Mixing and mastering
Once all of the parts are laid down and you feel good about everything that was recorded, you can move on to mixing. A good mixing engineer is worth his weight in gold! Anybody can get a decent board mix shortly after the basic tracks and overdubs are done, but that is a far cry from a truly professional mix that will stand up to all those professionally recorded songs you hear on the radio. In fact, in most music circles, a board mix that doesn’t take very long is called a demo and certainly not a record.
There are so many factors that go into a good mix, and one of the most important is patience—especially on behalf of the artist. You can expect to pay the studio for about four or five hours of mixing time, if it is not included in the day rate. For a really good mix, it can take even longer. Also, just because something sounds great in the studio, that doesn’t mean it’s going to sound great on your home system, in your car, or any other place where you are accustomed to listening to music. To make sure that your music sounds the way you want it to sound, it’s a very good idea to bring in a CD of something that you think is a great mix. Then the engineer can A-B your recording to that outside recording. This gives you a reference point so that your mix doesn’t go off on some sonic tangent that could end up sounding muddy or just plain bad.
Mixing is the most fundamental part of the production process – the stage at which the producer dictates what the listeners will actually hear. And it can make or break a track. After all, the best vocal in the world is useless if you can't hear it!
The secret to mixing is balance. If your bass is full, your track needs corresponding top end and a strong kick drum. But balanced doesn't mean flat. Mixes need stand-out elements, and the trick is learning which to accentuate – either by enhancing them, or by creating more space for them to breathe. Of course, once you have the balance, it's essential to give your mix that extra special something too, which is where clever processing comes in. At the risk of taking ourselves too seriously, we like to compare a great mix to a city skyline. Whether London, Paris or New York, skylines are generally level, with the mal occasional highlight. Show somebody a cityscape without highlights and it's just another skyline, but throw In the Empire State Building, London Eye or Eiffel Tower and it takes on a whole new persona. If every building was a hundred stories tall or some bizarre shape, though, you'd just be left with an unintelligible mess. And with mixing, if you try to make every element prominent nothing will stand out. Instead, make a comfortable bed on which to place a variety of distinct sounds and volumes, creating an interesting and compelling soundscape.
Digital enhancers and exciters have revolutionised the sound of music over the last 20 years. Usually when people strive for that ‚pro‘ sheen, all they need is an enhancer. Using a variety of techniques, these effects boost emphasise or enhance key parts of the musical spectrum -primarily the bass and treble.
In the days before virtual studios, adding excitement meant buying two-channel hardware units, notably the BBE Sonic Maximiser and Aphex Aural Exciter; and with even budget units costing ?150 or more, enhancement was usually only applied to the final mix. But for best results, the effect should really be added to Individual sounds first and then the whole mix.
Fortunately, there's now a wide range of software available in this area. Most mastering packages include an enhancer, and plug-ins can be inserted on multiple channels and use the latest algorithms, so for the price of one budget hardware unit, you can now apply top-of-the-range enhancement to as many channels as you want. Our advice: buy one and use it!
STEP BY STEP Using excitement and enhancement in the mix
1. Enhancers and exciters are powerful sound mangling tools, but when mixing you should usually be thinking about lust enhancing. We've slatted with a simple low cut from lOO Hz to get a clear signal and a Sonic Maximizer boost to the bass and treble (using plenty of both).
2. Next we open a multiband exciter and slowly start boosting frequencies. We've kept the ranges broad, though, as we're going for a more natural boost and sheen. We put the most boost in the range of 174Hz-2Kz to give the bass additional presence and tone.
3. Finally, we want to give our mid-range a little more bite. Rather than use EQ boost, which can sound a little harsh and unbalancing, we opt for a more creative third exciter. Sweeping the frequency across the mid-range, we settle on 770Hz for a better, crisper mid-range.
But how do they work?
Although the words ‚exciter‘ and ‚enhancer‘ are used interchangeably, they don't mean the same thing and neither tells the whole story. The words commonly apply to a variety of processing techniques that add sheen, sparkle or boost to various parts of a track's sonic spectrum.
The technology used varies, with some units simply adding EQ or tailored bass boost. Other techniques involve generating harmonics based on the target signal – an effect which can create sub-bass from a higher signal or add treble to a low- or mid-range signal.
The trouble with these techniques is that they often create a harsh increase, resulting in extreme ear fatigue. For this reason, you may use a different technique with Sonic Maximizer, adding no artificially generated harmonics. It's described as „eyeglasses for your audio system“ but, marketing spiel aside, Sonic Maximizer employs some very clever programming to undo the unnatural sounding phase shifting inherent in any playback system.
Mastering is the process of finalizing a recording and preparing it for the final medium on which it will be played back by consumers, radio stations, Disc Jockeys etc. Mastering provides the final polishing touches to the recordings and maximizes the volume of the songs so that they are competitive with other commercial recordings played back in clubs, Jukeboxes, radios and CDs. Mastering also provides continuity between tracks when they are placed on a compilation album so that there are no sudden overall volume changes between tracks.
These color visuals are representations of particular moments in the mix. In order to represent a true mixing process, they would be flashing on and off to the music. Therefore, some of the visuals may look busier than the mix really is.
Of course, every song has its own personality and is mixed based on that. Therefore, don't assume that there is only one way to mix any style of music. These visuals are only a reference point from which you can begin to study what is done in mixes for various types of music.
With all this in mind . . . enjoy.
Hip Hop Mix
Generally a pretty busy mix with an 808 boom loud and out front. Note the fattening on the bass and the doubling on each of the keys. Note the delay on the synth and hi-hat. Especially unique is the doubling of the hi-synth with another instrument. The super high strings are flanged for a subtle, spacey effect. The snare is not very loud in this particular mix.
Hip-Hop Mix Visual Aid
Before we get into the actual mechanics of mixing, it's important to have some perspective on how this art has developed over the years.
It's obvious to just about everyone who's been around long enough that mixing has changed over the decades, but the why's and how's aren't quite so obvious. In the early days of recording in the 50's, there really wasn't any mixing per se since the recording medium was mono and a big date used only four microphones. Of course, over the years recording developed from capturing an unaltered musical event to one that was artificially created through overdubs, thanks to the innovation of Selsync (the ability to play back off of the record head so everything stayed in sync) introduced in 1955. The availability of more and more tracks begat larger and larger consoles, which begat computer automation and recall just to manage the larger consoles fed by more tracks. With all that came not only an inevitable change in the philosophy of mixing but a change in the way that a mixer listened or thought as well.
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.