In The Studio: Conquering Four Challenging Types of Mixes
Every mix presents a challenge. Most mixes present several challenges. But there are a few that challenge you every step along the way. Every mix presents a challenge, but here are the "four horsemen" of the Mix-Pacalypse and how to conquer them...

February 11, 2014, by Matthew Weiss

recording
This article is provided by the Pro Audio Files.

 
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.

3. The Poorly Tracked Record
One of the hardest records to mix is the one where everything was poorly recorded.

The first step to tackle this mix is to have a frank discussion with the producer. If everything is badly recorded the producer needs to know that a hi-fi studio sound is not an option — but an interesting and stylized lo-fi record is.

From there, you actually have a lot of freedom. You don’t need to deeply concern yourself with the sonic integrity of the record and therefore you can really let your creativity guide you.

While you mix, think about the end listener’s experience. If things get a little muddy, but the lead elements are clear enough — it’s ok. On the other hand, if something is harsh or piercing and lasts longer than a moment, odds are that’s not ok.

Sometimes distortion is your best friend. If something is thin sounding, distortion can bump up some artificial harmonics that can make the sound thicker. Also, if something is already distorted coming in, adding a more definitive distortion can make it sound deliberate (and therefore acceptable).

If something was recorded with a lot of room sound in it — instead of trying to minimize the room sound, maximize it and make it part of the sound. Remember that “good” is an emotional quality, not a sonic quality!

4. The Pristinely Tracked Record
One of the trickiest mixes is the one where everything was recorded extremely well. Simply setting the levels gets the record 90 percent of the way there. That last 10 percent can feel like performing a restoration on an original Da Vinci. It’s a game of subtlety. It’s a game of staying results-oriented rather than getting caught up in your own process.

For me, the big key here is a psychological one. Trust me when I say this and you will thank me: no one cares what you do in a mix. People only care how the end results sound.

It takes maturity to know when to leave something alone. It takes experience to know when just one EQ move is exactly what it takes to get three sounds to fit together perfectly. Mixing is competitive, but it’s a competition won through showing respect for the song, not by doing as much processing to the audio as possible.

From that point, remember that setting levels and finding pan positions is an art form. One that is undervalued incidentally.

After that, choosing appropriate reverb-and/or-delay (if needed) is next in line. In fact, with a great recording, setting up a brilliant ambience will really help you win the hearts and minds of the artist and producer. Use EQ and compression only where absolutely needed, or for effect, and it is that simple. A couple right moves is much more powerful than a bunch of not-exactly-right moves.

Conclusion
Those are the four mixes that will give you a hard time. And you will run into them again, and again, and again. Throughout your whole career.

They are daunting at first, but each one of them presents an opportunity to really show your stuff as an engineer (in different ways). Look at these challenging mixes as an opportunity and you will have some very loyal and happy clients!

 
Matthew Weiss engineers from his private facility in Philadelphia, PA. A list of clients and credits are available at Weiss-Sound.com. He’s also the creator of the new Mixing Rap Vocals tutorial series.

Be sure to visit The Pro Audio Files for more great recording content. To comment or ask questions about this article, go here.



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In The Studio: Conquering Four Challenging Types of Mixes
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