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In the Cans

8/1/2002

Oneoften overlooked aspect of the recording process is the headphonemonitor mix — what the performer hears while recording. As anyonewho has overdubbed a part knows, being able to hear what's going on inthe cans is essential to laying down great tracks. When saddled with apoor headphone mix, even a first-rate musician cannot deliver anoptimum performance. Clearly, this is a case in which the recordingengineer must be on the ball.

The challenge, of course, is that one size doesn't fit all — amix that works for, say, the lead singer may not work at all for thepercussionist. In this article, I'll provide practical tips for settingup headphone mixes for a variety of instrumentalists. A good headphonemix doesn't just ensure that the artist is comfortable and performswell; it also limits some of the problems headphone monitoring cancreate, such as listening fatigue and headphone “bleed”into open microphones. There's a nice side benefit, as well: engineerswho know how to deliver an inspiring headphone mix are usually highlyregarded by recording artists!

CANNED HEAT

Inexperienced engineers have been known to send a different mix— mono, pseudostereo, sans effects, or what have you — tothe artist, all the while happily monitoring the main stereo mix in thecontrol room, oblivious to what's feeding the cans. Therefore, thefirst order of business is to make sure you're hearing the same thingthe artist is. Put on a pair of headphones yourself — the samemodel the performer is wearing, if possible — so you can monitorexactly what's going to the artist.

Be aware that headphones are actually biphonic rather thanstereophonic (as speakers are) and thus create a different listeningenvironment. That actually can be helpful to the musician becauseheadphones allow for greater localization of sounds. That is, you canspread things out more than you would in a stereophonic mix, helpingthe musician feel he or she is more “inside” the music,with each instrument clearly discernible in the biphonic field.

Also keep in mind that, because of the small diaphragms used inheadphones, the higher frequencies tend to sound very bright. That canlead not only to a much earlier onset of listening fatigue but also toexcessive bleed or sound leakage from the phones to an open microphone,particularly with nonenclosed or foam-covered headphones and whenrecording vocals, acoustic instruments, as well as other sources withlow sound-pressure levels (SPLs). Fortunately, aggressive highfrequencies can be tamed with equalization.

Many musicians tend to crank their monitor levels up high,especially during setup. You should therefore mute or disengage anychannel that is being plugged in, unplugged, patched, or otherwisedramatically changed, because the resulting pops can be upsetting, andeven physically damaging, to the artists. It's a good idea to use atalkback mic to advise players of any noticeable changes you plan tomake.

GOING LIVE

Creating a usable headphone mix for a live session —one in which all the musicians are playing at once — not onlyrequires good ears and the ability to manage a console effectively butalso usually involves some degree of political savvy. Naturally, eachinstrumentalist wants to hear the mix in a particular way to suit hisor her personal preferences and to better focus on the aspects of themusic he or she needs to hear to effectively perform a part. Who getssatisfaction in that regard can lead to some controversy.

In general, the members of the rhythm section (drums and bassguitar) play off one another, so bass guitar, kick drum, and snareshould be dominant; lead instruments and vocals, which are potentialdistractions, should be kept lower in the mix. Vocalists and leadinstrumentalists, on the other hand, need to focus more on the melodicparts, which usually are in the upper mid frequencies. Ideally, yourconsole will have enough aux sends to allow for at least two separatemixes.

Another method that works well and is favored in most largerfacilities is the “More Me” setup (see the sidebar“More Me, Please!”). In that case, a stereo mix of theentire group is sent along with certain instrument feeds to a number ofminiature mixers. Players can then adjust the mix according to theirindividual needs.

TO EACH HIS OWN

Following are guidelines for creating different headphone mixes forspecific instrumentalists. Don't hesitate to ask musicians if they haveany personal requests. Some people prefer a dry mix when tracking,whereas others find that some reverb can help them get more“into” the track.

Drummer

The rhythm section provides the basis for the overall timing andfeel of the song, so be particularly sensitive to the needs of thedrummer regarding levels, balance, and such. Elements the drummerusually needs to have loud in the phones include bass guitar, clicktrack (assuming there is one), and any key rhythmic elements —electric rhythm guitar, for example.

Vocals and solos are often more distracting than helpful and thusshould be kept low in the mix or even muted. (Obvious exceptions wouldbe a vocal or other lead cue that indicates an upcoming break orchorus, or a section of the song in which the drummer must interactmusically with the vocal or some other lead element. In that case, youcan sneak in the cue just when it's needed.) Likewise, acousticinstruments, keyboard pads, and so on can often be kept very low orleft out altogether.

Though bleed from headphones to the overheads, snare, hi-hat, orother mics is rare, because of the relatively high SPLs generated bythe drum kit, be careful when using click tracks, especially duringintros and outros — any click bleed that sneaks in during quietpassages can create havoc during mixdown. Use EQ to soften or round outthe click track (see Fig. 1). I typically dial out anythingabove 3 kHz with a shelving filter and then boost somewhere between 220and 500 Hz, depending on the sound of the click. (An equalized click isalso helpful when tracking low-SPL sources such as vocals and acousticguitars.)

Percussionist

For a steady-state part — a shaker or tambourine that plays onevery chorus, for example — the percussionist may need nothingmore than drums and a chordal instrument to indicate the song's form.Some vocal, mixed very low, may also be helpful as a guide to the songform.

Naturally, for percussion parts that are more random or that arejust for sweetening — a triangle hit here, a cabasa roll there— the player needs to hear pretty much a complete mix. On theother hand, it usually still helps to emphasize kick, snare, andpossibly hi-hat or ride cymbal and to de-emphasize vocals, leads, andpads.

Bass guitarist

An ideal headphone mix for the bass player is typically heavy onkick and snare and light on vocals and solos. If keyboards (especiallypianos or bass-synth patches) are involved, those may feature somewhatprominently, so the bassist can play off of, or around, the riffs. Whenrecording fretless bass, it's important that the player be able to heara pitched instrument (other than vocals) prominently as a pitchguide.

Because the bass is usually recorded either direct or line-out froma preamp or amp, or with a mic in close proximity to the speaker, bleedis rarely a problem. Exceptions are miked acoustic and upright basses.Again, be mindful of those higher frequencies.

Keyboardist

Electronic keyboards are typically recorded at line level, in whichcase mic bleed is not an issue. On the other hand, when recordingpiano, harpsichord, or other acoustic keyboards, you may run into micbleed, so remember to EQ the headphone mix accordingly. Usually,dialing out extreme highs and lows with shelving EQ will take care ofgeneral bleed, and you should also EQ the click.

Keyboard parts run the gamut from rhythm section to pads and solos,so each session must be taken on a case-by-case basis. Still, here aresome general guidelines. For rhythmic parts, feature the snare drum andbass guitar prominently. Depending on the arrangement, it may also helpto highlight the hi-hat or ride cymbal. Pads generally require morechordal information, whereas solos often play off of vocals and otherlead instruments.

Acoustic guitarist

Acoustic-guitar parts range from soft, fingerpicked ostinatos torhythmic strumming to sweetening parts that “converse” withthe vocal. Headphone bleed is often a problem — usually from thevocals but sometimes also from headphone feedback — soequalization may be necessary.

Someone laying down a rhythmic strumming part usually requires abalanced drum feed and some bass and vocal; parts such as solos, pads,and percussion may only get in the way. Most importantly, make sure theacoustic guitar is not too loud in relation to the rest of the mix— to lay down an accurate part, the player needs to clearly hearthe core rhythmic elements.

Fingerpicked parts, on the other hand, typically need to be a bitlouder than the rest of the tracks to let the performer focus on thesubtleties of his or her playing. If the part plays against the vocal,you might also need to bring up the vocal as a guide. In that case, usethe final vocal take when possible.

Electric guitarist

Generally speaking, “crunchy” electric-guitar partsrequire a headphone mix containing more of the rhythmic elements,strumming parts need more chordal material, and solos often work offthe vocals and other lead instruments. If reverb, delay, or othereffects will be added to the final mix, it's important to give theplayer enough of those effects to allow for a contextual reference.Just be careful not to print the effects to tape! Headphone bleedusually isn't a problem here, thanks to high signal-to-noiseratios.

Vocalist

Creating a great headphone mix for the lead vocalist can be achallenge, as singers tend to have different preferences. For example,one may want a finished full-band mix, and another may prefer to singonly to an acoustic-guitar track. In addition, because of therelatively low SPLs and close proximity of the headphones to an openmic (usually with lots of gain added), headphone bleed is often aproblem.

As a general rule, keep percussive elements low in the mix,especially snare and cymbal parts that can create lots ofhigh-frequency bleed (and usually aren't necessary for singers to keeptheir timing anyway). As long as the singer can hear the song's basicrhythm, you should be fine; most of the time, there's no need for“accessory” percussion parts at all.

The main goal is almost always to find the right instruments and theright balance of those instruments to keep the singer on pitch. Notethat a headphone mix heavy on the low end will often cause singers,especially those less experienced at recording, to sing a little sharpas they attempt to “compensate” for the excessive lows. Thesolution there is simply to provide more of the midrange elements— those between, say, 800 Hz and 2 kHz — being careful notto let in too much of the higher-frequency sound.

Perhaps most critical is finding the right level for the vocal inrelation to the other instruments. If the voice is too loud in thecans, the vocalist may not sing forcibly enough; if the voice is tooquiet, he or she may strain. In addition, too much or too little vocalin the mix can also contribute to pitch problems.

If the vocal is to be processed in the final mix with reverb, delay,or whatever, it is appropriate to add some of the same, or similar,effect(s) to the voice in the headphone mix, again to provide context.Be careful, though — too little effect can trigger“overinflection,” and too much, especially too much reverb,may induce the singer to “cheat,” resulting in weakvocalization, pitch problems, or both.

Weak vocalists often ask for more effects than are appropriate. Inthat case, it's best to give them what they ask for — after all,providing only the amount you think is right confers no advantage, andit may lead to discomfort for the singer, a substandard performance, orboth. If you feel strongly that a singer is hurting the performance byusing too much effect, try dropping the level a smidge during the take— a sneaky tactic, yes, but justifiable as long as it helps theperformance.

Backup vocalist(s)

Pitch is usually the main concern when recording backup vocals, soyou may find that a minimum of instruments — acoustic guitar orpiano and lead vocal, for example — yields the best results. Iusually pan the lead vocal a bit to one side of center and the backupto the other side. Keep the lead vocal strong in the mix and then finda level — usually slightly below the lead — that is optimalfor the backup singer or singers.

If you are recording a group of singers in one pass with a stereopair of mics, pan the backups opposite the lead voice, but also try topan the stereo signal so that it matches the arrangement of singers inthe room — you don't want the person standing on the far left ofthe semicircle to hear him or herself on the right side of the stereoimage.

CAN DO

In the end, your ability to dial up an optimal headphone mix for anygiven instrumentalist will have a profound effect on the quality of thetracks and performances you get from your recording sessions. Withexperienced studio musicians, the job may be as easy as asking whatthey want and giving it to them; newbies, on the other hand, may noteven realize they have a say in the matter, in which case it helpstremendously for you to have an idea of what kind of mix will coax outtheir best performances. Hopefully, this article has provided insightinto how best to proceed in either case and how to minimize bleed andother problems that can plague you during mixdown.


Randy Neiman is an independent producer, engineer,educator, and author who resides in the mountains of NorthernCalifornia. Additional contributions were made by Robin Hood Brians andJim Chapdelaine. You can reach the Great Baldini through e-mail ataudioguru@mail.com.

MORE ME, PLEASE!

Larger commercial recording facilities often provide separateminiature mixers so that musicians can dial up their own individualheadphone monitor mixes. In a typical setup, that requires a series ofdistribution amps and a separate mini mixer for each musician. (SeeFig. A for a simpler, more affordable More Me setup.) Thequality of the mixer is not all that critical, as most currentlyavailable models provide adequate line-level mixing capabilities.

The following hypothetical More Me setup (see Fig. B) showssignal routing to one or more Mackie 1202-VLZs — an excellentmini mixer for this application. This setup would be useful for a livetracking session of a band consisting of drums, bass, guitar, stereokeys, stereo horns, and a vocalist.

Begin by putting together a nicely balanced stereo mix, completewith effects. It should sound much the way you want the final mix tosound, with the following exceptions:

  1. Mix a little bit heavy on the rhythm-section elements. That'sbecause all the players need to be able to follow the timingeasily.

  2. Mix light on the melodic instruments, especially the vocals. (Youcould also opt to leave the vocals out of the baseline mix.)

  3. Pan each instrument into a more restricted area than you would forthe final mix. That is, don't put any element far on either side of thestereo field.

  4. EQ the mix so the highs are less bright than you would want them tobe in a commercial mix. The reason for doing that is higher frequenciesmore readily result in headphone leakage and listening fatigue thanlower ones.

Now you have a baseline stereo mix that everyone can work from. Feedthis baseline mix to a stereo input on each mini mixer — in thiscase, Line In 11-12 (which corresponds to the “fader” onchannel 8). Next, take direct outputs (or insert sends) from the kickand snare tracks and route them to channels 1 and 2, respectively. Dothe same with the bass, guitar, stereo keys, and stereo horns, routingthem to channels 3, 4, stereo 5-6, and stereo 7-8, respectively.Finally, route the vocal track to stereo channel 9-10, plugging in tothe top (L) jack, which is mono.

With that setup, the musicians can independently add more kick,snare, bass, guitar, keys, horns, and/or vocals to the baseline mix,depending on each of their needs. In addition, they can pan individualelements (except those going to the stereo channels) far left or rightin the baseline mix so that they can hear them more easily withoutadding too much gain. As you might expect, musicians tend to add moreof their own instruments to the mix, hence the phrase “moreme.”

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