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Mixing Secrets for the small studio
by Mike Senior
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0240815807, Paperback)Amazon Exclusive: A Letter from Mike Senior on Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio, "The 'Why The Hell' Challenge"
Whenever I read anything about mixing, my first question is this: why the hell should I believe what this person's saying?
It would therefore be daft of me to expect any better treatment. So why should you believe me when I say that you can create commercial-grade mixes in a typical small home/college studio?
My first answer to this question is that you can judge for yourself, with your own ears, because dozens of my mixes for Sound On Sound magazine's popular "Mix Rescue" column are available free online--there's a taster of some of them on this very page, and lots more available on my own webpage. In all these cases I've started with real-world small-studio recordings and used widely available mass-market technology to remix it to a commercial level, all without ever setting foot inside a "real" studio. Go on, take a listen. If you want that kind of transformation for your music, then you can find a detailed explanation of my method in Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio.
The second reason you might want to take notice of these mixing techniques, though, is that they've been drawn not only from my own professional experience, but also from more than four million words of first-hand interviews with the highest-profile engineers and producers on the planet. Whatever you think of my personal advice, it's a bit trickier to dismiss the opinions of 100 of the studio industry's biggest names.
But at the end of the day it's your call: does Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio pass your own "why the hell" test? You might just find that it's the only mixing book on the market that actually does . . .
Amazon Exclusive: Top Ten Small-Studio Myths--Busted
Amongst many other things in Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio, I try to deliver a stout kicking to the following questionable (but surprisingly pervasive) pieces of received wisdom:
You need high-end gear to create commercial-grade mixes.
While great gear makes mixing quicker and easier, it's not a deal-breaker. To demonstrate this, I deliberately do all my "Mix Rescue" remixes for Sound On Sound magazine on budget gear in small home/college studios. In some cases, I've even restricted myself to the DAW's built-in plug-ins too--as Greg Kurstin did when mixing Lily Allen's hit record The Fear. If you won’t take my word for it, though, here's top producer Frank Filipetti: "Your ears, your mind, your musical abilities are what it’s all about. Put a George Massenburg, a Hugh Padgham, a Kevin Killen together with any kind of gear, and you’ll get a great-sounding record.” Tony Visconti is one of many others who back him up: “I’ve heard people make very bad records on expensive gear. The gear does not dictate the quality. It’s how you use it.” So I’m afraid that if your mix sucks, your mixing technique sucks. No two ways about it.
Use the speakers with the flattest frequency response.
This isn't actually the most important thing when working under budget constraints, because your ear can adapt to a speaker's frequency balance quite readily. When you've not got much money to buy monitors for mixing, a flat frequency response is much less critical than good time-domain response. Indeed, the two most celebrated mixing speakers of all time, the Yamaha NS10 and the Auratone 5C Super Sound Cube, both have extremely uneven frequency-response plots, but excellent time-domain performance.
Trust your ears.
They may be all you've got to hear with, but if you're going to achieve pro-standard mixes then you should trust your ears about as far as you can stretch them! They will lie to you at every opportunity if you give them half a chance, and you need to stay vigilant to avoid being caught out. Ever had that "morning after" horror of realizing that last night’s great-sounding mix actually sounds like a wasp in a tin? Or have you ever carefully adjusted a mix effect for five minutes before realizing the stupid thing isn't actually plugged in? Those common experiences are just the tip of the iceberg, and it's only by learning to work around the fickleness of your own hearing that you can begin to get decent mix results reliably.
Timing/tuning-correction kills the music!
Corrective processing can certainly produce unmusical results, but it's important to realize that it doesn't have to, even if you're just using the editing facilities built into your software DAW. Furthermore, almost every small-studio production I've worked on sounded more musical (and became a lot easier to mix) once careful timing and tuning correction had been applied. And I've yet to have a single client complain about it either!
Start your mix with the drums.
That might work with some mixes, but it's often not the best decision. For example, in a lot of styles you actually want to give the lead vocals the biggest "wow" factor, sonically speaking. In that case, it's much better to start with those while your ears are fresh, and while you've still got lots of mix real estate and computer CPU power to play with.
Try to make every instrument sound its best.
This can be a recipe for disaster at mixdown. The moment you put two instruments together, each will inevitably compromise the quality of the other, and mixing is not just about deciding which instruments need to sound best--it's also about deciding which can afford to sound less good. You may need to make some parts of your mix sound worse in order to make your all-important lead vocal sound better, for instance. As producer John Leckie puts it: "You can’t have spectacular everything--then you wonder why the mix doesn’t sound any good, because everything’s crowding everything else. When you solo the instruments, everything sounds good, but when it’s all put together it’s a jumbled-up mess, so something’s got to give way.”
Reverb has to sound natural.
Wrong. Although realistic-sounding room simulation has its place in many mixes, there's a whole lot more to using reverb effects than that. Even the dodgiest-sounding reverb unit can prove extremely handy when enhancing an instrument's tone/decay characteristics, or stereo image. In fact, a lot of the established classic reverb units sound pretty unnatural (the AMS RMX16, say, or the EMT 140 plate), but that doesn't stop them from appearing all over the current charts.
Perhaps it just needs professional mastering? (If only I had the Celestial Systems Mix Perfectizer plug-in!)
I call this the "silver bullet" myth--that comforting delusion that the only thing separating your mix from the ones you hear on the radio is some single esoteric process. Well, here's some news: I've heard thousands of real small-studio mixes, as well as remixing dozens of them for "Mix Rescue," and whenever I hear someone utter the silver bullet myth, it’s never, ever a single "magic ingredient" that their mix actually needs! The malaise can almost always be traced to a whole selection of minor misjudgments that have been made at various points in the arrangement, editing, and mixing process. In other words, if you improve your basic mixing technique, the "fairy dust" will look after itself.
But you just can't do that!
In mixing the end justifies the means. Whatever you're given to work from, the bottom line is that you're expected to turn it into something that sounds like a finished record. It doesn't matter if you have to replace the drums with samples, stuff synth pads between the guitar layers, add new backing vocals, or remove certain instruments entirely--just as long as your final product sounds great enough to make the client a happy bunny.
Professionals don't make mistakes.
Rubbish. Professionals make mistakes like everyone else, but they turn them to their advantage. “You’re going to make mistakes,” says Humberto Gatica. “The important thing is to learn from them.” Mixing in particular is one long experiment, in which mistakes play a vital role by identifying any mixing tactics that are unsuitable for the job at hand. For this reason professional engineers at the highest level will cheerfully scrap a mix completely and redo it. “I will often restart mixes three or four times,” reveals Fabian Marasciullo. “Put everything back to zero and try again, re-blend and EQ everything.” Justin Niebank doesn't think twice about heading back to the drawing board either: "I’m not afraid to pull all the faders back down again if it doesn’t work. That’s too great a hurdle for many engineers: but if necessary, don’t get precious, and start over."
(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:14 -0400)
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