Mixing Secrets by Mike Senior: Book Review

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Your job isn’t always limited to being behind the mixer.  As technology advances, audio editing software prices drop, and churches ask more and more of the audio staff, you could very well find yourself doing some studio-style production.  It could be a studio room or it could just be behind a computer with studio software.  Either way, you will need to have a copy of “Mixing Secrets” by Mike Senior.

Mike Senior is a professional engineer who has worked with some big names in England.  He’s known for his amazing work at Sound on Sound magazine where, since 2007, he’s been transforming dozens and dozens of amateur productions into commercial grade mixes in his column “Mix Rescue.”

Mike Senior

Mike Senior

Here is where he’s especially great, most definitely for those of us in the church environment; he specializes in adapting techniques of top producers into techniques for those of us working on a budget – and still getting pro-grade results.

Expectations

Mike starts the book by settings expectations.  He details;

  • What you will learn: “...how to achieve release-quality mixes on a budget within a typical small studio environment by applying power-user techniques from the world’s most successful producers.
  • What you won’t learn: How to use specific software.  The book is platform-neutral, so whether you are using Live, Logic, Pro Tools, Reaper, or any other software platform, it doesn’t matter.  The techniques are universal but you aren’t going to be shown how to do them using specific software.  There are screen-shots in the book which vary in the software platform.
  • What you already need to know: Much like any live pro, you need to know about sound physics, measurements, and frequencies.  Also, studio setup and session workflow.  After reading, I’d say that even if you are just coming up to speed on these, the book is still very useful.  To Mike’s credit, he does provide a link to getting a “whistle-stop overview.

Promises

Learning how to achieve release-quality mixes on a budget is a heck of a promise.  Upon reading the first chapter dedicated to monitors, I saw that he was going to deliver on this promise.  Not only does he have great written content, but he also has excellent charts and graphs to best convey his points and educate the reader.  Additionally, he links to his free online audio files.  Not only can you read about the different types of monitors (and the types to avoid) but you can also visualize the monitor properties and hear them as well.

Each chapter carries with it that type of setup.  Building on that, each chapter ends with a summary section called “Cut to the Chase” and assignments.  It’s one thing to read about a topic but now Mike is giving you a great way to test out your new knowledge.  Many of these assignments focus on the technology discussed, finding it in your software, and using it in your different channels.  Then, listening to the channels for any that still seem unbalanced.

The Important Topics

Reading a book called “Mixing Secrets” gives the impression you are looking over the shoulder of a professional.  With that in mind, here’s a glimpse of the sections of the book;

  • Hearing and Listening
  • Mix Preparation
  • Balance
  • Sweetening to Taste

That’s four sections and twenty chapters.

If I could liken the book’s layout to anything, it would be building an expensive piece of furniture.

Hearing and Listening:  That would be understanding what makes a great piece of furniture.  Like the appraisers on “Antique’s Roadshow” who can tell the difference between a Ming vase created in China and a vase that was “made in China.”  Mike Senior teaches you how to listen and the differences in equipment so you can do that correctly.

Mix Preparation: Buy your lumber. Saw it down to length.  Remove any immediate imperfections.  In audio-speak, it’s your groundwork that includes timing, tuning, and arrangement.

Balance: Join the wood together.  Arrange it in a beautiful way.  Sand out the rough spots.  It’s got the structure of a great piece of furniture.  In terms of audio, you’ve got your baselines set, you initial balancing and EQ’ing and a smidge of effects.

Sweetening to Taste:  Back to that furniture analogy; now you are applying a beautiful finish to the whole piece.  Mike takes you through the final phases of making a pro-level recording on a budget.

Pitfalls of the book

Listing pitfalls of this book isn’t easy.  Senior does a terrific job of presenting the material in an easy to learn way.  He gives examples of modern songs, albums, and producers to help you identify a quality in the song he is discussing.  If anything, I wish I had all of those songs to hear instantly; though many I already know and you’ll likely know as well.

I’d say there are only two pitfalls of this book.

  1. The rare odd phrases.  For the life of me, I can’t find an example.  Apparently of all the things I underlined, this wasn’t one.  But to the point, a phrase that is so unique (read: so British) that it requires me to look it up…his editor should have opted to switch them to phrases more universal.
  2. Death to the ovals.  The design of the book uses a small oval on every other page to highlight a sentence.  The sentence is already in a paragraph.  Therefore, when I stop reading the main text to read what’s in the oval, I’m reading something I’ve just read.  After the first couple of chapters, I ignored the ovals.  They became a distraction.

Great Strength

Compression for a Reason” is a chapter that’s a great example of how easily you can learn and apply new material.

Mike starts out by recognizing that compression is a topic of mixing that’s confusing for a lot of people.  With that in mind, he sets forth by defining compression in easy-to-understand terms;

“A compressor is effectively a fader that you can program so that it wiggles around in real time.  The beauty of it at mixdown is that you can combat undesirable signal-level variations that would otherwise prevent an instrument from maintaining its position in the balance.”

Moving on, he explains, in simple terms, how it works by using an example of compression on a lead vocalist who mumbles parts of the song.  Also, showing a chart of the track compressed and uncompressed.

Next, he sets up the theory of compression by discussing more technical terminology such as the different aspects of threshold, peak reduction, and input gain.

From there, he moves into topics like asking “which channels need compression” and taking the first steps in channel compression.  He even talks about when compression is NOT the answer.  The remaining pages of the chapter focus on refining compression settings and establishing the compression when listening to the overall mix.

The twenty-page chapter is interspersed with sub-topic boxes with information relevant to a particular segment, such as “Compressor or Limiter?” and “Compressing Lead Vocals” as well as “Level Detection: Peak Versus Average.”  These are great for getting more technical or giving you practical advice for a situation.

The “Cut to the Chase” section then summaries the chapter into five points as five paragraphs.  They are easy to understand even without having read a chapter (for the most part).

Finally, the Assignment section discusses investigating the compressors available on your particular software so you know what you have available.  Next, applying compression to tracks in a project that would benefit.  He also suggests activating your DAW’s automatic plug-in delay compensation to avoid problems.

My Recommendation to You

This goes back to what I said at the beginning.  Churches are asking more of the audio ministries and that includes non-live production.  It could be editing recorded sermons, producing podcasts, and even producing an album of worship songs.  Just like learning live audio, there are two aspects of audio production you must learn; equipment usage and the art of mixing.

Learning equipment usage and audio software usage takes time with the manuals and the product itself.  It would be like learning all about an Indy 500 race car.  You would know how it works and how to use it but unless you learn how to drive in a race, you’re going to wreck the car.

Mike Senior focuses on the art.  His combination of real-life examples, charts, sample audio, and easy-to-understand writing style make it worth your time.  Add to that, you will learn elements to studio mixing that you can apply to live production.  That’s always a bonus.

Summary

When I was first learning about church audio production, I was reading all I could on live audio production.  Over time, I started reading books that were focused on one aspect of audio production, like mixing or microphone placement.  I found that even books that were meant for studio work were loaded with material that I could adapt for live production.

Mixing Secrets” by Mike Senior is a great book for studio production, no doubt about it.  It’s also a great book for extracting concepts that can be used for live audio production.  And for the church audio sound tech who might get an email next week saying “we need you to record and produce our first praise music CD,” well, you aren’t going to find a better book on perfecting a mix.  It starts as a book but you will use it as a resource.  That’s a win-win in my book.

You can pick up Mixing Secrets in traditional book form or for the Kindle.

*This book was provided free of charge by Focal Press for the purpose of review.  This, in no way, impacted my review of this book.  If I thought the book was a stinker, I would have told you.

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