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Mixing a Rock Song in Pro Tools
Illustration by John Hersey

Filling in the rhythm section


Mixing a Rock Song in Pro Tools

with Brian Lee White

Video: Filling in the rhythm section

So at this point what I like to do is save off another copy of my session, just so I can kind of mark my progress with a Save As. And sometimes I do this more often than other times. I might kind of work through the drums, do a Save As. Sometimes I might work all the way until I have a rough mix and do a Save As. But at any rate, I like to have kind of an iterative documentation of my session in case I go entirely down the wrong rabbit hole and need to just get back to somewhere where I thought yeah, things are sounding okay.

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Mixing a Rock Song in Pro Tools
2h 12m Advanced May 04, 2012

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Watch professional mixer Brian Lee White take a rock song from the raw recorded tracks to a great-sounding, polished mix in Avid Pro Tools. The course moves at a quick pace, showing how to establish a workflow for a particular song and make mixing decisions on the fly. Watch as Brian quickly sets initial levels, sculpts the individual tracks with EQ and compression, uses spatial and special effects to create depth and interest, balances the lead vocal and rhythm section, and adds the finishing touches before bouncing down the mix. Brian also stresses the importance of "thinking like a mixer" by being creative and serving the song, exploring ideas that inspire you, and breaking away from the template mindset.

Audio + Music Mixing Audio Effects
Pro Tools
Brian Lee White

Filling in the rhythm section

So at this point what I like to do is save off another copy of my session, just so I can kind of mark my progress with a Save As. And sometimes I do this more often than other times. I might kind of work through the drums, do a Save As. Sometimes I might work all the way until I have a rough mix and do a Save As. But at any rate, I like to have kind of an iterative documentation of my session in case I go entirely down the wrong rabbit hole and need to just get back to somewhere where I thought yeah, things are sounding okay.

I am just going to Save As. I am just going to call this Drums Vox. Cool. So now I've got my lead vocal in, I've got my lead vocal effects track, and I'm going to rename this. I like to keep things organized when I'm mixing. Sometimes organization can get away with you when you get really creative. And that's cool. When that happens to me, I'll just come back when I have a clear head and reorganize some stuff. Call this Lead Vocal Effects.

Now at this point, I've got my lead vocal, I've got my drums, I've got some bass going on, but this song is all about the guitar. There're tons of guitars in this session and I want to make sure I get to those guitars. So now I'm actually going to go submix some things. I'm going to go ahead and submix my main rhythm guitars here, bringing those into a new track. I'll call these Rhythm Gits. So we've got my rhythm guitars and I could go ahead and group those if I wanted to. (music playing) And I also have these higher guitars that kick in in the choruses, kind of doing this kind of edge thing, setting the back wall. It's really nice actually.

(music playing) But I like to have things organized, so I might decide to sub-mix those in case I want to change the overall level of that group. So I'll also make those high gits. Solo Safe that. Cool. And then usually on those sub-tracks, I'll have some kind of EQ that I can just grab and kind of keep things out of the way of the vocal. I might not use it immediately. Now moving over to these guitars, first of all, this acoustic guitar-- (music playing) --sounds pretty good. I'm going to add a little bit of compression to it, just to keep it nice and solid in the mix.

And I like that LA-3A for guitars, just to give it a little bit of control. I'm going to clip my plug-ins. So I'm going to make sure I manage that gain stage there. (music playing) (music playing) Just evening out those strums.

I might just pan it center to hear it a little bit better for now. Now I want to make sure any of the guitars I've got going on aren't competing with my lead vocal, so I'll go ahead and kick that vocal back into Solo Safe mode. I'll bring in some EQ here. Now with most instruments that don't have ultra-low lows, I'm going to take a high-pass filter to them, just to carve out anything that might be down there, any rumble that gathered in the mic--maybe a truck drove by during the recording.

At any rate, the guitar is not speaking below a certain frequency, and I want to make sure that I'm not building up any low-frequency noise in the mix. And while you might not hear it on a single track, if all the tracks add together, all the small amounts of low-frequency noise can actually build up and make for a muddy low end. So typically, what I like to do is just leave my low-frequency elements down there and kind of tighten everything up. Now, I'm not saying go ahead and do this to every track.

That's not going to get you very far. I'm just saying, if you need a little help, go ahead and take a frequency analyzer, cheat a little bit, and see, hey, where is this instrument living? (music playing) And I can see that in the key of this song of the chords that he is playing, he is not going to go much lower than 80. You can see this is just--the instrument just doesn't live down there.

I don't always need to bring up a frequency analyzer; I can just kind of do it by ear, but I know that to be safe here, I can filter at 80, no big deal. I'm going to try to filter out any mud that could compete with the vocal, and the way I do this is I bring the vocal in and then I'll just kind of sweep around until I find something that could be a little bit offensive. (music playing) I'm not looking to just cut it all out completely-- I don't want to hollow out the guitar; I'm just looking to make little notches so that the vocal element, the vocal here is going to be present and not get overpowered by the guitars.

And they're going to be panned anyway so there is going to space for them, so I'm just making small changes, and a lot of EQ is small changes. I want to give a little bit of low-frequency bump to this guy, a little body. And I want to add a little bit of presence just to get some pick out of this thing. While I usually do my cutting EQs, which is just kind of a basic digital EQ, if I'm just removing frequencies, I'll often reach for a more colored EQ to do my boosts, something that's going to add a little sheen or a little sparkle.

Let's see what this pull text sounds like up here, like 10K. (music playing) Yeah, that sounds nice. (music playing) Just add a little bit more of that pick sound, bring in this other guitar. I want a little compression on him too.

Now he is a little louder, so I'm going to back that off a bit. And he is on an electric guitar, so he has already got some compression; however, when you add compression to electric guitars--especially distorted ones--I mean even though they're already compressed by the nature of the distortion and the speaker and the amplifier breaking up, you can even add more compression to them, even a lot sometimes to get them to kind of fill out even more. Where you kind of have to be careful with the amount of compression is on the stuff like clean guitars, especially acoustic guitars, because you can really just squash the life out of them and take all of the brilliance and the tonal quality out.

(music playing) Now this guy is kind of muddy. (music playing) We are going to get him out of the way of the vocal. I'm going to kick the bass guitar in so I'm not competing with him. (music playing) We do want a little presence. (music playing) Make sure I don't clip. (music playing) And I want to make sure, because I'm doing a left-right pan with these guitars, that they have the same amount of frequency balance, in terms of low end and high end, and I'm feeling like this acoustic guitar maybe could have a bit more low end.

(music playing) Maybe a little less on this guy. (music playing) And this acoustic guitar is fairly close-miked, so what I might do is bring into a bit of the verb here. So we've got this drum reverb, Drum Room. Let's listen to what that sounds like on that guy.

(music playing) I'm going to pan it to the left side of the reverb, kind of more of a stereo effect. (music playing) Yeah, I like that. I'm going to do the opposite to this guitar here. So I'm actually going into the opposite side of the return that it's actually panned on, and this is kind of cool trick to make things even wider than they are, because we've got pretty wide guitars going on here. (music playing) Nice. (music playing) Now let's say these power electric guitars, they come in at the chorus, and I want to see what these guys are doing here, whether they are muddy or not.

(music playing) Yeah, he is pretty muddy. (music playing) See how that is going to mask that vocal? (music playing) So what I'm doing is I'm kind of bracketing it in. There's not a whole lot on that guitar cabinet above 10 or 12K, except for noise, and this guy is getting pretty ruckus, so I'm just going to bracket that in. And now I really want to focus on how he is going to behave with the vocal.

He is going to get panned, so that's going to help, but if it gets summed down to mono, we are going to be back into the same spot. So I'm going to do that same trick. I'm going to kind of pan that around, or I should say sweep around, until I find those spots where it's really competing. (music playing) Yeah. Maybe I'll shift some of that up there. (music playing) Now, this guitar kind of has this honky mid-forward sound and I'm not trying to totally take that away.

Again, I'm not trying to completely reshape this instrument into something that it's not; I'm just trying to find little spaces where I can make a bit more room, and again, that's what mixing is all about, finding little areas where you can make contrast. If you feel like that guitar doesn't sound right for the song, well, maybe you should mute it or maybe you should go back and rethink the tone of the amp. A lot of people put all this pressure on the mixing stage, but you've got to pay attention when you are recording.

If you read articles about how many days it takes for them to set up just the guitar cabinets and get guitar tones for many major-label rock records, they're spending like a week with guitar techs and engineers whose sole goal it is to get a really great guitar tone. So if you think you can just kind of put a guitar tone and shape it all with EQ, you should probably think again. (music playing) I don't really like that. That sounds pretty good.

(music playing) Now what's this guy doing? He is a little chunkier. That's cool, because we can put him on the side of acoustic guitar and it's going to give it a little bit more beef. (music playing) I actually kind of like some of that meat there. (music playing) What I might do on the guitar bus is maybe I'll apply some extra compression just to that bus just kind of fill some stuff out. And maybe I use the LA-3A, but you know what? Let's try something where I can actually do a blend.

So I'm going to bring in the H-Comp here. This has got a mix parameter. So maybe I pull out something that says something that's going to be good for guitars here. Let's take this parallel compression one, just to kind of hear what's going on. (music playing) So it's a little of compression, but we are just backing it off.

Yeah, I really get that fill. (music playing) Now what are these guitars doing? These sound pretty muddy here. I still feel like I don't have a lot of clarity, and I feel like it is coming from some of these high chorus guitars. (music playing) Yeah. So this was recorded actually with a delay on it, and that's nice because it's going to act kind of as my back wall.

Take a listen in the chorus section as I bring this in and out. You're really going to get a sense of the mix depth changing dramatically. Check it out. (music playing) Very forward, deep. It is actually a super-important element, even though it's just kind of a high little element. So I'm going to kind of pan it up there. What I want to do is I want to see, how can I get that a little bit wider? It's a mono guitar, so I can kind of pan it, but you know, I really just kind of want to make that nice and wide.

A trick that I'll use when I have a mono element that I just want to kind of put into space and make really wide and big is I'll take a delay and then just be a short, a mono, a stereo delay, and I'm going to take advantage something called the Haas effect. Actually, I am going to set one side so that there is no delay and another side so that I'm just getting 10 to 15 milliseconds. Take a listen to this. (music playing) Nice. Now, when you do this, you're going to sort of prioritize whatever is earliest.

That's part of the Haas effect, because our ears are hearing the left side first. So what I do often times, depending on how this is sounding on speaker--so I'm listening to headphones right now, and it sounds pretty good. But on speakers, what's going to happen is you're going to hear a little bit more on the left. So what I might do is just kind of turn the gain down just a smidge here to kind of balance it out. And this is something you can just kind of really do by ear. I'm definitely going to have some EQ on this guy. I'm going to get rid of a lot of that low-end mud, because that's just mud down there.

(music playing) See, you really can't even hear the difference. (music playing) I kind of want to give it a little bit of a kind of a telephone thing. Now I'm hearing this kind of sparkly top end that's just kind of just noise from the amp and the pickups and things like that and I'm just going to kind of try to shave that off with a bit of low-pass filter. (music playing) I'm going to push it towards the back.

(music playing) So here's without that delay. (music playing) It really changes the width there and it makes some space for the vocal, and that's something I might consider doing with my B3 also. So if we listen to this guy... (music playing) And that's a real B3 with a real Leslie, so, totally cool.

I'm going to go ahead and bring those into an aux track. (music playing) Again, no mud. (music playing) No competition with the vocal. (music playing) And these pad-style elements, we can add a lot of verb to them and really create that nice back wall.

So I might take that Long Verb and-- (music playing) --put a lot on there. Yeah, that's really nice. Then maybe I'll try that same effect. Oops. That doesn't match, so let's go ahead and do a Delay > Short Delay. Now, remember how I said when you're using the Haas effect, you can kind of weight things to one side or the other. Check this out. What I'll do when I'm using this on multiple elements--and you've got to be careful.

Everything can't be wide in your mix; you got to have some stuff in the center. So be aware of that, just in terms of mono compatibility and things like that. What I was talking about is that depending on what side you set to have the zero delay, the brain is going to detect that side as being a bit louder because it's what it hears first. Now, since I'm working with two of these elements, and I took that guitar, on that guitar, it was the left side that was the zero, and then I kind of tried to compensate for that.

Well, let's see if we can just switch the sides so that the organ has the right side as zero and the left side has a bit of delay. Let's do something like 15, and we can kind of split that balance. (music playing) Now it's not as pronounced in the organ, because the organ is already stereo. And I've got this left-right mic going on here, plus a low-frequency mic. (music playing) This lead vocal effect is kind of creating this weird mask on the vocals, so I think I need to work on the EQ a little bit more.

(music playing) I don't really like that. So I didn't really this kind of weird-- that wasn't really doing it for me. So we'll bring it down a bit. (music playing) A little room reverb on that shaker wouldn't hurt.

(music playing) A little EQ. (music playing) The tambourine comes in in the chorus, so we kind of switch between the shaker and the tambourine. The tambourine can kind of get a little bit aggressive. (music playing) Make sure that really comes through there and gives that sparkle.

Now, tambourines--this is usually something that happens with tambourines--you can see that on the downbeats, it hits pretty hard. So it's bang, chick-a, chick-a, chick-a, bang, chick-a, chick-a, chick-a, and usually needs a little bit of compression just to kind of keep that tight in the mix and filling out here. Go ahead and grab our nice little LA-3A. (music playing) Use that bang, chick-a, chick-a, chick-a, bang, chick-a, chick-a, chick-a. (music playing) Now I'm feeling that I'm using quite a bit of that room verb here, this drum room, and things are getting kind of a little bit weird in the mids, probably coming from--I'm using quite a bit of it on my snare and my overheads.

It's going to kill my vocal and now, like I said, keeping your vocal solo-safe can be a little bit annoying, because there are situations where you just need to hear what's going on. So you're going to mute it, because you're not necessarily trying to work in contrast or fit in a focal point; you're just trying to figure out hey, what's going on in my mix, I'm hearing something weird. So it's okay to solo stuff in that scenario. And in this case, I think I'm going to need a little bit of EQ on this track. I am just going to crank that up and really hear what's going on.

(music playing) Yeah. Kind of boxy in there. (music playing) I'm just going to cut that out, maybe tame some of those highs. (music playing) Keep that kick out of the reverb. (music playing) You know what it is? It's the snare.

It needs some EQ. I've kind of got this mid kind of honky sound going on. (music playing) Give it a bit of top end there. Brightness. It's got so much bleed from the other drums. Let's give this a little bit of top end too.

(music playing) Yeah! Cool! So it's sounding pretty good.

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