Updated: Jul 6, 2020
We're excited that Josh Reynolds offered his time for a guest blog series on mixing.
With a resume that includes touring with acts like Little Big Town, Joe Nichols, Wynonna Judd, Love and Theft, and Craig Campbell, Reynolds has proven his ability to deliver in both packed arena settings as well as more intimate venues. He also mixes records for artists such as Belle Mt, The Adelaides, Dancing on Tables and The It City. He engineered Little Big Town's latest record Nightfall.
There are lots of potential phases to a musical recording. Many tasks need to be performed to write a song, make an arrangement, produce the track, produce the vocals, mix, and master the final deliverable. At each step along the way, we need to be able to communicate about the work that has been done and maybe reference outside of the studio where we are working. We are always doing some kind of a mix. For the sake of conversation, let's differentiate these types of mixes into two major categories. "Rough Mixes " and "Mixes" define a wide range of representations of the same song across a project. I'd like to focus on the distinguishing factors between a "Rough" and a "Mix," and what needs to be paid attention to on the transition from one to the other. Major delineators I'd like to touch on between a Rough and a Mix are Resonance Management, Width and Depth, and Presence Consistency.
1. Resonance Management Individual sounds in a mix probably contain more information in their raw form than we need in their final representations in the mix. Raw sounds differ in dynamic and frequency ranges, and decisions are made across the process to tailor those sounds towards fitting together. Dynamic or condensor, tube or transistor, clean or driven, all of these factors make up the sound of each piece in the mix. We creatively contrast these sounds to create vibes. Resonance Management is cleaning up the collisions across the frequency range so that the appropriate clarity is achieved between voices in a mix. EQ is often the tool to carve sounds into fitting together better, and often we can find what can be trimmed by finding the ringing in the individual sounds and cutting it out. These specific frequencies that are out of balance in a sound can cover up essential parts of other sounds, so by cutting those frequencies in one sound we can make a sort of "window" for another part to come through.
My favorite tool for taming resonance is Oeksound's Soothe2, it dynamically tracks and cuts frequencies that get out of balance based on a sensitivity curve that you set across the frequency range. Soothe2 also comes with a bunch of super useful presets for getting in the ballpark with specific instruments and voices. 2. Width and Depth Once the resonance of the voices is well managed across a mix, the potential for greater width and depth in the mix becomes possible. Along the course of producing a song, intention will go into placement of elements to create a sense of space. Width can mean panning, or using perceptual manipulation techniques to push things further out in the stereo field. Depth refers to our perception of space front to back in a mix with the front right up in your face and the back moving farther away.
With infinite options for where to pan things in a mix, I rarely ever use positions other than center, hard left and hard right. With perceptual manipulation we can take that a little farther, opening up more width by using short delays of 12-18 ms between hard right and left panned copies of a sound to make it feel like it is coming from all around the listener. I like to send a channel like a guitar to an aux, and then put Waves J37 Tape plugin with a short delay enabled on the aux return, panning the guitar and it's delay hard left and right. You can create width this way even if there's just a guitar and a vocal happening in a moment, with the vocal in the middle and the guitar wrapping around the vocal without distracting from the details. Depth is crucial to the dynamic range of a mix, if all the instruments are balanced to the same level then a mix can feel lifeless and stagnant. I like to think of dynamics in 3 levels, front, mid, and back. The kick, snare, bass, lead instruments, and vocal often occupy the loudest part of the mix. Rhythm instruments sit in the next layer back, maybe 4-6dB lower. Space establishing elements like reverbs and delays will live even further down in the blend, just enough to set the backdrop. There seems to be an inverse relationship between the amount of time that a sound is constantly happening in a mix and how loud it should be to play nicely with others, with bass being an obvious exception as bass power is focused in such a small part of the frequency range. 3. Presence Consistency The mixer's main responsibility is presenting the voices in an arrangement in such a way that it directs the listener towards the focal point throughout time in a mix. That focal point is often a vocal, but from moment to moment there will be different elements that need to draw the ear for the full experience to be felt. Much like a lighting director in a live show will use spotlights to draw focus to important positions on a stage, a mixer must manage the presence of elements throughout the timeline of a track to keep the listener's attention focused. This doesn't necessarily mean taking up exactly the same space as the vocal, but the ear should be drawn easily to the next sound once the vocal or lead goes away.
Level automation is the key to presence consistency, and anything that is sitting right at the front of a mix in your face is going to have to be really consistent to not poke too far out in any moment and blow the vibe. In a Rough this level automation is often done with compressors, however in a Mix the details of a sound can be managed more effectively by manually adjusting clip gain or fader volume. I like to automate the vocals manually, but often with the bass guitar I'll use the Waves Bass Rider to get each bass note sitting right in the pocket. With bass rider, you want to give it the most dynamic signal to do it's thing, so putting it before your compressor in the signal chain will help that presence stay the most consistent. Keeping the rhythm instruments down in the mix will help push the depth and clarity behind the leads, but could also risk losing details in those parts. Towards the end of a mix, I will often comb through to find which instrument is filling in between lead moments and use volume automation to give that part it's time in the spotlight. While these parts probably won't come all the way up to the front of the mix, keeping the balance between rhythm instruments always moving just a little can really deepen the perception of depth in a Mix.
4. The Handoff Technological advances have changed the handoff between Producer and Mixer. What was once an unmixed multitrack tape or set of files sent to a mixer with a stereo rough mix and some notes, can now be a full session with plugins, panning and automation intact. In many cases we can now start from the same point that the producer left off to finish the mix up, and that can be a really good thing. Roughs are able to go farther than ever with the great tools available to songwriters and producers, in many cases the final mix is just taking it that extra 5-10% across the finish line to really pop. We can now pick up right where the last work left off to then enhance and finish up, which is a win all around. Of course there will be times when something needs to be rebuilt from the ground up to maximize potential, but more often than not, the time that an artist and producer have put into getting their favorite details to pop can be extended directly into the mix.
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