The Mix Arrangement: On Building and Balancing your Mix
A mix is balanced when each and every element of the tune sonically serves its musical purpose. First and foremost, that means that each and every track that should be heard can be heard, without effort from the listener. It’s simple in concept, but keeping all tracks audible turns out to be a serious challenge.
Loud tracks make it harder to hear soft tracks. The low-frequency richness in the bass guitar diminishes the listener’s enjoyment of similar low frequencies in the kick drum. Each blast of energy from every powerful snare hit briefly obscures other details in the mix. An out-of-tune piano can sour our sense of what was sung. An out-of-time hand percussion performance will wreck the rhythm of what the drummer played. Similar sounds coming from similar locations, front to back, left to right, are hard to segregate.
This constant interaction among the multitrack components, in which some tracks might obscure others and where some tracks clash with others, is a pervasive challenge and must be kept under watchful ear by the mix engineer and sorted out through three fundamental balancing tools: faders, pan pots, and— let us not forget—mute switches. The fader adjusts the overall amplitude of the signal. The pan pot adjusts the relative level among mix busses, left versus right and front versus back. The mute switch removes amplitude altogether, deleting the signal from your mix entirely.
Any fader pushed too high can lead to a clumsily loud track that overpowers those tracks sitting at lower levels, possibly robbing the tune of some other key elements of the mix. Any fader left too low can relegate a track to obscurity and near-inaudibility. Spectrally similar tracks will likely compete and might need panning to different locations left to right and—if the project is in surround sound—front to back. Ultimately, if there is no fader setting and pan pot position that works, or if the track remains technically or musically distracting, don’t be afraid to hit that mute button, silencing the problem track and freeing the rest of the tracks to play their necessary roles.
The first step in building a mix is to push up the faders and begin listening to the song. Notice that the goal is to hear the song as a whole, not the tracks individually. The band, the composer, the producer, or some combination thereof, has a vision for the tune. In the lyrics and the instrumentation, there is a message and a range of intended human emotions. In the groove and the beat, there is a pace and range of intended dance floor gyrations. Through a music recording, the artist is trying to communicate sophisticated and sometimes subtle thoughts to the music fan. It doesn’t work if the guitars are drowning out the vocals, or if the bass is obscuring the beat. There is within the tracks an arrangement that supports what the artist is trying to say. That 48-track project represents 48 related musical ideas that need to come together in symphony to realize the artist’s vision. It’s a puzzle at first. So pushing up the faders and listening for the overall song is a challenging step not to be skipped or taken lightly.
If you are hearing the piece for the first time, this is an exciting—but high-pressure— moment. You must find an effective multitrack arrangement through terrific concentration, governed by respect for the producers, engineers, and musicians who have put their hearts into the tracks you hear, sustaining a tireless curiosity to learn what their musical vision might be and motivated by a creative drive to enhance, embellish, refine, or redirect the project as appropriate with your own mix ideas. There is nothing in the tracks that tells you what the right mix arrangement will be. The humble first step of auditioning the tracks and assembling them into a balanced whole is in fact a challenging and creative process. The immature mix engineer is eager—too eager—to start playing with reverb and compression. The experienced mix engineer—the musical mix engineer— recognizes that balancing the mix is the essential first step that sets the creative context for all that is to follow.
Upon hearing the discrete tracks that will make up the mix, we are expected to have a point of view on what might sound best. We form an internal aural image of what the song could sound like, backed up with the technical know-how to realize that goal.
The process is wonderfully nonlinear. The mix engineer must iteratively adjust and readjust the volume of each and every track until the combination starts to make musical sense. When you have fine-tuned the level and panning of the core elements of the multitrack arrangement, thoughtfully muting those tracks that undermine the quality of the production, the mix is said to be “balanced.”
In the course of mixing a tune, a single song may be played several hundred times. The mixdown session—in which a final stereo or surround recording is created by processing and combining the individual multitrack components into an artistically meaningful whole—is such a complicated process that in most pop productions, it takes from several hours to several days to mix a three- to four-minute song.
In the course of just that first playback of the piece, however, you must begin to find the fader levels and pan pot positions that enable the song to stand on its own. The goal is to empower each and every track to make its contribution to the overall music without undermining or obliterating other parts of the multitrack production. Balancing a mix is a fundamental skill that all engineers must develop.
Excerpt from Mix Smart by Alex Case © 2011 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.