work the mic

Recording Part III: Mixing & Mastering


November 28th, 2014

If you've never gone through the recording process, you may have no idea what happens between the moment you lay down the last instrument or voice, and the moment you listen to the MP3, CD, etc. This is the phase generally known as post-production, and it's what we're covering in this 3rd part of my 4-part series on recording.

Post-production breaks down into two primary phases: mixing and mastering. Mixing involves the band much more than mastering, so let's start with that.

MIXING IS HARDER THAN IT LOOKS

Like many aspects of music creation, mixing is part art, and part science. To the inexperienced observer, it may seem like it couldn't be that hard... just turn up some instruments, turn down others, and BOOM, your album sounds like gold. I've come across some musicians who think that plugging in and connecting all the gear is the only challenging part. Pah!

I've mixed for live performances and recordings, and I can promise you, there's way more to it than you think. The EQ'ing, the re-amping, the compression... there are dozens of tools that take years to master. You can only truly appreciate the joys of a great mix after you've heard a muddy or piercing nightmare of a track where the engineer had no clue what he was doing.

So, if it's not just turning stuff up and down, what is it? Well, don't get me wrong, it is that... in the same way that flying a plane is just taking off, making some turns, and landing. Yes, on a basic level, that's what's happening, but a hundred different things have to be in place in order to make it so.

ALWAYS BE MIXING

What we cover in this section is without question one of the most important lessons I have ever learned about songwriting, recording, and performance: always be mixing. When you're writing a song, when you're playing it, when you're recording it, and obviously when you're actually mixing.

When I first started playing in bands as a teenager and younger adult, I unconsciously thought of music as just a bunch of instruments playing at the same time. I would jam with other musicians, and we'd all just slam on our guitars and drums from the intro all the way through to the outro. It was painful, but we all had egos, and we all wanted to be the center of attention 100% of the time.

Well-constructed music is all about dynamics.

The more I played with experienced and serious players, the more I realized that well-constructed music is about dynamics. When and where one doesn't play can make a performance so much more engaging. Like a lot of people my age, Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" awakened me to this with its quiet verses countered by chaotic choruses.

I quickly realized that the miracle of dynamics went beyond quiet vs. loud. I was surprised just how many songs had complete stops in them - moments when all the instruments go silent, even if it's just for a second. Even more common is when a song strips down from the full band to a bridge or 3rd verse with just the vocalist and a single instrument. I had never paid attention to any of this before, but once I knew to look for it, I saw it everywhere.

Dynamics may be the most powerful tool in a songwriter's toolbox. Start a song softly, build it to a crescendo, then bring it back down. Or, start with all guns blazing, then quiet down, then explode again. Every song is built on a foundation of finding the right combination of:

  • loud/quiet/silent
  • left/center/right
  • fast/medium/slow
  • energetic/relaxed/sleepy
  • emotion 1/emotion 2/emotion 3
  • beginning/middle/end
  • crisis/resolution/lesson

When you watch live shows, pay attention to the individual musicians, especially the touring guys who aren't part of the regular band. You'll see that the various instrumentalists will just hang out during certain sections of a song, waiting their turn.

In Rock, Country, Pop all the way to a 40 piece orchestra, the parts people play aren't always that complicated, sometimes they're painfully simple. But, they contribute to the song because there's so many other things going on. Everyone can't have the spotlight at all times. It has to be managed and shared.

Real pro's know how to wait their turn for the spotlight. When it hits them, they let loose and wail.

I've played with so many lead guitar players who want to just noodle the entire song. But real pro's know how to chill the hell out and wait their turn. Then, when the spotlight hits them (metaphorically or literally), they let loose and wail, and it's so much more powerful because it breaks up the established pattern of rhythm, vocals, melody, etc.

There's a dozen metaphors we could use here. Cooking is one example. Good meals have a balance between salty, sweet, sour, and savory tastes, bad meals have too much of any one thing. With music, there is only so much room for all the sounds to fit in. You can't just have everything playing at 11 at all times, otherwise you have cacophony.

On the other hand, you have softer elements that need to be amplified in order to compete with the power of things like drums, electric guitars, or even multiple acoustic instruments. A voice can't match the power of any of those things without a microphone. You have to season your song with a little more high end on the guitar, a little less bass in the kick, surprise the listener with a punchy intro, then quiet down the verse so you can make the bridge punch later, and so on.

Mapping out dynamics starts when you're writing the song.

Mapping out dynamics starts in the writing process. Envision the completed song, with all the instruments finding their place in the mix. What will be the lead instrument, what will be the rhythm, what sections of the song will be loud and where will your breaks be? Where are the crescendos? It's better to sort out these things early so that musicians don't get attached to a certain part or way of playing.

This goes beyond music by the way... it touches on aspects of psychology, social dynamics, and biology as well. People's ears, interest levels, and attentions get numb when exposed to the same thing over long periods. Changing up the pace or the way something is presented will keep your audience's attention.

TRUST THE (RIGHT) PROFESSIONALS

Mixing is a science and an art, but it is also a skill. Just because you play multiple instruments, have fiddled with live sound equipment, or have a lot of experience in bands does not make you a mix engineer.

I studied mixing for a good while, by way of books, online tutorials and videos, manuals, mixing with a mentor, doing church bands and cover bands, working with my own music and others, and after several years and hundreds of attempts, I still don't trust myself to do a satisfactory mix for my music. I cringe when I think that one of the songs I mixed was played on regional radio.

As I said before, mixing is harder than it looks, and with all the time, energy, and money that I invest in my music, I want someone with tons of experience, the best gear, and incredibly skilled ears and hands to be at the controls come mix time.

Refer back to the first post from this series when thinking about hiring an engineer. Ask around your network of musicians, Google the guy who did your favorite album. Talk to the guy and see if he seems like someone you can spend 80 hours in a cramped control room with. Ask if you can get in touch with his previous clients to see what they thought of the process. Get your ears on some of his work, especially from bands who are in a similar genre. Your ears are your best judge of whether this guy will do a good job for you.

EVALUATING THE MIX

There is no such thing as a marathon mix session that ends well.

There are many ways the mixing process can be done. My personal recommendation is to let the engineer do his thing and get out of his way. Many people want to sit and watch the guy work, and that's just bad news. No one likes working with someone watching over their shoulder, and even more people don't understand that your ears and your brain get tired much more quickly than you would think, which means frequent breaks. I have piles of wasted discs that testify to the fact that there is no such thing as a marathon mix session that ends well.

This is incredibly frustrating for people like me who just want to get things done, and done now. When you're sitting behind the console, you'll probably say "eh, let's just keep going... this studio time is expensive." It's so tempting in the moment, but if you just plow through your mixes in one or two sessions, it may sound great at the time, but once you sleep on it and revisit it, you're likely to be disgusted with the previous day's work.

Let the engineer do what he thinks is right, then have him send you mix-downs, or "bounces," so you can give him feedback. It's much easier to hear the completed draft than to see all the work that went into it. It's like watching a good magic trick... everything inside you wants to know how it was done, but when you finally find out the truth, it's a huge disappointment, and now the trick itself seems like a cheap and dirty cheat.

If you did your research and found a great engineer, trust him to do his job and to do it well. After all, you're not giving up all control... he still has to send you drafts, and you can give feedback that he can take back to the console the next day. After 3 rounds or so, you ought to have something that sounds good and final.

Make sure you discuss how many mix rounds you get with your engineer before you get to the mix phase.

Make sure that you have discussed exactly how many rounds are included in your budget before you start mixing. My band ran into a situation where we had gone back and forth 3 or 4 times with an engineer, and he didn't want to go any further without more money. We had already run out of funds, so we had to live with what we had. Had we known the limits up front, we would have been more methodical about breaking apart the mixes and giving more structured feedback.

I would like to suggest that you find one or two of your friends who are not in the band to listen to your mix drafts. These should be your music nerd friends that don't necessarily know anything about frequencies, gear, or actually making music. They're the ones who knew about such and such band before you did. They probably buy vinyl records.

The idea is that you get feedback that isn't biased from spending months slaving away at the creation of the work they're listening to. Their thoughts may be useful, or they may not. Either way, it's good to step outside the production world and hear what a regular person thinks.

IT'S PERSONAL

One of the dangers you may encounter if you have a band is that when everyone hears the mixes, they could fall into the trap of wanting to hear more of themselves. It's a natural and common tendency. The drummer will want a little more kick and snare. The bassist says the low-end isn't represented (even though he's listening on earbuds).

Mixing democratically can lead to an arms race where each band member wants "just a little more" of their instrument.

It can become an arms race of everybody wanting "just a little more" of their instrument. The best way to handle this is to give a producer final say, or to elect someone in the band who can act as the ultimate decider. Mixing democratically will get you a muddy, incoherent recording.

Musicians can get attached to parts or passages for a number of reasons, maybe the band invested several hours or days figuring out a complex arrangement, but that 3rd bridge just isn't working... Regardless of the motivation, someone has to have the final say, and it should ideally be someone who's not in the band, so that it doesn't get personal.

LOST IN TRANSLATION

Something I discovered once I experimented with mixing for the first time is that there is no universal or perfect way to mix. This will become painfully obvious when you get your hands on your first bounce. You listen to it on your computer or headphones, and everything sounds good. Then you take your mix to your car and play it over your car stereo. Ummm... what happened? Where did the bassline go? Why is that guitar part so loud now?

You're not going crazy. It's not you or your ears. It's the listening conditions, combined with the delivery method. When you're listening on headphones, you're getting a very isolated, sterile representation of your song. In the driver's seat of a car, you have one speaker very close to you, and 3 or more speakers much further away.

I read a couple of years ago that many mix engineers will actually make the left side of the mix stronger so that it's clearer for people listening in the car, which is the most common place that people listen to music. Hell, even having the windows up or down will affect what's bouncing around in your vehicle.

This subjective aspect of audio mixing can drive you insane if consider that your song could be played on every conceivable speaker on the planet... everything from earbuds to recessed speakers in the drop ceilings of a retail store, to ancient boomboxes propped in the corner of someone's garage, to a flat-panel TV, to the microscopic "speakers" at the bottom of a smartphone, all the way up to monster SUV systems with 6, 7, or 8 mid-range speakers, 2 tweeters, and a subwoofer.

Listen to your mixes on as many different systems as possible... including earbuds, car stereos, high quality headphones.

My suggestion is that you try and listen to your mixes on as many different systems as possible, without going nuts. Earbuds, a car stereo or two, and a high quality set of headphones.

The mixing process is about compromise. Your song is not likely to sound amazing on every system. It should sound awesome on some, and great on others. If you try to get it perfect everywhere, you'll be stuck in a mix phase purgatory for eternity. You'll turn up a bass part so it can be heard in the car, then you'll go back to your headphones and want to turn it back down.

This principle also applies to who is doing the mixing in the first place. If you hand your files to 10 different engineers, you're going to get 100 different mixes. Many audio gearheads like to bluster that they know what the secret to a perfect mix recipe while everyone else is a blithering, talentless idiot. I don't know why or how this became such a prevalent attitude among engineers, but it's incredibly pervasive. There is no perfect mix for your album. You just have to work to create one that you're happy with.

INSTRUMENTALS

Over the last few years, many artists have found a new outlet/revenue stream/method of exposure for their music in movie and TV placements. This just means that their song is played on a show or film, and usually means they got paid for it, and in some cases, will continue to get checks when the media is replayed.

If you're interested in pursuing this opportunity, you need to ask your engineer to print some instrumental mixes in addition to your regular tracks. All he'll do is just print a version of your song without vocals. Many music supervisors or other music buyers want these as options for the project they're working on. They may use the instrumental, or the vocal version, or combine them so that the instrumental plays during the dialog scenes, then the melody kicks in during an action scene.

Even if you're not sure you want to go after placements, it usually takes very little time to do these extra bounces, so it's better to just ask for them and have them in case they're needed.

MASTERING

Mastering is the last phase of any recording before it gets printed on CD's or sent to digital distribution sites like iTunes or Spotify. It means that an engineer (who is typically not your mix engineer) is taking the printed tracks that your mix guy handed you, and is giving them some final tweaks to make them sound their absolute best.

Mastering typically involves compression, EQ'ing, getting rid of any clicks, pops, or other noises that can sometimes appear in tracks, and making sure that the tracks have an even loudness so that the listener doesn't have to turn their volume up or down each time the album moves to the next track.

It may be tempting to skip over this phase as it's not exactly cheap, and is often misunderstood as a "would be nice" kind of thing. If you do skip it, your tracks will show it, and your listeners will know it, though they might not be able to articulate why. Nothing says "local band" like having to constantly reach for the volume from track to track.

Mastering is probably the least understood aspect of recording.

Mastering is probably the least understood aspect of recording, and often gets lumped in with mixing as an afterthought. Try explaining it to any of your family and friends when they ask about your album. Because of its technical nature, many musicians seem to think you can just run your tracks through some presets on Pro Tools and your tracks will end up sounding just as good as anyone else's.

This is false. Running the music through presets will sound like you made the record on your laptop. If that's what you're going for, cool. However, if you're trying to make a professional album, do not half-ass this. Take the time and spend the money to do it right.

As I said at the beginning of this section, the mastering engineer is typically not your mix engineer. He should bring a fresh set of ears to your tracks, and he should have gear, plugins, knowledge, and experience specific to this skill. Some guys will try to tell you that anyone can do this, but I've gone the budget route, and I've gone the way of paying a professional, and I promise you, you'll hear the difference.

BACKUPS

I hit "save" after every edit. Not every couple of edits. Every edit.

The last thing I'd like to say about the post-production process is probably the most important: back up your files. Hit the save key as often as you can. When I'm editing a track, I hit CTRL-S after every edit. Not every couple of edits. Every edit. I become the Rain Man, mindlessly and compulsively tapping those keys. I've developed this habit after losing some files that I'll never get back. Naturally, I assume they were the best music I've ever made... but I'll never know because I got complacent and trusted a spinning metal disc to take care of my work.

You should also back up each day's work to a separate drive from the one you're recording your files to. Preferably, this drive should be kept at an alternate location away from the studio.

This sounds crazy, I know. But, the guy who was producing our last album told us how the studio he recorded one of his records at burned to the ground as he was on the plane flying home from the session. You never ever know. Recording is too expensive, and the tracks are too precious to get sloppy with. If something horrible happens to your work, you can try and recreate it (at great cost mind you), but it will never really be the same. Be careful.

THE END IS COMING

We're almost there, kids. We've covered the basic pre-production, production, and post-production phases, and in the next and final post of this series, I'd like to go over some more about the various roles involved in studio work. Thanks for reading!

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