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Production Central: Zen and the Art of Mixing a Record

11/12/2010

I''m one of those jack-of-all-trades music producers. I usually write, record, mix, and master my productions. Every now and again, I''ll have the pleasure of working with a mix engineer or a mastering engineer to get a second listen, but as recording budgets dry up and the music business becomes more single-driven, I find that I''m the one who will make 99 percent of the sonic decisions for my productions. This means that I''m often burning the candle at both ends to finalize a production, which leaves me a bit fatigued mentally and sonically by the time I get to the final mix.

To combat my hectic schedule and make sure I''m making the correct sonic decisions, I employ a number of techniques during and prior to the production process that make the final mixdown a lot easier to manage.

Sometimes it helps to try muting some tracks to see if they''re really adding to the mix.

Sometimes it helps to try muting some tracks to see if they''re really adding to the mix.

FRAME OF REFERENCE
Before I start any production, I like to build a playlist of around five songs I can use as reference material for the project. I''ll use this sonic playlist for reference in a number of ways.

First, if I''m doing work for a band or singer, I''ll use this reference material to speak to the client about our end goals from a sonic perspective. Usually, my goal is not to make the original production sound exactly like any of the reference material, but to make it fit in its own unique way with the other tracks in my playlist. It''s very important to understand your clients'' expectations or you risk disappointing them. If you can agree that the music in your playlist is a good sonic definition for the project, you are more likely to reach your production goals. One indirect effect of building this playlist is that your clients will know that you understand their particular genres. And with musical styles being blended and sliced up into the smallest divisions, it''s important to know that you are producing music that will fit within the desired genre.

Next, I refer to the playlist to help me define the actual production elements in my track and to help identify mix goals. I ask myself questions like: Am I using the right kicks and snares? What kind of EQ do the guitars have? How compressed are the guitars? How compressed are the overall mixes? Is the material programmed or live, or a combination of both? Where do the vocals sit in the mix? Were the songs singles? And most importantly, how is space used in the mix? There are hundreds of questions like these that you should be asking yourself before you start your own production.

By doing this critical listening, I''m able to predetermine the types of instruments, and recording and mix techniques that I''m going to use in the production. This is important because it removes a ton of the guesswork and leaves more time for sonic experimentation. Instead of spending an hour stumbling around for the perfect kick drum, I''m able to go straight to my library and grab the sounds that work well within that genre.

I focus on the type of dynamic changes that are taking place in the reference material. For example, if the reference material has static drums that don''t shift very much in volume, such as in a lot of hip-hop, I''ll normalize the volumes on the drums in the sequencer instead of using compression to smooth out any volume changes that may occur during programming. If I do add some compression to the drums, it will be for color and not to control volume changes. On the other hand, for a live drum feel I''ll often rely on compression to saturate the drums and give them some analog punch. Different techniques work for different genres, so knowing your game plan from your reference material is a must.

THE NITTY GRITTY
While assembling my production, I pay close attention to the details and requirements of each element that I record or add to the mix. For example, if I''m doing a rock production that has thick-stacked guitars, I know that I''ll be tracking six to nine separate guitar tracks. I''ll need to be careful not to overdrive my guitar aux by stacking too many guitar tracks through one bus. So if I''m doing nine stacked guitars, I''ll create three stereo aux channels that sum three guitars each. This method allows me to make EQ, compression, and effects changes to each of the three aux channels instead of effecting all nine guitars at one time, thus giving me much more freedom to tweak the guitars during the production and in the final mix.

As I add more and more elements to my mix, I''m careful to take the time to listen to that element within the mix to determine what sonic space the new elements cover. I''m a big believer that less is more when it comes to creating depth and clarity in my mixes. I pay close attention to the frequencies that are being filled with each new element, and if the mix starts to feel a little choked, I''ll know that the last element that was added is probably providing too much weight to a frequency range. To rectify this problem, I''ll sweep an EQ over that new element to hear what frequencies are overloading the mix and then attenuate the offending frequencies for that new element.

Overuse of effects such as delay and reverb will clutter a mix, so I use them strategically to create space and depth. I often have a dry element such as a guitar or keyboard gently panned to one side of the mix and have that element''s reverb panned to the other side of the mix. Or a delay that slowly pans across the stereo field while the frequency of this delay is gradually lowpassed. Another cool delay trick is to have a very quick slap-back delay with the delay time modulated by a small, fast sinewave that increases or decreases the slapback. I''ll use this modulated slap on a single guitar to create a little extra depth.

KEEPING MY MIX IN PERSPECTIVE
When I start my mix phase and I think I''ve added all that I need to the production, I''ll try muting different instruments to see if they are really adding something to the mix. If I find that the vocal sits better after I''ve muted an element, and if my goal is to make the vocal shine, then I''ll drop that element even though I thought it was important during the recording process. Once I''ve taken off my producer hat and become the mix engineer, I have to be able to let things go, even if it took great pain to get them into the song. Just because I took the time to record a track doesn''t mean it has to remain in the mix.

Ultimately, because I''m mixing as I record, the final mix is usually very close to where I''ve ended with the production so I don''t have to kill myself to get the mix in shape. Θ


Ming is a New York City-based artist, producer, and DJ. He owns Hood Famous Music and co-owns Habitat Music.

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