This article is an excerpt from the following book: The Art of Mixing.
Different engineers have their own procedures they follow when developing a mix. What follows is a process that will help you build the mix most efficiently.
Equalize Each Instrument Individually
You need to make each individual sound good; this means making the sound either natural or interesting. The primary considerations are mud, low-end, irritation, and brightness. If you have heard the entire song, you can also EQ the sound so it will sound good in the mix. Don't spend too much time working on a sound by itself—what the sound is like with the other instruments is what counts. Just get it in the ballpark, and if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Also, when in solo, always EQ it brighter than you think it should be. High frequencies are easily masked by the other sounds in the mix.
Bring Up The Mix - Bring Up Fader/Volume
The order and manner in which you bring up and balance out the levels of all the different instruments is important. It is helpful to establish and stick to a specific order. Don't bring up all your sounds at once. It is best to build a mix like a house—from the foundation up. Before you add the next sound, always make sure that your current mix sounds good. If you make sure it sounds good during every step of the building process, you will end up with a good overall mix. Also, if things start to sound weird, you can easily figure out at what point it went wrong.
Start by bringing up the kick drum about 2/3 of the way on the fader in order to leave plenty of room for a little extra boost later. Use your master volume (or amp) to set the desired volume in the room. Then use the volume of the kick drum as your anchor from which to build your mix. As you bring up the levels of each instrument, always listen first to what you already have and sneak in the next sound from underneath.
It is a good idea to build the foundation, or rhythm parts, of the mix first. Some engineers will bring up the vocals after bringing up the kick drum. Here's the preferred order to bring up your mix:
1. Drums: kick drum, snare drum, hi-hat, overheads, toms
2. Bass guitar
3. Basic rhythm instruments: rhythm guitar, keyboard rhythms
4. Lead vocals
5. Lead instruments
6. Background and harmony vocals
Pan To Taste
Pan each sound as you bring it up. Remember to conceptualize the mix before you bring things up. Think about how many sounds you have to spread between the speakers. As you bring up each section (for example, drums and bass, main rhythm, leads, main vocals, background vocals), consider the panning within the section and the panning of the section in relation to the rest of the sections. Some sections are mostly dictated by tradition (drums, vocals, and so on). However, the main rhythm section often offers a range of possibilities. Keep in mind the possible overall considerations: 1) a place where there is room for the sound, 2) natural panning as if you are there, and 3) asymmetrical versus symmetrical panning.
Many engineers will add effects as they bring up the instrument in the mix. However, you can't set the final level of the effects in solo because effects get masked by other sounds in the mix. You must always set the final level of effects while in the mix, with all sounds up.
Some engineers will bring up the entire mix before they add an effect to a sound. I recommend a combination—add some effects now, some later. If a sound needs compression or gating, add it right when you bring it up. If I am planning to place a major effect on a sound—like flanging, fattening, long delays, or any 3D effect—I will bring it up as I bring up the sound itself. This is because a major effect can drastically alter what you do with the rest of the mix. If the effect uses up a large amount of your space, you will have to deal with it when you bring up the other sounds. Whenever you add effects to a sound, go ahead and make adjustments to the rest of the sounds in the mix if necessary. Again, you want the entire mix to sound good every step of the way.
Often, you need to make adjustments to the sound itself, as you put an effect on it. You might have to adjust the volume, panning, EQ, or effects to compensate for the addition of the effect.
Refine Volumes, Panning, Equalization, And Effects
Once you have your entire mix up, you should go through each instrument and refine the four settings of volume, panning, EQ, and effects. The question is this: Do you start with one sound and check out the four settings? Or do you start with volume and go through all the sounds in the mix (then go through panning with each of the sounds, then EQ, and so forth)?
Normally, I choose a parameter (volume, pan, EQ, or effects) and go through each sound. However, say I'm going through all of the sounds and scanning to see if each of the volumes is precisely where I want it. If I find a sound that is too soft or too loud (based on everything we have already covered in the book—style of music, song details, and the people involved), I first ask myself, "Do the volume, panning, EQ, or effects have anything to do with the reason this sound is the wrong volume?" This often leads to a little detour where I will go and work on something other than the volumes.
Having completed checking the volume of each sound, you then check out the relative EQ of all the sounds. This is the process in which you scan the highs, mids, and lows and make sure the wind isn't doing anything wrong. Again, if you find a sound that needs an EQ adjustment, first ask yourself if one of the other three components is contributing to the problem.
Scan the panning for each sound to see if there is anything that might need refining now that you have made some adjustments.
Scan the effects to see if you might need more or fewer effects, or if you might need a different effect.
Then, go back to your volumes.
The tricky part is when you adjust one setting, and that makes you want to adjust another setting, and that results in another change—it can seem to go on forever.
When you conceptualize a mix in the first place, and decide what you are trying to achieve, occasionally you have to make compromises for one value over another.
You continue with this round robin refinement process, until you're satisfied or almost out of time. For more information, see The Art of Mixing.
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