What is mixing?
Fundamentally, mixing is the art of creating a pleasing balance of all the instruments and voices within a multi-track recording. A good mix engineer can transform a muddy sound into a full, exciting, powerful finished track.
Of course, this definition doesn't tell the story of how complex, and vitally important this part of the process is. The ironic thing is that, when done right, most people won’t even notice 'the mix'. But they will notice their emotional response to the song. A good mix will really help bring this out - and a bad mix will leave your listener feeling a little underwhelmed, and not quite knowing why.
Plenty of light and shade
Wow Mark, you’ve done a great job with that mix. Plenty of light & shade. Good job. Thank you!
Good mixing is like chairing a meeting. You can see the big picture and acknowledge that everyone present has a contribution to make. You then go about finding ways and means to allow enough space and time for everyone to be heard in the proper context and proportion.
Is mixing necessary?
As an unmixed recording can often sound two-dimensional, dull and lacking impact, allowing a mix engineer time to work on your song can really bring it to life. The main focus of this is to create separation between instruments, distributing them evenly so that everything can be heard clearly.
You see, there are certain frequencies that most instruments, including voices, contain, and as more instruments are layered within a song these frequencies start to build up & fight for space and attention.
Picture the scene of a bus preparing to take a class on a school trip, and there are six kids all squabbling for the four seats at the back of the bus! The mix engineer is the 'teacher' who makes the decision of who sits where: some kids will sit more to the left, others to the right. Some get on better together than others, so this will be considered.
There is also front to back positioning to think about – some kids will need to be constantly visible, whereas with others it doesn't matter if they are hidden at times. This is mixing – it's the art of creating balance & harmony amongst personalities and attitudes that don't always start off wanting to 'play nicely'.
How long does it take?
A good rule of thumb is to allow around a day for each track you record. There are many variables which could cause this to be longer or shorter – the number of instruments involved & the final sound you have in mind are both major factors.
It's advisable to request a rough mix to listen to on various other speaker systems before agreeing on a final mix. Allow half an hour at the end of your session for this. Different environments and playback systems highlight potential problems in a mix – so go and listen in the car, on your iPod, at your mum's house – wherever!
Can I be present at mix time?
Most mix engineers prefer to work alone for an intense period without interruption – in 'the zone'. If you've given a solid outline of the sound you're looking for then this is probably the best and most cost effective method.
Often when a mix is in progress it will sound worse than at the beginning – with balances and sounds being all over the place. If you know you’re not the kind of person who can handle the stages of this process without back-seat tweaking, then do your project a favour and don’t sit in on the session!
Talk it through with your mix engineer and agree periodic meetings to listen to work in progress. At the end of the day, you’re paying a mix engineer for his skill and his ears. Giving him time and space to experiment will always yield a better end result for your song.
What is mastering?
The final stage of the recording process is mastering.
Essentially, mastering is a process that is applied to your final mixes that:
a) Makes your tracks as loud as a commercial CD
b) Fixes any minor balance (EQ and/or compression) issues that could be masking some of the subtle details, while adding a polished, glossy sheen to the sound
c) Will create a similarity of tone between all the tracks making up a collection so that they flow from one to another as a coherent family.
Remember: master won't fix a bad mix. That’s like thinking that a professional make-over is the answer to obesity! Beginning with good quality is the key to achieving a high quality final product.