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Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Intangibles Of A Mix

Music Mixing image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blog
It’s easy to think that getting a good mix is just a matter of pushing up some faders, getting a reasonable balance, adding some effects and your done. Sure, that might work for a rough mix, but there’s a lot more that goes into making a great mix that’s way beyond the basic issue of balance, and these are the things that usually take some experience or a mentor to realize. While it’s so much easier if you watch and listen while a great mixer does his thing, let me point out a number of intangibles that are vitally important to a great mix. Awareness is always the first step in learning, so here are some things to consider before you start to move faders around.

The Arrangement
It’s really easy to get caught up in just the audio portion of being an engineer, but unless you seriously consider how the music itself is put together (assuming that’s what you’re engineering, of course), your ultimate product probably won’t sound great no matter how good you are at balancing tracks.

I’m sure that anyone with a little experience has found that the arrangement is usually the #1 non-audio problem in a mix. In these days of unlimited tracks, it’s all too easy to pile more and more musical elements along with doubles and triples and stacks of everything you can think of. You can easily wind up with a hundred tracks to wade through, and that gives you an impossible task of making it sound like something more than a wad of dense audio goo. A good producer will usually bring some sense to the arrangement, paring things down to where it’s reasonable, but sometimes the producer is the one demanding everything but the kitchen sink be added on. And if the songwriter doesn’t have an innate sense of arrangement (many do, luckily), you’ve got a mess on your hands.

That’s why it’s important that the mixing engineer be aware of some basic music arrangement principles, because a big part of being a mixing engineer is knowing when to mute things and knowing just what elements take precedence at a certain part of the tune.

Good balance actually starts with good arrangement, so it’s important to understand arrangement because so much of mixing is actually subtractive by nature. This means that the arrangement, and therefore the balance, is changed by the simple act of muting or lowering the level of an instrument whose part doesn’t fit well with another. If the instruments fit well together arrangement-wise and don’t fight one another, then your life as a mixer just became immensely easier. 

The Point of Interest
Every song has something that’s the main point of interest or something so compelling that you can’t take your ears off it (if it doesn’t, send the song back to the drawing board. It’s not complete).
Although having control over how the previous five elements appear may be sufficient for many types of audio jobs, and might be just fine to get a decent mix, most popular music requires a mix that can take the song to another level. Although it’s always easier with great tracks, solid arrangements and spectacular playing, a great mix can take simply OK tracks and transform them into hit material so compelling that people can’t get enough of it. It’s been done on some of your favorite all-time songs.

So how can we get to that point?

More than being just technically correct, a mix must be as interesting as a good movie. It must build to a climax while having points of tension and release to keep the listener subconsciously involved.  Just as a film looks bigger than life, a great mix must sound bigger than real life. The passion and the emotion must be on a level where the listener is sucked in and forced to listen.

And the way to do that? Find whatever element is the most important to the song. In some cases (like Dance and Rap music), the most important element is the groove. Yet in other genres (like Country), it’s the vocal. It Rock and Pop it might be a signature line or hook.

Even though the most important element is often the lead vocal, it doesn’t necessarily have to be. It could be a riff like from The Stone’s Satisfaction and Start Me Up or the intro to Coldplay’s Clocks or the rhythm on the verses of The Arctic Monkey’s I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor. It’s always a part so compelling that it forces you to listen to the song.

Whatever part is most important, the mixer must identify it and emphasize it in the mix in order for the mix to be elevated beyond the ordinary. You can learn more about mixing either in The Mixing Engineer's Handbook or my Audio Mixing Bootcamp video course.


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