A Perspective on Studio Sound Mixing

Our very own Joe McCargar has some colorful thoughts he’d like to share on the art of mixing.

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For those of you with experience in a recording workflow, you understand that there’s recording (or tracking), and then there’s this other thing called mixing, mixdown, or remixing. It’s a separate process which requires additional time and budget.

I like to say that if you have a rather complex recording with, say, 28 tracks, it’s not finished. It’s not finished because you can’t listen in “twenty-eighteo.” You listen in stereo. You have to combine the 28 separate elements to produce a single stereo file or master tape.

This is a concept that those new to the process must understand, but often don’t. So they’re unpleasantly surprised when they are told that more time, effort, and money must be spent on this other thing beyond tracking. To those less familiar with the process, here’s my perspective:

The goal of a great mix is to paint a stereo audio image that is clear, defined, and novel from moment to moment. In the abstract, you must be able to “walk around in your mix” without bumping into anything. An experienced sound engineer uses the FIVE PRIMARY COLORS OF MIXING:

  1. Relative Volume (or, “the blend”): Relative volume helps important elements stand out in the mix. If something is relatively louder than something else, it stands out. It tells your brain, “This sound is important. Focus on it.” This may seem obvious, because it’s nature’s way. But there are true subtleties to this.
  1. Equalization: Equalization manipulates the bass & treble frequencies. You want each frequency range to have its own sonic space in terms of tone or timbre. If sounds are “pulled apart” in this way, you don’t have to use brute loudness to get them to stand out from each other.
  1. Panning: Panning gives a feeling of realism to a two-dimensional space. Your brain processes left- and right-originating sounds separately. Sounds on the edges are heard as truly separate. You can walk between them psycho-acoustically without having to  walk sideways or pinch your shoulders.
  1. Effects: Effects create novelty, enhance the stereo image, and create depth. Utilizing (special) effects provides a space for a performance to occur and increases the “what’s that?” factor. Remember what I said above: a mix must be “novel from moment to moment.” Every time your mind says, “What’s that?” you are renewing your attention. And how can you appreciate something if you’re not paying attention? People pay good money for what catches and holds their attention.
  1. Arranging on the Fly: If elements are clashing or confusing and you can’t make them work using another color or colors, take them out . . . either partially or altogether. Use the control you have over the presence or absence of a sound to build drama and intensity in a mix. Don’t forget that a sound disappearing then reappearing raises the “what’s that” quotient.

Finally, overlaid on this Rubik’s Cube of choices there’s . . .

The Concept of Continuous vs. Periodic

Continuous sounds provide a foundation and a forward-moving vector for punctuating (short envelope, periodic) sound to ride along on. Continuous sounds provide flow, while punctuating sounds provide punch and novelty. A balance between these two types of sounds lends impact and direction. Overbearing continuous sounds sap the punch from the punctuating sounds, while not enough flow creates a sense of emptiness with nothing to bind together the “events” of the production. You need trance plus nuance . . . punch plus flow. Or, to paraphrase an analogy used by legendary film editor and sound designer Walter Murch, “You need a forest AND trees.”

To summarize: making “twenty-eighteo” into stereo is a separate, infinitely variable, value-adding, and technically necessary process in audio production that costs time and money. It is completely separate from the original recording process. How your sound engineer handles this vital step can make or break your art. By understanding what goes into it, you can enhance your role as an artist and make the relationship with your engineer a truly collaborative one.