The Music Production Process
Step 7 (Part 3):
The Music Mixing Process
Part 1 of The Music Mixing Process
, I talked at length about having the right mindset before starting a mix. Remember that your approach to a mix is the most important part of the process. You must have a direction or a goal in mind in order to achieve the desired results. This requires studying the technical side of engineering by learning to listen for the technical details of how a mix is constructed.
Part 2 of The Music Mixing Process
, I started to outline a step by step process that should help give you good mixing habits. Using the analogy of moving into a new house, I have attempted to help you understand the connection between what we see and what we hear. Each step in the process has a connection to the "imaging" aspect of audio that built into out DNA. Below is an outline of that process.
The Fundamental Music Mixing Process
- Levels And Panning
- Subtractive Eq And Editing
- Effects Processing
- Shaping Eq
- Grouping Instruments
- Automating Levels
- Printing The Final Mix
To pick up from where we left off in step 2, let's begin with additive EQ:
Shaping the Mix (Additive EQ)
With all your best efforts to set the tone, depth and balances of your mix, there is almost always some work that remains. This is where the EQ is best used. I have rarely been satisfied with mixes that are primarily EQ driven. Music mixing is a process better started by creating the tone, depth and balance of your mix first using the tools we have already spoken of. The EQ is a great tool for cleaning up what could not be accomplished by those tools.
The main problem with EQ is that when you add it to one track in your mix, it will cover up something else that needs the same frequency area. Looking back to the moving analogy, if your furniture is too big, there will be no room for you to walk around it and use it. If you put a huge lampshade on the lamp next to the couch, you may find that it gets in the way of your head and blocks the view to that side of the room.
More than any other form of processing, you need to be conscious of where you add EQ into a mix. Decisions must be made regarding which instruments are dominant in the mix and require certain frequency areas the most. For example a bass guitar needs low midrange frequencies more than a kick drum does to sound good. Scooping low mids out of the kick may allow you to add them to the bass to achieve the warmth you are looking for.
The concept of give and take with frequencies with music mixing is a crucial one to understand. The individual instruments are like puzzle pieces that must fit together in order to form the whole picture. Remember that any form of additive EQ will require an adjustment of levels throughout the mix. If you don't listen to how the EQ you added affects the other instruments in the mix, it will soon fall apart like a house of cards.
There are many forms of grouping in music mixing. The most common one used is Mix Grouping. The idea is that you can change the level or mute state of all members of the group by changing the level or mute state of any one member. It is usually not beneficial to enable a mix group until your balances and sounds are very close to what you are looking for. Otherwise, you may find yourself unwittingly changing balances to the other members of the group.
The other type is Audio Grouping where all the members of the group are bussed into a single stereo track so that they can be processed together in their stereo mix form. A group buss is a form of combining amplifier where signals are combined into what is called a mix stem or submix before being sent to the master stereo mix. This concept serves many valuable purposes in the music mixing process.
- Allows groups of instruments to be processed together.
- Allows for the easy creation of mix stems for remixing.
- Allows you to easily create simple variations of a mix.
Typically, mix stems are divided into four categories:
- Drums and percussion with effects
- All melodic/harmonic music instruments with effects
- Backing Vocals with effects
- Lead Vocals with effects
These four mix stems can then be sent to the Master Fader for the final mix output. They can be selectively soloed or muted for the creation of A Capella mixes, Instrumental Mixes, TV Mixes (mix minus Lead Vocal) etc… It also allows quick and easy creation of "vocal up" or "vocal down" versions. The individual mix stems can also be processed to make the sound more coherent.
Adjusting levels after every level of processing is a necessary step in the music mixing process. At some point in your mix, however, you will need to automate those fader levels to accommodate changes from section to section in the song. Additionally, automation can help enhance the dynamics of the song by pushing and pulling levels as needed. Why is this necessary?
The modern music production process does not typically have all musicians performing the entirety of a production all at one recording session. Songs are typically recorded in stages as outlined here in the Music Production Process. As a result, the musicians that layer on overdubs can only respond to what has already been recorded. Even with the guidance of a good producer, the musician will subtly push or pull in places that may not entirely support the parts that will be layered on later.
The end result is that the dynamics of each performance will need to be adjusted based on what else is going on at the same time in the song. The fundamental purpose of automation in music mixing allows for the adjustment of these inconsistencies. The ability to move things in and out of your attention in this way helps to cover up the fact that the performances were recorded separately.
When done properly, the song will sound like a complete performance and will take on a life of its own. In the music industry this is called "making a record". It is the final step of the music mixing process that takes all the individual performances and weaves them together into the final product. It is an absolutely essential process for the production to sound complete.
The 4 Step Basic Process For Applying Mix Automation:
- General Levels
- Section To Section Levels
- Weaving Performances Together
- Fine Tuning
Always start with the big picture, make sure the general levels work well. If you cannot get good balances then you still have more processing work to do. Once the sounds and general levels are good you will still find that certain parts are loud in some sections and soft in others. Make these adjustments section to section. Take careful note of how your automation affects everything else in the mix and adjust accordingly.
The next step is to weave the performances together so that the instruments you need to hear most prominently are not masked by other performances. When raising the level of one instrument, I usually look to pull down the level of another instrument that occupies a similar space or frequencies. This simple idea will keep you from crushing the whole mix just because you wanted the guitar solo to be louder.
The fine tuning stage involves making sure that all the subtle nuances of a performance are heard. This is typically done most with lead vocal rides. Riding in the subtle details of the lead vocal will help to focus listener's attention on that performance. It's important not to do this with every instrument. If you applied the same technique to every instrument, you may find too many tracks fighting for attention from the listener.
Printing the Final Mix
Printing the mix is the last step in the music mixing process. Music mixing "inside the box" has made this stage far less stressful than in times past. Since the era of multitrack recording in the 60's, mixing has progressively become more complicated. The stress of getting it right the first time was much higher because of the difficulty to restore the exact same sound at a later date.
A 48 track mix in Pro Tools will come back in a few seconds after loading the session file. This allows a mix to be revisited at any time with the full expectation that everything will be exactly as it was. To restore a 48 track mix on an analog console with an average amount of external gear is at least a 4-5 hour process, even with very detailed notes.
Ironically, the biggest benefit of computer based music mixing is also the biggest problem. Because it's so easy to bring the mix back up, the mixing process can go on forever. This can easily lead to a final mix that's been stripped of all its character and uniqueness. At some point you have to let it go and move on to creating new music.
When you have finally decided to commit to printing, make sure you print the individual mix stems. These stems can come in very handy for many reasons. They can be sent out to remixers who will want the groupings of instruments to be isolated for sampling purposes. Because all the automation and effects are burned into the stems, the remixer won't have to spend time trying to recreate the vibe of the original mix.
They are also handy to have around in case the mastering engineer has issues with your mixes. The mix stems can easily be put together in the mastering computer where drums can be processed separately from the vocals and other instruments. Almost any variation of a mix for rehearsals, live performances, TV performances etc… can be created from these four simple stems.
The music mixing process is one that involves a load of practice, listening skills and patience. A mix is like a house of cards that can easily fall apart with one misplaced sound. The more you listen to quality productions, the more you will find ways to duplicate what you hear. Your listening will be much more analytical in nature as you increase your mixing skills. Eventually, you will be able to create the sound you want with ease.
In the final step of the music production process, we will go into the process of mastering. You will learn the basic process and why it is so vital and necessary for your music productions. Click below to move on to step 8 of the music production process, Mastering.
Step 1: Writing a Song
Step 2: Recording a Demo
Step 3: Rehearsals
Step 4: Basic Tracks
Step 5: Overdubbing
Step 6: Editing
Step 7 (Part 1): Mixing
Step 7 (Part 2): Mixing
Step 7 (Part 3): Music Mixing
Step 8: Mastering
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