Mixing Music with Me (Audio Mix Engineer James Kananen)
Music Mixing at my Studios in Cleveland is as easy as sending an email. Send the tracks via wetransfer.com or something similar. I am well equipped with recording gear and the experience to make your project totally awesome. Get your hands on essential tools to help meet the needs of the most challenging projects. The studio is used for music mixing, as well as mastering.
By balancing all the elements and adjusting frequency balance between different parts, we quickly begin the process for taking recorded tracks and blending them together. Tracks are mixed using compression, and gating/expansion. Through creative EQ and addition of time based effects such as reverb and delay, we can blend just the right amount of the right frequency spectrums of your different tracks in a multi-track recording.
Mixing Vs Mastering
Mixing is the last step before mastering. Imagine the painter finishes a painting, and then they’re like “well, we’re going to send it off to framing, and by the way, they may add lacquer and a few touch ups maybe add a little glitter”, that’s like what mastering is for mixing. It’s the final icing on the cake. The aim is to carve out the best parts of your tracks. What microphones and instruments, as well as preamps and any different samples you may have used all color the sound. While every stage matters, mixing can take lackluster tracks and make them shine. Taking control of the artists and creative process is all up to you the artist. I can offer helpful insight into how to get the sounds you want, and I always encourage mixing engineers to take a break and listen to other stuff in between. Eat a bagel. Have a beverage.
We start with the basics and build the mix up bring each element together in a pleasing way. Your recorded tracks get slight EQ and level adjustment. With the tuned ear of a producer, you can get better songs, and mixes that go farther than stuff you mixed yourself. Start with the tone of the instruments, and performance.
Get the best possible sound from your gear and your environment, and keep in mind that the room you recorded the tracks in has a great effect on how it all sounds in the end. If you recorded vocals in the bathroom, that will have a certain sound in the tracks regardless of what reverb and slop is added on top to try to cover it up. Maybe that’s the sound of your next poppy chorus, or you have a special part you want to record in a special place, that’s all good. Maybe it’s the bathroom, we’ll never try to stifle your creative right to try new ideas and see how they sound. The only mistake you can make by experierimenting is lost time, which may be necessary to explore different areas of creativity as a songwriter or arranger.
Communication with the Mix Engineer Is Key
It helps to communicate with the mixing engineer. Be as specific as possible. For example “at 2:35 there is a noise, or “from 2:30-2:35 bring the guitar solo out a little bit more. So what’s right? TL;DR? Who knows, experiment to see what you like, everyone has different tastes.
Often times i Like to listen to a reference track or anything the artist is into, to get into the vibe of mixing a track. Even if its not entirely like the material, you can get a good idea of where you want to go with some decent reference materials before you begin mixing. Hopefully your tones and sound is pretty close already to what you want for the final product and just needs a little light adjustment here and there.
You can take different elements of a reference mix and apply it to your own mix. If you have a good idea what a decent vocal sounds like, using similar tools and with a similar performance you should be able to get pretty close. In this day and age of digital plugins, there is almost guaranteed to be a plugin that will emulate almost any effect. Keep in mind, many times production techniques like doubling a performance or adding subtle harmonies may be in there, and there’s no plugin in the world that can think up a good harmony and do it perfectly along with your main track. The last 10% of perfecting the sound is usually the hardest. Hopefully you’re 90% there already after tracking, and you and the mixing engineer are on the same page as far as where the tracks need to go.
We usually go through several mix revisions, labeling each successive mix revision Song_name_1 Song_name_2 and so forth, that way when there are multiple mixes, we can be sure to have the right version. Everything may have to be deconstructed and torn apart before it can be put back tother again in a pleasing manner. Don’t be afraid to break all the rules and get experimental to get a interesting result, but dont forget the basics. Usually your gut instinct is right. Sometimes your gut instinct says I don’t know, and that’s where I can help you.
Panning and Stereo Width
Left, Right, Center and everywhere in between
Panning can help control the width and space within the sonic left and right of the mix. The width of different elements depends on the content, but in general Vocals and Kick, Snare, are roughly in the middle, and things like guitars, synthesizers, drum overheads and Toms are panned out from the center. I always recommend tracking stereo, or with two mics that can be panned differently. You can always chose one, or decide not to use both.
The bass guitar or kick drum and many other low frequency elements of the mix usually work best in the center. With everything in the center, it may sound crowded or cluttered., Try doubling the performance of a vocal chorus part, and panning them left and right and see how much a difference it makes with the flat centered verse.
Setting the Panning Left or Right or Centering the main elements, we help bring out the important parts, and balance the backing tracks with the main track. We can add chorus or different room ambiences to your track. I sculpt new effects everyday, so let us know if you have any ideas for cool new effects, or ask for a recommendation for what might sound best for your arrangement. We want all your tracks to sound balanced in relation to each other. A multitrack recording is more than a sum of all its tracks, and there’s no right or wrong way to do it, it’s a matter of taste, so the aim is to bring your creative vision into the final mix, that hopefully represents your creative taste in music.
Mixing in 2018 or Whatever Year it is
For the most part, mixing ion the box or using plugins in a DAW (like Pro Tools, Ableton, Logic, Cubase, Reaper or Studio One) is the easiest and most popular way to mix. Although tape machines can provide ooey gooey goodness, and more consistent levels and digital recordings, for the most part the only people still using tape machines are either really old, or have never used tape before. By all means, if you have an awesome tape machine, and the time and money to use it, by all means, use it. But almost everyone is going to bounce their tracks down into a DAW like Pro Tools (Pro Tools is just an example, you can make great mixes in Garage band, Logic, Studio One or Any DAW)
We have plugins that nearly perfectly emulate their analog counterparts. Does that mean that there’s no role for analog gear in the world? Of course not. We use the top quality audio gear everyday, but you know whats even better than using a 1176 for tracking vocals? Putting ANOTHER 1176 on the track, and then another with a different setting on a BUS. If anything, digital plugins have made it easier and more accessible for engineers to use lots of cool analog effects rather than stifling creativity. Use what you have, and when you don’t have one, or its easier, just use a plugin. A/B tests prove that plugins can sound as good, or better than analog outboard gear., and also plenty of really great stuff has been made using analog technology, but it isn’t better music for that reason. There were a lot of other factors going into those recording than just the gear.
Plugins come in may forms, from surgical EQs and simple digital tools like phase and gain, to complex time and frequency based algorithms.
Setting Up your Session
Name your tracks. It really helps find stuff, rather than labeling audio 1, 2, or leaving click track, or other garbage in there. The mix engineer doesn’t care that there are 3 crap takes, you’ve got to commit. Don’t worry about anything that is complete garbage.
Organizing the tracks, usually, the tracks are ordered starting wiuth Kick and snare, drums mics such as overheads Left to Right, then Bass, Guitar, and Vocals and effects last. We arrange the tracks in the mix
Bussing And Using Bus Tracks to Organize and Refine
Bus Tracks are where the output of 2 or more tracks is sent to the input of a bus track. For example, sending Kick Snare and all the Drum mics to a drum bus is a great way to control the overall drum level and process the tracks all at once. Plugins or other effects can be applied to the group as a whole rather than to the individual tracks. The Busses are usually routed to the final stereo output Bus, the left and the right. In this way the DAW resembles and analog mixing board, where each channel is summed to the output, and groups or VCAs can be used as BUS tracks to group different elements of the mix together. By bussing tracks toghether we can help balance levels with the mix.
Effects Busses and AUXes
Reverbs and Delays or almost any other plugin or effect can be used on a bus. This is is especially useful when you want to place all the elements of a mix within a specific space. By using AUX send , you can control the level you are sending to a bus within the DAW.
Not Starting WIth Garbage
“You can’t polish a T.U.R.D.”-Turd Turdison
“But we’re willing to try…”-James Kananen and Henri Rapp from Bad Racket
It’s important that the original performance and sound of the recording is good. While a great many tools are available to make a muddy or lack luster sound better, getting great tones in the room you record in is paramount to getting a great final product. It’s not layers and layers of crap that makes a great painting, a few well placed brush strokes usually are better than 1000 strokes everywhere cluttering up the sonic panting that is the mix.
If a certain part needs sweeting, or if different characters of tones could be improved, by all means, vocalise this in the most concrete language possible. What are the general characters of the tones you have already recorded? Is the Bass too Boomy, or to the vocals need a sharper texture to make them pop in the mix? I work bring forth the rich character of the tones, and from pronounced to soft and subtle, we can craft the sounds together.
Try to think about the big picture and envision what space the different sounds will occupy in the panning and EQ, and try to start with the best initial sounds possible form the recording session. Get to the right sound first, instead of relying on heavy processing to mash it into something usable. Great mixes sound great from the start. The second you hear it, you think, wow, I can’t wait to make this even better, and you start picking apart the different elements choosing what the final sound will be like, and getting awesome sounds right off the rip is a lot better than doing a lot of endless EQ and fiddling to try to get it right later in the mix stage.
That being said, don’t let equipment limitations stop you from doing what you do. Plenty of great sounding stuff has been made with whatever was available. Just because you don’t have the fanciest guitar is not what is holding you back from being great. You sucking is having everything to do it. So practice makes perfect, and repeat the recording engineers mantra “we’re willing to do 1000 takes to get it right but I hope it only takes one or two or three.”
Getting Creative with your Mixing and Arranging
Getting the right tones and creating just the tones you want to hear can be really satisfying. Through creative use of EQ we can enhance or give tracks more personality, and serve them up to the listener in the best light. You don’t want just one element to jump out of the mix and have all the other elements lost, and you don’t want to have important details missing. There’s no wrong way to do it, but why not make every sound best it can be.
EQ Equalizing The Frequencies Balancing the Highs and Lows and Everything In Between
Frequency is measured in HZ within the general range of human hearing (20hz to 20,000hz or 20khz). Banacing all the elements of the mix is very dependant on how the EQ balance of the frequencies.
Use filters or EQ to make the tracks a little spicer in the mix down. Or calm down harsh tones that may have sounded great in the long or loud recording session, but later refine the tone. Usually a little haircut or trimming of the low end isn’t a bad thing, but try to keep it pretty basic in the tracking phase. Its a lot better to be cutting a little low end later than to have to boost something that just isn’t there in the tracks.
A high pass or low pass filter can be used to allow either the highs to pass, or lows to pass at a specific frequency. The rate of the slope of the filter is measured in db/octave, with something like 6db/octave being a slow rising slope, and 24db/octave slope is pretty steep. Every track usually gets a little EQ or filter to get rid of the underlying extra stuff that isn’t necessary in the mix and will likely cloud up the other elements which are in those frequencies.
Sculpting the tracks with parametric eq is the specialty of the audio engineer. We are taught to recognise specific frequencies and we can surgically remove some harsh frequencies, or boost something to make it mesh better. Hopefully, you’ve recorded tones with the other tracks in mind, so when its time for the mix down, it will sound even better. Sometimes its hard to hear how a sound will fit into the mix soloed, so try to listen as a big picture, rather than getting lost in the nitty gritty fiddling with carving out or boosting, without context within the mix.
EQ is all about carving the sound out for its best character within the mix. Not everything can be everywhere within the sonic landscape. Each element needs to sit within its own realm in the EQ spectrum as well as within teh stereo panning. Different elements may overlap, such as kick and bass, or guitar and the voice, overlapping in frequency spectrums. By placing a cutting EQ on one or the other can be just the ticket to balancing. Likewise, often times we think of the different instruments or elements as characters in a story, you introduce the character, then place it within the scene. You may have main characters, and background sounds. Creative placement and balance of sounds is an art, so what’s your taste in music. We’d love to hear.
Adjusting the Levels, balance and Dynamics of Mix
Dynamics are is the overall power of the sound. The range of loudest to quietest is called the dynamic range. Controlling the level and adjusting the dynamic range is a common activity for the audio mix engineer. Whether its by use of a compressor, expander, or gate, or through automation and planning changes over time. Sometimes the dynamics can be less than ideal For example, if the guitar player has a pedal that makes the gain much louder, or quieter, or if the singer is quieter in one part, we may need to adjust the dynamics with a compressor. When you’re trying to balance a lot of elements within the mix, it usually helps to compress the tracks more in the mixing stage.
Compression in audio is the process where when the level goes past a certain point, the level is reduced by a ratio such as 4:1 The point where the level begins to be reduced is called the threshold. Compression can help reduce the amount of loud signal, and generally raise the average level up. This ratio as it is called is the amount of gain reduction a compressor takes out of the signal. A ratio of 100:1 (100 to one) is high gain reduction setting, where 2:1 ( two to one) is gentler
When a compressor levels out a signal, it has the effect of bringing down the loud parts, and bringing up the quiet parts. Which is great if there are parts that are too quiet or too loud. Listening to the dynamics of song is an acquired listening skill, and knowing when to reduce dynamic range with compression is a finely tuned art.
Applying too much compression too early can be a pitfall. Once you compress, you cant easily stretch the dynamic range of the song back out. Modern types of music usually use lots of compression, where as traditional, folk or classical recordings and Jazz usually have more dynamic range.
Metering, Volume, and Mastering
Mastering is the final part of polishing the tracks. Mastering engineers often talk relative to 0db with 0db being Maximum volume ,amplitude, or power of the sound. A digital sound should never go past 0dB peak. Sometimes there level is measured in RMS average. This is a lower average level for approximating how loud the track is minus the peaking spike of transients. We can approximate the level of compression by comparing the RMS level to the peak level. This range is called the dynamic range, and its a key concept in understanding levels. Have you ever heard a radio program with music, and then a commercial comes ripping over the airwaves with shockingly loud volume? This is because the RMS level of the commercial is way higher. The dynamic range has been smashed within a few dB of 0, so that the broadkaster transmitter hits at a higher level
Reverb and Delay as well as other Time based Effects Like Chorus
Reverb is an ambience or echo from an environment. While natural reverb occurs in almost any environment to s certain degree, audio engineers often use plugins to emulate real and fake environments within a mix. A nice reverb is common on drums and the vocals of many popular types of music. Reverb added in the mixing stage is an artificial effect where unique and interesting soundscapes can be created. Reverb lets you imagine sonic landscapes you could never experience in real life, and can provide exciting results for listeners. There are lots of types of reverbs, from realistic Halls, and Rooms, to emulations of analog and physically reverberant places and objects like metal plates (called plate reverb) or other models that can give a sound a unique flair.
Delay is and Reverb often have their own EQ controls to dial in the tone of the reverberation itself separate from the source. By harnessing the power of reverb, you can add another dimension to take your music to the next level. The decay time, is the length of the reverb or delay. Its the total amount of time for it to die out to silence. Reverbs under 2.0s decay are on the shorter than the longer 3 second decay, which would sound bigger and larger. A small room has a very short decay like .5ms. By adding reverb as a subtle technique, we can create realistic ambiances, and sounds that work in a variety of rooms better.Chorus is a modulating type effect, which usually widens up the stereo image using phase and timing to separate the track into a left and right version that are slightly different. Delay is a repeating echo type of effect with feedback or repeat # as well as a repeat time or tap tempo. Think reggae music usually features a lot of delay. A repeating voice after after after is and example of delay.