Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Recording Tip 37: When mixing, spend plenty of time getting levels right before automating faders

Not long ago, the great Nashville engineer, Chuck Ainley and I had a conversation on the subject of mixing.  Chuck told me the most important mix tip he could give was to spend most of his time getting things to sound good with the faders in a static position before turning on the automation.  

That’s it?  Sounds like rather simple advice doesn’t it?  As simple as it is, I think it’s one of the greatest tip I’ve ever heard.

In the world of DAWs EQ, panning, levels, reverb sends, and fader automation can be done in a second with a click of the mouse.  And when wrestling a troublesome mix, turning on the automation early is a real temptation.  

You’re mixing along and the first verse and chorus the mix sound great.  But now that punchy, sparse track is competing for air with the onslaught of new parts beginning in verse 2….and so on comes the automation to “fix” it.

But when you do that, it’s likely you’re really just putting on a band-aid for basic flaws in the mix. Even though you automated the buried parts with fader levels or eq and can hear them better, the mix fundamentally hasn’t congealed and soon a lot of your faders are moving constantly.  (By the way, if you followed TIP 36 “Recording with the mix in mind” you probably won’t have this issue so much!)

While of course automation is almost always needed, I’ve found when I spend more time working without it (getting better balances, eq, compression, etc.) the mix has a better foundation.  The faders don’t need to be moved so much and the final mix sounds better because it is better.  If you can find a place where everything sits well for the whole song and then turn on the automation, you’re starting in a better place.

All the best engineers do this, and the great Al Schmidt is a perfect example.  A few years ago I was visiting Al’s mixing home, Capitol Records Studios in LA.  Al graciously invited me into his room where we talked for a while.  (I know Al from the days I assisted him at Bill Schnee Studio)  After catching up a bit, Al stepped out of the room for a call, so I asked Steve Genewick, his fantastic assistant (also a great engineer and producer in his own right) about Al’s mix methodology.   Steve told me most of time Al is mixing he works without automation.  When he finally turns it on, Al would need only two or three passes of rides and the mix was done.  (Al also rarely ever uses eq or compression either...but most of us mere mortals need some help with such things!)

Of course there are times when you’ll find a part on a track that really does need a significant change during the song.  But instead of automating it, do this.  Make a new track, pull those files down into it and treat it as needed.  To me, this a bit like changing a mic to get a better sound when recording.  It’s also less likely you’ll make some compromise due to the inserts or whatever which are on that track and you’ll end up with the exact sound needed for that part.

Again, this is really simple advice.  And as in life, the best advice is usually simple.  Of course there are no rules in mixing, only guidelines.  Sure, sometimes you’ll have a mix with a lot of automation, and that can be a lot of fun.  But do that only once the mix has a good solid foundation and then pull out the DAW’s bells and whistles.

So give it a try.  Next time spend at least half of your mix getting it as close as you can before resorting to automation.  I think you’ll find that not only will the final mix sound better, you’ll learn more about what was really needed and your skills will improve.

Extra note...in the Andrew Sheps article I mention in the above blog he discusses this same idea as well as some other great tips.