Getting a Well-Balanced Mix

The most basic element of a mix is balance. A great mix must start here first; for without balance the other mix elements pale in importance. There's more to balance than just moving some faders, though, as we'll see.

THE ARRANGEMENT — WHERE IT ALL BEGINS

Good balance starts with good arrangement. It's important to understand arrangement since so much of mixing is subtractive by nature. This means that the arrangement (and therefore the balance) is changed by the simple act of muting an instrument that doesn't fit well with another. If the instruments fit well together and don't fight one another, the mixer's life becomes immensely easier. But what exactly does "fighting one another," mean?

When two instruments with essentially the same frequency band play at the same volume at the same time, the result is a fight for attention. Think of it this way: you don't usually hear a lead vocal and a guitar solo at the same time, do you? That's because the listener is unable to focus on both simultaneously and becomes confused and fatigued as a result.

So how do you get around instrument "fighting"? First and foremost is a well-written arrangement, which keeps instruments out of each other's way right from the beginning. The best writers and arrangers have an innate feel for what will work in an arrangement, and the result is one that lies together without much help, almost automatically.

But it's not uncommon to work with an artist or band that isn't sure of the arrangement or is into experimenting and just allows an instrument to play throughout the entire song, thereby creating numerous conflicts. This is where the mixer gets a chance to rearrange the track by keeping what works and muting the conflicting instrument or instruments. Not only can the mixer influence the arrangement this way, but also the dynamics and general development of the song.

In order to understand how arrangement influences balance, we have to understand the mechanics of a well-written arrangement first.

Most well conceived arrangements are limited in the number of elements that occur at the same time. An element can be a single instrument like a lead guitar or a vocal, or it can be a group of instruments like the bass and drums, a doubled guitar line, a group of backing vocals, etc. Generally, a group of instruments playing exactly the same rhythm is considered an element. Examples: a doubled lead guitar or doubled vocal is a single element, as is a lead vocal with two additional harmonies. Two lead guitars playing different parts are two elements, however. A lead and a rhythm guitar are two separate elements as well.

ARRANGEMENT ELEMENTS

Foundation — The rhythm section. The foundation is usually the bass and drums, but it can also include a rhythm guitar and/or keys if they're playing the same rhythmic figure as the rhythm section. Occasionally, as in the case of power trios, the foundation element will only consist of drums, since the bass will play a different rhythm figure and become its own element.

Pad — A pad is a long sustaining note or chord. In the days before synthesizers, a Hammond Organ provided the best pad and was joined later by the Fender Rhodes. Synthesizers now provide the majority of pads, but real strings or a guitar power chord can also suffice.

Rhythm — Rhythm is any instrument that plays counter to the foundation element. This can be a double-time shaker or tambourine, a rhythm guitar strumming on the back-beat or congas playing a Latin feel. The rhythm element is used to add motion and excitement to the track.

Lead — A lead vocal, lead instrument or solo.

Fills — Fills generally occur in the spaces between lead lines, or they can be a signature line. You can think of a fill element as an answer to the lead.

That's not to say that each individual instrument is a separate element, however. In Bob Seger's hit "Night Moves," there are bass and drums, acoustic guitar, piano, Hammond organ, lead vocal and background vocals. This is how they break out:

Bob Seger's "Night Moves"

Foundation — Bass, drums, acoustic guitar

Pad — Hammond organ

Rhythm — Piano

Lead — Lead vocal

Fills — Background vocal answers and sometime the piano fills in the holes

Usually an acoustic guitar falls into the rhythm category as the strumming is pushing the band and creating excitement. In "Night Moves," however, the acoustic guitar is pulled back level-wise in the mix so it melds into the rhythm section, effectively becoming part of the foundation element.

Alanis Morissette's "Thank U" contained several good examples of both rhythm and pads. What's different is that there are two sets of each, one for the intro and chorus, and a different set for the verses.

Alanis Morissette's "Thank U"

Foundation — Bass, drums

Pad — Synthesizer in intro and chorus behind the piano; different synths in chorus

Rhythm — Piano; "breath" sample in the verse

Lead — Lead vocal

Fills — Guitar fills in the second verse

Of course, there's much more going on in this song track-wise, but any additional tracks are either replacing or doubling the above elements. The number of elements remains constant.

Garth Brook's "Two Pina Coladas"

Foundation — Bass, drums

Pad — Steel guitar

Rhythm — Acoustic guitar and shaker

Lead — Lead vocal

Fills — Electric and acoustic lead guitar; occasional steel fill

This song is different because there's no true pad in the traditional sense; but the steel guitar playing softly in the background acts the part well and shows that it's possible for non-traditional instruments to play that role.

RULES FOR ARRANGEMENTS

There are a couple of easy-to-remember rules that will always make even the densest arrangement manageable.

Limit the Number of Elements

Usually there should not be more than four elements playing at the same time. Sometimes three elements can work very well. Very rarely will five elements simultaneously work.

Kevin Killen: I had an experience about three years ago on a Stevie Nicks record with Glyn Johns, who's been making records since the 50's. We were mixing without automation and he would just push thefaders up and within a minute or two he would have this great mix. Then he would just say that he didn 't like it and pull it back down again and push it back up. I relearned that the great art of mixing is the fact that the track will gel almost by itself if it was well performed and reasonably well recorded. I find that the stuff that you really have to work a lot harder on is the stuff that has been isolated and really worked on. The tracks all end up sounding like disparate elements and you have to find a way to make them blend together.

Everything in Its Own Frequency Range

The arrangement (and therefore the mix) will fit together better if all instruments sit in their own frequency range. For instance, if a synthesizer and rhythm guitar play the same thing in the same octave, they will usually clash. The solution would be to change the sound of one of the instruments so they fill different frequency ranges—have one play in a different octave, or have them play at different times but not together.

Lee DeCarlo: So much of mixing is what you take away, either level-wise or frequency-wise. There are so many things that you have to eliminate in order to make it all sit and work together. Mark Twain once said, "Wagner's music is much better than it sounds. " Wagner is a guy that wrote for cellos and French horns doing things in the same register, but it all worked. The only reason that it worked was he kept the other things out of their way. If you have an orchestra and everybody's playing in the same register, its just going to get away on you. But if you leave holes, then you can fill up the spectrum.

Figure 1

Ways to Prevent Instrument Fighting

• Change the arrangement and rerecord the track

• Mute the offending instruments so that they never play at the same time

• Lower the level of the offending instrument

• Tailor the EQ so that the offending instrument takes up a different frequency space

• Pan the offending instrument to a different location