have to be able to feel the song at this point. If not, then I started wrong. Some mixes must start with the vocal, or vocal and piano/guitar in order to be right to the feeling of the song.
3. I may add background vocals at this point, but nothing more than a rough sound.
4. Otherwise, I will fill in main rhythm instruments such as piano, guitars, keyboards, etc. This is the part where I go for more depth as I process and place things in the stereo image. Here is where it’s possible to obtain depth that appears to sound from behind (or on the sides of) the loudspeakers. I like lots of movement in volume and stereo placement, as if all the sounds were either breathing in place, shifting positions to make a better statement, or outright dancing.
5. Don’t forget to keep going back to how this whole thing relates to the vocal. Sometimes a great sound by itself will interfere with the vocal when heard in the mix. Be careful of building up in midrange frequencies and be sure to use stereo placement to help keep things clear. I personally like to try to leave a space in the middle for the vocal and solo instruments.
6. Once the overall band is up (drums, bass, vocals, rhythm instruments), it’s time for the solo stuff. I like to go for a sound on the solo instruments that will stand out, because I will want them to grab the attention of the listener when the vocal is not the main focus. If the solo instrument is also playing when the vocal is singing, I expect them to fight until I get a chance to automate the level of the guitar (starting with “down when it should be in the background”).
The same goes for other instruments. Very often I must automate instrument levels just to get them to make their important statement then back off a little to make room for others.
Once they’re under control, I can fine tune sounds and then levels. Sometimes I’ll automate instruments for creative reasons (so the dynamics of the instrument follow and exaggerate what I perceive to be the dynamic of the song or vocal). Remember the breathing, shifting and dancing mentioned in step 4.
7. Back to the vocal. Vocal processing and riding is very important. A small ride change can make a big difference. I ride vocals for several passes on a variety of loudspeakers in order to be sure of how things feel.
8. I then re-ride all of the background instruments to support and exaggerate the automated-vocal’s enhanced expression.
9. Next, I re-ride the solo instruments to work around the automated-vocal.
10. Almost done! The next step is to tweak the vocal rides by going through them carefully and improving what I can based on the automated background instrument tracks. This includes background vocal rides.
11. After an ear break and listening for obvious things to change on different loudspeakers and in different listening situations (next room, car, etc), I make any final changes I think the song needs. Usually at this point I’m listening for problems rather than creating new images. Sometimes I’ve made drastic changes at this point.
12. Finally, the fade. I find the places where the song feels like it should start to go and where it should already be gone. I then go back and try to start the fade so people do not notice (due to either the fade start time or the gradual initial slope of the fade) and fade the song out in a way that it continues to pull people in while it drifts off. Sometimes I’ll change some rides due to the fade so certain parts are the very last things heard.
Then I send it off and hope that the client does not disagree with the direction I went in during step 1. Sometimes I think that the song needs to go in a direction that is obviously different from what the artist had intended. In those cases I’m obligated to give the artist “Take 1” in which I use everything in the obvious way and also “Take 2” in which anything goes. In all my decades of mixing, “Take 1” was chosen only a few times. “Take 2” usually involves going back to step 1 and making drastic changes. Although sometimes you can salvage work from Take 1, often you have to start over…even with the vocal sound.
Mixing is an art, and can be an emotional rather than technical process. Mixing is about creating an illusion, regardless if the illusion is of a band on stage or something never heard before. I know when a mix is going well if I’m believing the illusion as I’m building it, and each new thing inspires the next.
Final word: Although different styles and songs will require completely different approaches, never forget that most listeners will never get past “hearing” only the vocal. The entire mix should support the vocal in every way possible, regardless of whether that means making a hard rhythm to push it or a lush rolling carpet for it to ride on.
Bruce A. Miller is an acclaimed recording engineer who operates an independent recording studio and the BAM Audio School website.