Saturday, March 29, 2014

Recording Tip 40: When mixing better to have your faders plus or minus 10db of “0.” Insert trims if you find them far from that

This tip came from a project I mixed a few years ago, and I’m finding the problem happening pretty often these days. I was mixing a project which had been sent to one of the best guitar players on the planet for him record his parts. The tracks he recorded were mostly power/crunch guitars and they sounded great. The problem however, were that all of them were recorded at near full scale, almost totally filling up the meters. (This relates to TIP 3-4.  where I advise to only record percussive instruments that hot.)

This was a problem because I had to pull the faders almost to the bottom of the fader track in order to balance them in the mix. The reason this is a problem is at the bottom of the fader track, there’s not enough resolution to make small changes. You can easily see this on the faders with their dB marks. When the fader is near 0 the distance between dBs is fairly large. On my screen moving the fader about an inch near 0 gives about 7-8dB of gain change. But at the bottom of the fader track, an inch is maybe 15dB or more. I’m not going to get into the math of that. You can search that if you want more information. The bottom line of it all is there’s more resolution a the top half of the fader track than near the bottom. So if the fader is down near the -20 mark it’s really hard to make a small level change...and consequently, hard to get the balance of that track just right.

All to say, I needed better fader resolution for my rides. So what I did was to put a Trim plugin on those track at -20dB. That allowed me to raise up the fader so it was more like -5dB or so for a good balance. From there I could make the small rides more accurately.

Using the trim plugin in this situation will also help keep from any plugins from overloading, especially if you add a good bit of EQ. Maybe you’ve wondered why an equalizer overloads when you add EQ. If the level going in is too hot, when you add gain at certain frequencies, you’ve maxxed out the plugin. Lowering the level will also give you more room with the threshold setting if you’re compressing it. When you find tracks like this, put the trim plugin first, so the following plugins have better gain structure.

One last thing. Don’t deceive yourself that hot recording levels will make for a loud record. That will happen when you mix. Super hot recording levels are likely just to give you unintended distortion. While you may get a thrill seeing all those lit up levels, all they’re really doing is making it harder to make a great mix. Healthy recording levels are important for sure. But again, re-read TIP 3-4.

So use that Trim in and get those faders back up to where they should be. Your moves will be much more accurate, you’ll not be as likely to overload your plugins, and your mixes will sound better as a result.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Recording Tip 39: Once you have basic levels and pans, listen in mono, THEN adjust pans. One small move may help something pop thru

This is a wacky tip and a bit more advanced than some of the others. And while the end goal is to make your stereo mixes better, your mixes heard in mono will be better as well.

Of course 99% of the time your mix will be heard in stereo, but checking your mix in mono is still a good idea for a few reasons, the most obvious being that if your mix is heard in mono you want it to sound good. And if you’re lucky enough to mix a big hit it will be heard in mono a lot more than you imagine. Playback from a smart phone’s speakers or in stores at the mall are a few places where songs are heard in mono by a lot of people. While mono isn’t common, it’s not totally dead. The fact is a great mix sounds good in both mono and stereo and it’s worth your time to check it.

So that’s my little sermon on why it’s good for your mix to translate well to mono. But for this tip that’s really the icing on the cake. The point is to listen in mono so your stereo mixes sound better.  So now you may be wondering, “How do panning changes in mono help my stereo mix?”  

The reason is that mono gives another reference for hearing how your levels, pans, and eq are working. If things are fighting in mono, they’re probably fighting in stereo as well. You may not hear it so much as things are spread across the stereo image, but it’s still there.  

The idea is this. Once your mix is in good shape, hit the mono button on your monitor section and make small panning changes. (Now I’m not talking about changing your pans to mono and then listening.  I’m talking about using your monitor’s Mono button so it combines the stereo mix to mono in your speakers. If you don’t have a mono button on your monitor this tip won’t work for you. You have to have a Mono button in your monitor section to do this.)

So get your mix in good shape, preferably before you’ve begun automating the faders.  TIP 37.  By then you’ve panned all your tracks the way you want them so now hit the mono button on your monitor section and listen. Are all the tracks in a good balance? Does the mix still sound like your mix, or something dreadful?  Hopefully it’s still pretty good. If not, go back to stereo and work a bit more, checking things in mono. Once it sounds pretty good in both, then take the next step. While listening in mono, select a track and move the pan a bit.

Now I’m not talking about making big changes. In fact when I go back to stereo I might not even be able to tell it’s moved at all. The idea is to give a small bump to the panning of the track a bit and see if it pops out better while listening in mono. One thing also...while panning is mostly what I’m working on, level and eq are also something I’m paying attention to, and often I’ll make changes to those as well.  (This is also why it’s good to do this before automation. If you need to make real changes to level you won’t have to backtrack fader automation.)

When doing this I tend to focus more on tracks panned between L-C-R, but those panned hard left and right might need a change as well. It may be that panning a bit less than hard left or right is better. I’ll make my final decisions and passes in stereo, but like listening on a second set of speakers, this gives another perspective to hear relationships of the tracks.

If I hear a problem right off the bat, I may swap back and forth between mono and stereo to find it. But mostly I stay in mono for this little exercise. I’ll take a pass or two like this and once it sound good I’ll go back to stereo and see how things sit.

Almost always when I go back to stereo I find my mix is much more open and sounds better. Of course a great stereo mix is the goal, so if what I heard in mono doesn’t work as well in stereo, I’ll change it for the sake of the stereo mix. But as I said before, a great mix almost always sounds great in both stereo and mono. Check out your favorite mixer’s work. You’ll hear that’s true.

One thing you must remember when doing this. Anything panned dead to center will sound louder when listening in mono because it adds equally from both sides. So expect the bass guitar, kick, snare, and vocal, etc. to be a bit louder. If it does a little bit, that’s normal. But if it’s radically louder, you need to work some more. Listen back and forth between stereo and mono and find the place where those things sound right in both. In mono you’ll also usually lose a bit of stereo reverb so things may sound a bit drier. That’s also due to the things in mono, like the lead vocal are louder in mono, so that relationship with the reverb is different. This may sound a little odd, but with a little experience, you’ll find what works between the two and your mixes will be better.

Give this rather nutty method a shot. I bet you’ll find good results. And if nothing else, it’s a good way to hone your chops.