Most engineers look at mixing as the Everest of audio. The long journey. The big climb.
You may have tackled The Andes or Kilimanjaro – got the best kick sound or the biggest guitars of your career – but until you’ve conquered The Mix, you’re still just a casual weekend hiker. The problem is that there is no summit in mixing. It’s a climb in the clouds where you just keep on moving up. Your mixes get a bit better with every small step up that mountain, but every now and again you take a major step forward. I’ve had several of these major steps in my career but I wanted to share these five epiphanies...
1) Filters improve clarity – It’s much easier for us to understand adding to a sound to better it, but taking away from a sound often holds much more value. The idea behind using filters is to cut out the parts of a sound that degrade its tone or are of no use within a particular mix. Because our ears are least sensitive at the edges of our hearing spectrum – the extreme lows and highs – filters are especially useful there. High-pass and low-pass filters allow us to clean up those areas of the mix, leaving them for parts of the arrangement that actually need them (i.e. kick drum, bass, air on vocals, cymbals, etc.).
2) Volume automation isn’t a waste of time – It might seem as though riding faders is for suckers without anything better to do, especially when you’ve slathered on a ton of compression, but the reality is that fader rides sound more natural than compression. Combining the two, you can minimise the amount of work that your compressor is doing, though on the extreme, you can even avoid compression altogether, like legendary engineer Bruce Swedien claims to do.
3) Over-compression will kill excitement – Despite Mr. Swedien, there’s no denying that compression sounds incredible. But if you’re going to use it, don’t overuse it. Over-compressing something sucks the life out of it and will leave you with a very dull mix. If you find yourself needing to add a lot of compression, again, try volume automation, or splitting the compression task over two compressors. It usually sounds more natural to compress 4dB on two compressors than 8dB on one.
4) Too dry is better than too wet – Reverb is often more to be felt than heard. The problem is that young engineers really want to hear their reverb, which usually results in a mix that sounds like bad karaoke. If you’re not confident in the amount of reverb to use, being conservative is usually better. Trust me, you’ll thank yourself further down the road. Also, consider using delays instead of reverb. They add a sense of depth without the washy-ness, which can ruin the clarity of a mix.
5) There is no default – We all want easy answers and quick solutions, but given that we are, for the most part, dealing with organic sounds, by their very nature they will differ from sound to sound. What works on one source may not work on another and therefore there are no absolutes. When you start to consider the number of variables that can alter a sound – how a musician plays, their tone, the room they’re in, the song you’re recording, how much gain you use to tape, etc. – it’s actually ridiculous to consider anything as a default. Your choice of tools and the degree to which you use them should be entirely dictated by the situation. In other words, I can’t tell you how much to compress that kick drum.
There’s something amazing about never reaching the summit. As mixers we can live with the challenge of constant betterment and hopefully relish in the joy of the process. I appreciate this journey because it always gives me something to work towards and I personally look forward to further epiphanies.
I would love to hear yours.
Ryan McCambridge is an experienced producer, engineer, writer and audio educator from Toronto, Canada. He is the creator of the production blog Bit Crushing and the frontman of A Calmer Collision.
Ryan's websites: www.bitcrushing.com / www.acalmercollision.com
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