Another week has gone by. The album is still not done. But, let’s be real here, we all knew it wasn’t going to be by this weekend. I clocked maybe 7-10 hours this week of studio time; all of which was applied to the mix.
Which tracks was I working on? Well, a lot of work on The C is Silent. It’s actually balanced out quite a bit better. I even got to a point where I didn’t have any good ideas as to what I could change. Which is great, this means I won’t think of anything until next week. Then again, some songs do get put down… and stay down.
Free is not one of those songs. The snare really grabbed my attention and I’ve been working on it quite a bit. Kind of amazing how a pre-master can end up having so much more mixing done to get it to be… uh… you know, pre master.
When you do nothing but mix, you start to figure stuff out. The stuff that they don’t really talk about in text books (I know, I ready them) but probably should. I even ran a couple of these ideas by some professional mix engineers and well, they didn’t look at me like I was crazy. However, since this is my blog, I can call them whatever I want.
I’m going to talk about these two mix idioms for a moment: The Loudness Test and Tapestries.
The Loudness Test
This is pretty basic, and many people know to do this in one way or another. The simple fact of compression is, it changes the balance of the elements in the track. This can make things disappear, or more commonly (for me), pop out in really odd ways. After your mix, there are two places where your music is going to get compressed.
- Volume changes
Mastering most people are going to know about. But the volume change? If you read up on your audio engineering history, way way back, a couple of guys charted the frequency response of the human ear (Peterson and Gross I believe). A couple of interesting tidbits came out of this:
- Human ears are really good at hearing the frequencies that human babies make
- As volume increases, the way the human ear perceives the sound flattens out a bit (i.e. it compresses). Notice the lows through the 1-2k range in the picture below.
- Until you get to 4k, that attenuates (relatively) a bit at higher levels (yea, okay, i forgot that when i was writing this, then i looked at the picture). Note also, if you’re listening to music at 140dBSpl holy shit, take less drugs.
Check out this gif I stole from the intarwebs:
Anyways, in preparation for mastering, I knew I wanted to hear the sounds compressed. I thought, “hey, I’ll just crank it and that’ll give me a little bit of an idea.” This was a great idea.
As I increase the volume, certain elements of the mix tend to pop out. Seriously, just fucking try it. Usually these are things that sounded fine to me at normal mix volume. But hey, your mix is going to be played back at all volumes, just to start. But in addition, these volume changes were pointing out where my mix wasn’t as good as I thought it was. Once my ear learned what sounds were popping, I could, in fact, hear the issues more readily at lower volumes too.
Typically it’s very subtle changes at this point (although a couple of times I missed big things… it’s shameful). Typically it’s subtle (1-2db) adjustments on faders, reverb, and eq. Often times I’m play with less than a db change. Just nudging it around so that it sits ever so nicely. Yea, it’s pretty hard to hear a .1 or .2db change (I can’t), but, you can usually tell when something is sitting right.
Now, what does ‘sitting in the mix mean’ — I think if you study a lot of different music, you’ll find people have different ideas. I spend a lot of time with Brace Brace by Bonobo and Get Lucky by Daft Punk. The differences I note are mostly in the highs, the Bonobo mix seems to occupy a little more in the 3k-5k range; Daft Punk’s mixes rock this gentle perfection in the highs. I can’t describe it, and I can only really hear it in my studio, but man… it’s just so… delicate. Not kidding.
But these are my experiences. Maybe yours are different. But, you should definitely check your mixes at different volumes, as well as on different systems. Sure, the problems are worse when things are louder but, fixing those problems makes the lower volumes sound all that much better too.
I’ve been thinking about this particular observation a lot in the last couple of weeks. Basically, I have a process that looks something like this:
- Notice something in a track that I want to change
- Change it (and these changes are subtle, a couple db)
- Spend two or three fucking hours adjusting the mix
- Do this whole thing all over again
Okay, so, if you’ve ever mixed before you probably know that a 2dB adjustment on a snare hardly takes 3 hours. In fact, it takes longer to load the session than it does to make the change. Where does my 2 hours and 58 minutes go? Am I just being too picky?
But the reality is, sonic perception at any point in a track is all relative. If anything in the contents changes, all of the contents change. Well, it’s not quite that egregious. But, this is where I want to call out this tapestry analogy.
A tapestry is an intricate weave of all kinds of threads of different colors. You pull one thread, you may affect 5 that were near it.
Mixes work very much in the same way (and hell, if you look at the tracks and the automation, it makes even more sense). If I change that snare’s highs, I might have to change a bunch of other stuff that played in the same sonic space as that snare. Why?
Maybe other instruments were compensating for bad mix decisions in my snare. Just, for example. That snare could have a intense high frequency component masking problems in other elements.
Odd to me in that, masking always felt more about things I wanted to hear but can’t due to the mix. Instead, problems aren’t making themselves as apparent, because they are hidden by a single bad decision.
Of course, if you fix those, more may come with them. Luckily, these changes should all be subtle. This is all about finding that balance. Remember above, this should be delicate. The goal is to converge on this delicate balance (at least, for me it is). That balance is what will translate out of my studio onto so many different sound systems. That balance yields important things sounding important, structural things taking you along for the acoustic ride that’s going on in my head.
Balance. Delicate. Tapestry. Threads ‘n stuff. Shit like that.
Anyway, you get the point. And I’m sure every mix engineer knows this but me, but I just figured it out. Or maybe it’s more like, I just figured out how to use this And it’s good to know.
I suppose the cool part is, and something that makes me feel successful, is rarely does anything increase at this point. But I keep clipping away at this perfect hair cut.
Cheers, and see you next week. Hopefully Free will be done (again) by then.