Old Production Takes From an Old Guy

Baby Steps

'Generic Cute Baby Walking Pic' photo (c) 2011, Gordon - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/Today’s post was inspired by Tom Petroski. Really good audio engineers are always growing and learning. We’re constantly trying new techniques and processes, finding new equipment and new ways of using it. And as much as I’m really excited by the digital revolution in sound, part of me worries that the next generation of engineers won’t be quite as well-versed in the fundamentals of audio as us “old guys.”

Now before you think I’m bagging on the young punks and going into an, “In my day…” rant, stick with me. Those of us that learned to mix on analog consoles really did have to work a little harder to get good sound. I learned on a console with three fixed bands of EQ. I had no system DSP; in fact I had no system EQ for the first year. My mic collection was small and my resources were limited. 

With those limitations, I learned everything I could about mic selection and placement. I worked extra hard on optimizing my gain structure to maximize headroom and minimize noise. Working with limited EQ meant really paying attention to what the EQ was doing to my signal, and I trained my ears to listen for any hint of feedback and catch it quickly. I had to learn how to layer instruments in a mix simply by carefully setting their levels. Getting all that right took a lot of work; but it was great learning experience.

Fast forward to today. Guys who are learning to mix in their teens and early twenties have access to consoles, mics and systems I couldn’t have even dreamed about at that age. They tend to quickly form opinions on what they like and what they don’t like based on very limited experience. They start reaching for fully parametric, dynamic EQ right off the bat. Plug-ins are a way of life. 

All of this comes at a cost, however. By attempting to massage the sound with a half-dozen plug-ins instead of tweaking the mic position (or changing mics altogether), the young engineer misses out on a valuable lesson. I cringe when I hear young guys say, “Insert well-known mic here sucks!” because chances are the mic doesn’t suck; it’s just the wrong mic for the job or they’re using it wrong. But they don’t know because they’ve spent the last 20 minutes trying to EQ it with 3 plug-ins instead of moving it two inches or swapping mics.

Now, I don’t mean to bag on the young guys. But let me challenge you with something. Before inserting a bunch of plug-ins in the audio chain, or switching on the multi-band comp, or even any comp at all, flatten everything out, turn off the comps and focus on the sound. Listen to what the mic is picking up and how your system is reproducing it. Work on your gain structure; see if the mic pre’s sound better when you hit them hard or if a softer touch is more appropriate. 

Listen to how the mix bus sounds as gain goes up and the signals get hot. Listen to the mic as someone moves it around a little bit. Work to pick up on the subtle tonal shifts that happen when the position changes. Try to get all the instruments to sit properly in the mix without doing a ton of EQ or compression. Maybe even turn off the reverb for a little while and see if you can still make the vocals sound good (my friend Dave Stagl recently called reverb the crack cocaine of audio guys on Church Tech Weekly…). 

Now, don’t this for a week. Do it for a month. Then two, then thee. See if you can really master the fundamental skills of mic’ing, gain structure and mix balance. These items are the basic ingredients for the live sound “cake.” Then slowly start adding the “frosting;” the EQ, the compression, the reverb. Take some time to master those elements before trying the “sprinkles;” parallel compression, bus compression, multi band compression, expanded effects processing. 

If you’re doing it well, this process should take the better part of a year. Not because you’re slow, but because you are working hard to master every step of the way. If you can get to the point where your mixes sounding solid and cohesive throughout the process, you are learning. I have heard far too many incoherent mixes that lack any cohesiveness yet have tons of processing and special effects going on. Master the basics, then move on.

How did you learn to mix? On a very basic system or with all the bells and whistles?

10 Comments

  1. bettafish@gmail.com

    I can relate to this. I'm 21, the university that I'm learning at has the benefit of lots of fun sound toys and I spend a lot of time in Logic playing with multi-tracks. This is how I've "learned."

    Despite all my access to toys during the school semester, I've had to do a lot of mixing during the summer when all I've got is an Allen and Heath analog console and a very limited selection of mics. Being put into this position, it's good to know that it's still possible to achieve a nice mix without all the bells and whistles. Looking back, I've found that sometimes the plugin mindset can lead to a very over-processed and unnatural sounding mix. While having unlimited plugins can be a great benefit, most of the time it's better if you just stick to the basics and get a good source before you put 5 plugins on the track. The best way I've had it explained to me was, "Once it's in the console or your DAW, you can only use bandaids, get a good sound FIRST and then your job becomes easier."

  2. bettafish@gmail.com

    I can relate to this. I'm 21, the university that I'm learning at has the benefit of lots of fun sound toys and I spend a lot of time in Logic playing with multi-tracks. This is how I've "learned."

    Despite all my access to toys during the school semester, I've had to do a lot of mixing during the summer when all I've got is an Allen and Heath analog console and a very limited selection of mics. Being put into this position, it's good to know that it's still possible to achieve a nice mix without all the bells and whistles. Looking back, I've found that sometimes the plugin mindset can lead to a very over-processed and unnatural sounding mix. While having unlimited plugins can be a great benefit, most of the time it's better if you just stick to the basics and get a good source before you put 5 plugins on the track. The best way I've had it explained to me was, "Once it's in the console or your DAW, you can only use bandaids, get a good sound FIRST and then your job becomes easier."

  3. anthonystowell@gmail.com

    When I was 12 I learned on a Midas 16 channel console with a Behringer 12 channel sub console which I mixed my drums on. All I had were Shure mic's and my ears. I was upgraded to a Yamaha M7CL-48 and then on to the Venue D-Show Line. Now at 23 I'm back to the basics with a Yamaha IM8-32, no compressors, no effects and those same Shure mic's that I was using 11 years ago. I've loved mixing with nothing but mic placement lately. It's a bit stressful at times but getting back to my roots as an engineer has really made me notice how much learning the basics has really helped me succeed, even when I didn't have all the "bells and whistles" that I had become used to.

    This post really is great for new engineers who are just starting to learn and good refresher for those who have been pushed into the vast digital world. Even though all my outboard gear comes in this week I hope that this reminder will help me to use my ears first and my processing second.

  4. anthonystowell@gmail.com

    When I was 12 I learned on a Midas 16 channel console with a Behringer 12 channel sub console which I mixed my drums on. All I had were Shure mic's and my ears. I was upgraded to a Yamaha M7CL-48 and then on to the Venue D-Show Line. Now at 23 I'm back to the basics with a Yamaha IM8-32, no compressors, no effects and those same Shure mic's that I was using 11 years ago. I've loved mixing with nothing but mic placement lately. It's a bit stressful at times but getting back to my roots as an engineer has really made me notice how much learning the basics has really helped me succeed, even when I didn't have all the "bells and whistles" that I had become used to.

    This post really is great for new engineers who are just starting to learn and good refresher for those who have been pushed into the vast digital world. Even though all my outboard gear comes in this week I hope that this reminder will help me to use my ears first and my processing second.

  5. jonlillie@compasschurch.org

    I'm 29, I've been mixing for 15 years, My first two consoles were Mackies, the 24.4.2. and a 32 channel variant of the VLZ line. I had only SM58s and SM57s in my closet. No reverb unit, and no compression. Just the EQ on the console, which only has 1 band sweepable, the rest are fixed high pass and low pass filters. Oh, and the room had no acoustic treatment. In a word it was AWESOME! Forced me to learn how to mix, Not just push some buttons and recall a preset. It also prepared me for the largest console I've worked on, Crest Century VX (48 channels). Without the fundamentals that I learned over the 8 years on the Mackie consoles I would have been lost on the Crest, and even more so on my current console.

    I still remember the first reverb unit I got (yamaha rev-500), that thing was really fun to poke around in, and even today is one of my favorite tools (though I haven't gotten to use one in a while).
    Now I'm on an LS9-32, and the limitations of that board forces you to think about every aspect of the signal chain, from musician all the way to what's on the master buss.

    And even though you will find me complaining about the console, it forces me to keep my chops up, and for that I am thankful.

  6. jonlillie@compasschurch.org

    I'm 29, I've been mixing for 15 years, My first two consoles were Mackies, the 24.4.2. and a 32 channel variant of the VLZ line. I had only SM58s and SM57s in my closet. No reverb unit, and no compression. Just the EQ on the console, which only has 1 band sweepable, the rest are fixed high pass and low pass filters. Oh, and the room had no acoustic treatment. In a word it was AWESOME! Forced me to learn how to mix, Not just push some buttons and recall a preset. It also prepared me for the largest console I've worked on, Crest Century VX (48 channels). Without the fundamentals that I learned over the 8 years on the Mackie consoles I would have been lost on the Crest, and even more so on my current console.

    I still remember the first reverb unit I got (yamaha rev-500), that thing was really fun to poke around in, and even today is one of my favorite tools (though I haven't gotten to use one in a while).
    Now I'm on an LS9-32, and the limitations of that board forces you to think about every aspect of the signal chain, from musician all the way to what's on the master buss.

    And even though you will find me complaining about the console, it forces me to keep my chops up, and for that I am thankful.

  7. mward@rmcc.org

    I agree completely. Im amazed at how little newer engineers understand that good sound starts on the stage. I use EQ more like an instrument and try not to use it to fix problems with the sound. I spend more time adjusting microphones or tuning drums or working with guitar players on their tone or teaching vocalists how to properly sing into a microphone. Understanding the music and the gear the musicians use is more important to me than any EQ.

  8. mward@rmcc.org

    I agree completely. Im amazed at how little newer engineers understand that good sound starts on the stage. I use EQ more like an instrument and try not to use it to fix problems with the sound. I spend more time adjusting microphones or tuning drums or working with guitar players on their tone or teaching vocalists how to properly sing into a microphone. Understanding the music and the gear the musicians use is more important to me than any EQ.

  9. clesher@firstnlr.com

    Spot on. We've seen the same thing in the video world. I started out editing tape to tape – moving to nonlinear later. I've found that people who start with video editing on computers often don't really grasp what they are doing. Push this button to get this effect – just throw all the media in there with no plan – etc.
    While they often do decent work, if something goes wrong, they don't know what to do, because they don't really understand the *process* of editing. I regale these guys with stories like "yeah, if you had to change an edit in the middle of a project, it affected EVERYTHING else on the tape after that point."

    Then I tell them to get out of my yard.

  10. clesher@firstnlr.com

    Spot on. We've seen the same thing in the video world. I started out editing tape to tape – moving to nonlinear later. I've found that people who start with video editing on computers often don't really grasp what they are doing. Push this button to get this effect – just throw all the media in there with no plan – etc.
    While they often do decent work, if something goes wrong, they don't know what to do, because they don't really understand the *process* of editing. I regale these guys with stories like "yeah, if you had to change an edit in the middle of a project, it affected EVERYTHING else on the tape after that point."

    Then I tell them to get out of my yard.

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