Saturday, January 5, 2013

Recording Tip 36: When recording, record with the mix in mind.

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.

When 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.

This 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 already done.

Back 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.

Now 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.

The 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.

One 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.

But 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. 


  1. I wonder what software call centers use for recording calls? They seem to be investing much with software for automatic call distribution, I just became curious with the recorders.


  2. When I first saw your article, I thought it was all about the "Tesseract" that was mentioned in the Captain America and Thor movie. Anyways, you've discussed the proper ways or the important notes an individual must remember when recording a record. My question is that if it is also applicable when recording something like a video conference?

    Culgar Reeds

  3. The genesis of the title was just my fascination with the mathematical concept (The tesseract is to the cube as the cube is to the square) and is the name of my studio. The thought being the studio to be a place where creativity can take place outside our conventional world.

    As to recording a video conference, sure. The same principle applies to most everything...always begin with the end in mind.

  4. You have a unique idea in giving title to your blog site. Anyways, I want your help since you are pretty good when it comes to giving names. I am planning to start a business that is all about studio recording, since my passion is music, can you give me some ideas on what name should be calling my business? Thanks a lot!

    F. Webb

  5. Hi Fred,

    Finding a name is a tricky thing. It should be one which either people relate to, catchy, or somehow relates to you, your interests, or your recording space.

    As I don't know you, it would be hard to suggest something. I would say, brainstorm some night with a bunch of names. Hit the internet with subjects you find interesting, or relate somehow to what I mentioned above. Jot them all down. Don't filter at all. Then ask a few of your more creative-type friends and see what hits them. They may come up with some as well.

    By the way, one of the things I like about my studio name is when credits are made I ask for "Mixed by David Schober in The Tesseract."

    Best of luck and let us know what you come up with!

  6. I guess you are right about that. Nowadays, there are only few people who can do that because auto tune audio processor is commonly used to make the song sound perfect.

    -Ms. Lilian