Mix Bus-Nic Hard’S 7 Steps To a Great Mix

Mixing a song—let alone an entire album—can become a tedious, earnumbing process if you allow it. That is why it’s important to understand what needs to be achieved, and how to achieve it. Nic Hard [The Bravery, The Church, Aberdeen City] maintains that the three most important aspects of a mix are clarity, atmosphere, and dynamics, and that all of these elements need to be in place before the tune loses that “fresh” feeling. So Hard has developed a get in/get out approach to producing great-sounding mixes in just a few simple steps.


Give the song a quick listen and determine what the band is trying to do stylistically. Listen for any problems with the tracking, think about what effects you may want to try out, and recognize where dynamic changes need to take place. “Don’t be afraid to f**k things up a little bit,” says Hard. “Push things to distortion, or use heavy compression as an effect. Sometimes, especially when people work on their own music, the mix engineer tends to be afraid to do things like that, and they pull back, but there’s really very little you can do that’s ‘wrong.’”


Get the drum sound together by pulling everything else way down (or muting the rest of the tracks), and adjusting the individual drum track levels until you have a full-sounding kit. Hard likes to use an API 550A to equalize drum tracks, and he begins by cutting out all the unnecessary low and low-mid frequencies. He may also duck a few dB between 350Hz and 550Hz to make the drums sound clearer, as well as to leave some room for other instruments in that range. A Vintech 609CA stereo compressor set to a 3:1 ratio, with a medium attack and a fast release, ensures all levels are relatively constant. “I tend to like hearing compression and so I’ll push things until they start pumping a little bit,” says Hard.


Bring everything else in as quickly as possible, EQing and compressing as you go. Begin with a high-pass filter on the bass, and take off everything under 40Hz. Cut a dB or so between 200Hz and 400Hz, and see if you can get away with rolling off everything above 3kHz–4kHz to leave room for some sizzle elsewhere. Hard uses an in-the-box compressor for bass (unless he’s re-amping) set to a 4:1 ratio, and he varies the attack and release times depending upon the tune (fast/slow for a mushier sound, medium/fast for a tighter one). For the guitars, use a highpass filter to take out everything below 100Hz. Listen for any other low-mid rumbling that is clouding up the mix and notch it out. The 200Hz–400Hz range may need some attention for clarity, as well. Hard prefers not to compress guitars unless absolutely necessary.


Listen to how the vocals sit in the mix with the other instruments. Using the Digidesign EQ3, Hard will take off everything below 80Hz, shave off a hair around 100Hz, and create a slight dip at 400Hz. (Note that these are opposing frequencies to the ones carved out in the rhythm section.) Then, he will add some presence between 1.5kHz and 6kHz, and perhaps add some heavy compression with Purple Audio’s MC76 set to a 4:1 ratio, a fast attack, and a fast release. “For vocals, I use compression for somewhat of an effect,” says Hard. “I like how it brings up all the other noises going on—not so much the breaths, but the attack and decay of the words. I want to hear every nuance, every little thing the singer is doing.”


Hard adds some mix-bus compression with a 3:1 ratio, the attack set to 1ms, and the release set as fast as possible. Of course, this requires that your current track levels, EQ, and compression may have to be revised a bit to accommodate the overall mix compression). “If you carve things out right initially, your balances will sort of come together much easier, and you can raise and lower different instruments without destroying the whole mix,” says Hard.


Keep reverb plug-ins to a minimum to avoid creating a variety of differentsounding spaces. Hard recommends sticking with just two—usually a plate for vocals and acoustic guitars, and a room or big hall for electric guitars and keyboards (depending upon the song and its arrangement, of course). For any mono tracks that need more space and depth, Hard may also add a reverb plug-in on the track’s channel insert. “I like to use one of the ‘church’ settings from Digidesign’s DVerb,” he says. “I usually set the reverb 100 percent wet, because it gives you a really wide pad sound, as well as a stereo effect to an otherwise flat-sounding track.” Hard also encourages a “no fear” approach to adding a little distortion to just about everything, and, in fact, the “added element of distortion” has become one of his signature sounds. He typically uses SansAmp PSA-1, Digidesign Amp Farm, and Sound Toys FilterFreak plug-ins on everything from drums to bass to vocals.


Practice or automate your fader moves so that the tune builds and drops out dynamically. “The key is to make sure you can feel the impact between sections,” says Hard, who prefers mixing to 1/2" tape running on an ATR-102 at 15ips to achieve analog compression, coloration, and, yes, noise. He recommends listening to the mix on at least three different sets of speakers—his choices are typically Yamaha NS10s, Genelec 1030s, and a boom box—to ensure the tracks sound good wherever you take them. “It’s a good idea to keep all your settings for the next song or mix session,” he says. “I’ll often use the same basic settings from song to song on an album—especially when working with bands—because I want them to sound like they are coming from the same sonic space.”