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Using volume and pan to balance the mix


Mixing and Mastering with Pro Tools

with Brian Lee White

Video: Using volume and pan to balance the mix

While mixing may seem to be all about the tricks and techniques of esoteric signal processors and plug-in magic, the mixer itself is actually the core tool we'll use to shape the mix from start to finish. So, just using basic level and pan facilities provided on each track, the mixer is where we set the relative balance between each mix element. This balance will serve as the first step towards defining the focal point and overall sonic goal as we outlined in our mix plan.
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  1. 14m 50s
    1. Welcome
      1m 12s
    2. The past, present, and future of mixing
      6m 20s
    3. Strategies for mixing and mastering
      5m 38s
    4. Using the exercise files
      1m 40s
  2. 40m 24s
    1. Mixing "in the box"
      5m 9s
    2. Setting up the studio: Speakers and acoustics
      13m 12s
    3. Staying organized: Effectively prepping the mix
      10m 50s
    4. Managing system resources during mixdown
      11m 13s
  3. 41m 38s
    1. Introducing the Pro Tools Mixer
      2m 23s
    2. Understanding mixer signal flow
      3m 42s
    3. Using inserts and plug-ins
      7m 4s
    4. Working with plug-in settings
      5m 1s
    5. Using sends and creating FX returns
      6m 55s
    6. Submixing with aux tracks
      4m 30s
    7. Using groups while mixing
      3m 46s
    8. Using master faders effectively
      8m 17s
  4. 21m 12s
    1. Conceptualizing the mix and making a plan
      7m 45s
    2. Using volume and pan to balance the mix
      11m 18s
    3. Knowing when to process: Mix problems vs. mix solutions
      2m 9s
  5. 1h 3m
    1. Understanding the mechanics of sound
      3m 53s
    2. Learning the basics of EQ: Frequency-specific level control
      4m 29s
    3. Using DigiRack EQ III
      16m 3s
    4. EQ strategies in mixing: Corrective vs. creative
      7m 18s
    5. EQ workflow example 1: Kick drum
      5m 39s
    6. EQ workflow example 2: Filtering loops
      5m 10s
    7. EQ workflow example 3: The "telephone" effect
      3m 7s
    8. Mixing tips and tricks for EQ
      17m 36s
  6. 1h 16m
    1. Understanding dynamics and dynamic range
      2m 1s
    2. Working with dynamics processors
      2m 57s
    3. Using the DigiRack Dyn III compressor/limiter
      10m 6s
    4. Balancing and shaping track dynamics
      3m 19s
    5. Using gates and expanders
      9m 23s
    6. Using de-essers to eliminate sibilance
      5m 47s
    7. Dynamics workflow example 1: Vocals
      10m 0s
    8. Dynamics workflow example 2: Drums
      9m 29s
    9. Mixing tips and tricks: Dynamics
      11m 37s
    10. Building parallel or "upward" compression
      7m 53s
    11. Reviewing dynamics concerns: How much is too much?
      3m 28s
  7. 47m 49s
    1. Using time-based effects to add depth and width
      3m 23s
    2. Using DigiRack D-Verb
      14m 27s
    3. Using the DigiRack delays
      9m 18s
    4. Mixing with reverb
      7m 59s
    5. Mixing with delays
      6m 19s
    6. Mixing tips and tricks: Creating mix depth
      6m 23s
  8. 18m 8s
    1. Working with the Creative Collection
      9m 8s
    2. Building distortion and saturation
      9m 0s
  9. 37m 33s
    1. Understanding automation
      4m 10s
    2. Recording real-time automation moves
      7m 6s
    3. Viewing and editing automation
      10m 17s
    4. Automating plug-ins
      7m 36s
    5. Automation strategies for mixing
      8m 24s
  10. 29m 31s
    1. Understanding the characteristics of a great mix
      7m 2s
    2. Working to reference tracks
      4m 35s
    3. Avoiding some common pitfalls
      7m 50s
    4. Building healthy mixing habits
      3m 36s
    5. Crafting your mix from start to finish
      6m 28s
  11. 1h 5m
    1. Understanding mastering
      4m 15s
    2. Bouncing the mix
      7m 9s
    3. Working with general mastering strategies
      8m 50s
    4. Using limiting and compression to maximize track level
      10m 57s
    5. Working with multi-band compression
      7m 9s
    6. Understanding sample rate, bit depth, file formats, and dither
      7m 30s
    7. Using Pro Tools for CD track sequencing
      10m 11s
    8. Compressing audio for the web
      9m 41s
  12. 44m 51s
    1. Tips for evaluating plug-in processors
      6m 51s
    2. Using EQ plug-ins
      5m 35s
    3. Using dynamic compression plug-ins
      11m 3s
    4. Using reverb and delay plug-ins
      10m 46s
    5. Reviewing additional plug-ins
      10m 36s
  13. 57m 18s
    1. Effectively using saturation/analog style effects
      13m 40s
    2. Setting up side chains
      7m 5s
    3. Master buss processing
      5m 34s
    4. Creating and using mix templates
      6m 54s
    5. Surround mixing
      6m 22s
    6. Dealing with plug-in delay and latency
      6m 26s
    7. Drum sample replacing
      11m 17s
  14. 32s
    1. Goodbye

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Watch the Online Video Course Mixing and Mastering with Pro Tools
9h 18m Intermediate Aug 20, 2009

Viewers: in countries Watching now:

Once recording and editing are finished, audio engineers can take advantage of the training in Mixing and Mastering with Pro Tools to punch up the final output. Digidesign Certified Expert Brian Lee White covers all the basic mixing tools that every producer and engineer should know, from using EQ to add clarity and focus to using compression and limiting to maximize track levels within a mix. Brian stresses the importance of setting up a solid mixing plan prior to any work in Pro Tools, and gives advice on the best plug-ins for each stage of the process. Exercise files accompany the course.

Topics include:
  • Using the Pro Tools Creative Collection to add clarity, punch, width, and depth to a mix
  • Recording real-time automation moves for future replication
  • Building healthy and profitable mixing habits when putting a final mix together
  • Knowing when to process the audio of a track
  • Using saturation effects to capture that "analog" sound
  • Working with limiting and multiband compression during the mastering process
  • Dealing with plug-in delay and latency in a mix
Audio + Music
Pro Tools
Brian Lee White

Using volume and pan to balance the mix

While mixing may seem to be all about the tricks and techniques of esoteric signal processors and plug-in magic, the mixer itself is actually the core tool we'll use to shape the mix from start to finish. So, just using basic level and pan facilities provided on each track, the mixer is where we set the relative balance between each mix element. This balance will serve as the first step towards defining the focal point and overall sonic goal as we outlined in our mix plan.

So first off, getting the initial levels in your session, there really isn't one way that I found engineers do this. Where most people will start with a scratch mix from the production stage and that's where this mix started from. Other mixers like to wipe out the session and just work from a fresh perspective. I personally like to use the production mix as a guide. It tells me a lot about what the producer or song writer felt was important in the mix. Either way that you decide to ultimately use it is fine.

Just do what works for you best. So, I'd like to work with basic volume levels first, possibly adding a few inserts as I go along. I'm not totally scrutinizing the effects at this point and adding tons of plug-ins. Initially some people like to work in order, so they'll start with the drum, so they'll start getting the drum levels, soloing up those tracks and getting specific levels with the drums, then move on to the bass, and then bring in the vocal track and sort of build the mix around those core rhythmic elements and the vocal.

Other engineers start from different places. It really depends on the type of music and genre you are working on. But again, go back to sort of that mix plan and what's going to be kind of the focal-point of your mix and make sure to get that element in as quickly as possible. So, in this case, in Take Me Down, the vocal and the back-end rhythm section are fairly important. So, if I was setting initial levels, I'm going to make sure I get those in fairly quickly and listen to the balance there and then fill in things like the rhythm guitars and lead guitars around that.

Some engineers like to set levels in mono. They feel that this gives better mono compatibility later on, down in the mix. You can do this. There is definitely a mono button in all the Pro Tools interfaces that you can engage to monitor your mix in mono. It's not something I do all the time, I definitely check my mix in mono, but you can try it out, see how that works for you. As far as automation goes, when I'm working with this basic mix here, I'll started thinking about what automation I want to do and then I might go ahead and add little bits of automation.

We'll talk about automation in another video. But I'm not really going to scrutinize the automation. I might just start getting basic levels of where I want the tracks to be at different sections of the song. Now, sometimes when you're putting together track levels, you're not going to be able to get exactly what you want without pulling in some plug-ins, doing some processing. I often find that when specifically talking about EQ, there are certain tracks that can contain a lot of mud in them that make it really hard to kind of fix their level in the mix.

So, I'll start using basic EQ, mostly cuts rather than boosts, to pull out some of that mud. We'll talk about EQ and some techniques for removing this mud in the EQ chapter, but that is something that I'll do in the initial stage, even if I go and I adjust the EQ later, I might need to make some initial EQ and dynamics decisions when I'm setting these basic levels. Now, as far as pan goes, if we think about the history of stereo recording, originally it was kind of misused if you will.

They didn't really know how to use it. Initially we recorded most of the things in mono and then when stereo came out, a lot of times what you'd hear is the vocal pan to the left side and the music pan to the right side and it was kind of a novelty at that point. Now, we sort of treat stereo much more differently in the mix process as most people listen to music in stereo. And the pan or panorama is what's going to allow us to place tracks in our stereo field and create the panorama of our mix.

Now the one thing you want to understand when you are working with pan in Pro Tools is that first off, stereo tracks have independent left and right pan settings. This might be new to you, if you're used to working in other DAWs where the pan acts like a balance control. In Pro Tools, all streams are considered mono and so a stereo track is just two mono streams tied together. So, you have independent left and right pan for a stereo track. Now, the next thing you want to understand are the pan laws, what they call it in Pro Tools.

Now, when something is panned dead center, it's coming equally out of both speakers. When it's panned hard left or hard right, it's only coming out of the left or right speaker and because of this, the mixer itself will increase the volume of the left or right channel by 2.5dB, so it's 2.5dB louder than when it's panned dead center. This compensates for the reduction in volume that would occur when a signal is playing out only one speaker and the goal of this is just to maintain a constant signal volume when elements are panned from center to far left or far right.

This can also be trouble for you if you're used to working in other DAWs because the pan laws, there is no standard. So, some DAWs may be 3dB, some may do a center cut rather than a left-right boost, so you definitely want to check into that. And it's a big reason why mixes don't just directly translate from let's say Logic to Pro Tools or Sonar to Pro Tools, and some people might say, oh well, it sounds punchier in this system and part of that could be how the pan laws work in the mixer. It's not all the same. So, as far as setting my initial pan or panorama, generally what I'm thinking about is how am I going to visualize the mix on a stage? I'm thinking about a band on the stage and kind of move in that direction to start off with, and then as I sort of get inspired, I might make creative changes to pan or even automate pan throughout the mix.

Now there is no hard and fast rule about where to pan certain things, but I can give you some tips, as far as panning key sounds in your mix. Generally, the lower frequency sounds like kick drum and the bass guitar and any other bass element are generally panned dead center. They do best at center. The vocal is generally paned dead center as well. This is just going to ensure mono compatibility and especially for those low frequency elements, it's a lot easier on the speaker, so that one speaker is not pushing all of the bass in your mix, while the other is not pushing any.

So, you want to check your pan in mono like I said just like when you are setting your levels. Certain elements can tend to get obscured when the mix goes to mono and this is normal. I mean we can't have the perfect mixing mono and the perfect stereo mix, right? There are two different formats. So, just make sure to check your mix, make sure you don't get any phasing out of tracks and that your focal elements don't go away. Now, some engineers like to avoid hard pans, while others swear by hard pans.

They only use hard pans. I heard an engineer once talk about how for him, there is only hard left, hard right and dead center. There is really nothing else. And other engineers will say, well, I don't like to pan anything hard in case one speaker is obscured in a listening situation, we'd be missing that. And so there is always you know pluses and minuses to that. But at the end of the day, we're looking to sort of create a balance panorama. So, if we are thinking about this band in a space, I don't want to have all my guitar players on the right side.

I might want to spread them out a little bit. Or I don't want to have something weighted heavily to one side or the other. So, if I have tambourine on the right, I probably won't put the shaker on the right. So, here in this mix, I have tambourine and shaker sort of panned opposite of each other. Now, the guitars here are panned hard and like I said some engineers don't like that. However, in this context the way the guitars were tracked is that the parts were doubled and so what we are getting is sort of a bigger sound by playing the guitar part in twice.

Maybe once on an electric guitar and then again on an acoustic guitar and then panning those opposite of each other. We are going to create a much bigger stereo image and a bigger sound, then if we were to just pan those slightly left or slightly right. Now, it is common to make these level and pan decisions right up through the final stages of mixing. In fact, just to expect that you are going to be making those decisions right up to the point where you balance your mix. So, don't beat yourself up at the initial stage, like you are not getting the levels right.

And in fact, at some point in your mixing career you are going to sort of stop seeing things as individual steps. Like first, you need get the levels, then set the pans, then apply the plug-ins and you'll approach it much more organically, and sort of let your intuition guide you. Well, I think for a beginning mixer, until you get to that point where your intuition takes over, it's a good thing to break things down and then sort of approach them step-by-step. Starting with this basic level and pan setting in your mix. So, let's listen to a little example here with these guitars that I have hard panned.

If we solo up the guitar group and take a listen here from the first verse. (Music playing) We basically have the same part played on electric guitar and acoustic guitar, but they are panned hard right and hard left. If we listen to those dead center, I can just Option-click to reset these pans. (Music playing) We get a slightly different quality out of the image in the mix.

Now, it's very pronounced when we kick in the lead vocal. So, let's listen panned. (Music playing) (Male singing: We hit the town...) And let's put those back well to the center and listen again. (Male singing: We hit the town...) The problem we kind of get is that the guitars can get a little lost and they kind of obscure the vocal and we are not getting as big of a sound as those two guitars that are panned hard left and panned hard right.

So, experiment with double-tracking your guitars and maybe panning one left, panning the other right, see what kind of sounds you can get. In the end, it's common to make these level and pan decisions right up through the final stages of the mix. So, I wouldn't beat yourself up over sort of the initial stage of getting levels and pan. In fact, at some point in your mixing career you are going to sort of cease to see things as individual steps and kind of organically approach the process as your intuition guides you. But until then, it can be good to break things down and approach them step-by-step, starting with this basic level and pan settings process.

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