7 Ways to a Better Recording: Anatomy of a Mix Part 7.1! by James Coffey

This is part 1 of the final installment of our Recording series by James Coffey, B.M.Ed., M.Ed. of Blue Vision Music. Click here to start at part one. Also, be sure to catch part two on Thursday!

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Throughout the previous installments we’ve explored many of the individual facets of audio mixing. I thought it best to end this series with a real world look into the mixing process.

I’ve been fortunate over the last year to work on a project for Lianna and Elias Berlinger who are super talented musicians and songwriters from California. I’ve chosen two songs from this project to help illustrate several of the mixing techniques we’ve discussed in previous posts. We don’t have time here to outline every nuance so I’ll highlight some of the more interesting treatments.

“Lullaby”

by Lianna Berlinger

Examination: Let’s take a listen to a rough mix sent to me by the artist.

Rough mix provided by artist

Prognosis: Even though this is not a finished mix I could tell this was a great song and the challenge for me would be to bring out the very best it had to offer.

Every engineer has their own approach to start a mix. It varies with each song but usually I focus first on the drums, bass and vocals in that order. Especially when live drums are used with multiple microphones.

DRUMS

Examination: Let’s listen to the raw main drum tracks.

Drums raw

Procedure: In this case I used the overheads to add some parallel compression. I added a good amount of compression (4:1 ratio) as well as some EQ. Then mixed that track back into the main drum group. Since I wanted more control over the kick and sub kick, I cut the lower range of the overhead track so I could control the kicks as a group separately.

(For more insight on compression and its use, see part 3 of this series.)

Let’s listen to the raw drums and then bring in the overheads a little at a time.

Drums with gradual overhead parallel compression added

Examination: One other treatment of note is the snare cross-stick or “rim-click” as some refer to it. One of the things that make live drums sound so good is the bleed you get from every mic. It’s often a huge plus to the overall live sound but can also give you less control and make things sound muddy if overdone.

Procedure: For the snare, I decide to use a gate to isolate the snare from the other drums in the background. A gate only let’s through the sound that occurs above a certain threshold. Once you have a nice isolated version of a snare it makes it much easier to add effective delay and reverb.

Snare without gate
Snare with gate

Note: Something like this may seem like a small detail but I often tell people that these details add up in the final mix. Reducing unwanted sound and gaining the slightest bit of control over a track can add up to a better mix in the long run!

VOCALS

Examination: Let’s take a listen to the raw vocal track.

Raw vocals

Diagnosis: The first thing I noticed was a great deal of sibilance. The exaggerated sound of the “Ssss” coming through. The vocals where recorded in California so I am not sure where the issue originates. Could have been the choice of microphones or other factors. With the effects I have planned for later these high frequencies will become even more exaggerated. So this is a problem that needs addressing.

I also noticed a frequency that was slightly unpleasant to the overall vocal sound. Remember that not all frequencies are created equal. There is a range of frequencies called the “pain frequencies” located around 1Khz-4kHz. These frequencies can be literally painful to listen too. From birth our ears are much more sensitive to these frequencies as they are also in the range of the human voice.

Procedure: So first up was to add a de-esser to reduce some of the sibilance. A de-esser is a specialized compressor which targets the upper frequencies.

Next, I added some compression and a bit of EQ boost around 220 Hz to bring out fullness and 6 kHz to make it a bit brighter.

EQ_vocal_lullaby1

I added a separate EQ just to calm that “pain” frequency issue with a dip around 1.5 kHz

EQ_vocal_lullaby2

Vocal with de-esser, compression and EQ

If you listen carefully you’ll notice overall the level is much more controlled and less harsh which will make it react better to the delay effect ahead.

Prescription: For effects I thought of adding a long reverb but remembered a technique using stereo delay that worked wonderfully. Any unwanted sound in the raw track will only be exaggerated with an effect of this type. So I also put a de-esser on the delay aux track and cut some of the upper frequencies.

Vocal with stereo delay

GUITAR

Examination: One of the nice instrumental elements is the acoustic guitar throughout the song, but they need a bit of life and a space of their own in the mix. In the beginning they are panned hard right and left with an added guitar element coming in later.

Guitars raw

Diagnosis: The challenge here is the lower frequencies. They give the acoustics a rich sound but can muddy things up when mixed with the lower frequencies of the drums and bass.

Procedure: After a bit of experimenting I used a high-pass filter and cut everything below 90 Hz. Also a little bump of 2 db at 1kHz. I used a Renaissance Axx compressor with a moderate setting and an attack of 5 ms.

Guitars with EQ and compression

ADDING MORE

Looking Deeper: This is where some thought is needed to the overall emotion and impact of the song thus far. Like most songs, it can be repetitive. And the challenge becomes how to make the song build and stay interesting through out. Can be especially challenging in a slow ballad. There are two places the song builds dramatically. In the middle and again at the end. Once the song builds in the center section it returns to the same instrumentation for the most part. So I decide to add more instrumentation with the hopes of enhancing the impact.

Here is the build up without added instrumentation.

Build up without pad and piano

My goal was to make the build up even more dramatic as well as add a freshness to the verses after the build up. So I added a synth sweep to the build up. Compare this with the example above and notice how the notes of the sweep carry you into the next section much more effectively. Once into the next verse, I added piano to give a fresh new sound to the mix with notes sprinkled in various places as to not interfere with the vocal.

Build up with pad and piano

This brings us to the master buss. Most engineers add a bit of compression to the entire mix even if they intend to send off to be mastered to help the mix gel together.

Prescription: Since I was in charge of the final master, I decide at this point to add a multi-band compressor as well. This allows more control over several frequency ranges at once and I can pick and choose which areas to compress or boost to effect the overall sound of the mix. A good multi-band compressor handles the transitions from one frequency range to another very well and adds to the definition and stereo width of the mix.

Final mix

Certainly has come a long way.

In the next half of this last installment we’ll work on a different song with several other challenges to explore. Hope you’ll stay tuned!!

1 comment

  1. Another great informative blog post. Even those who have been recording for years can learn new tricks and methods. Thank you Jim!

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