Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Focus of our Mix (a 5 points list)

Hello and welcome to this week's article!
Today we are going to talk about "the big picture", in facts often sound engineers are detail oriented nerds which focuses their attention on one detail at the time and refine it to perfection, and sometimes they can get to a point in which they lose a holistic view of the mix, for example after hours spent working on a synth sound.
The result is that when the producer hears a mix he focuses on certain things that the final listener won't even notice, and he could lose the general view of how is the song perceived.

This small list is useful to "keep the eyes on the ball", since the listener hears the complete song, not the single parts, so we will try to break down the elements that usually are more noticed in a mix, so that we will know where to put most of our efforts.
Notice that this list applies for rock, metal, punk, funk and most of pop music, but there are other genres completely different in which these rules don't apply, because they would make the song excessively rhythm based (es. jazz), so use it at your own risk.

1) Snare sound: the snare sound is the business card of the song.
It's the first thing that gets to the ear of the listener, because it is made, along with vocals, to resonate exactly in the most audible frequences for the human ear.
The snare sound alone can decide the genre of a song, imagine the typical reggae snare of the Bob Marley albums, the dry and snappy sound of the electronic dance music one, the shotgun sound of 80s rock or the acoustic vibe of '60s and '70s rock snare.
If the snare sound is botched, the WHOLE song will sound amateur, or unpleasant, even if the listener can't recognize why, so make sure to nail it.
Click here for an article about mixing drums.

2) Low end (kick and bass): this is the punch of the song, and one the core elements that makes the difference between a very amateur recording and a professional one, because to be nailed it requires expensive monitors and use of metering tools that usually amateur mix engineers doesn't consider important.
If we get right the balance both in levels and in frequences of the rhythm section, which is the whole drumset (especially the balance between snare and kick) and the bass we have done most of the mix, because the whole song will sound balanced and the listener will focus on the content, the music, which is our main objective.
Bass and kick should go as in sinergy as possible, and this assumes we have good tracks, played in time and well arranged, and the frequences should be complementary each other when mixing, so that the "house" we are building has strong foundations.

3) Vocals: Once we have a solid rhythmic section we must focus on vocals, because (unless we are mixing some swedish nineties death metal song) it will be the thing that will make the listener press play on our track.
If the vocals are bad, either because the singer is bad or because we have recorded or mixed him poorly, the song will be a failure, so we must treat it very carefully, considering that 70% of a vocal track happens during tracking; after that we can embellish it with reverb, delay, autotune, but if a vocal take sucks it cannot un-suck, so grab your best microphone, your best preamp, your best patience and record the track again if it doesn't sound perfect, because even if the song will be perfectly produced, if the vocal sucks, noone will ever want to listen to it.

4) Accompainment (guitars, piano...): now we must take care of everything is around the voice, such as guitars, or synths, or anything else, and we do it after drums and vocals, otherwise we would not be willing to sacrifice frequences or modify the perfect sound we have found to make room to drums and vocals. Keep your eyes on the ball guys!

5) Additional arrangement: This last element (such as adding small details like handclaps on snare here and there, some extra effect to underline a certain word, some lo-fi stop and go, automations etc), should be done once we have our general mix finished, and these details will be the candies we will throw to the listener to rise the attention when we are afraid he would get distracted, or to draw it towards a particular element of the song.
Use them with parsimony though, because otherwise if the song is too full of these tricks the listener will stop paying attention to them!

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