The simplest mixing strategy you need.
If you have been doing this for a while, then you have heard the phrase ‘ mixing has no rules’ and ‘ rules are made to be broken. While this is true in several cases, most world-class mixers have philosophies or approaches – if you like – that they have developed over the years, and there are a ton of resources out there that teach and talk about mixing, not many of them talk 'mixing philosophy'. When learning to mix, learning about its philosophy and studying the underlying thought processes, is arguably as important as learning the right mixing techniques.
If there is one thing I did not understand when I was starting out is how mixing is about telling a story; whether you are mixing music, film, theatre or AAA titles. You are making decisions on how different sounds will interact with one another to support the narrative – be it music or sound accompanying picture, there are many analogies discussed extensively, one of which is used by Hanz Zimmer here.
In musicals and Film, it is relatively easy what or who to feature at any particular moment; it is the lead or the person speaking. If you ever see a sound-man working on a musical; you would notice the mixers ride faders based on who is speaking at any given moment (and they can anticipate that by following a script).
My recommendation is: regardless of what is being mixed, it’s a case of identifying who is leading the story at any moment in time and querying what you should do to support THAT.
The skill in question is learned by iteration and analysing previous work by others, hence my advice the previous article on referencing.
A word to the wise, have a conversation with the artist, director or composer you are working with to understand their creative intent. While you might get lots of ideas about what and who to feature in a particular section of a song; it is NOT always obvious, it also makes it easier to not take feedback personally. It’s not about you making mistakes or doing something your client didn’t like – it’s about helping someone to tell their story, you are NOT the hero in this story.
This is the most logical approach practised by many, it is quite organised as you will be going through the mix track-by-track, do what you need to do and then combine the finished processed track with minor adjustments for an optimum blend. So where and how do you start; below is a quick run-through of the ‘line-by-line strategy.
Start by listening to what you are going to be working with. You might have not been involved when the tune was being recorded, or maybe you supported the artist with some feedback at the recording stage; regardless, start by playing back the first pass from the start and take mental notes of how it sounds like, issues you notices (i.e., masking, distortion whatever you find!!!).
Next step, mute all faders and then unmute each track in turn, this way you will get accustomed to the raw material and how they interact with one another, listen critically and check for issues (mental notes – feel free to take voice notes or so) that you have to address at a later stage, One final pass using the same procedure in step two and this time make some notes of any ideas you may want to implement later on. Once you are set with your ideas and understand what the song is about, you are ready for the rough mix ( if you need me to tell you how to do that, then go back to earlier posts and videos and come back when you are ready)
The rough mix lets you get to working levels for the session and gets you a reasonable mix of musicals parts which will get you the vibe of the tune. Your objective during the rough mix is to get the best balance possible in the shortest time possible without touching EQ, Compression or Time-based effects ( Yes I am serious ), also – watch your gain structure here
Once you got that secured, focus on panning next; some argue that it’s too early for this- trust me getting this done now will help you achieve good width later. Start by thinking critically about how you are going to place your elements in the stereo if you are mixing in 2.0 and space between speakers if you are mixing in immersive formats. At this point, you might apply some time-based effects or choruses if needed.
Shift your spotlight next on minimising tone and character problems whilst enhancing the good stuff. DO NOT fall in an endless loop of EQ-mania – armed with those mental notes from the first few passes before starting this mix; now you can objectively start EQing individuals and group tracks. Flip between soloed groups and full mix to understand whatever the hell you are doing is working in the full context if it isn’t working; take your paws off it, have a hot drink then return to it later. Your mission at this point is not doing any final EQ adjustment, but more preliminary modifications to most tracks.
Dynamics is next and only this at your discretion if it is ABSOLUTELY needed, don’t be a jerk and load compressors for the heck of it. Focus on issues of level, balance and consistency first and for god’s sake, try to use automation for and level tweak if you can. When you have achieved good balance on most parts, then and -ONLY THEN- you may use compression as a creative tool.
WELL DONE DUDE!!!
Your mix is taking shape and since you got a pretty good idea of how different tracks are behaving towards one another, add your time-based effects; starting with reverb at the beginning to get the space and tone for real. I will not explain to you how to use reverb in this point, but I can give you some pointers if you share some of your music (on this email)
It sounds good now, I take it. So, now is the time for any subtle or OBVIOUS effects that can take your mix to the next level in all sorts of ways. Keep in mind that through the process, you will constantly be flipping between tracks, groups and full mix. You will have to compensate after you adjust something. This is where you should be careful and focus on the whole picture and DO NOT get overwhelmed with the details or get distracted by them. Take regular breaks and come back with fresh ears as often as possible.
Up there is a standard strategy to approach a mix, many are available and I tend to approach every mix in a different way. I let the music dictate how it wants to be treated.