Growing as a Mix Engineer (Audio)
This is going to be a dark tutorial, meaning there will be no visual component at all, we’re just using our ears for this, and this is going to be an interesting concept.
Five years ago, I wanted to thicken up my reel for indie rock and indie pop, so I downloaded some track outs off of the Weathervane Music site. It’s a song called Borrowed Hearts, which I really like, and I got really into it, I spent a good amount of time mixing it. I think it was a day or a day and a half put into mixing the record.
Then flash forward five years, I really like the record, I want it to be on my reel, but I wanted a modern mix of it, one that I’ve done with now five more years of experience, and so a couple of days ago, I remixed the record, and I spent a lot less time on it, because this is just something I’m doing for my own reel, it’s not a paid thing or whatever.
Then I compared the two results. I have the original and I have the one that I did a couple of days ago, and a couple of really interesting things came to light, and I want to share them with you, because there’s a lot of value in the educational stuff we can garner from it.
The differences between the two are not so one to one, and there’s a lot of things that can be said for the growth, for the technical side of things, for the musical side of things. So the downloads for my mixes will be made available, so you can listen more thoroughly on your own, but for now, I’m just going to be playing little snippets and talking about them.
So here we go, this is my mix from five years ago. Here we are.
[mix, five years previous]
And here’s from two days ago.
Pretty radically different, right?
So let’s start talking about the things that are better and worse from one to the other, because one thing that I think is pretty apparent is that it’s not exactly like one is strictly better than the other. In some ways, it’s fairly obviously apparent that there are better and worse things, but it’s definitely a mix.
So in the first mix, the one that I did five years ago, there’s clearly technically speaking, there’s some things that are not quite as on point. The record, the vocals feel a little telephonic, the delays are very effecty, my fingerprint as a mixer is very clear in the record.
It’s also just overall sort of a smaller record. There’s some good things going on, but it’s just not really as big sounding, even though RMS wise and everything like that, these are about the same, and in terms of dynamic impression and everything like that, it’s not like one is way more crushed than the other.
Obviously, in the more recent mix, technically, I think that it’s a better mix. Everything is fuller, everything is better represented, but there’s a very apparent difference in terms of the musicality.
The first one, you can actually tell that I was really trying harder, because there’s a lot of focus on some musical things, and in some ways, the one from five years ago is just more exciting. It’s more interesting sounding, whereas the one that I did a couple of days ago is a very standard mix. There’s not really anything magical about it, it’s just getting the job done.
But that said, I think it’s important to point out the ways that this more recent one is technically superior, and then point out some of the ways that I think the previous one was actually musically superior.
So I’m going to start with the more recent one this time when I play it.
So, the — technically speaking, the tone curve I think is better for this record. This record is supposed to be a warmer sounding record, a fuller sounding record, so there’s a lot of mid-range in there. Like, good, healthy mid-range, without it sounding muddy, without it sounding cloudy or weird. The snare has a lot of weight to it, the kick has a lot of weight to it, the bass has a lot of fullness and thickness, and really extends into the sub-octave, the vocal has a very full representation, but it doesn’t sound like it’s lacking high end, and it doesn’t sound like it’s cloudy or dull or anything like that. The stereo space is very well defined.
Also, the acoustic guitar is not overly stringy, it’s panned out, but it doesn’t feel like it’s disconnected, and when the other components start coming around, the way the stereo field starts playing off of each other, because we have the acoustic guitar leaning left, which is our main musical element, when the first backup vocal comes in, it comes in on the right, which creates a balance, and then when the violin comes in on the right, the new backup vocal that comes in shows up on the left to give another sense of that movement and that balance.
So these are technical things that went very well. Also, just the subtlety of the reverbs, although it is a little on the dry side from a technical point of view, but the subtlety of the delays and the reverbs, they’re all there, they’re all giving groove, but they’re not stepping on the vocal, and just from a song perspective, we can listen to the vocal, get a complete sense of everything in the record, but never really get distracted or lose track of the vocal.
So now, let’s go to the one from five years ago. Let’s talk about maybe not some of the technical deficiencies, but some of the musical things that are really good.
[mix, five years previous]
So technically speaking, obviously, things sound a lot thinner. There is a nice quality to the snare that I like, because we do get a good impression of the weight of the snare, even though it’s very much focused into the brighter range, but that said, I don’t think it’s necessarily appropriate for this song.
And there’s good clarity to everything, but again, missing that mid-range, I feel like we lose some of the sense of the genre. It’s almost approached more like a 2010 Trap record than it is an indie rock record.
The delays are a really nice concept. I like the telephone delays that I have going. I just don’t like how apparent they are all of the time. There’s no finesse in terms of riding the delays up and down to make the delays appear where they work, and then get out of the way of the vocal when they don’t, and so we end up with this very popped, effecty kind of approach to what just doesn’t feel like it’s supposed to be that sort of record.
That said, I do like that trailing delay at the very end of the verse, and I — so I wanted to play that too, because that was sort of a cool effect.
Now, the vocal is washy because of all of the reverb and delay, but there is a really nice musicality to having that slightly over reverberant vocal, which I think is worth playing out. The other thing is I’m getting a good sense of the guitar. I think that having the guitar really connected to the vocal, they’re right now in the same phantom center position, even though it makes the whole mix a little narrower, and it kind of does cause a slight amount of confusion over what’s supposed to be the focus.
That connection is actually really nice, and creates this sort of sense of musicality that I totally dig. The other thing is I feel like the bass, even though it’s not as full as it could be, I’m getting a good amount of the color of the bass, and the melody of the bass is really popping through in a nice way. Part of that is because the vocal is so thin, that mid-range is freed up for the bass to stand out.
So there’s definitely a couple of really cool things going on. The background vocals, I think I was too cautious with bringing them in, because backup vocals are something that takes a little bit of maturity I think to get right in terms of how to sit them, but what I ultimately gleaned from this is that the use of the delays, even though they’re not necessarily a natural sound, was sort of a cool concept that I had, and the washiness of it was sort of a cool concept, and also, just the extra articulation on the attack that brighter tone was — that brighter frequency curve was giving to the record kind of helped the groove along.
So you know, yeah, the snare is a little overly bright, and the guitar has a little bit too much of the plectrum thing going on, and so it sounds a little bit weird, and it’s missing some of the wood tones, but there is a sense of color and groove that’s happening because of that brightness.
So I ended up going back to the one that I did a couple of days ago and making a few tweaks, just to kind of bring a few of those ideas over into what I was doing today, and this is what I came up with.
So I do feel like I’m going to go back and do another pass of automation over the ambience in the vocal, just to kind of dry it out when the vocal is in, and kind of let it be a little bit wetter when the vocal is out, and also to give that bell and that cymbal at the very end a little bit — tuck it in so that it’s not quite so, “here’s a random cymbal sticking out.”
But I took some of those ideas, that extra bit of reverb and wash, even though it makes the vocals sort of oddly washy, it adds something kind of nice to the sense of the song, and on top of that, the guitar, even though it’s a very subtle difference between the two, it has more of the attack of it present. The actual strum of it present. But I did it in a way that I wasn’t making it overly bright. It still has that good wood tone that’s appropriate for the record.
Then the other thing, which is a little bit more subtle, is that I backed off of the overall compression, because one of the things that I noticed was that with the one that I did five years ago, obviously, the playback volume is a lot less, but there’s still really good energy, so I realized, “Okay, I don’t really need to make this record super screaming loud,” and not that it was, but it really doesn’t have to be loud at all to have very good energy, and so backing off that compression also allowed for a little bit more punch to carry through.
So let’s jump a little further down the song and listen to a couple of other things, and then we will wrap up here.
[mix, five years previous]
So that was five years ago, and here is two days ago.
Switched it to five years ago.
So on the version from five years ago, obviously, I was doing some kind of top end excitement, or flanging, phasing, kind of combination to the guitars that were going on leaving the choir-y sound, and I did not do that on this version, which was mainly because I was not spending as much time with the record for the most part.
Everything kind of sits in the same way. There’s a little bit more feel in terms of I’m heavier handed with reverb, I’m heavier handed with the effects that are all working together on the one from five years ago, but in terms of the integrity of the sounds and the way that they came in, and the overall punch and fullness of things, the one that was more recent, again, is more technically sound.
So it’s sort of the same idea, and I can draw from what I was doing five years ago musically to say, “Okay, well maybe I can compromise the fullness or the punch or the integrity of the sound a little bit to get some of this feel, and get some of these good things that I like, but now use my more modern sensibilities and my better technique to actually bring it all together, and marry the ideas of both musical and creative mixing, and technical, knowing how to make balances work kind of mixing, and get that to blend together.”
And the whole moral of this story is that ultimately, when it’s time for me to be considered one of the top tier, bad ass mixer, super warriors, it will be because I have bonded the idea, the creative spark and the love of the music, and the fresh inspiration and take on things that I had, and that I still have when I mix records that are appealing and fresh to me, and then bring that with the technical savvy, and just the skill and experience of getting things to sit in a full, punchy, connected, sensibly stereoscopic kind of way.
So I hope that you guys learned something from this comparison. I know this is sort of a weird tutorial, it’s a longer tutorial, and there isn’t necessarily any direct lessons from it, but I think that it’s really valuable, because we always have to be listening to songs on two levels when we’re mixing.
We have to be thinking about the technical way the record is going to translate, and that’s things like body, fullness, clarity, space, depth, you know, emotion, character, that stuff, and then there’s just that creative spark, that heart. The heart and soul, and there’s not really necessarily a way to teach that, or explain that, but just to say that there’s a feel, and if you can capture it, and marry it with all of the technique stuff, it’s going to win a lot of people over, and that’s how great records really become mixed into final versions.
Alright guys, I hope that you learned something, don’t forget to like, don’t forget to subscribe. If you have thoughts, comments, questions, inquiries, please drop them in the comment section below, I’d love to hear from you, and I’ll catch you next time.