The art of mixing is all about bringing together the individual elements of a record and making a unified work. With advancements in recording technology, and the dropping cost of entry, it has never been easier to bring your musical vision to life. But despite these many advancements, it’s very easy to wind up with a disjointed or sterile product.
While some of these issues result from the choices we make during the mixing phase, some of the choices we make during tracking can impact the outcome as well. If we look back on recording practices through the years, as so many of us often love to do, there are a number of inherent differences we find in the modern process.
Technological and logistical limitations often led to:
- Simpler mic’ing techniques, often with much more emphasis on placement and selection
- More live recordings, with all members actively playing the take simultaneously
- Fewer overdubs and more commitment to sonic choices, as track counts often were limited and required track bouncing
- Many studios were revered for the sound of their rooms, or actual reverb chambers, which played a big role in the sonics of certain records.
Though many of us listen to recordings from the ‘60s through the ‘80s with a certain reverence, that doesn’t mean that they are inherently better than recordings made today. While some of us may not like to hear that — as the only thing audio enthusiasts love more than tech-talk is the mythology and superstition surrounding gear — the reality tends to be much simpler. Recordings of that time often were the result of a “big picture” approach. Now we have the ability to go over every second of our recordings surgically, and often what gets cut by the scalpel of digital process is the human element: that authenticity that makes people connect with the music.
As home recording becomes the recording process for many, we often have to negotiate with less-than-ideal spaces for recording, as well as limitations of consumer-grade recording equipment.
One way to combat the constraints of bedroom studios is through re-amping signals. Re-amping involves capturing a direct input signal to be used later. Re-amping is a good habit to get into and can enable more creative options for those with less-than-ideal recording setups.
For example, let’s say you only have access to eight inputs on your interface and want to record a four-piece band live in the same room. If you mic the drum kit during the original pass with a conservative mic setup and capture everything else via DI, you can utilize re-amping to record the DI performances like live performances. This enables you to capture these phantom musicians through amplifiers, or whatever rig you’re interested in, with more complicated mic configurations and less bleed than would have been possible during the tracking process, all the while preserving the human interaction of the recording.
Close mic’ing techniques, much more prominent in modern recording practice, have a number of benefits but remove the room and bleed from other instruments from the equation. While this can be advantageous in a less-than-ideal room, or when processing audio with lots of bleed would be problematic, it makes everything sound exactly that: close. Without a sense of space or variations in characteristics like attack and decay, recordings lose depth and can begin to sound like a stack of in-your-face sounds. As always, if that’s what you’re going for, go for it. However, as that often is not a desirable effect, something must be done. Sounds that are farther away naturally have less high-end information, as air tends to act as a buffer absorbing high-frequency information. Therefore, before you reach for a reverb to bring back that sense of space, you might consider that EQ can be just as helpful for simulating depth.
Adding Space with Reverb and Delay
If you do wind up with a track in which everything has been recorded in extreme isolation, with everything sounding six inches from your face, the classic solution is to create a sense of space and depth with reverb and delay. This may seem like a no-brainer, but reverb quickly can become one of the most abused tools in this category. Nothing makes a recording sound cheap and amateur like out-of-control reverb.
Bussing instruments together and applying the same reverb to all of them, or sounds in a certain group, can go miles towards creating a sense of shared space. Different reverbs for every element often only serves to further differentiate individual elements instead of bringing them together. That being said, don’t be afraid to apply multiple reverbs to the same sources.
Combining things like a hall, plate, and room reverb together over the same set of sources can allow you to further mix and blend the characteristics of each to give you a more complex and “gluing” effect. This level of control also will help you keep things from sounding like reverb, and more like a space for the track; the desired effect typically is something we want to be felt more so than heard.
Treating reverbs and delays as mono effects — instead of the all-too-popular stereo variety — and then panning them opposite their dry source can help without setting things awash in a sea of reverb and time-based effects.
Shared parallel compression can be used not only as a mix tool to shape sound and response, but also as a way to help bring things together in a way that feels natural. One famous mix trick, commonly referred to as NYC-style compression, illustrates this point well. This technique typically sees the signal from the drums, most importantly the kick, snare and bass bussed together and processed with parallel compression.
While this has a number of practical implications sonically that usually are the primary reason for utilizing this technique, it also often results in the psychoacoustic effect that the bass and primary drum components are locked in and “glued” together. A great way to get the foundation of your track sounding really tight and heavy.
Another devil in the details of modern recording is our nearly unlimited ability to edit and modify performances. While this may be a way to save the take of a lifetime from a small mistake, liberal use of these techniques tends to dehumanize performance. Though this may inherently be part of the sound of some genres, it has found its way into general practice. Often sessions are recorded on a grid, where drums are hard quantized, and pitches are tuned with absolute perfection. Sometimes this is the right call, but as engineers/producers/musicians, it is up to us to make a judgement call, to know when right actually may be wrong. Unfortunately, this is the hardest of all the unifying techniques as it often the lack of technique that separates the pros from the pretenders. Its subjective nature makes it impossible to declare when it is wrong or right in practice and highlights the dilemma we have sitting at the crossroads of technology and art.
Julian Ludwig é diretor do Pro Áudio Clube, produtora de áudio Jacarandá, Loc On Demand e Jacarandá Licensing. Trabalhou para empresas como: Guaraná Antartica, TV Gazeta, NET, Chivas Regal, FNAC, Prefeitura de São Paulo, Mukeca Filmes, Agência LEW’LARA TBWA, Agencia MPM, Agência Content House entre outras. Fez trilhas para programas de TV como: Internet-se (Rede TV), Você Bonita (TV Gazeta), Mix Mulher (TV Gazeta), Os Impedidos (TV Gazeta), Estação Pet (TV Gazeta), CQC (TV Band) Vinheta Oficial TV Gazeta, entre outras. Também atuou em vários longas e curtas metragens, incluindo mixagem em 5.1 e serviços de pós-produção.