Mike's Mixing Axioms: #4--Make Good Choices

Today we’ll be continuing our series on Mike’s Mixing Axioms. These are things that I’ve been working on and working through for the past 20 or so years of mixing. As I said earlier, this is not Gospel, and there are very likely other ways to do things. But this is what I’ve been doing and it seems to deliver consistently good results. 

We’ve already considered the first three: Keep it Simple; Basics First; Less is more. Today, we’re going to talk about choices. 

Axiom #4: Make Good Choices

When my girls were younger, when they would head out with friends, I would often call out as they left the house, “Make good choices!” I was reminding them to make choices based on who we raised them to be. Sometimes those are hard choices, but we all have to make choices.

When it comes to mixing, we also have to make choices. Sometimes they are hard choices. I’ve had to mix musicians that were—how to say this—less than good. Let’s say they had great hearts. There are times when we have to make choices as to what is heard in our PA. In fact, every time we get behind the console we have to make choices about what is in the PA. It’s up to us to make good choices. 

Damage Control

When you’re mixing a “good hearts” band, you are effectively damage control. You are going to have to do your best to present them in the best light possible, and at times that will mean turning some people down or off. The tone deaf background singer probably shouldn’t be highlighted during the service. The guitar player who refuses to tune should probably not be leading the song. Sometimes, your choices become the lesser of two evils and you have to do what you can. It’s not ideal, but as I said in It Might Not Be Your Fault, you work with what you are given.

Good Choices

The game changes when you have a good band. In that case, you still have to make choices, but they become much more creative and you have a lot more to choose from. A lot of people get tripped up when they’re mixing feeling like if it’s on stage, it needs to be heard in the mix just as loud as everything else. In those instances, you’ll hear the acoustic guitar pushed way up too loud during a big rocking song because, well, it’s on stage.

Now, I can’t tell you when to turn things up and when to turn them down. There are simply too many factors to consider. However, let me give you a simple example. Take a song that starts out somewhat mellow, builds, and then breaks down at the end. And let’s assume you have a few electric guitars and an acoustic in addition to the rest of the band. What I might do is feature the acoustic in the beginning and ending sections and the electrics in the big middle. During the big middle, you might not hear the acoustic at all unless you really listen closely. Trying to push the acoustic into the big section of the mix might well just muddy it up or make it harder to hear the vocal. 

Again, I’m not trying to give you a prescription, but rather permission. I want you to have permission to not feel like you have to hear everything all the time. Sometimes things like keys and pads are just there, filling in gaps, and you’d really only notice them if you turned them off. That’s OK! 

How do you decide what to feature? Listen to the band, they will let you know. In a well-arranged song, something will lead each section. It may be the same instrument, or it may change. Follow along with the band and mirror their choices. 

Now sometimes, you get a good band, with really good players who all want to be soloists. I’ve mixed those bands as well. In those cases, you get to choose who is leading and who is background. You’ll have to pick the instrument that makes the most sense for the song and tuck the rest behind. 

This is one of the hardest things to teach, honestly. Some people just know what choices to make. Others have to learn, and some will never get it. The best thing I can tell you is to spend a lot of time listening to music critically. Take a song you like and listen to it over and over. Map it out; figure out what you hear in each section of the song. What is prominent and what is in the background? What is the lead and what disappears? Music is a language and like any language, we can learn it—it just takes time and practice. 

This axiom is probably the most vague and I apologize for that. Like I said, it’s hard to illustrate with words. Next time, we’ll get into the last one which is much more concrete. Until then, make good choices!

Elite Core

Mike's Mixing Axioms: #3--Less is More

Image courtesy of theilr

Image courtesy of theilr

Well, we’re back talking about mixing again. In this series, I’m sharing with you some of the guiding principles by which I build my mixes. Like all things, these are not hard and fast rules, but more often than not, I’m doing these things each time I mix. It doesn’t matter what or where I’m mixing, this is where I start. We’ve already talked about keeping it simple, and getting the basics dialed in first. Today, we’re on to the next topic: 

Axiom #3: Less is More

You’ve heard this expression many times in the past, I’m sure. It may be hard to figure out how it applies to mixing, however. Here’s what I mean: I tend to do less to the mix, and it turns out sounding a lot better. By less I mean less EQ, less compression and less in the way obvious effects. 

If you follow any of the church sound groups on Facebook, you’ve seen the popular posts, “Guess this EQ.” Usually it’s a picture showing pretty much every band cut to -18 dB. You will probably never see that on any board I’m mixing on. In fact, if I’m boosting or cutting by more than 4 dB, it’s an odd day. And it usually means there was a problem I couldn’t solve with mic choice or placement (I don’t always get to choose the mic locker). 

You’ll also almost never see narrow cuts or boosts. I tend to use 2 octave or wider filters because I find them to be more musical—mainly because they do less damage to phase. My EQ is subtle and minimal. Less is more.

The same goes for compression. While I might use compression on most of my channels, I don’t use much of it most of the time. This is especially true for drums. My drum compression technique is to use just enough compression to smooth out minor variations in how hard the drummer hits each time. I don’t try to make every hit in the whole set the same—I want the player to be able to deliver dynamics. However, I try to smooth it out just a little so the occasional hard hit doesn’t stand out. 

Similarly, I use parallel compression on vocals so I don’t have to crush them so they stand out in the mix. If you look at my compressors, you’ll see they’re taking 2-3 dB off at most. I’m smoothing, not smashing. One of the biggest offenses I hear in mixing today is a lifeless mix that is neither hot nor cold, loud nor quiet, just blah. This is typically the result of too much compression. Just because you have compressors on each channel doesn’t mean you should turn them all on to max.

Finally, I keep the sound of my effects minimal by timing them to the song. I did an entire post on this a while back. With this technique, I can add in a lot more reverb without it sounding like the mix is swimming in it. This keeps the anti-reverb people happy, while still adding a nice sense of lush to the mix. 

How do you start with this? As I said in a previous post, start by flattening out the EQ, turn off the compressors and just mix. As you find you need to, do a little EQ here and there. Do the least amount of compression you can. Start with simple effects and work up. Let the music speak for itself, and it will almost alway sound better.

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Mike's Mixing Axioms: #2--Basics First

Image courtesy of Didriks

Image courtesy of Didriks

Last time, we started our series of Mike’s Mixing Axioms. We talked about my concept of keeping it simple. Today’s axiom is similar, but different. As I said last time, these are things that I do—it doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do it. However, I’ve found that over 30 years, these seems to make a lot of sense and work pretty well. Were my situation different, I might have some different axioms. But since I mix in churches, this is what I do. 

Axiom 2: Basics First

You might think that this is the same thing as keep it simple, but it’s really not. What I mean by this is that when I come into a new mixing environment—new for me, that is—I work on the basics first before I start getting complicated. What are the basics? Making sure the inputs all work and are noise free. Getting my board is laid out how I’m used to it, or as close as possible, so I don’t have to keep hunting around for channels. Dialing up the gain structure properly so all my faders fall right around unity for a good mix, while still giving me solid levels. Working with the band to get them good monitor mixes as needed, and making sure they’re happy. 

It’s a little bit like cooking; salt and pepper are basic spices. But they’re not flashy, so some people go after all sorts of special spices without getting the simple salt and pepper right. Start there, and work up.

These are all basic elements, but too often, I see them overlooked in favor of the fancy stuff. I can tell you that if you jump past the basics and try to go straight to advanced techniques, you will not end up with a good mix. For my SALT mixing class, I started off mixing a track with nothing but high pass filters and EQ on only the kick and lead vocal. And you know what? It sounded pretty good! My gain structure was good, we made good choices on our mic’s, and the band played well. I had a little extra work to do as my “compressors” were my fingers. However, after the song was done, I asked the class if they could live with that, and most said they could. Now, by the time we got done, it sounded a whole lot better. But all those extras were just that, extras. 

Have you ever had a cupcake that had fantastic icing but the cake itself was rather dry and flavorless? That is missing the basics. I once heard a story of a FOH guy who was mixing his band at a festival. They had a few minutes to sound check between sets and he spent the entire 20 minute sound check working on the toms. The show producer told them it was time to go and he had to set up everything else during the set. That went well. 

My sound check is kind of like that. I have about 20 minutes to dial the whole band in and then we start rehearsal. Now granted, I get to start from a decent place each week, not a completely new board. And I do have a rehearsal to work up the mix. But still, I don’t have a lot of time to get fancy. So I make sure I crush the basics. 

Doing the basics well means moving quickly and continuously. But that’s easy when I’m not having to adjust 14 plug-ins on my rack toms. Over time, I’m refining my show file so that I can start adding in some of the fancy extras that make it sound just a little bit better. 

Getting the basics right means you’ll get the mix to 80-85% very quickly. And to be honest, that’s good enough for most folks. Sure, we can hear the difference between 80 and 100%. But most people can’t. Get to 80% and nail it. Then tweak your way up to 90-95%. But don’t shoot for that last 10-15% before locking down the first 80.

DPA Microphones

Mike's Mixing Axioms: #1--Keep It Simple

Image courtesy of One Way Stock

Image courtesy of One Way Stock

As I write this, it’s a few weeks after my SALT mixing class. And I mixed at church this weekend. That means, I’m thinking about mixing. Based on the feedback from the class and the thoughts rambling around in my head, I thought I would write up a series that I’m calling my Mixing Axioms. The dictionary on my Mac defines Axiom as “a statement or proposition that is regarded as being established or accepted.” I like that. After almost 30 years of mixing, these are things that—for me anyway—are established and accepted. This is what I do. Check back here throughout the month and you will know what I know.

Axiom 1: Keep It Simple

If you’ve ready any of my posts on parallel compression, frequency splitting reverbs or automating Reaper, you might thing my mixes are anything but simple. But the reality is, aside from a few little tricks, I try to keep the mix as simple as possible. For the most part, the music that I find myself mixing does not require tons of special effects. I don’t do hip-hop or techno, so I’m not creating effects for effect’s sake. 

Whenever I mix at a new venue, one of the first things I do is start flattening out EQ’s and removing plug-ins from the signal path. As much as possible, I like to minimize the number of things I’m doing to the signal. Someday, I’ll break out a mixer and do a video of what happens to phase as we pile on all kinds of EQ and plug-ins on a channel. As phase is time, the more phase distortion we add, the more time distortion we add. As all the inputs start to get out of time with each other, the sound field becomes blurry. I know blurry is a visual term, but it’s the best way to describe it. All of those slight time mis-alignments add up to a mushy sound field. 

Now it’s true that some consoles do a better job than others of keeping everything in time. But they can only do so much. And honestly, almost every time I go in and bypass all the plug-ins, people tell me it sounds better. The less damage I do to the signal during the mixing process, the better it sounds when it comes out of the speakers. 

This goes against the popular mixing process of putting a ton of plug-ins on everything. I’m almost always asked to put a Waves Soundgrid server on every mixing console I sell. This is not a dig on Waves; they make fine stuff. But beware putting plug-ins on just because you can. Personally, I don’t use them unless I have to, and then, I don’t use more than I need to.

I also don’t make huge changes to the channels during the song. After I demonstrated a mix during my class—a mix done with nothing except high pass filters and EQ on only the kick and lead vocal—I asked what people sitting near me noticed. One guy said, “You didn’t move the faders more than a few millimeters.” He was right. For the most part, I let the band mix themselves and only did some minor highlights. If the gain structure is set up correctly, the base mix is dialed in and you’ve done a good job with mic selection, you shouldn’t need to do too much. 

Now, this is true with most good bands. I have mixed some where I’m working really hard to keep the band from completely falling apart. And I know that’s where some of you live. Later on, we’ll talk about some things you can do that will help you with that. But assuming the band is reasonably good, we should be able to—for the most part—dial them up and let it go. 

This week, consider what you’re doing in your mix. What can you simplify? What can you take out? Trim it back until you have only what is absolutely necessary. Then see what happens. 

Next time we’ll be back with another Mixing Axiom

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