We get so worked up gear, what levels we have to run at or what we think the EQ curve on our console graph should look like that we forget about what its really supposed to sound like and what we are actually doing as audio engineers. I blogged about mixing with your ears instead of your eyes a while back as well.
This is why the topic of mixing artistically is so important. While understanding the techniques and science associated with what we do is a critical part of mixing artistically, the style and type of music should play an even bigger part in how you approach your mix.
We all have our “things” that we like to do. Some people like to highlight guitars because that’s “their preference” or pound the kick drum so that people can “feel” the music. That might work great for a rock driven worship set or band, but, this would be horrific for a jazz band or an acoustic set. So, what “I like” or what my preference is…is more or less wrong if it doesn’t fit what the artist is doing.
Your job as an audio engineer is to take the music being created by the band or artist and translate that into your final mix.
Some people use the analogy of a painting and that’s a great analogy. But, I think it’s more then that. You need to make sure you are keeping up with everything as it changes and develops. Meanwhile, it’s your job to continue to translate the nuances and subtleties of the band. I think most of us grasp that concept but, I think people tend to struggle with how to develop those skills.
Here’s a few ideas:
Listen to the style of music you are trying to mix
That makes sense right? But, I’m not talking about casual listening. In our culture, music has become a more of a stream of noise if you listen to it while you’re doing something else. Instead, take some time for focused listening and concentrate on what you are hearing. Here are a few questions to ask yourself while you’re listening:
-What elements are prominent?
-What elements AREN’T as prominent?
-WHEN are elements highlighted or faded back?
-What sounds fill out the mix?
-Where are elements placed in sonic space?
What does it REALLY sound like?
I think we’re all guilty of jumping head first into our mix, grabbing the EQ knobs and trying to make it sound how we prefer it when in actuality, we have no idea what the instrument we’re EQing actually sounds like. For example, try walking up on stage while the drummer is playing. Listen to how the toms sound. Take note of the attack and how high or low the pitch and tuning is. Take note of the timbre of the drum and how long it takes to decay or stop vibrating
Listen to the guitarist’s tone. Ask to hear a few different combinations of pedals or sounds that he will be using in that set. Stand in front of his amp, concentrate and remember what you hear so when you are in front of house you can accurately reproduce what you heard on stage.
The bottom line is to make sure you critically listen to what each member of the band sounds like before you try to mix them. You will get yourself much closer to their sound when you start EQing them. Notch out an EQ filter on your console. Then use your sweepable control to slowly “sweep” back and forth, listening to the changes that it makes to the signal.
If you start by EQing things naturally as they sound, you will be able to tweak each instrument or vocal individually so that they sit in their own sonic space and don’t compete with other instruments. Mirror what is happening in the arrangement and make sure that you are as artistic as the musicians – placing emphasis when needed and backing it off when necessary. Don’t over produce it. Simply facilitate it.
While I was in college earning my music degree, the classes on Aural Skills, Music Theory as well as Composition and Arraigning classes have proved to be invaluable as an audio engineer. I was challenged to listen to and identify keys, rhythm, meter, intervals and lots of other aspects of what makes up music. Composition and Arraigning took all those pieces and taught acceptable practice for putting them together. Analyzing and understanding those facets of music is a major part of creating a mix.
Strip away what you don’t need
In a day and age where technology and tools are only become more and more readily available to us, alot of times, we tend to feel obligated to use everything within grasp. Alot of times, that’s just not necessary. Just because you can run 8 different effects at the same time on your console, doesn’t mean you have to or need to. Just because you have a compressor on every channel doesn’t mean you need to squash the life out of it.
Be aware of what is happening
If a guitarist has a solo, highlight it in your mix by bringing it up a couple dB. Don’t shove it through the ceiling; use your ear and best judgement based on your experience in listening to other styles of music. If the drummer is doing a tom groove, it might be a good idea to accent it in your mix.
Along the same vein, if something is too loud, don’t be afraid to pull it back. Background vocals don’t need to be prominent all the time. Maybe try blending them back during the verses, but then letting them drive the chorus forward allowing them to carry and fill out your mix.
An audio engineer is a musician too. Feel the music and the artistic blend from the band.
Listen to other people mix
This is huge in the development of good ear. Watch what is going on during the course of a show and listen for the changes. It’s event better if you can hang out with the audio engineer and watch them make changes, see what those changes are, and listen for the difference it makes in the mix.
-What has helped you in the past to mix more artistically?
-What would you suggest to others who want to improve their mixing skills but don’t know how?
-What methods would you suggest to someone who wants to improve their ear for mixing?