Almost all engineers approach their mixes differently. I like to think of my mix, from the very first track all the way to the mastering stage, as a house.
The first thing you need when building a house is a good foundation. Your low end should provide you with this. It is on this foundation that the rest of your mix will be built. If your foundation is weak, your entire mix will be weak and ineffectual. Just like building a real house, your foundation needs to be solid. The primary instruments making up this low end, in most music we listen to today, are the kick drum and the bass guitar parts. These two instruments must gel, yet be clearly defined. If they are not clearly defined, meaning the listener cannot make out the difference between the two, you may experience some problems with your mix. Many home recordings suffer from the low and mid frequencies overlapping too much and therefore not being clearly defined.
Once we have our clearly defined low end, we need to begin building our house, brick by brick. The bricks we will be using to build our house will be made up of the mid frequencies. This area is much more tricky to clearly define because there is so much stuff going on in the mid range. Guitars, vocals, snare drums, toms, keyboards, plus a myriad of other sounds all compete for the same space in the mid range. If you have a non-clearly defined mid section, your mix will sound very muddy. This, again, is typical of home productions. The mid range is muddy and it tends to ruin the entire mix, your house.
So, how do we keep the low end from getting too muddy? Again, let’s look at our house example. If you pay close attention to a brick house, you’ll notice that in between every fourth or fifth brick there will be a small hole. I once asked someone what these holes were for. His reply, “They allow the house to breathe. ” That sounds weird to me. I am not a handy man, so I didn’t understand and left it at that. What I do know is audio, and I know that our mix needs to breathe, especially in that tricky mid range. How do we allow our mixes to breathe in the mid range? Well, there are several tricks. First, we can use different mics on instruments, use different microphone placement, we can tune similar sounding instruments differently, we can set the instruments physically apart in the room to add a feeling of “space”, we can add reverb to add space virtually, and/or we can use equalization to separate tones of like sounding instruments.
As you can see, there are many things we can do, either singly or in combination one with another that can help us accomplish the task of creating a non-muddy, clearly defined, breathing mid section. You are well on your way to providing a much more enjoyable listening experience for you and your fans if you can make your mid section breathe.
The last part of our house is of course the top, or the roof. As you might expect, the roof will be made up of high-end tones, but this is really not the case in my opinion. The reason for this is that the high frequencies are usually just overtones and higher octaves of our root sounds which take place in the low and mid frequency sections. Most of the time if you have your low and mid sections eq’ed properly and they sound good, there is little eq’ing that you will need to do to the high end. Plus, much of the high end will be accentuated in the final process called mastering. So instead of frequencies to build our roof, or ceiling, I like to use dynamics.
Dynamics include compressors and limiters. Dynamic processors help keep your tracks as hot as they can be, which means as far away from the noise floor as possible, without distorting or clipping. This is especially important with all of the digital equipment we are now using because digital distortion sounds quite nasty.
Dynamics can provide a nice, round sound or can “squash” your tracks, whichever you prefer and whatever compliments your style of music. Improper use of compression will make the recording sound to confined, like walking into a room with a very low ceiling. Proper, judicious, use of compression, on the other hand, can make your recording feel like someone is walking into a room with an open, airy, cathedral type ceiling. You should feel much less confined and much more at awe when you enter the latter type of room, and listeners will much more appreciate you trying to give them this feeling of aural openness.
So there it is. When you build your audio mix, remember to build a house and your mixes should be much more professional.
Philip Langlais is the founder of iKnowAudio.com, the site for affordable, practical online audio production training. iKnowAudio.com specializes in teaching you how to use compressors, eq's, reverbs, how to mix, master and edit using the latest in dgital audio technology. From Labor Day through the end of September,2005, iKnowAudio.com is allowing anyone that contributes at least $5.00 USD to the Hurricane Katrina Relief Fund to take our audio recording course for free. Visit our site at http://www.iknowaudio.com for more details.