Mixing : A Serious Mini-Mixing Lesson

Robert Katz Leave a Comment

Here’s a conversation I carried on via email because I felt that these questions and answers should be at our website.

My question is about getting punch. I have this track I have been working on forever, It builds over about 30 bars into a crescendo for the final chorus. It is strings, boys voices, classical guitar solo and then flute, bass, drums and piano where the vocal comes in. As you might imagine I am having a hard time getting the punch on the vocal that I want as it comes in with a dramatic line.

Mixing complex material like this is definitely not easy and separates the men from the boys for sure. I’m not surprised you have been working on it forever. You will probably have to do it in two stages. The first is the mix, the second is the mastering. I assume you are referring to “punch” in the sense of making sure the vocal stands out without being lost and without losing the fullness of the instruments. The other definition of “punch” is giving the material dynamic impact at the crescendo points. The latter definition of “punch” is better left for the mastering and is hard to do in mixing, so let’s reserve that kind of “punch” for the mastering. But the first definition of punch absolutely must be obtained in the mixing. Because if it isn’t mixed well, then it’ll never come out right.

I recorded everything with my Neve Mic pre, summit compressor and Apogee A/D. I did not squash anything too much just a little to get a good level on the way in. There is a lot of dynamic range in the recorded material yet i can’t get the vocal to stand out.

So far, it seems you’ve done right, Mike. Of course the whole origin of this is the artificial nature of the multitrack recording process in the first place, where so many things are created by overdubs rather than by the musical arrangement itself. If the singer couldn’t stand out in the first place over the band, you would have known it during the original recording and fixed it then. But let’s assume this is a modern recording and you are being asked to accomplish the impossible!

EQ:

Start by using delicate amounts of equalization in the presence range on the vocal track, to make the vocal stand out. If it is varying material like you describe, likely the eq you would use in the complex passage will be very different from the eq you would use in a simpler passage, or else the vocal would sound too bright and harsh in the simpler passages. In other words, you will have to *ride* the eq (ideally, automated) and increase the presence only during the complex passages. This, combined with careful equalization of the instrumental elements, perhaps to leave a subtle “hole” in the frequency spectrum to let the voice “stick” through. In extreme cases with complex instrumentation that’s competing with the vocal, in addition to the eq, people have been known to use an “enhancer” such as an Aphex or Behringer to help the vocal stand out. Personally I would only use these if absolutely necessary, if you are confident in your monitors, and even then, only during the passages that need the help on the vocal.

Well funny you should mention Exciters. I was experimenting with the aural exciter tonight. I listened and listened and I decided that I only wanted to use the exciter on the drums. I seemed to just enhance the vocal ssses in the vocal. I experimented with higher cutoff points like 8k but still did not seem to help. I did de-ess the vocal in my vocal bounce down session. Did I miss something?

I’m really not fond of such enhancers. Personally, I would only keep one around for emergencies where no other tool or combination of tools seems to work. That’s my opinion.

Compression:

Even with a lot of dynamic range in the instruments, complex mixes such as this can still not be easy. Combined with subtle and appropriate compression on the vocal track to help it to cut through during these complex passages. It can take hours and hours, and sometimes days to balance these delicate elements together before the song works right for you and the vocal is neither too harsh nor too dull, the instruments neither too soft and unsupportive nor mask the vocal too much, and the song still building at the climax points.

You may have to apply selective compression on certain instrumental groups as well as on the vocal, if it proves difficult. And the attack/decay times are quite critical so as not to destroy the sound of the compressed material. Good luck. And I mean it.

Well I am scared to compress the bass or the piano cos they are allmost as hard to seperate out as the vocal.

I’m glad you’re scared of it. One must have healthy respect for how compression can seriously affect the sound of a piano (for example). I rarely if ever compress a piano, but the style of mixing and music that I usually do does not demand that. But compressing a bass is often done in mixing because when a bass is mixed at a lower or higher level, some of the notes drop out due to the Fletcher-Munson effect. I know only one mix engineer who rarely if ever compresses the bass, and I still don’t know how he does it. I admire him for it, because I have found that a subtle amount of compression on a bass is one of the more commonly used tools. Regardless, compression is often a necessary tool, to be used carefully and selectively.

Reverb

Using an excellent reverberation program with just the right amount of predelay, on the vocal, can help the vocal to stand out even more. The Haas effect of the delay actually enhances and clarifies the vocal over the instruments.

I have TC Electronics TDM Reverb. I prefer it over Trueverb or DVerb. (what do you think?)

In my opinion, at this time, there is no TDM reverb available that has the depth, space, dimension, and naturalness that you can find in a high-quality outboard box.

How do you determine the right amount Dr. Bob?

The right amount of reverb? What sounds good, eh? Less is usually better, but sometimes more is better, if you know what I mean. A totally dry instrument may cut better than a wet one, or vice versa. Since it’s an esthetic tool, it helps to have an aural picture in your mind of what the mix should be sounding like, rather than just “playing with it” to see if it does anything for a particular instrument.

Does it help do run 2 reverb units in paralell with slightly different pre delays to get thicker early reflections?

In TDM, yes, it may…where many of the effects available are not rich enough in my opinion. But many outboard boxes are sufficiently versatile enough to give you the depth you need. And thicker early reflections are not always the answer. Depends very much on the music.

Mastering:

After the mixing is over, further enhancement can be done in the mastering, where I would apply some of my “patented” tricks to enhance the dynamic level at the climax points.

As I said, it’s easier said (or written) than done, and the rest of the work is up to you!

Why mixing is an “unnatural” process by definition

I had never thought about that. I always assumed that a vocal stood out cos it was louder.

Hmmm, think of the natural dynamic range of music…

Vocals are not naturally louder than the symphony orchestra! Even an opera singer sometimes needs PA help standing out over a full orchestra in concert. The bottom line is that the process of mixing is often an artificial one, creating balances that do not exist in real life. This is the origin of the need to process material “unnaturally”. This is neither good nor bad, just a fact of life.

Work, work, work…

Very Very interesting. Do you realise how much work that is? Do you think that the listener would be able to tell or would it just seem to be natural?

Do I realize how much work it is? For sure, for sure—the last 10 percent of the job takes 90 percent of the time, all the time. So, if you think you’re 90 percent done in your recording/mixing job, book almost the same amount of time to get it done if you want it to sound “good enough”! It’s the basic principle of any artistic/perfectionist profession. Welcome to the club.

Anyway, if you’re good at the process of riding the vocal EQ, no one but you will be able to tell! If you’re bad at it….. 🙁 And, if you had an “old fashioned” analog automated console, you might find it ergonomically easier to ride that EQ. Depends on what plugs and automation you are using in Pro Tools, of course.

Bottom line is that riding the equalizer may be necessary to keep the vocal intelligibility in a complex mix with a continuous crescendo. As I said, it has to be done extremely carefully or the vocal will start to sound bright and harsh. And I would use that tool or other tools only when and if I found that the instruments themselves were losing force while I was simultaneously trying to keep the vocal clear and intelligible above them during a complex crescendo. (as an example)

Peak to Average Ratio:

Our conversation continued over a couple of emails. Speaking of my recommendations on maintaining a good peak to average ratio when mixing, Mike asks…

Are the peak/average meters on the Mastertools good enough to work with? I have this TDM plugin and I think I can get real close to your specs with it if it is accurate.

I have no idea! Send me the specs…

So I am reducing the peak/average ratio to what? 4Db or less?

There is no rule, Mike. You’re certainly not working on the peak/average ratio of the entire material but on the “density” of certain critical individual elements to keep them from being lost in the density of the whole package. From your description of the kind of music you are mixing, your final MIXED p/a ratio (prior to sending for mastering) should not be less than about 14 dB or you will lose transient clarity.

Flavors of Dither and Wordlength:

Speaking of dither, Mike asks…

I have 3 flavors of Dither: Mastertools UV22 Maxim Waves L1 Ultramaximiser Which of these would you use for Dither?

None! I have my own favorite, in its own little box. It’s called “POW-R” dither. I may use many other “flavors” of dither, but ultimately I return to POW-R when I want the most neutral sound with the highest resolution.

Now, I have to use dither cos I am changing word length, so I also do a gain change at the same time with 1 band EQ or something and just raise the output. Then i dither and it gets recorded to a track.

Why are you changing wordlength? Are you storing to a medium whose wordlength is less than 24 bits? Please don’t dither to shorter than 24 bits in any intermediate step unless you are forced to by the wordlength of your multitrack. If your multitrack or file storage is 16 bit you shouldn’t be bouncing at all because cumulative 16-bit dither is very costly soundwise. If your multitrack is 20 bits, then dither at the 20th bit level only. If your multitrack or file storage is 24 bits (the best choice), then don’t dither except at the 24th bit level if 24 bit dithering is available in your choices. Store 24 bits on tape or on virtual tracks. If you must store only 20 bits, then dither to 20. But avoid any cumulative dithering at the 16th bit level. Does this help or further confuse? (just write back)

Now if you were counting, the most critical element of the mix, the vocal has been dithered 3 times. Because it is sitting in the instruments the degredation is masked. But I have no choice right? I cannot do any bouncing upstream without using dither cos that would be even worse right?

I wouldn’t say that “because it is sitting in the instruments the degradation is masked”. The cumulative “fuzziness” of the 3 generations of dither makes the vocal sound less clear, even with lots of instruments around it. Remember: “Dither–you can’t live with it, and you can’t live without it”. You can only avoid the degradation by using 24 bit storage as long as possible, and dithering once to 16 only at the end. If you are bouncing back to the multi and the multi is less than 24 bits, then you are correct, it’s better to dither than not.

It’s a question of the “sonic cost” of your actions. If you were bouncing to a 24 bit medium, the costs of the sound of the dither would be minimized. The degradation due to cumulative dither would be at the 24th bit level and you can tolerate several levels of bouncing (hopefully).

So my question is, is it better to use 3 different flavors of dither to mix it up? Would this give me 3 types of noise all in different freq rather than 3 layers of the same noise?

At the 24th bit level I would simply use a decent noise-shaped dither… I haven’t considered the question of if there is less accumulation if the noise is varied, but honestly, if you are concerned about accumulation of multiple generations of dither (as you should) then get a 24-bit multitrack!

I have been trying to come out at -.2Db on my bounces cos I only have 16 bits. Each 6Db lower is one bit! So If I leave 8Db headroom I will be down to around 14 bits. Then When I master I have to re-dither.

When you master you have to redither regardless of how much headroom you left on individual tracks. The only reason to come out at -.2 dB on your bounces is if you have inadequate meters. But -.2 dB is not a big loss and does play it safe. 16-bit multitrack and internal resolution of 16 bits is one of the biggest impediments to getting a bigger, fatter, warmer, deeper sound.

Now for questions on stereo positioning, spaciousness and reverb…

I had a conversation with a guy a while ago in Santa Fe about positioning elements in a mix. I think what he was trying to tell me was that it is possible using Waves S1 or Protron or A3D to position each instrument in 3 dimensional space so that they do not compete as much. Have you heard of this? Have you tried this?

All the time! It’s part of many useful mixing tools, and get a natural, spacious, deep effect. As you are just getting your feet wet, I suspect you will discover the use of delays and other such stereo positioning tools as you get more sophisticated. Can’t learn it all in one day. In addition, I have other tools, some of which I’ve invented myself, that I use in mastering to further help mixes which are weak in the space, depth, ambience and dimensionality.

On Analog versus digital mixing …I expressed the feeling that a high-end console (usually analog) in a large high-end studio can usually get better results than current “all-in-one” DAWs. I said ‘you may not have the tools to do it well.’ And Mike replied….

Why not? I have Automation, all the plugs I need, and bussing beyond compare. I don’t understand.

I think that someday you may. Many producer/engineers today are cutting their teeth on inadequate, underpowered platforms. Large consoles such as API, Neve, or SSL, fully automated, with lots of good outboard available are currently far more ergonomic, sonically more “powerful” (analog mixers add their own fatness) and more capable than their computer-based brethren. Sometime in the next 5 years, I predict that this discrepancy will be reduced, hopefully eliminated, but until then, you’re working at a handicap for many styles of music in a virtual DAW environment. It is possible today for a talented, experienced engineer/producer to work with a computer rig with sufficient outboard inserts and achieve a mix on a par with the best high-end studios, but note the qualifications in this sentence! In my opinion, current computer-based platforms are generally underpowered and ergonomically unsuitable for doing the most sophisticated mixing. Note the “generally” in the previous sentence, because talent and good acoustics often overcome all the tools in the world. With only two microphones and a good acoustic space, a talented and experienced engineer can create a sound quality that can never be achieved by another engineer working with 24 microphones and 48 tracks in an overdubbing environment.

Getting it right in the mix before mastering…

So I have been trying to get everything right in the mix and avoid mastering. I know this is heresy, but what do you think of my reasoning?

Trying to get it as right as possible in the mix is the goal. But reserve many of the dynamic questions for the mastering. Mastering should not be avoided on a good project because any good mastering engineer can take an A mix and turn it into an A+ master.

And one final word…ready for tricks now???

Dear Dr. Bob, I have read your replies about 3 times now and I have a lot of ideas. Thank you. This was really cool.

My pleasure.

I have one final question, if I may, about vocal efffects. I have heard of doubling, delay panned, reverb and also a DPP effect pitch shifting slightly and delaying different amounts on each channel. What other tricks are there I can experiment with?

You’re already into tricks! My advice: Start by thinking naturally first. Start by listening to the dry sound of any of your tracks and work on finding creative tools to give that instrument a naturalistic space and depth that makes it seem like it is really playing there before you. That’s the challenge, probably the hardest challenge of any recording engineer—to make something out of nothing. Anyone can create an abstract sound that’s “different and interesting”, but what separates the men from the boys is an engineer who can take individual elements and make them come together naturally. And someone really at the top of the heap is an engineer who can do both: who has the knowledge and the ears to create a natural sound when desired, or an entirely abstract sound when useful. I firmly believe that a person desiring to specialize in abstract painting first has to learn how to paint realistically, or all he will be doing all his life is playing without perspective. My advice: Gain perspective first, then learn how to do tricks. Since anyone can turn a knob, good-sounding natural is hard to do, but good-sounding abstract is also hard.

Like how does Seal get that extra husk in his recordings?

I strongly believe it is a combination of compression and delay, perhaps even a preset in an ancillary effects box, which could be anything made by Lexicon, TC, Sony, Behringer, Eventide, you name it. And maybe, just maybe it’s his voice!

Thank you so much Dr. Bob. I can’t tell you how good it is to find someone that relly knows what they are talking about.

Well, I have a big mouth. Hopefully it makes some sense.

Take care,

Bob

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