Join Brian Lee White for an in-depth discussion in this video Conceptualizing the mix and making a plan, part of Pro Tools Mixing and Mastering.
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Going into a mix with a solid plan-- or at least a general direction--is a great way to keep on task and prevent yourself from getting lost in the sea of minutia. Let's face it, mixing can be a highly technical detail-oriented task, but don't forget that it's also very subjective, and your opinion or taste matters. And I would argue that it's what ultimately makes or breaks the end result. Shaping the sounds of individual tracks, scrutinizing every note in sound, it is easy to lose sight of our core goal, creating an interesting and compelling mix that complements the song's message, ultimately serving the song and the vocal and delivering that idea to the listener effectively.
A great mix can take a great song to the next level, while a bad mix can heavily mask that genius and be a real turnoff for the listener. Here are a few things that I consider when I begin to mix. I start by thinking about what's going on with the arrangement. What's the vocal saying? Do I anticipate any problems that may exist outside the realm of strictly mixing or sonics? For example, is the vocal out of tune? Are the drums out of time? Are any of the instruments recorded poorly? If you produced or arranged the track, it's likely that the mix has already taken on a direction in the production stage.
So think about extending this idea into the mix. And if you didn't produce or arrange it, you want to discuss with the producer the direction he or she thinks the tune is moving in. I like to start by getting emotionally invested in the song, so I can get really hyped up and take the song to the next level. Now I also want to take consideration of any genre norms or the listening group I am trying to focus on for this mix. Is anything typical in this genre? Do I know this genre well? For example, does it have a lot of bass? A little bass? Is it very bright, dark? Lots of reverb? Very dry? If it's not my song, what kind of mixes does the producer like? I am going to take this all into account when I am building the master plan in my head.
To do this, I will often bring in some reference tracks in a similar genre or something that the producer has asked me to listen to, and I'll listen to those right side by side with my mix, referencing that as I make a plan. I also think about who is going to be listening to this mix. Is it something that's going to be posted to YouTube and Facebook? Or is it something that I want to attract audiophiles with? This can affect my decisions on monitoring overall loudness, style, and shape of the mix.
I generally start by listening to the tracks as they sit when I get them. Some mixers like to set all the faders to zero and just kind of start listening to the song as it is. I personally like to listen to it with the mix from the production stage, because this tells me a lot about what the producer or artist thought was important. And if I produce the song, well, I have already kind of got a mix going on. As I am listening to this mix, I start thinking about stylistic adjectives, like do I want it to be shiny, dark, deep, intimate, big, or small? And I try to imagine the finished mix in my mind's ear.
I am going to use these adjectives as an overall guide while making more focused mixing decisions so I can always keep my eye on the ultimate prize, rather than getting lost in the details. I then try to decide what elements will be the focal point of the mix. What elements are active foreground elements, or lead characters? And what are going to be the background or supporting elements of the mix? I think about how I am going to highlight these focal elements--and usually it's the lead vocal or a lead instrument-- and complement those focal elements with background or secondary elements.
I am going to continuously ask myself, is any decision I am making get any closer to my overall goal? And I'm always remembering that mixing is only half technique; the aesthetic and artistic direction is the other half. So I always try not to ignore that, and I'll try to write down any notes I have so that I can keep on task. One way I like to think of my mixes is a lot like a movie treatment, and I'm the director. So I am going to think about who my cast of characters are and how I am going to costume them and light them to best present the story.
A director isn't normally writing the movie, and they are not normally casting the characters, but they have to kind of take these elements and make them all work together. So, is your mix a sci-fi movie that's going to need a lot of tricks and special effects? Or is it more of a dialog-based drama where you just kind of want to mix it clean and let the song and arrangement speak for itself? Now as I do this, I try not to get mired in all the details, and I like to mix at a moderate, not fast pace.
I don't want to get overly infatuated with any one element of the mix. Remember, the listener probably doesn't care about how the snare drum sounds if the song is delivered effectively and the entire mix is interesting. Now if I don't have any ideas of where I want to start, what I will do is I will start by organizing the session, labeling things, moving tracks around, routing, pushing faders around. And this is going to get my brain thinking about mixing, and the ideas always start flowing at that point.
When in doubt, I'll start by emulating a reference track. I will identify the key sounds that make that mix happen and work towards those. You might not know how to get a sound at first, but at least you have a goal to work towards in your mind. Above all, have fun and be creative. Remember, there is no right way, no best mix, so try every idea, because you never know if that might work. Just remember that the mix is not the end all be all of the song. And while it can heavily influence a listener's perception, sometimes keeping it simple and clean is the best solution, allowing the song to speak for itself.
- What is mixing? Exploring the past, present, and future
- Mixing "in the box"
- Setting up monitors and ensuring proper acoustics in the studio
- Staying organized with labels, memory locations, and window configurations
- Working with the Pro Tools Mixer
- Building healthy and profitable mixing habits when putting together a final mix
- Using volume and pan to balance the mix
- Employing corrective versus creative EQ strategies to create clarity and contrast
- Knowing when and when not to process the audio of a track
- Working with compressors and dynamics processors
- Using saturation effects to capture an analog-type sound
- Adding reverb and delay to create depth in a mix
- Working with limiting and multiband compression during the mastering process
- Dealing with plug-in delay and latency in a mix
- Using the bundled plug-ins in Pro Tools to add clarity, punch, and width to a mix
- Recording and editing automation to add drama and excitement
- Using clip based gain to control headroom and gain staging