From time to time someone will ask me, "what, exactly, is mixing, anyway?" The temptation is to respond with explanations of parametric equalizers, compressors, reverbs, delays and other whatnots involved in the mixing process. But, unless the question was asked by someone already knowledgable about mixing, that bunch of gobbledy-gook will just sail right over the questioner's head. I mean, seriously, plenty of novice mix engineers barely seem to know what a compressor does.
I figure it would probably make more sense to show rather than to tell in this case, so I've cooked up a little example based on a mix I recently completed. The song is called "September Lady," written, preformed and recorded by the band, Pole Position.
When I receive a recorded song to mix, it lands on my hard drive as a bunch of audio files, called tracks, each of which represents a recording of one or more instruments or vocals. When the tracks are played back simultaneously, the recorded performances of all the instruments and vocals are combined into one, glorious whole that represents the grand culmination of the artists' creativity.
There's a bit of a hitch, however. In this raw state, even if the tracks have been well recorded, there's no guarantee that all the tracks will fit together as intended. As an example, listen to this raw mix of "September Lady." And, by "raw" I mean exactly that: I imported all the tracks into my digital audio workstation (DAW), and hit play. At this point I haven't changed the relative volumes of individual tracks, I haven't modified any tracks, and I haven't applied any effects to them, either. Have a listen:
There's definitely a good tune in there somewhere. The songwriting and the performance are both strong so it's a matter of smoothing out the rough edges and shedding some light on the hidden gems.
Ultimately, mixing audio is about creating a balance among the various elements of a song so that it produces the emotional response that the artist intends. Adding crazy effects might eventually be warranted, but that's not the main job of the mix engineer.
So, where to begin?
Since "balance" is the word of the day, let's start with the relative volumes of the various tracks. The lead vocal is too quiet and a bit uneven in volume while the background vocals are too loud. Some of the rhythm guitar parts stick out at odd angles, so they need to be pushed back in a bit. During the long outro, there is a supporting vocal line that is playing hide-and-seek and without it being prominent the outro is repetitive. Did you hear that guitar solo? Yeah, me neither. On the other hand, there's absolutely no way you could miss the synthesizer part.
As a first cut, I always start by creating a static mix which mostly involves setting the relative levels of each of the tracks so that I can more-or-less hear all the parts of the song loosely integrated into a meaningful whole. There will still be parts that stick out too much and others that are a bit buried, but those issues will be remedied at a later stage.
Here's the resultant static mix:
Balance isn't just about overall track volume. Often there will be frequencies that dominate a track and become distracting so they need to be tamed. In this case there is a buildup of energy in the lower frequencies that's making the overall sound a bit muddy. The drums sound somewhat like they were recorded in a cardboard box, which is it's own kind of distraction. The rhythm guitars are a little thin and fizzy which can only mean one thing: too much high frequency information on the guitar tracks.
Although it's a bit hard to hear while the mix is in the not-quite-raw form, the lead vocals have exaggerated s's and t's, so those need to be dialled back.
The sound of the static mix is very narrow, as if all the musicians were standing in a cramped little spot on the floor directly in front of the listener and it sounds like it was recorded in a tiny little room, which it quite possibly was.
So, with all that in mind, I grabbed my virtual tool belt and got to work. Here's the result:
At this stage, I've got a cohesive, lively mix that rocks, if I do say so myself. All that's left is to master it and ship it to the client. You can check out the final product over in my Mix Portfolio.