Mixing is a chaotic process, at least it looks like it. Watch an audio engineer and they’re jumping all around the mixer. Yet, when you do this, your mix doesn’t come out nearly as good. What gives? The truth is it’s because of one simple fact; they know why they are reaching for a specific control.
Consider the two mix methods:
- I wonder if I do THIS if it will sound better?
- I know how it should sound and therefore I need to do THIS.
The first is a question that’s full of doubt. There’s uncertainty about the how the final result should sound and even if not, there’s uncertainty about how to get that result. The latter is a statement. There’s a goal in mind and the method to achieve it is known. It’s when I made the change from #1 to #2 that my mixes dramatically improved, there was a parade in my honor, rejoicing in the streets, and…ok, maybe not but I was getting far better results.
Let’s break down that statement:
“I know how it should sound…”
This can come from experience in having previously mixed the song. It can come from listening to it live elsewhere or via a recording. In these instances, you have a sound in your head so you have a goal.
“…and therefore I need to do THIS.”
And that’s where we get into the big three questions that have to be asked before reaching for any control.
The First Question
WHY do I want to modify this channel?
- It needs to come forward in the mix.
- It needs to sit farther back in the mix.
- It needs an EQ change for clarity.
- It needs an EQ to sound fuller.
- It needs to have the volume fluctuations controlled.
- It needs to have additional sounds it detects to be reduced, like gating.
It can even be distilled down to two needs:
- I need to add something to it (more volume, more EQ boosts, effects, etc.).
- I need to remove something from it (less volume, EQ cuts, less effects, etc.).
The Second Question
HOW will that channel be modified?
This gets into creative mixing. Let’s take two examples from above.
1. “It needs to come forward in the mix.”
The modification options might include a volume increase of that channel, a volume decrease of another channel, an EQ boost in the fundamental frequency area, or an EQ cut of another channel in the same range – darn those competing frequencies.
2. “It needs to have the volume fluctuations controlled.”
You could ride the fader for the whole song. Maybe an onstage microphone adjustment is required (“Dude, your mouth isn’t by your stomach. Get the mic back up.”) Or good old compression.
All of these lead to the final question.
The Third and Final Question
HOW will I implement it?
Before we answer that, let’s look at what happens when we want to alter a sound. We want to either:
- Add to it.
- Remove something from it.
- Or in some other way control or modify it.
Look at the last example with a compressor. We want to control a volume range. But control via compression can come at a cost if not correctly implemented.
The faster the compression attack, the more transient sounds we lose. Not an ideal situation for vocals. Therefore, use a slower attack to produce a natural sound. And this is good for a lead vocal, but for blending backing vocals, that fast attack can hold them together.
The release time is also important. A fast release is good so those next transients come in as expected.
Too much compression (over-compression) would squash audio frequencies and you’d lose clarity of a channel. That being said, over-compression can be used as an audio effect. For example, I’ve duplicated a snare channel and over-compressed one channel and then blended the two for a punchier sound while keeping a good amount of clarity.
The next time you mix, before reaching for anything, remember you should first have a goal in mind and then ask the three questions:
- WHY do I want to modify this channel?
- HOW will that channel be modified?
- HOW will I implement it?
The Next Steps
If you want to learn more about compression on vocals, check out: