The ability to record with the mix in mind is a bit of a lost art these days. When someone gives me a song to mix, I can tell within a few minutes if the person who recorded it understands this concept. A well recorded song has certain characteristics technically, and I don’t mean subjective preferences of sounds. These characteristics have to do with how the tracks were recorded, and consequently, how they play back.
a well recorded song has a good basic balance, the faders should sit in
the “sweet spot” of the fader track; somewhere between -15dB and 0.
Also, as the mix plays, a lot of fader pushing won’t be required to
keep the mix balanced. A well recorded song maintains a good balance
with the faders sitting still.
is something which was taught to me from day one as an assistant. In
the bad old days we couldn’t click a mouse and have the song open up
with the exact levels we had last time we worked on it. We’d load up
the tape machine and have to quickly get up a mix from scratch with each
song. Good engineers soon learned that if they recorded with
consistent fader levels, moving from song to song was much easier. And
of course as the label exec would invariably appear unannounced, they’d
be able to make the best showing for the producer and artist, not to
mention showing their own skills at things sounding good when they were
at the helm.
To do this, engineers developed the idea of setting the monitor faders at an even level, and adjust recording levels into
the stationary monitor faders. We’d record almost like a live mix;
adjusting recording levels as we worked so a lot of the balancing was
in those days, the old joke was that if you recorded things well you
could mix with a nickel and a yardstick. Line all the faders up evenly
with the yardstick, put a nickel under the lead vocal fader so it was a
bit louder, move the yardstick up, nickel and all, until there was a
good level on the stereo buss, and the mix would be done. Of course I
never saw such a thing happen and I doubt anyone ever really did that
with a final mix. But the story made for a good point about how to
record well. As an assistant I was fortunate to work with a lot of
great engineers. And every one of them worked this way. Bill Schnee,
Jack Joseph Puig, Elliot Scheiner, Al Schmidt....every one.
there’s no Grammy for “Best Fader Position in a Mix.” And you may be
thinking, “That sounds like some old fart spouting some old school
technique which is pointless today. Isn’t that why we have automation?”
Sure. You can put your faders wherever you want and sort it out
later. But there’s an additional benefit of setting the faders and
adjust your recording levels to fit. When you do, you end up choosing
better parts and sounds.
reason is this. By not moving faders around so much you start thinking
more about how each part works with the rest of the track. A good part
with a good sound blends into the mix more easily. When recording if I
can’t find a good level...if it always seems too loud or too soft, I
wonder about what’s being recorded. If I can’t find a balance where the
part works throughout the song, I probably need to change the part, the
sound, or both.
last thought about this. While recording with the mix in mind has a
lot to do with levels, it also has to do with coming up with parts that
will work well in the stereo field. A great stereo mix has a good
balance of parts in both speakers, giving the mix size and power. So
when recording, think of where a part may end up getting panned in the
final mix. Spatial interest is a huge part of good mixes..and makes
song much more fun to listen to. I always love it when I get a mix
where somebody took the time to make parts that work well in stereo. Of
course, there are no rules. Sometimes having a big guitar part on one
side can be great, in particular if it’s a power trio. But most songs
sound better with a balanced feel between the two speakers.
whatever you do, don’t get caught up in layering part after part,
focusing only on the overdub of the moment. Listen carefully, keeping
the end in mind...a great mix for the song.