SOUND ADVICE: “MIXING (SECRETLY) WHILE TRACKING”
“Sound Advice” is a recurring feature in which SAE Institute instructors offer helpful production techniques. Today, we learn tips on how to expedite the mixing process courtesy of SAE Nashville Instructor Cameron Henry.
I don’t like doing tedious activities when I mix. Editing, compressing, and EQing a bloated number of drum & guitar tracks are annoying chores for me. While I am aware that all those tasks are essential to a great recording, I prefer to focus on the vibe & overall sound of a mix, and I loathe time spent having to sort and organize while I’m trying to mix.
Early in my career, I was guilty of leaving myself too many mixing decisions at the final stage. As a result, my mixes suffered (don’t tell anyone) because I was too focused on menial, left-brained activities instead of keeping my focus on the overall vibe. Now I’ve learned to trust my creative instincts early on, while making more critical decisions during the tracking process. Often, I see young engineers struggle with this, so I’ve outlined my approach to certain critical tracking procedures to help get you in the habit of not leaving decisions to the last stage:
Recording drums can be extremely tedious. No singular set-up works for everything, and very few people share identical approaches to recording drums. Of course, there is a “safe” way to record them: place two mics on everything (above & under) with an array of overhead and room mics. But in that case, you end up with 16+ tracks of drum sounds to toy with. More than likely, only a fraction of those tracks are necessary to make a proper drum mix. Therefore, I approach drums with a more minimalist perspective. I use three well-arranged microphones placed strategically around a drum kit. I’ll often dig into the EQ of a kick drum right away, scooping out the low-mids in order to leave a pocket for a bass instrument & boosting high-mids for punch. Sometimes, I will sum sources together on a single track (i.e. over & under snare drum mics OR overhead & room mic summing). By reducing options, I am forced to immediately determine if my technique is working for the song or not. In trusting my instincts & committing to the overall drum sound early on, the foundation for the song is laid at the end of basic tracking, and the available sonic-space left for other instrumentation is clearly defined.
Very few guitarists bring more than one guitar to a recording session, and even less bring more than one amplifier. A session can get stuck on layering & overdubbing guitar parts to try to make tracks larger & more powerful. I find that using the same guitar & amp for overdubs, even with different microphones, renders unsuccessful results, because every amplifier has good & bad characteristics, and layering the bad stuff usually outweighs the layering of the good. I keep an assortment of amplifiers & guitars, both “nice” and “cheap,” in my studio to combat this. Often times, I’ll have a guitarist switch both the guitar & amplifier for overdubs, and the track will instantly seem more large & full without having to lay more than a couple overdubs into a session. I also EQ to properly isolate different takes from one another. Usually one take will have more body, while the other has more upper mid clarity. I’ll shape them accordingly so that they pocket together. Also, if I use more than one microphone on an amp, I may sum the sounds together to one track. I find that summing sources to a single track on tape glues them together into a single, big sound. When tracking is completed, a small set of well thought-out guitar tracks will be easier to place in the final mix.
It is very rare for a vocalist to get a great take on the first few tries. I always view the first few passes of vocals to be a warm-up for the singer. Therefore, I approach recording a vocalist experimentally during the first few takes. I’ll have a few different microphones ready to go, so I can easily switch them out between takes. I’ll always have an assortment of “go to” vocal mics, but I’ll also set up a few weird ones. Sometimes a strange alteration of standard mics & placements result in great recordings. The key to capturing a great vocal performance is listening. Recently, I was recording a 3-piece garage rock band. Even though the tone I was getting from my microphone was on point, the vocals felt timid in front of the blasting backing track. I decided to run a cheap karaoke microphone into a small practice amp, and placed it next to the vocal mic. I summed the two sounds together to a single track & got an amazing vocal track (after some serious EQ & a dash of compression). It took me a few takes to get it right, but the end result had that extra oomph in the vocals.
The slogan often used in the engineering world is “never say it can be fixed in the mix,” so why must we continue to be non-committal during the early stages of tracking? I know, these practices require commitment, which is a word most engineers hate. Commitment to an EQ curve, a compression setting, or even a single (mono) microphone is scary to many engineers. That said, it is creative and liberating. And creativity is more integral to the creation of a great mix than playing it safe.