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Setting initial levels and building a foundation


Mixing a Rock Song in Pro Tools

with Brian Lee White

Video: Setting initial levels and building a foundation

Setting initial levels and building a foundation provides you with in-depth training on Audio + Music. Taught by Brian Lee White as part of the Mixing a Rock Song in Pro Tools
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Setting initial levels and building a foundation
Video Duration: 24m 58s2h 12m Advanced May 04, 2012

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Setting initial levels and building a foundation provides you with in-depth training on Audio + Music. Taught by Brian Lee White as part of the Mixing a Rock Song in Pro Tools

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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
Pro Tools
Brian Lee White

Setting initial levels and building a foundation

So here I have opened up a cleaned-up version of the Take Me Down session by Joshua Armstrong. I have removed all the plug-ins, all the sends, all the effects returns, and I have set all the tracks to unity, so the session is going to playback as it was recorded. What I want to do here is give you a peek into how my workflow would work on a kind of a pop-rock tune like this with real drums, bass, guitar, and vocals, and give you some insights into my thought process. So I am going to start here just by playing back the session from the top and getting a sense of the balance of the tracks, and I am going to just grab my all group here and I'm going to pull everything down so I am not clipping my mix bus.

(music playing) And at this point I am going to add in a master fader here at the end of my session, so I can monitor my main outputs and kind of optimize the starting points for this mix.

(music playing) I want to make sure that I am going to have enough headroom as I am adding all of the elements going into the chorus without having to do too much adjustment to my master fader. It's not a big deal if I have to go in and adjust my master fader level later. I just kind of want to get a good starting level for everything here. Now generally what I am going to do is I am going to play back the song and I am going to just give it a rough level mix of balance and pan.

And ultimately, I am going to make some different decisions as I move through. It's important to realize that mixing is extremely iterative and you are always going to be making little changes, so don't get too hung up at having to get something perfect, like let's say the drums perfect and only then can you move on to the other elements. So don't worry too much about that. So I am just going to take you here from verse one. And generally before I start this part of my mixing process, I am going to go ahead and insert my first plug-in, and that's some console simulation from Slate Digital. I am going to insert the mix bus plug-in here.

Because what I want to do is I want to hear my mix as I work through it with this console simulation, because that's going change some of my decision process as I moved through here. And I think this is a rock tune, so I am going to go with the API, and I am just going to give it a little bit of drive here to give it a little bit of flavor pushing the mix bus. I am going to hide that track list to make a bit more space for me. So I am going to leave that on there. I might adjust that as I move through the mix. And in addition to that, what I am going to do is I am going to apply my track-based console modeling so that I am hearing everything for that. I am going to hold Option+Shift and add the virtual channel. Option+Shift is going to apply to all the selected tracks, and that's going to take a while to load those plug-ins there.

Now that's good. They all came up in a group. I am going to set the group also to the API and give it a little bit of group drive, and make sure that they are following that group setting. It looks good. And like I said, I just want to listen to my mix with this filter from the get-go so that all my decisions are made through that. Cool, now I am going to play back the session and start making some adjustments to my track levels and pan, start getting the basic mix going on, make sure my all group is off there. Cool.

(music playing) Cool, I've got a fairly good balance there. I've made some pan moves. Hopefully you could hear I was panning some of those guitars as kind of, like, I got a sense of what the arrangement was doing.

You may have noticed that I have a set of guitars here. I have some power chord guitars called Tele Main electric guitar. I have an acoustic guitar that's kind of mirroring that guitar in terms of the chords that it's playing, and so I kind of wanted to balance these in the mix left and right. A lot of times when I am mixing and I am deciding on pan and level, I try to see what I have in the arrangement. And of course if I wrote this song then I know what's in the arrangement, but if I am receiving this song from another producer or artist, I'll go through and I'll maybe solo up some of the elements and kind of listen to what they are doing and I'll even look in the Edit window.

Let me switch back to Waveform view here. I'll take a look at what's going on in the Edit window and I'll say, hey, well I can see that this Tele guitar and this acoustic guitar are playing through the entire track, you might go in and listen and cool, sounds good and decide, yeah, those would sound pretty cool if I kind of panned that left and right, kind of create a wider sound, make some space for the vocal. I can see here, just by looking at the arrangement, my extra electric guitars kind of follow the same shape, so maybe with those I do a little bit of left/ right panning there, maybe not as wide but we'll adjust as we go in through the mix.

Now at this point I am going to do some signal routing and I am going to set up some effects sends that I can start calling on kind of colors that I can paint with, so I am thinking like a painter and I am starting to kind of mix my colors once I have decided what I want to paint. Now I am going to start prepping that. And the first thing I usually do once I have a basic balance and pan mix, a working level going on, is I am going to sub-mix my drums and start getting my drum and bass sounds. I am going to start by taking all my drum tracks and I am going to sub-mix those into a new aux track, so I am going select those, Option+Shift+Click here, and set them to a new track.

So Stereo, Aux and call this Drum Submix. So those are all going to my Drum Submix now, so I have one master control here for my drums and I'll solo safe that so I can solo any of these elements. And I don't have to come over here and solo that. Now at this point it is probably a good idea to just go ahead and group for my drum tracks. I am going to select those and track-group those drums.

I have got one control, and for the most part, I will turn that off for now. I just want to keep those grouped in case I have a need to grab that. Now with my kicks, I have got a sub-kick mic that's going to give me my low end and I have got kind of a beater mic if we listen here. (music playing) And so what I am going to do is I am actually going to sub-mix those into their own track and do this as Mono, Kicks.

So now I have one fader that controls those. (music playing) Cool, let's go ahead and solo safe that. We'll go ahead and start working on the drums. Now I added that kick so that kick subgroup, so I am going to add that to my drum group. I am going to work on a drum sound, so I'll go ahead and just solo these guys up here. I have all those, solo those up, and start working on a basic drum sound here, starting with the kicks and the snares.

And usually at this point I am going to decide, hey, do I want to do any sample replacing or sample augmenting? Do I feel that any of my drums need a little bit of extra help? And I think definitely at this point the snare I am probably going to want to augment with a sample trigger, and maybe the kick, we'll see how we get here. I am going start with this kick drum and work from there. (music playing) Add a little EQ, filter out some of the ultra-low lows, get rid of a lot of this bulk in the middle, get a little brightness there.

There is a lot of bleed on this kick so what I might try to do here is add some gates, try to get rid of some of that bleed. (music playing) That sounds good. I'll just copy that over and check this one. (music playing) And the sub-mic is not picking as much bleed, (music playing) so it doesn't need it as aggressive as a gate sound there. Cool.

And that gate is just going to clean things up for me when I want to go ahead and start compressing these kicks. Now at this point what I can do--I am going to add a little bit of Pultec to those kicks, because I like the low end there on the Pultec. I'm just going to set the bandwidth here, not as a sharp of a Q and give a little bit of boost and maybe a little bit of top-end spike here. (music playing) Yeah, I like that.

Then I might EQ these a bit separately, get a little bit more top end on that high kick, blow out a little bit of that mud. (music playing) Cool, that sounds good. Let's go ahead and add the snares in now. (music playing) There is quite a bit of bleed going on in the snares and I want to check and make sure that snare top and bottom have been phase-aligned.

So what I can do is--sometimes engineers do this at the recording stage. They'll flip the phase on the bottom snare mic, sometimes they won't, so I need to do that. So I am just going to go ahead and zoom in here and see, you know what, they're bit out of phase. I can see that this one is pushing, while that one is pulling. That's pretty typical of a snare top and bottom mic. So what I am going to do is just using an EQ here, most EQs are going to have a phase flip that I can grab real quick there.

Actually, this is coming up with all the parameters set up for automations. I'm going to actually turn that off and set my preference so that plug-ins do not default to automatically enable all their automation. So what we are seeing is there is quite a bit of bleed on the snare, so I am going to try to clean that up with a bit of a gate, but ultimately, there is a lot of intricate work going on in the snare. (music playing) So I can't get them too hard. (music playing) I am going to use an expander.

(music playing) So see what I am doing here is I am just cutting off a little bit of that bleed, just trying to separate it a bit from the underlying bleed. (music playing) And I'll copy that over the bottom. The bottom I don't think has as bad of a bleed issue.

You can see just by looking at the clip itself. Cool. Now I am going to add a little bit of compression to this snare. I am going to start out with the 1176 and see how I like the sound of that. I'll use the black version here. I am going to make the attack, so the 1176 has really a quick attack, and I don't want it to be too fast, so I am going to slow it down because I want some of the spike of that snare to come through. (music playing) Let's listen to that in the verse.

(music playing) That's okay. Ultimately, I feel like that bleed is still causing me some problems so what might work better is a transient-designer-style plug-in. So I am going to bring up the TransX here and see if I can get a little bit more spike out of that snare without using a compressor.

These are cool because they allow us to increase the transient without really affecting the rest of the sound. (music playing) Yeah, I like that. (music playing) It's nice and punchy. I might even copy that over to my kick drum there, just reduce it a bit. (music playing) Cool. Now, my hi-hat is always going to have a bunch of bleed, a ton of low end and I just--I want to get that out of there.

So I am just going to go in and choose a basic DigiRack EQ to just carve that out. (music playing) And you can hear it's not really affecting the hat itself. (music playing) It's just removing all that bleed from the kick drum. Cool. Now, I can balance that in the rest of drum-kit, go ahead and solo these guys up and listen.

(music playing) Cool. Now I am going to take my overheads here and apply a little bit of compression and EQ. I like this LA-3A on overheads, sounds real nice. (music playing) I just want to give it a little bit of fill. (music playing) And then I generally EQ my overheads, so I am going to use basic DigiRack EQ to roll off some of the low lows, just make room for the kick, keep things from being muddy, and I'll kind of carve out some of the mud that's picked up in the mid-frequencies there.

And then maybe I want to add a little brilliance to the cymbals, is kind of nice, so see what I've got. We'll use that 1073 EQ here. It sounds real nice on the top end. So I'll go ahead and just pick, say, 12 here. (music playing) I want to get aggressive. That's nice. (music playing) And my room mic I'm generally going to treat pretty much as same as the overheads. It's a little muddier, so what I might do is take that EQ, carve it out a little bit more, maybe even roll some of the top end off, compress it a bit.

I wasn't particularly thrilled with the sound of the room in this case. So sometimes I might just get rid of the room mic altogether and work off the overhead. In this case I am just going to leave that room mic down for now and see what I can do with the overhead track, maybe adding a little bit of reverb to it to get in a space. So at this point I am going to need to start adding some of my first effects returns. So I am going to go over here down towards the right-hand side--that's right where I like to add my effects returns.

And I am going to create a stereo aux track. And I'm going to create room reverb that I can feed things like the drums into just to give them a bit of space, set to a bus. I've got some names in here from the last session, so I've got drum room, that's cool. I'll grab the TrueVerb here. It does a real nice job at room reverb.

I am going to pull up something. Hey, let's try Drum room. I am totally not beyond using presets if they sound good; if not, I'll definitely adjust them. Now for these drums here, I am just going to take the overhead, I want to put them in a space because I wasn't really thrilled with the sound of the room, but I do want to make them sound a little bit more expensive and fancy. So let's see how this sounds. (music playing) That's nice. I'm going to go ahead and add that to the snare too.

Maybe even a little bit to the kick. (music playing) Just a bit, just to give it some space. And definitely those toms. At this point, I am going to go ahead and pan those toms. Now when you're panning your toms you can decide how you want to pan your drum kit. So if you want to do a drummer perspective or audience perspective, that is to say if it was audience perspective, the low tom would probably be panned left; if it was drummer perspective, it would probably be panned right. There is no right or wrong way to do this. You just kind of want to make a decision there.

And so we'll give a little bit of spread on the toms. That always sounds good, copy that over, a little bit more action. Remember, on your sends, you have pans too. Cool, let's listen to that. (music playing) Nice, those drums are sounding pretty good and as soon as I got the drum sounding at least close to where I am going, I am going to bring in my bass and see what's going on with that guy. And I've got my solo preferences set up here to do the X-OR. I don't want that. We are going to go latch. Cool.

(music playing) That sounds pretty good. I'm generally going to be compressing my bass, EQing my bass. And I really like this CLA bass plug-in. It's got a EQ, it's got a compressor all built into the same one, and actually sounds really, really good. I am going to go ahead and turn off the chorus here, turn down the sub.

Let me get a feel for this. (music playing) Add a little growl. (music playing) And that sounds pretty good. And what I have done is I have made some space in the kick drums for that bass to live, and I might even make a little bit more space kind of right in the 100 hertz area, just so that nice warmth of that bass can come through.

And then what I'll do a lot of times is with my kick drum, I'll figure out where that kick is speaking. And a little cheater trick that I'll show you is you can take your sound field plug-in, any kind of frequency analysis tool--I am going to make sure that it's accurate down there at 10 hertz. I am going to figure out where the fundamental of my kick is. (music playing) So I can see that's living right around 50. We've got a harmonic right up there around 100, and otherwise those things are not very useful for mixing so much.

What that tells me is I can probably get away with making a little pocket on my kick, down here around 50, so that whatever that CLA plug-in added in the sub-frequencies I am just kind of notch that out so that those guys can live nicely there. And I am mixing on headphones that you guys can hear my dialogue and the mix cleanly, so ultimately I'd want to make sure that I check my low end on speakers and really turn it up, maybe even have a subwoofer. But for now this is sounding pretty good.

(music playing) Cool! That sounds good.

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