Overview Mixing is an art – not a science. There are no rules to this game that cannot – and have not been – broken. Nevertheless, there are various aspects that most mix engineers generally agree on. The single most important activity is balancing the levels of the individual instruments and voices against one another. I cannot stress how crucial this balancing is. A recording can be completely transformed when you adjust or re-adjust the balance between the instruments – for better or for worse. If you are mixing a song, the lead vocal is usually going to be the most important element in the mix. Similarly, if it is an instrumental, the featured lead instrument – trumpet, guitar, saxophone or whatever – becomes the most important element. You must make sure that the lead stands out, stays at a consistent and audible level throughout, and sounds great, using a combination of EQ, compression, reverb, delays, and other effects as appropriate. Some engineers like to start by working on the lead vocal or instrument first, before bringing in the rest of the instruments. In many forms of popular music, the rhythm section is almost as important, and in dance music it is sometimes as important or even more important than the lead. If this is the case, you will probably want to mix the rhythm section first before bringing in the vocals. Once you have a rough balance with the vocal ‘sitting’ nicely on top of the rhythm section, you might want to add in various other elements: backing vocals, percussion, brass, strings, synthesizers, or other instruments. You might also want to consider leaving some of the mix elements out in the earlier parts of the song so that the arrangement ‘builds’ in a more interesting way than if you hear everything straight away. You can mute these elements then unmute them where they are needed. Panning the various instruments to different positions within the stereo space also helps to develop a more interesting mix. For example, it is usual to place the bass drum and bass guitar dead centre in the mix – although this was not the case during the first few years of stereo mixing when the entire rhythm section might be panned hard left with brass and strings panned hard right
and the vocals occupying the whole of the central space. Arguments rage between producers as to whether the drum kit should be panned so that the listener hears it as the drummer would or as a member of the audience would. Strings, woodwinds, and brass are often panned as in the standard orchestral layout as heard from the audience with high strings left, low strings right, horns left, brass right, and woodwinds centre. But, again, there are no rules – it is a question of the preference of the producer. You may want to use three or more reverb units, plus delay units, and harmonizers to help to blend the instruments together and to help to create the illusion that separately overdubbed musicians are all playing together on the recording. You can use harmonizers on backing vocals, on electric piano ‘pads’, on guitar solos – anywhere that you want to add depth to your mix. A little slapback echo always seems to help a vocal to stand out in the mix, and judicious use of different reverb types helps to build a more interesting ‘sound picture’ for your mix. There was a time when several pairs of hands were needed on the mixing console to carry out a complex series of mix manoeuvres in real time before the advent of mix automation. Automated mixing makes life much easier. By recording the fader movements, you can set up your mix while concentrating on just a couple of faders, then on the next pass, work on a different pair of faders, and so on until you have your mix balanced the way you want it. And it is just as easy to automate the pans and mutes, vary the EQ, shorten or lengthen the reverb decay, or apply changes to other effects during the course of the mix. Finally, you may want to create a long, smooth fadeout at the end of the song, ideally using a physical fader to control the Master Fader in Pro Tools. You can do this using the mouse onscreen, and you can certainly achieve excellent results by drawing in the automation curve by hand. But nothing beats the feel of a high-quality fader under your finger as you feel out your final fade. . .