Precept - Everything in life is a pyramid: boss, workers; earl, serfs; king, subjects. The same is true of audio: lead tracks, support tracks.
Now, imagine an enormous console with 64 channels and 17 mix busses and you sub-mix to mix busses, like your drums on 1 and 2, your violins on 2 and 3, etc. Where engineers go wrong is they put all groups at zero and turn down the master fader. Now, in a DAW it's a bit different, but let's assume the situation in your DAW is the same idea. You want the maximum signal-to-noise ratio. So, say, when you're coming from a 2-inch multi-tracker, you don't want your signal overloading on your input strip (occasionally, this is OK). So, you set up your input strips to occasionally go red when soloed. It all depends on how much headroom you have on your enormous mixer. Only you know your mixer.
Now, let's label a mix group "Lead Vocals." Put it a notch down from zero. Then, put the rest of the faders in the mix group down diagonally from the "Lead Vocals" group. So, say "Lead Vocals" is group 7 (with 17 total subgroups), then all the other faders from 1 to 6 and 8 to 13 are left down diagonally (this still leaves us with 4 spare groups).
You have your group mix busses set up in a pyramid. Now you want to set up a scratch mix. You do have a track layout sheet, don't you? On the back, draw a big pyramid. Now, sit down with the client/producer/etc. and try to decide where you want to place the different tracks in the pyramid (down deep, to one side, up front). Actually, you should have done this in the pre-production/demo stage. Now, start assigning tracks to the group mix busses. You want to agree on the top track, and then down from there for every level. On some orchestral mixes it gets kind of complex, because you have to make decisions on each of the orchestra sections like tympani, horns, cellos, and where to put the little guy with the triangle. We call this scratch mixing, and you do this BEFORE BALANCING. By allocating different input tracks in combos to group mix busses, you can try out different things. For example, you don't always need to use EQ on the group bus or input, because just by changing groups of instruments to different group busses gives you a different perspective; because of the pyramid. At this point, you don't want to worry about anything besides a scratch mix. Stay away from the urge to plug in outboard gear right now. So, let's say we have the lead singer up front; we need to decide what will be at level 2, level 3, level 4, and level 5. Think of it as a parking garage.
I have 17 sub-groups, but you may have only 12 or 8 or 4. An old saying in the recording business is 'When you buy a mixer, get an extra sub-group, because it's always nice to have a spare (same with an extra input channel)'.
OK, now you have grouped and assigned all your tracks to mix group busses. Now your faders should look like a pyramid. If you don't have mix busses, align your input faders in a mix pyramid. It's the same in any other software mixer. It's a good idea to lower each fader in your mix pyramid by a couple of dB to lower the noise level. A lot of old, big songs had really noisy tracks, so what they did was lower the track level to lower
the noise level.
Now you have a pyramid scratch mix that is flat-no EQ or outboard gear. A lot of beginners make the mistake of blowing all their efforts on putting EQ and effects on PFL/soloed input channels too early. Listen to your group mix busses very carefully. Is everything in its own little slot in the parking garage? Is everything distinct? Try your scratch mix on junk speakers, good speakers, TV, etc. Even check out the little guy at the base of the pyramid hitting his little triangle.
Now, this is where creative mixing comes in. Let's say the little triangle isn't really "happening." Without moving the fader (because the scratch mix is pretty well balanced by now), look for a creative answer. (I don't know your setup; if you're using onboard or outboard gear, input EQ, or if you have the luxury of a parametric/sweep EQ on your group mix busses.) Generally, we call this the "mix analysis phase."
Here's an overview of the process (after all recording is finished):
- Take a break for the day.
- Set up your scratch mix using the mix pyramid.
- Analyze the scratch mix for distinctness.
- Fix indistinct tracks using EQ and effects.
- Prepare the final mix and test it on different playback systems.
- Go for it. Do your master.
- Send the master off for mastering (or do it yourself).
- Complete final documentation. You were documenting from the start of the recording, weren't you?
Part 4 (Making Tracks Distinct)
If the little triangle at the bottom of the track is not distinct enough, try a bit of EQ on the individual track first, sweeping around until you find the sweet spot. You want to do this while the song is playing. You may need to try the same process on the group mix bus, using EQ or out-board effects, but don't overdo it. You may want to put a bit of space around it with a teensy bit of echo. This is where the art of mixing occurs. Go over each track in the pyramid, analyzing the strengths and weak spots. If you are using an automated console, this is where you can compensate for a cough. Bad notes can be fixed in an audio-editing program by finding the same note elsewhere in the track and copying it over the flubbed note. The whole idea is to get the best out of every single track. If a track sounds a bit noisy, you can try EQ or very carefully use noise reduction. Maybe the lead guitar isn't right. Send the track out to a guitar amp, play with it, and then bring it back to another input or group. Make each track a great one. Don't bother much about lead tracks at this stage. Once you have the lower tracks in the pyramid done right, move up higher to the middle-tier tracks, then finally to the lead tracks.
If you throw stuff in too early, you can't take advantage of natural spacing to make your lead tracks stand out. If you have, say, a big echo on tier 7 of your pyramid, it might interfere with your lead tracks.
Now, you have each track pretty distinct in the stereo image. If you have a fancy on-screen display, you can check it out. Do a mono check before you get fancy with the lead tracks. Now, analyze the song for what we call "natural spaces." A common mistake made by beginners is to slap reverb and echo on everything and get a washed-out sound. Identify where the lead tracks play and the supporting instruments take a back seat (just in the mix). I hate to say it this way, but think of a dumb listener; they are just listening. So, play your scratch mix while casually walking around the control room and try to act dumb! It is a good idea to listen to something else first before doing this to take your mind off the project. Pull down the volume and imagine your song on the radio. Play your song through a clock radio if you can to simulate a real-world listening environment. Ask yourself this most important question: where were the spaces? This is where the rubber hits the road. This is where an engineer can rescue a sometimes very sub-standard song or band. This is what separates the best engineers from the rest-the
ability to see through the mix, to bring out the good and hide the bad.
For example, if you have a not-so-great bass player, fudge, using automation, editing and otherwise crafty moves. Sometimes, the singers sing flat. So, in the clock radio stage, look for weaknesses and fix them, always refining your mix, documenting spaces. Doing it right makes the lead tracks easier to fit in. What are spaces? They are spaces in the sound for the leads (vocals, lead guitar, lead whatever) to shine through. When you get the leads working, back off the other tracks a bit. Inexperienced engineers don't give the lead tracks enough space. The whole idea is to let each player shine. Sometimes, sparse is good; it creates dynamics in the song. You don't want backup material going full-bore throughout the entire song. You need a bit of space to keep the listener at your table. The bass player may be a genius with incredible runs being played through the whole song, but only show it a few times between the singing; not all the time. The rest of the time, he's down in the pyramid in a support role. Maybe the rhythm guitar at 3 minutes into the song does a nice little lick; OK, if the singer isn't singing, bring it on. This is what is meant by finding places to shine. The whole point of mixing art is not to confuse the listener listening on a little $10.00 clock radio, and to figure out what to do to the song to make him rush out and buy your CD. You want to make your song so interesting that he has no option but to buy it.
In mixing in your lead tracks, think about balance. Do you want your lead vocal up front or back a bit. What does the song need? Do you want it dry, intimate and close to the listener? Or does it need to be in its own little simulated space, back a bit. If you have lots of tracks that could flood out the lead vocal, put the lead vocal in the center with the other tracks spaced on either side so the lead can breathe a little. Sometimes, the way you pan the group mix busses can make a big difference. Sometimes, a bass sounds right panned off center; other times it sounds good panned to one side. Many engineers forget the creative aspect of panning with mix busses. For example, with the little triangle, try an extreme left pan and don't pan another track there; it might help the triangle. If the lead vocal is a good track but weak, try thickening it, or put it dry in one ear and a copy with a smidgen of reverb in the other ear. A general rule is as you go down deeper into the pyramid; focus more on the track sitting right in the mix. On a 32 or 64 track mix, things can get hairy, but still do the same thing. This is a constant cycle; isolate the problem and find a solution. In a big project, get the beds right, create a sub mix and move on from there. This makes big projects easier. The best engineers know when to elevate a track in the pyramid and when to send it down again.
This is the essence of the "mixing pyramid." Now go try it on a few songs and develop your own way of doing things. And remember this, newbies: when you intern in a big studio, the really great engineers are patient and kind, and treat you with respect. The ones that treat you like a serf are just "wannabes." If this process doesn't work for you, develop your own mixing style and your own sound.