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#1 2011-04-03 16:31:17

ronws
TMV Forum Member
Registered: 2010-05-23
Posts: 11731
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The Whole Process

I have recently been reading "Zen and the Art of Mixing."

I think it's important to us because, as a rule, we don't get to perform live for each other. So, we must record. And so much of perception can be limited by the recording. I know of instances where I sang a note high and clean someone thought it was a scream. Or sang high and gritty and someone thought it was like the Bee Gee's. And that is caused by equipment and the processing of the recording. Add to that the fact that most of us export to an mp3 file. While it is portable and accepted everywhere, mp3 is a file compression format, something like a .zip file. As such, some of the finer frequencies can be lost. That will be important, later.

Mixing is the art of balancing parts of a recording to work together. But balance doesn't necessarily mean everything is at the same dB level or quality of eq or amount of reflectivity (echo-y-ness.)  That being said, the mixer can only mix what he has been given from the recording. So, the first step is to record properly.

How is that done? There is an art to how to record a sound or instrument. Type of mic and it's response to various tonalities, volumes, ranges. Mic placement. Too close and there's not reflectivity. Too much and there's too much reflectivity or bleed through from other instruments and/or noises. Add to that the medium that it is recorded upon. There are some advantages to tape that are totally lost in digital. Though tape uses electronics, it is considered an analog approach. The atoms on the surface of a tape are arranged based on the actions of the signal coming from the microphone or instrument input. The wider the master tape, the more of the information that can be recorded.

In digital, the sound is represented as a series of 1's and 0's. What also makes a difference is the sampling rate. Standard is around 44.1 kHz. This is how many times a second it samples the input signal for information. A lower sample rate takes up less memory but it also misses a lot of the signal and results in a poor sound quality. Essentially, digital is fitting a round object into a square hole. There will be some losses. And because digital is either on or off, it doesn't do well with gradations of volume (dynamics.) So most anything recorded digitally must have compression. Compression raises the volume of low volume parts and limits some of the volume on high volume parts. And yes, this will effect the sound of the signal. The trick to proper compression is to know what it is you want. If some parts of the signal are low in volume, you need a lower threshhold of compression. Also, if there is a wide range of notes, you need a low ratio of compression. If you have the melody at pretty much a consistent volume, whether that is high or low, you can raise the threshhold, which will reduce compressor effect flanging. If the melody only covers approximately an octave or so, you can have a higher ratio of compression, which will make the sound more uniform.

And here it is important to know the capabilities of your mixing set-up. Whether you have analog mixing gear or totally digital on your computer. I have Audacity which is free. And limited. All the effects are fixed and affect the whole track. You cannot adjust the effects in real time, as the playback is playing. You have to choose the effect and then listen. If it doesn't sound right, you have to "undo" the last effect and start again with that effect.

There will be things you can shorten up by keeping the same values. For example, if drums and bass were recorded at the same level on different songs, you can keep those values on each song mix. However, you can't use a hammer for every solution. And a great mix is not "perfectly balanced." A great mix has certain things in prominence depending on the nature of the song. A dance song will have prominence in the drums and bass. The guitar will be punched up in its solo and then dropped back to background. Vocals will have some prominence equal to the bass, at times.

A guitar heavy song with extended solos will have prominence on the drums and guitars, while vocals punch in and out and bass remains consistent. You get the idea.

The hard part is translation. It might sound fine in your headphones or monitor speakers and sound like crap in your car stereo, which is where most people listen to music. A number of A & R people at record companies don't have time to listen in their office. They listen in the car going through the drive-thru or driving home or to work.

And this gets to the last step, mastering. Mastering is adjusting the total levels of the mix to conform to the parameters of the format of presentation. For most people in the last 20 years, this has been the cd (compact disc.) Remember I said earlier that there are losses in mp3 format. There are also some losses in cd. It, too, is a digital recording format. Also, people tend to play cd's in less than ideal listening environments. It's not always on a Bose system, which has engineered acoustical balance. It could play in someone's car, portable cd player, boombox, or home stereo, and sometimes through the dvd player. With varying levels of playback capability and eq adjustment (treble, mid, and bass adjustments on your player.) Or it could be ripped off a cd and downloaded into an i-pod. Or played in a computer. And there is the modern fashion of recording these levels all loud which takes away from the dynamics. And if there is a light, delicate part one can hear in the finished mixes, it might not be heard after mastering because of the masking effect (loudest tones get prominence.) And because of this, a mix often gets additiional compression in mastering so that all parts are getting heard. Which can take away from the desired intent of the artist. And sometimes, vice versa, a mastering engineeer will master for what he thinks the market wants. The original version of "Higher" by Damn Yankees features a ripping solo from Ted Nugent. On the latest compilation cd's of "metal ballads," the solo has been neutered. much of it is muted out and could have been played by someone on a synth with that guitar timbre punched in. To me, that is sacrilege. Uncle Ted is Uncle Ted and still has his teeth. But then, again, the band really became all about Tommy Shaw and Jack Blades.

So, it's amazing that anything you actually did made it through the recording process to be heard as you intended. And more often than not, these days, it will be common to find that a live performance sounds different than the album. You will have to trust me, the live performance is the original intent. The recording is what they could make of it considering the conditions involved in making a record. And that has some other influences, as well.

Back in the days of analog and limited post recording fixing technology, you, as a musician, really had to know your stuff. You had to know the song. Many is the song that was recorded "live" in studio. That is, the whole band was playing, though they were separately mic'd. Granted, the singer might come in and sing over playback, overdub harmony, what-have-you. But he or she still had to sing on key. And know the song. Click track, schmick track. You still had to know the song.

Not these days. Tracks are laid down fast and then the recordist auto-tunes everything. And I do mean everything. Because it then has a level and centeredness that fits in with digital. It doesn't matter if you can sing in pitch all day long and never a sour note. They will auto-tune you. So, this has caused a laziness in learning and performing a song. Why bother getting everything right? They'll fix it in the mix, right? You don't even have to be in the same room. New Sickest Kids of the World traded files through facebook. They barely had 3 songs written when they received a recording contract and were signed to play at S X SW in Austin, Texas. Fortunately, they actually knew how to play, rehearsed like crazy, and put on a heck of a show. It still has to come down to a live performance.

But that's the world we live in. Might there come a day when concerts are online? You don't have to drive anywhere. Just hit paypal and watch the show from your chair? Where cd's start collecting dust like my vinyl LP collection because you can download a terabyte that has every song in the world to play on your i-pod station?

Then the mixing and mastering strategies will change to suit that wholly digital medium. Which may change how one records.

But there's something about the energy of performing live. The interaction, the smile on people's faces. Watching them sing along with you. Performing is not about digital perfection or auto-tuning. It's about moments and memories. When you sing the song, it makes people remember something. Where they were, what things smelled like, sounded like, how they felt being in love or having lost love.

So, after all the technology, you still have to sing the song like you mean it, like you wrote it. And that gets back to the initial recording stage. A stellar performance usually needs almost no mixing or fixing and that is a direct quote from the Mixerman, who wrote "Zen and the Art of Mixing." But, at the same time, relax. Don't get hung up on pesky details that hold you back. Get up there and sing. And record it as best as you can.

And when it comes to mixing, that's actually more about taking away then adding. Serisously. The mix reveals itself by "underdubbing." That is the practice of dropping the prominence or muting all together what is unnecessary or distracting. I learned this from our own Mike (Snax). If using eq, you bring one part into prominence by dropping another. Such as "notching" the backing track. If most of your melody is hovering around 3 kHz (mid-tenor) as mine was in my recording of "Rainbow in the Dark," (which Mike mixed for me) then drop the backing track with at least .5 kHz around the 3 kHz region. This drops your voice into the "middle" of the mix, which is where you want it to be. Now, you can't use this strategy on every song. I've tried that and botched a few mixes but you learn as much from your mistakes as your successes. And we must learn. Mike doesn't have enough time to mix for all of us. :lol:

I think he just really believes in my voice and needed someone besides his own voice to practice with. Which is good for a stretch. He sounds quite a bit like Rob Halford where as I sound like no one I have ever heard. So, two different voice types to fit in a mix. Personally, when I mix my voice, I screw it up if I do too much to it. I am better off with a flat track, no eq. Sometimes, some slight echo and compression.

The mix will change depending on song type and arrangement. Heavy metal music is grinding guitars and pounding drums with the kick drum being crucial. For the longest time, heavy metal and hard rock required high tenors. Nowadays, the market has changed to favor fully rounded baritones with some heavy growl, which is easier to manage in baritone. Even on my worst day, I can sing higher than James Hetfield or Scott Stapp, but they have that sound that people want to hear.

And save your voice. Let technology work for you. You can amplify anything. it is better to have range and tone than to break glass, though Jaime Vendera can get you there but it's a side effect of a certain voice type with proper training. You don't need to break glass. Just sing on pitch with conviction. Not to slack off on vocal power. Just remember that the end product will be punched up to be heard on a cd player in a car with the windows rolled down.

Last edited by ronws (2011-04-09 16:02:14)


"When the daylight is rising up in my eyes ..." - Klaus Meine

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2011-04-03 16:31:17

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#2 2011-04-03 16:58:22

ronws
TMV Forum Member
Registered: 2010-05-23
Posts: 11731
Reputation :   139 

Re: The Whole Process

So, who judges when a mix is right? By who's standards? And what is his or her psychological make-up? We've had people submit work here and you could barely hear the vocals because whoever mixed the recording just absolutely loved the guitars and gave them prominence. Which might be great on a guitar board. It didn't play so well in a vocalist forum. Not that we want the vocals to be overbearing. That can wear on our nerves as much as anyone else's nerves. However, they should be heard at some point, even if you are raising prominence only during the lyrics.

Something might sound fine on my Music Store MS-300 headphones and sound like crap on your i-pod earbuds, computer earbuds, or plug in speakers on your computer. And depend on the sound processing ability of your soundcard in the computer. If you have an add-on card. You might be using an on-board sound chip. And it might sound fine in my headphones and be muddy or tinny when played in the car. Those are things that can be fixed. However, what if someone listens to it and they're not into that type of music or that band? What if you don't like the piercing banshee-like wailing in "The Immigrant Song" as a style of singing? Then anyone singing that song in the original key and style is going to sound wrong to you. And that is wholly psychological. But what if the mixing duties depended on you? Sometimes, that works out. Producer Mutt Lange has a certain sound he likes on recordings. And every band that has been mixed and produced by him has a hit record. He likes sharp drums with a slapback echo, fuzzy bass, and gritty vocals. Examples are Def Leppard's "Pyromania" and Metallica's "Saint Anger" albums.

So, not only do you have technology helping or hindering you, you have the psychological make-up of those that hear what you have recorded. Who counts the most? The buying public, of course. And they will like it, usually regardless of the mix. "Appetite for Destruction" by Guns and Roses sounded like it was recorded in a garage on a 4 track recording machine. And was the biggest grossing debut rock album.

The Mixerman knows when he is done with a mix. When he forgets to think about adjusting a parameter and realizes that for the past minute or so, he has been singing along with the song.

It's like cooking a steak. You can overdo it. Subtly, mixing is like cooking a steak. Take it off just before you think it might be done, as the steak will cook just a liitle more as it cools.

With a mix, do what you can in broad strokes and then walk away from it. Let it cool. Let it gel. I will get up and do the dishes or go to the store, something totally different and get my head out of it. Then, come back fresh. If it's still good, leave it alone. If it stinks, start over but with a fresh head and just let it go, as you were probably tensing up beforehand.


"When the daylight is rising up in my eyes ..." - Klaus Meine

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#3 2011-04-03 17:48:57

ronws
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Registered: 2010-05-23
Posts: 11731
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Re: The Whole Process

How perfect does the recording have to be? Well, anything recorded is there forever, with digital being a zero change format. Whatever losses suffered in translating to digital, what is left is left there for all eternity, just as the digital format recorded it. Sour note, missed timing, even the problems with the recording software. When I record a second track, I have one headphone on and I am playing or singing with perfect timing while I am doing it. But in playback, the second track is out of time, both in where it starts and how it phrases. To fix the first problem, I have to use timeshift (in Audacity) to align the start with a known landmark in the waveform of the first track. Then I have to use tempo adjust in small increments until it sounds right. Normally, I have found that + .01 % brings that track back into where it was when I recorded it. So, some things can be fixed after recording. Some software will allow you to change pitch on one note. Others,like Audacity, tune the whole track.

So you do the best with what you have. And that is something to consider. Most people, trained singers or not, have what is called relative pitch. That means that the pitch is so close the human ear can't tell the difference. Now, a digital analysis will show discrepancy and it will align something to perfect pitch, as a digital value. But you don't need perfect pitch and most people don't have it. What also changes is that some people can hear tones in your voice that others can't. So, what sounds in tune to one person does not to another person. And that is something to consider in your mixing. If you have a neat overtone in your voice but it's the wrong weight for this note in this recording, eq that overtone out of there. Of course, if you hit a plainly wrong note, there's no fixing that. Re-record that part. In recording, it's not cheating. You would be suprised how many albums used "comp'd vocals." Several vocal takes are recorded and the best parts of each one are patched together, creating a "whole" vocal track that was never actually sung that way, start to finish. So, when you hear a singer live who sounded breathy here and there or more full in person than on the album remember that the album is processed this way. The live performance is how it actually sounds.

Because this can all lead to a problem. When you are singing along with an album, you are not singing as the original singer did. You are singing as the recordist and mixer recorded and eq'd it. You're never going to match auto-tune and that's okay. In real life, you are going to move around the stage and breathe. You're going to hit a note flat and float it up and the audience won't remember the flat start. But in recording, they will always hear it.

What is also different is the acoustic environment. A sound recording studio is different than Poor David's Pub in Dallas, Texas. Period, paragraph, new book. Hearing the Who play at the Cotton Bowl Stadium (open air and concrete) is different than the steel and glass enclosed new Cowboy Stadium with U2. The same goes with what you record with and where you record it. As well as your FOH engineer (front of house). He or she mixes the soundboard of the live performance and has to fade in and out certain parts, eq the voice mics, and balance against the bombastic blast of the drums, which are usually the loudest instrument around.

And all of these factors are mitigated in mixing a recording. Singing in the living room with all the furniture and draperies sounds different than singing in the bathroom or even in the shower stall. Singing in a gymnasium is acoustically horrendous because the sound is too "wet" with reverberation off of all the hard surfaces.

But, I think, in all, if you listen to a recording that you have made and can imagine listening to it on a radio, it's ready.


"When the daylight is rising up in my eyes ..." - Klaus Meine

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#4 2011-04-03 18:01:49

ronws
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Registered: 2010-05-23
Posts: 11731
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Re: The Whole Process

Back to psychology, such as the example of the song submission where the guitars were mixed heavy in prominence and the vocals were an "afterthought." This totally has to do with band politics and personalities. Good luck with that because each person will want their part in prominence. That is why bands are often mixed by a hired professional who, while not being totally insensitive, is not there to be "friends" with anyone in the band. He or she is there to adjust the recording to play well on radio and cd. To adjust levels to what grabs an audience or buyer. He or she is there to make your album salable. And sometimes that means backing the guitar off .5 dB, even if that hurts the guitarist's feelings. Same with the singer. Maybe you really liked hitting that long-ass note and showed off your breath support and it was a neat stunt. But it totally overpowers the song and throws the mix and timing off. Re-record it shorter and make a song that will sell. Live, you can sing it as long as you want and it will play well in Paducah, probably. Nothing wrong with the note, the pitch was fine, the timbre was fine, the volume was fine. It just didn't fit the recording. So, don't get your feelings hurt. The mixer is trying to make your song a mega-selling hit and he knows, from years of seeing what sells, what is going to work or not work.

So, even when you record and mix your own stuff, you have to step back and play producer. Did that part work, or not? I had to learn, such as when I play a second track of soloing guitar to augment one of my acoustical arrangements. I can play really fast, from metal shredding to jazz riffing. And many times, it doesn't fit, no matter how technically cool it was to do that. I go back and simplify the solo. It has to relate to the melody and intent of the song. So, I edit myself, so to speak. Keep it simple. For a purely instrumental song, sure, go wild, play 1/64 notes to your heart's content. But in a song with a story, remember it's about the song, not your virtuosity.


"When the daylight is rising up in my eyes ..." - Klaus Meine

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#5 2011-12-10 14:19:31

slstone
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From: Maine
Registered: 2011-11-18
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Re: The Whole Process

I have to disagree on one point. Not everyone records with the intent of playing live. There are a few artists I listen to who have sold many CD's and have never played a live show. Good example: Medwyn Goodall. New age artist, writes and records in his home studio, made a distribution deal to market his cd's. As far as I know, has never played live and since he started in the mid 90's has sold more than 2 million albums worldwide. He lives in England.
Just saying some people will only ever be heard in a recorded format.
I do agree on the part of bad clips needing to be re-recorded. On alot of my vocal tracks, I will use separate tracks for various parts if the song.
For instance, I will record only verses on one track, choruses on a 2nd, harmonies each on their own tracks. etc. This makes it easier to re record things that
sound horrible on playback. If you hit a bum note at the beginning, haven't mastered the punch in technique(which in and of itself is tricky as you want all of your input levels exactly the same when punching in or it won't mix well), it is easier recording a shorter part than singing the whole song over and over. Yes we all love
our singing, but, this can be very tiring in a recording format. Since recording is time consuming as it is, this can save alot of time and energy.


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#6 2011-12-11 19:43:10

ronws
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Re: The Whole Process

You've got a good point there, Scott. And I think it is a sign of the times. As a kid, I thought it was cool when I would see someone sitting under a tree or at a party playing guitar and singing. So, that's what I feel I have always known.

Today, yeah, you could record and sell digital downloads on the net and never even go to a karaoke contest. And the recordings will be pristine and perfect. In that case, the only sound player you have to mix to is ipod.

And I'm still going to be that crusty old hippie, at a campfire, singing "Stairway to Heaven," while playing it on guitar.

As I pointed out in another thread of mine, I had expected the digital age would lead to less public performance. And I was wrong. It has lead, however, to less sales of cd's and other hard formats. But, it has also generated interest in public performance. People hear a sample or even a whole digital download and then they want to see the person do that, live.

Not that everyone wants to perform live. Steve Miller is not that big on playing live, mainly because he can't get the acoustics live that he can get in the studio.


"When the daylight is rising up in my eyes ..." - Klaus Meine

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