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Enhance your mix: Simplify December 8, 2009

Posted by ConnorSmith in : Digital home recording studios , trackback

If you were a carpenter, it would be a bad idea to limit yourself to only using a hammer when building a house.  However, limiting yourself in audio processing options is an awesome way to improve your mix skills.  Especially in a world of DAWs, where processing power is essentially limitless, it’s easy to get carried away and overdo everything.  Back in the good ol’ analog days, if you ran out of EQ units – that’s it! – no more EQ (there was no option of just clicking to add more insert spots and adding another EQ…).  Being limited forces you to learn your gear (::ahem:: plug-ins) to the max, and use that gear as efficiently and effectively as possible.

One of the hardest things for me to grasp in my early audio days was figuring out how to attack a mix.  I knew that compression and EQ were important and used often, and so I usually ended up putting at least one of each on just about every track.  That’s what everyone does, right?

Wrong!

Another pitfall I experienced developed as a result of plug-ins being so flexible.  “Hey look, this EQ plug-in has 12 bands! Certainly I need to use them all!”

Wrong!

I learned over time that it is not about processing the tracks because you “should”, rather it’s about using your ears to figure out not only what needs processing, but specifically why it needs it.

While I got these tough principles eventually, I wish I had limited myself from the get-go.  Instead of utilizing the limitless power of the DAW to the extreme, setup some guidelines for yourself.

For example, let’s pretend I need to do a mix of a pop rock song that has 24 tracks.  In even a basic DAW, it is likely that it’s chock full of plug-ins (compression, EQ, delay, reverb, flangers, amp simulators, expanders, gates, auto-tuners…).  What if you just limited yourself to compression, EQ, delay and reverb?  ::Gasp!!::  As crazy as it may seem, these are building blocks of a mix.  You can make great music with just these four processors.

For this hypothetical mix, I am only going to allow myself to use 8 compressors (either mono or stereo).  With only 8 compressors, you will need to choose wisely.  Will you use compression on every drum track?  If so, will you run out before you get to the lead vocal or other important instruments?

Let’s continue with the limitations – I will allow myself to use EQ on every channel, but I’ll limit myself to 3 bands/filters per channel (so I could do a high and low shelf plus a cut in the mids, but then I wouldn’t be able to add anything else).  This begins to (somewhat) simulate the experience in a room of hardware – kind of like an analog desk, where you may only have a few bands of EQ per channel.  You need to choose your processing carefully.

Finally – let’s talk time effects.  Maybe you will only allow yourself to setup two reverbs and two delays.  In this case, maybe you’d choose a plate and hall reverb, and a mono and a stereo delay line.  Also, you’ll probably put these on auxiliary tracks, so that multiple tracks in your mix can take advantage of one plug-in.

On a side note, it can also be cool to restrict yourself to one type of plug-in per processor.  That is, I can only use one compressor plug-in for all my compressors, only one EQ plug-in, etc.  That way, you will really learn the sound and workflow of that particular plug-in.

Now, while in a full-on mix, it is very possible that the music will call for more processing.  However, these techniques can still prove beneficial.  I like to keep these concepts in the back of my mind when getting rough mixes going.  I always ask myself: “How far can I take this mix with just EQ, compression, delay, and reverb??”.  By carefully choosing your processing while rough mixing (and not cluttering up the mix with huge amounts of plug-ins), you can keep things simple, organized, and sounding great.  Rough mixes should be all about making quick, yet thoughtful decisions while not overextending your processing.  Leave space for all that wacky automation and special effects that will come as the mix progresses!

Really great mixes can be made with this amount of processing.  Compare this limited DAW setup’s flexibility to what the great studios of the 60s had – we are still waaaaaaaay ahead, even in this limited setup.  You may even notice that your “simple” mixes sound better than your more complex mixes.  Sometimes the availability of so many different options can cloud our ears and judgment.

A final thing you can do to improve your skills is set concrete time limits for yourself.  Don’t leave something important, thinking that you will have all night to listen to it and then can “tweak it tomorrow”.  Give yourself 6-8 hours, and at the end of that time, you print your mix.

The first few times you try these techniques, it may be slightly frustrating, but by the 3rd or 4th time, you will notice your skills moving up to the next level.

The next few articles coming up will be about basic approaches to compression and EQ.

C

The Studio Files

Comments»

1. Tweets that mention Enhance your mix: Simplify | The Studio Files -- Topsy.com - December 8, 2009

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jeff Sopha, Tim Keenan. Tim Keenan said: Applies 2 audio 4 vid, too. RT @JeffSopha Enhance Mix: Simplify. It’s ez to get carried away & overdo everything. http://bit.ly/6In7ij #FCP […]

2. Blair - December 8, 2009

Not to mention it makes you wicked fast at mixing/editing (thus less $) and usually turns out better.

3. ConnorSmith - December 8, 2009

@Blair
Absolutely. Mix quickly and from the heart! (Obviously there are time when tweaks, critical moves, and long listens come into play… but this is a good starting platform)

4. Damon Sink - December 11, 2009

1. EQ – carve out a place for every track, but don’t over-do it. There is a reason that pop music has drums, bass, guitars & vocals: each one fills part of the whole EQ spectrum.

2. Loudness – compression and volume. Make sure that your dynamics processing is not apparent unless you want it to be!

3. Effects – delay & reverb (maybe chorus too? but that’s really just a detuned delay 🙂

4. Overall balance of “sweetened” tracks will make the magic happen.

–Great post Connor. If readers follow your advice about recording tracks, then they should be golden when it’s time to mix!!

Damon
The Studio Files

If you nail these four, then you have your mix.

5. PJ - December 13, 2009

“so I usually ended up putting at least one of each on just about every track”

Me too. One of the best pieces of mixing advice I’ve ever received came from Dr. Damon when he suggested that I send all my vocal tracks to a bus, then insert EQ, compression, etc on that track. Not only does it utilize computer resources better (only 1 instance of a plugin rather than say 8) but it also sounds better.

6. PJ - December 13, 2009

^^ umm that sunglasses smiley should be an 8!

7. ConnorSmith - December 13, 2009

Yep^^

Pretty soon I’d like to do an article on proper gain staging – which unfortunately is often ignored in digital audio land. It makes a HUGE difference.

8. PJ - December 15, 2009

^^Sounds good

WAAAY off topic but I’d love to see you try to recreate that movie preview voice effect. That has to be some vocal trickery, there’s no way they get the same guy to do all those previews!!

9. ConnorSmith - December 15, 2009

Actually, up until 2008, most of them WERE the same guy hah.

His name was Don LaFontaine (aka The Voice of God, aka Thunder Throat), and unfortunately, the world lost a great voiceover artist in 2008.

To get that effect, you need

a) someone with “the voice” 🙂
b) The right mic if their voice needs a little help (maybe like an RE20 or SM7, could be a condenser too though)
c) Compression! + EQ

Most important of course is the talent.

10. Joe Gilder - December 19, 2009

GREAT article!!! All too often people keep buying plug-ins to improve their mixed rather than intimately learning their current plug-ins.

Posting to Twitter right now…

11. ConnorSmith - December 20, 2009

^^Thanks!

Yeah, if you really know 3-4 of your plug-ins, you’ll be a lot better off than having 600 that you’ve never used.

The Lord-Alge’s of the world can work magic with inexpensive pieces like the DBX 163x – not to say that unit doesn’t sound ok, but the real beauty is in their skills…

12. Larry "Lz" Sentelle - April 15, 2010

I’m all for doing this, and not just to increase my skills, but rather to keep the music sounding like real music. The bottom line for me comes when I am tracking. Having the sonic vision to record my sources very close to how they will sound in my mix makes alot of difference in the end. As they say, fortune favors the bold. There is nothing like having a tight, well rehearsed band. Good rehearsal habits=good records. Learn the steps which will make mixing simple. Some of these “tricks” should be performed BEFORE a band walks into a studio. Be brave and follow the “vision” of your ears.

13. Bruce - May 21, 2010

Not to mention it makes you wicked fast at mixing/editing (thus less $) and usually turns out better.

14. Bailey - June 16, 2010

Not to mention it makes you wicked fast at mixing/editing (thus less $) and usually turns out better.

15. Damon Sink - March 19, 2011

Just a “bump” here for a great post with lots of good advice. If you don’t believe me, google “voice of god” and connor comes up pretty close to the top of the list.

🙂

Damon
The Stiudio Files


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