Where to Build the Mix From
Different mixers start from different places when building their mix. This has as much to do with training as it does with the type of material. For instance, most old-time New York mixers and their proteges usually start from the bass guitar and build the mix around it. Many other mixers work from the drum over-heads first, tucking in the other drums as they go along. Many mixers mix with everything up, only soloing specific instruments that seem to exhibit a problem. Still others are completely arbitrary, changing the starting place from song to song depending upon whatever instrument needs to be focused on.
Joe Chiccarelli: Usually what I do is put up all the faders first and get a pretty flat balance and try to hear it like a song, then make determinations from there whether to touch up what I have or rip it down and start again from the bottom.
Jon Gass: I start with everything on and I work on it like that. The reason is that, in my opinion, the vocal is going to be there sooner or later anyway. You might as well know where it's sitting and what it's doing. All the instruments are going to be there sooner or later so you might as well just get used to it. And I think that's also what helps me see what I need to do within the first passage.
John X: I generally have to start with the loops. You've got to find the main loop or the combination of loops that creates the main groove. Sometimes the loops may have a lot of individual drums, but they're usually not crucial rhythmic elements. They can be accents and they can be stuff that just pops up in a break here and there.
Ken Hahn: It's usually vocals again. I make sure that those are perfect so that it becomes an element that you can add things around. I always clean up the tracks as much as I can because inevitably you want to get rid of rumble and thumps and noises, creaks, mic hits, etc. Then I always start with bass and rhythm.
Benny Faccone: It really is like building a house. You've got to get the foundation of bass and drums and then whatever the most important part of the song is, like the vocalist, and you've got to build around that. I put the bass up first, almost like the foundation part. Then the kick in combination with the bass to get the bottom. Because sometimes you can have a really thin kick by itself, but when you put the bass with it, it seems to have enough bottom because the bass has more bottom end. I build the drums on top of that. After I do the bass and drums, then I get the vocal up and then build everything from there. A lot of mixers just put the music up first, but as soon as you put the vocal up, the levels become totally different. After all the elements are in, I spend maybe a couple of hours just listening to the song like an average listener would, and I keep making improvements.
Ed Seay: I'll usually go through and push up instruments to see if there are any trouble spots. All this is dependent upon whether it's something that I've recorded or if I'm hearing it fresh and have no idea what it is. If that's the case, then what I'll do is rough-mix it out real quick. I'll push it up and see where it's going before I start diving in. If it's something that I know what's on the tape, then I'll go through and mold the sounds in a minor way to fit the modern profile that it needs to be. In other words, if it's a real flabby, dull kick drum, it doesn 't matter what the vision is. This kick drum's never going to get there. So I'll pop it into a Vocal Stresser or I'll do whatever I have to do. I'll work through my mix like that and try to get it up into the acceptable range, or the exceptional range, or at least somewhere that can be worked with. It takes a couple of hours to get good sounds on everything and then another couple of hours to get real good balances, or something that plays itself as if it makes sense. Then I'll do some frequency juggling so that everybody is out of everybody else's way.
Wherever your starting point may be, it's generally agreed that the vocal (or whatever is the most prominent or significant melody instrument) has to make its entrance into the mix as soon as possible. The reason for this is two-fold. First of all, the vocal is probably going to be the most important element, so it will take up more frequency space than other supporting instruments. If you wait until late in the mix to put in the vocal, there may not be enough space left and the vocal will never sit right with the rest of the track.
The second reason has to do with effects. If you tailor all your effects to the rhythm section and supporting instruments, there may be none left when it's time to add in the vocal or most prominent instrument.
WHAT TYPE OF PROGRAM MATERIAL?
The type of program being mixed will frequently have an effect on where you start building the mix. For instance, when doing Dance music where the kick is everything, that is the obvious choice for a starting point. When mixing something orchestral however, the emphasis is different. According to Don Hahn, "The approach is totally different because there's no rhythm section. So you shoot for a nice roomy orchestral sound and get as big a sound as you can get with the amount of musicians you have. You start with violins, then violas if you have them, cellos, then basses. You get all that happening and then add wood-winds, French horns, trombones, trumpets and then percussion and synthesizers if needed."
In Jazz, the melody will be the starting point with the bass inserted afterward to solidify the foundation.
Setting levels by using the VU meters has been debated from the beginning of mixing time. Some mixers feel that they can get in the ballpark by setting the levels with the meters alone while others discount any such method out of hand. The fact of the matter is that for those using the meter method, feel and instinct are still a large part of their technique, making it equally as valid as those who rely solely on instinct.
As with everything else that you read, try the following methods, use what works and throw away the rest.
Benny Faccone: I usually start with the bass at about -5 and the kick at about -5. The combination of the two, if it's right, should hit about -3 or so. By the time the whole song gets put together and I've used the computer to adjust levels, I've trimmed everything back somewhat. The bass could be hitting -7 if I solo it after it's all done.
Don Smith: I'll start out with the kick and bass in that area (-7VU). By the time you put everything else in it's the total mix +3 anyway. At least if you start that low you have room to go.
Ed Seay: Usually a good place to start is the kick drum at -6 or -7 or so. I'll try to get a bass level that is comparable to that. If it's not exactly comparable on the meter because one's peaking and one's sustaining, I get them to at least sound comparable because later, in mastering, if you affect one, you 're going to affect the other. So as long as the ratio is pretty correct between the two, then if you go to adjust the kick at least it's not going to whack the bass way out as long as they relate together. That's kind of a good starting place for me.
Lee DeCarlo: I'll get the snare drum constantly hitting the back-beat of the tune at around -5, and everything gets built around it.