TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 37 Mixing

Last week in the TCM Mastering Home Music Studio blog, we completed our discussions on Editing by looking at how some signal processing can be used to edit your tracks. We also demonstrated how editing can quickly form a base for a song with the use of loops; change the structure and form of a song by moving around verses/choruses and make use of composite tracks.

Once your song has…..

  • all the tracks recorded,
  • the necessary overdubs in the right place,
  • been edited and cleaned up as much as possible,

…..then it’s time to set up for the Mixing stage.

Setting up, recording, overdubbing and editing are time-consuming processes. Not to mention the hours spent rehearsing and perfecting the music before you even hit that red record light.

Mixing in a Home Music Studio, should be a relaxing time. The performances are recorded. It’s now just a matter of getting a cup of your favourite beverage and producing a ‘song’.

This is where you bring all the separate elements together. Levels of instruments and vocals are adjusted, EQ can be added along with other types of signal processing and the stereo ‘picture’ built up.

Yamaha N12 Digital Firewire Mixer – Cost Approximately £1000 – Works Seamlessly With Steinberg’s Cubase.

Let’s be quite clear, mixing is a very subjective exercise. Give 24 tracks of instruments to twenty different mixing engineers and you will end up with twenty different mixes.

All you have to do, is aim for the result you want and try your best to achieve it. Trust your ears, work slowly, methodically and don’t be afraid to experiment with all the tools at your disposal.

The Affordable Command 8 Control Surface For Pro Tools.

The mixing process is very tiring on the ears, especially as a lot of musicians tend to monitor too loud. So it helps to take a break from your music, before starting the mix, to gain a fresh perspective. You may also find it useful to enlist the help of others who have a vested interest in the music, e.g. other band members.

Just remember, mixing by committee rarely ever works. Listen to other people’s ideas or suggestions, but ultimately there should be one person who has the final word on how the final mix will sound.

Solid State logic 4048E/G+ Analog Mixing Console.

The main tool you’ll be using is the mixer…..obviously, but they come in many shapes, sizes and forms. The great sounding analog mixing consoles like AMS Neve, Harrison and SSL cost a small fortune and few home studios would have the room to accommodate one of these consoles anyway. Fortunately, improvements in digital technology have brought prices (and size) down dramatically for the home musician.

Icon D-Command ES Powered By Pro Tools HD.

However, a top quality Icon D-Command ES console will still set you back several thousand pounds/dollars. Whilst the more modest Yamaha N12 Digital firewire mixer costs around £1000 or the Command 8 around £500 (at the time of going to press).

Logic Studio Mix Page, Showing The Different Channels With Various Plug-Ins, Sends Etc.

You could always try mixing straight from the mix page in whatever software package you’re using, but it’s a much slower process moving faders and making all the other adjustments you need to make in a mix, using a mouse and keyboard.

A Compact Home Studio Setup Using KRK Monitoring.

You will also need a good pair of studio monitors. These are essential for referencing the audio output of your studio setup and ideally should have as flat a response as possible. In a mix you will be adding EQ to various instruments but you do not want the speakers to colour the sound further, by either making your mix bright or dull.

Some speakers will accentuate the bottom end, whilst some will emphasise high frequencies. So it’s imperative that you test out a few different studio monitors before buying.

Personal taste and price will play an important part in choosing all equipment, as you will like some more than others. But, it’s worth mentioning that your sound will only be as good as the weakest link in your sound chain. So go for the best you can afford. Having a pair of small speakers is useful too (Auratones used to be the standard), to compare the sound of the mix and how well it translates for the majority of listeners.

Make Notes Of Changes You want To Apply To Your Mix.

Before you start mixing, get an old-fashioned pencil and paper. As you go through the process of mixing your tracks, you will find it useful to jot down notes on where instruments should come in or go out, fixes that need to be made, EQ settings you want to apply, where you want to pan instruments etc, etc.

A good DAW will provide automation on mixing, allowing your fader movements and other adjustments to be ‘recorded’, but a good set of notes will simplify the process and save you time.

Pro Tools – Showing Mix Automation.

With regards to automation…..the degree of complexity and sophistication of the automation will depend on the system you have. Popular systems like Pro Tools allow you to not only capture fader and panning movements, but real-time EQ changes or other adjustments made to signal processor plug-ins.

More basic systems may only ‘record’ fader movements. So, if being able to control the finest nuance of your mix is important, choose a system that can handle the most complex of mixes.

Saving and backing up is as important now as it was when you were recording, overdubbing and editing. Ideally, you should back up your mix sessions with associated files, to an external hard drive. That way, if your main hard drive crashes and burns, all your hard work is still saved.

In the process of mixing your song, you may end up with several mixes which are quite different but equally good. Depending on your system, as well as saving your mix as a session file on your hard drive, you can usually save your different mix versions (if you have enough tracks in your system), by recording the mixes to a stereo pair of tracks, within the session. If time permits, leave them for a few days before coming back to them. When you return to them with fresh and rested ears, you can listen to them more objectively.

MOTU Digital Performer Automation.

If you’re using a system that has mix automation with total recall, then returning to your mixes is a simple task…..all fader movements and adjustments will have been saved, so that when you open up the mix session, all the subtleties and nuances of the mix will be recalled.

However, if you have multiple mixes but are using a system with no automation, you will have to take very detailed notes so that you can come back later and replicate the various mixes. If you don’t have the aid of automation, you may need an extra pair of hands to help out.

This is the way it was done before automation. The 24 tracks (or however many there were in the session) were mixed down and recorded to a stereo pair, usually onto a 1/4 inch machine.  Faders were manually moved and any adjustments to EQ, for example, were made as the multitrack tape rolled. This often involved several pairs of hands.

If a change in level or EQ, for example, was not achieved correctly, the multitrack tape was rewound prior to the change point. The multitrack tape was played, levels or EQ adjusted until another change required the multitrack tape to be stopped and rewound. This way, you eventually ended up with several recorded sections of 1/4 inch tape with the correct mix. The 1/4 inch tape then had to be edited together using a razor and edit block to produce a complete mix from beginning to end.

When you have a finished mix, burn it to a CD then play it back over different speakers big and small, including small radio or TV speakers. Ask friends if you can play it back on their systems. By playing it on different speakers you will hear if that bass guitar is punching through, or if the vocal is high enough in the mix.

Mixing is the part of the multitrack process that brings all the efforts of your hard work together to produce a finished song.

Points to bear in mind are…..

  • You will want every track that has been recorded to be heard. However, just because you recorded it, does not mean it justifies a place in your mix. Once you hear all the tracks together, don’t be afraid to get rid of a track that doesn’t ‘fit’ in your mix. Maybe that continuous guitar lick you played throughout the whole length of the song works best just in the choruses or the outro!
  • Make sure the instruments that provide the best emotional impact to the song are heard.
  • Find suitable volume levels for all your tracks. Then start to pull down instruments that stand out too much or push up the levels of instruments that need to be heard more prominently. Remember, everything has to work together as a whole.
  • The careful use of EQ allows you to emphasise specific instruments whilst leaving space in the mix for the other parts. EQ also enables you to reduce or completely get rid of frequencies that may clash with other instruments.
  • The use and degree of signal processing like reverb, echo and delay can help to position instruments at the front of your mix or more in the background. Other effects like chorus, flange and distortion can be used to produce specific soundscapes.
  • Panning allows you to position instruments in the stereo ‘picture’ so that each one has its own space. It enables you to place the sound in its natural position (in terms of where you’d expect to hear it) or place it for effect.
  • In the digital domain, if at some point during the mixing stage you feel the song needs another overdub, it’s easy enough to pause the mix and add an instrument or vocal then continue mixing.

Next week, continuing with the mix stage we’ll briefly consider different mixing consoles, then start at the beginning setting levels, adding EQ and other plug-ins and positioning instruments in the stereo field.

TCM Music Group and TCM Mastering provide full recording, mixing, mastering and production services from their facilities in the UK and Nashville, USA. For more information, click here.

Explore posts in the same categories: Music, Recording Studios, Sound Recording

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