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Mixing Articles

Below you will find several articles by Deron Daum offering suggestions on how to become a better mix engineer.

Bringing it into Focus

July 4, 2017 - I like to think about bringing a mix into focus, like focusing a lens to take a photograph.  When each element in a mix is right, it is sharply in focus.  You can hear it clearly and it sounds like it should in the mix.  The whole mix sounds present, full and clear.  Nothing is flabby, nothing jumps out.  If you listen to a particular instrument, you can hear it clearly, as if it is playing independent of the rest of the mix (which of course it is not) and you can hear what that instrument sounds like.  Switching to each instrument, each sounds loud, yet the mix of the whole song does not sound loud - it sounds quiet in a way.

When there are multiple elements of a photograph at different distances, not everything is clear.  You have to pick what to focus on.  This is true in mixing as well.  But you want the composite shot to look right, just like you want the whole mix to sound right.  When mixing, you have to choose your focus point at each part of the song.  This should be especially "clear" while the rest of the mix supports it and may be more background.  More ambience, less highs and lows tend to move things into the background.

The ways I try to bring elements of a mix into focus are the same processes all mixers use - eq, compression, effects, etc.  It is more of the mindset that I am talking about.  I'll ask myself, "In the context of this mix, how do I bring this bass part into focus?"  It is different than thinking about "how do I make this bass huge" or "how do I make it not compete with the kick".  I am picturing the perfect mix in my mind's eye and working to bring the bass to that sound.  

Of course, getting the bass in focus often depends on what is happening with other instruments in the track.  So the best way to focus an overall mix is with incremental changes, not focusing on one instrument trying to get it perfect.  Go through the whole mix focusing each part for about 1-2 minutes.  Compare the mix to references and reset your brain.  Then do another iteration going through each instrument again in a different order.  Keep iterating until you can begin to hear what is not focused, then hone in on that.  

Stay Current

December 12, 2016 - These days things move fast and change fast.  It's almost impossible to keep up with the trends in music across popular genres.  Here are a few thoughts on how to stay fresh as a producer or engineer.

1. New Plug-ins.  It's nice to get to know a set of "go to" plug-ins and know what you will get with them.  It's important to know your tools.  But don't get too comfortable or repetitive!  You have to shake things up enough to ensure you aren't getting into a rut.  Check in with your network to see what's hot and try it out.

2. No Drum Replacement.  I know some mix engineers that use the same set of samples for drum replacement on most of their mixes.  These start to sound dated within a couple of years these days.  If you need to replace samples try something new.

3. Updated References.  All experienced mix engineers use references to ensure they are in the right ballpark.  A really well produced and mixed song as a reference gives you a north star guide as you work on your tones, balances and energy.  If you are using references from 2006 you may want to look at adding some more modern songs in the same genre.

4.  Listen.  Obvious but sometimes hard.  Critical listenning is a skill worth a whole article in itself.  Find some songs that catch your ear and do a deep evaluation of what is going on.  See what you can re-create to pick up new tricks.

Analog is Dead, Long Live Analog

April, 2014 - I remember back in the late 80's when I traded in my 1/2" 8-track reel-to-reel recorder for the newest recording technology - Alesis ADAT.  I remember being disappointed with how thin and plain the recording sounded but I convinced myself that this was the "more accurate" recording and a step forward.  After all, the goal of analog tape recording for years was to get cleaner (noise reduction) and more accurate recordings. Digital was the panacea as far
as I was concerned. I watched 20 years of debate among analog purists and digital aficionados - pretty firmly in the digital camp myself. But over the past 10 years as more and more excellent analog tape / mixer emulation plug-ins have become available I find myself thinking back to those days recording on tape and how awesome it sounded.  But what a pain in the ass!  

Now we are in an era where you can go completely digital and enjoy the sound of
analog.  Or we can mix and match, recording digitally through analog gear.  For me the convenience of DAW recording and playback is a necessity.  The sound of tape is a nice thing to capture in the DAW.  But I don't see myself investing in a tape machine when the plug-ins have gotten so good.

I am a big fan of Slate Digital VTM (Virtual Tape Machine).  For more extreme analog grit I reach for Massey Tape Head Simulator - especially great on drums and bass. I often run HEAT across the mix in ProTools as well, with just a touch of the even harmonics drive (knob once click to the left).  

A bit of saturation has another benefit that helps us achieve louder overall perceived mixes.  With saturation, transient heavy tracks can be made less loud in the mix but still stick out properly in a mix.  This enables a higher crest factor (fatness of your waveforms) and enables you to push your mix louder without clipping.  

I liked the sound of analog so much that I invested in an SSL console and a lot of great analog outboard gear.  Not everyone can afford to do so and I make it available at affordable rates so you can hear the difference.  But I think the plug-ins are good and getting better every day.  

Another tool everyone can use to make richer and warmer recordings is to get a great chain to run your signals through before you ever hit the A/D converter.  This is another place where great technology is helping us achieve the needed tone - either clean and pure or downright grimey. 

After all we are not really after analog or digital, we're after the sound that will best support the music we are recording.  For many songs a bit of analog tone is a useful tool.  With this
knowledge, it is nice to have plug-ins that can take the analog flavor to further extremes.  I'll often crank the level of saturation for indie or heavy tracks - or even for pop music now
days.  Taking this a step further, I will run many tracks through distortion plug-ins just to resonate some additional harmonics and fill things out.  Often this is a mult (track whose input is the original track) filtered to the low or high end (whatever I'm trying to emphasize) and then mixed back in with the original track.  Distortion is our friend and the introduction of digital recording just helped us realize this!
Get some Perspective
February, 2013

The first rule of mixing is: There are no rules.

Yes, audio engineering is a science... there are many important concepts that must be understood and followed (proper gain management, minimizing phase problems, analog to digital conversion, bit-rates, etc.). But following the rules alone won't get you there.

The goal of mixing is to create a piece of music that creates an emotional impact. You have to "find the magic" in a song and bring it out in the mix.

Mixing is at least 80% art.

So how do you find the magic in a mix? One important technique is to listen in a new context - as a "first time" listener. This is particularly challenging for the artist, band,
or engineer who has been working on the project for weeks or months, listening over and over
and getting more and more accustomed to the working mix. The first time listener is listening to the song as a whole - the groove, the mood, the feeling. A small timing error on a drum fill or a particularly loud bass note could totally distract this listener. They can't tell you what was wrong, but they are no longer "in it". On the other extreme, a perfectly balanced mix with no surprises will bore the listener within 30 seconds. In today's world, that listener is already on to another song.

The remainder of this article describes an approach to mixing focused on
connecting with the listener.

If you have a mix you've been working with, save it off and start fresh. Set all of your faders to -6db. play the song and turn down tracks that are too loud to get a basic balance
(we are keeping lots of headroom). Now listen to the song like you've never heard it before. Turn it up a bit so you can feel it. Listen for any "jarring" moments - where something sticks out and you are no longer just groovin' to the beat. FIX THESE. They are the biggest indicators of
amateurism in a recording! Listen through a couple of times to make sure the
rhythm is solid and there are no notes that distract (volume or tuning).

Now listen again from the beginning, but put on a different filter. Listen for the parts that are particularly cool. What are the hooks - the parts that people will have stuck in their heads? Now - how can you emphasize these parts in the mix? There are as many ways to do this as there are cool parts in songs, but here are some examples:

Lets say there is a particularly nifty counterpoint between bass drum and bass guitar leading into the chorus. If there is also a guitar build-up at the same time, try muting it or applying a high-pass filter so it lets the lower frequency bass instruments shine through. Apply a slight upper-mid boost to the kick to accentuate the rhythm (or a compressor with a slower attack to emphasize the transient).

Another example - a guitar riff that fills the spaces in the verses. Again, try to remove parts (or move them out of the way) that compete with the riff, such as the
rhythm guitar. Adding a slight flange or phase is a good way to draw attention to a part. Modulate in other ways such as vibrato or tremolo.

There are more dramatic ways to draw attention to a track or a part.  This is where you really break the rules. Trust your ears and go crazy with the EQ.  Have a gate that triggers the pan location, so louder parts push toward the center or edge. Go lo-fi or add distortion (distortion is subconsciously associated with loudness by our brains).  Be sure to double-check these sounds the next day (with fresh ears) and comparing to a reference song to make sure you didn't make it sound cheap or cheezy.  Hit songs push the boundaries with fresh sounds, but it is easy to just come out weird or unprofessional sounding if you aren't careful.

This is overly simplistic, but sometimes it is just a matter of turning these cool parts up. Use your mix automation! You will likely need to change the volume, pan or effects of a track depending on what else is playing. For instance, a drum intro may sound too wet if you leave the effects where they sounds best when all of the instruments come in. You may want to cut the reverbs back for the intro. 

Time for the third filter: does the tune hold a new listener's attention through it's entire length? This one is a balancing act between keeping it interesting and being distracting. Often the easiest way to keep things interesting is by muting parts earlier in the song and adding them in later. If your song is just straight guitar, bass & drums from beginning to end you can still pull this off by adding layers and different timbres. Copy your guitar track to 3 additional tracks. If you have a direct guitar track you can apply different effects to each track or re-amp them. Start with a fairly bright tone and roll off the lows below 200hz. When you get to the first chorus add another guitar track with a thicker tone. Play with muting these various tracks at various locations. The changes don't have to be dramatic - remember, you don't want to distract, just keep it interesting.

Getting an impartial, fresh perspective on your song can really help take it to the next level.  It is partially for this reason that specialized mix engineers have become more and more popular. At the very least, take a week or longer break between tracking and mixing. When you come back after this break, it may surprise you how many little things sounded ok before but are now irritating.  You just took astep toward being a first time listener.

Pocketing Tracks

August, 2012 - One of the most important aspects of getting a professional sounding recording these days is pocketing your tracks. Basically, this is editing each track to get the best feel and tightest performance possible. If you are a “pure” musician this probably sounds like cheating – and it is.  Just like tuning your vocals... But it has become part of the norm of modern music and your songs will not compete with the masses struggling for radio play without this crucial step.

Most of my experience with pocketing is based on the book Multi-Platinum Pro Tools by Nathan Adam and Brady Barnett.  I came across this book back in 2010  and it totally changed my approach to post production and mixing.  This approach is recommended whenever you use live musicians - rock, country, pop, etc.  It is less crucial for most electronic music or hip-hop, but would still be useful on vocals for all styles.  If you do a lot of recording with live musicians or mixing of this type I highly recommend you get the book.

One question that often comes up when talking about manually pocketing tracks is:  why not use the audio quantizing features in my DAW?  The answer is that sometimes you can and it will actually save you some time.  But it is never as easy as quantizing MIDI, and the results are usually less than professional sounding.  Use it for very background instruments or try it out on other parts and you might get lucky and have it come out sounding great.  If not, undo it and get to work doing it the hard way.

So how do you go about pocketing tracks?  The first thing you need to do is determine the master rhythm track that will be the basis of the song’s feel.  With modern recording techniques this is often a loop that the band played to.  If the band didn’t play to a loop, it could be the drums or the primary rhythm guitar.  You want to pick a track that plays through the entire song (or nearly all of it) and that has great feel, not a stiff performance (this is part of what makes this different than quantizing).  If you are recording new tracks I recommend using the loop approach – find a loop that expresses the feel you want to achieve in your recording and use that as your “click track”.  If you’re stuck with a bunch of tracks that don’t seem to have any clear winner, pick the best one and solo it.  Zoom in and listen while watching each note.  Whenever there is something that bothers you, fix it.  You can rely on the grid to some extent (to see if notes are just way behind or way ahead) but remember you are going for the right feel so use your ears more than your eyes.  After you’ve gone through the entire track this will be your master rhythm track for the rest of the process.

The next step is to start pocketing (aligning) your other tracks to the master rhythm track.  Drums, Percussion, Bass, Guitars, Keys, other instruments, Lead Vocal, Backing Vocals.  Let’s assume your master rhythm track is an acoustic guitar that was recorded first.  In your edit window, zoom the acoustic track vertically so you can see the rhythm of each string hit, no matter how quiet.  When you are pocketing drums it is vital that you treat all drum tracks as one instrument (assuming they were recorded together).  To do this, group all of your drum tracks so that any edit takes place across all tracks.  Now you can hide all tracks except kick and snare and your master acoustic guitar.  Put the kick on top, acoustic in the middle and snare underneath.  This allows you to focus on these tracks and easily see the alignment of both kick and snare to the guitar.

Now you are ready to start pocketing.  Start at the beginning of the drum track.  Cut out any audio to the left of the first hit.  Place a short (5ms) fade on your cut so there won’t be any clicks.  You should see these edits occur on both your kick and snare tracks even though you are doing it on one or the other.  If not, ensure they are properly grouped and the grouping settings are applying edits to all tracks.  DAW features vary so see your DAW manual.  Now for the scary part.  Grab your entire kick track and slide it so that the first hit is just ahead of the guitar note (2-4ms).  For many pop or aggressive styles of music I like the drums to be just ahead of the other instruments.  If you are going for a laid back drumming style you may go behind the guitar.  Just be consistent throughout the process.  Now you probably realize that you just threw your entire drum track out of alignment from where it was played!  It’s ok – we’re going to go through the entire track anyway and pocket each note.  Yes, this is time consuming.  You can plan to spend 1-2 hours per track when you are first starting.  Trust me, it is worth it.  You are going to live with the results forever!  

Okay, let’s move to the second drum hit.  We’ll assume it is a snare hit and that it is ahead of the beat (based on the acoustic guitar). Place a cut right before the snare hit and drag your track to the right so the snare hit is 2-4ms ahead of the guitar.  Now you’ve got a hole in your drum audio that you need to fill.  Grab the left edge of your snare track (right before your hit) and trim the audio back to the left to fill the gap. Create a cross-fade and you’re done.

What if you trim to your left and it reveals a previous drum hit?  Sometimes you can get away with trimming just before the hit and then grabbing the audio on the left and trimming it a little to the right to fill the gap.  But this won’t always work.  This is when you use time compression/expansion.  The goal is to stretch the previous hit so that it fills the gap.  But you don’t want to stretch the transient, just the sustaining part after.  Place a cut just after the transient (about 4-5 cycles into the waveform) and use stretch function to stretch your sustaining drum beyond the gap and into your existing audio.  Turn off stretch and trim back your un-stretched audio (on the right) back over your stretched audio (on the left) and cross-fade.  I know this is confusing, if you really want to get this technique down get the book.

So now you have all of the basics for how to pocket each note of each track.  Techniques for each instrument vary slightly.  For bass, you want to line up the start of the actual note, not the finger/pick sound.  This is typically 3-4 cycles in to each note.  Distorted electric guitars are pretty easy and you can get away with murder on cross-fades and stuff.  Vocals can improve dramatically from alignment and removing sibilant transients from doubled or harmony parts.

The process of pocketing tracks is tedious and you will be tempted to say “good enough”.  Be disciplined and complete the process.  You will be pleasantly surprised with the results and it will make you rethink the process of mixing entirely!