No book has contributed as much to the music production field as Bobby Owsinski’s mixing engineer’s handbook. If you are lost in the process of mixing, it’s great to take a step back and reflect upon the different processes that are implied by the latter art. By analyzing the importance of balance, panorama, frequency range, dimension, dynamics and the more subjective interest, Bobby Owsinksi, a highly regarded American sound engineer, summarizes well the mixing process. A multidimensional perspective, and a division of the different steps that are enunciated are necessary assets to start comprehending the mixing process, and this book is a must when it comes to this art that can also be considered a science.  Without further ado, here’s an in-depth overview of what “The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook offers!

Introduction

Most great mixers think in three dimensions. They think tall, deep, and wide. The “tall” dimension is the result of knowing what sounds right as a result of having a reference point. This reference point can come from being an assistant engineer and listening to what other first engineers do or simply comparing your mix to some CDs, records, or files that you’re familiar with. Essentially, you’re trying to make sure that all the frequencies are properly represented. Usually, that means that all the sparkly, tinkly highs and fat, powerful lows are there. Sometimes it means cutting some mids.

Clarity is what you aim for, to achieve the effects or “deep” dimension by introducing new ambiance elements into the mix. You usually do this with reverbs and delays (and offshoots like flanging and chorusing), but room mics, overheads, and even leakage play an equally big part. The panning or “wide” dimension is placing a sound element in a sound field in a way that makes a more interesting soundscape, such that you can hear each element more clearly.  

Every piece of modern music has six main elements to a great mix:

Element 1: Balance – The mixing part

When two instruments that have essentially the same frequency band play at the same volume at the same time, the result is a fight for attention. Think of it this way: You don’t usually hear a lead vocal and a guitar solo at the same time, do you? Most well-conceived arrangements are limited to the number of elements that occur at the same time.

An element can be a single instrument like a lead guitar or a vocal, or it can be a group of instruments like the bass and drums, a doubled guitar line, a group of backing vocals, and so on. Generally, a group of instruments playing the same rhythm is considered an element. For example, a doubled lead guitar or doubled vocal is a single element, as is a lead vocal with two additional harmonies. Two lead guitars playing different parts are two elements.

Elements:

  • The rhythm section: The foundation is usually the bass and drums, but it can also include a rhythm guitar or keys if they’re playing the same rhythmic figure as the rhythm section. Occasionally, as in the case of power trios, the foundation element consists only of drums because the bass plays a different rhythm figure and become its own element.
  • Pad: A pad is a long sustaining note or chord. In the days before synthesizers, a Hammond organ provided the best pad and was joined later by the Fender Rhodes. Synthesizers now provide the majority of pads, but real strings or a guitar power chord can also suffice.
  • Rhythm: Rhythm is any instruments that play counter to the foundation element. This can be a double time shaker or tambourine, a rhythm guitar strumming on the backbeat, or congas playing a Latin feel. The rhythm element adds motion and excitement to the track.
  • Lead: A lead vocal, lead instrument, or solo.
  • Fills: Fills generally occur in the spaces between lead lines, or they can be a signature line. You can think of a fill element as an answer to the lead.

LIMIT THE NUMBER OF ELEMENTS Usually no more than four elements should play at the same time. Sometimes three elements can work well. Rarely will five elements simultaneously work.

Every element in its own frequency range

The arrangement, and therefore the mix, fits together better if all instruments sit in their own frequency range. For instance, if a synthesizer and rhythm guitar play the same thing in the same octave, they usually clash. The solution is to change the sound of one of the instruments so that it fills a different frequency range, have one play in a different octave, or have both instruments play at different times but not together.

Ways to Prevent Instrument Fighting:

  • Change the arrangement and re-record the track.
  • Mute the offending instruments so that they never play at the same time.
  • Lower the level of the offending instrument.
  • Tailor the EQ so that the offending instrument takes up a different frequency space.
  • Pan the offending instrument to a different location

I usually start with the bass at about 5 and the kick at about 5. The combination of the two, if its right, should hit about 3 or so. By the time the whole song gets put together and Ive used the computer to adjust levels, Ive trimmed everything back somewhat. The bass could be hitting 7 if I solo it after its all done.” – Benny Faccone

Wherever you start from, mixers generally agree that the vocal, or whatever is the most prominent or significant melody instrument, has to make its entrance into the mix as soon as possible. The type of program you’re mixing frequently affects where you build the mix from. For instance, when you’re doing dance music, where the kick is everything, the kick is the obvious choice for a starting point.

Element 2: Panorama – Placing the sounds in the sound field

Panning lets us select where in that space we place the sound. In fact, panning does more than just that. Panning can create excitement by adding movement to the track and adding clarity to an instrument by moving it out of the way of other sounds that might be clashing with it. Correct panning for a track can also make it sound bigger, wider, and deeper.

Stereo, which was invented in 1931 by Alan Blumlien at EMI Records , features a phenomenon known as the phantom center. The phantom center means that the output of the two speakers combines to provide an imaginary speaker in between. This imaginary image can sometimes shift as the balance of the music shifts from side to side, which can be disconcerting to the listener. As a result, fi lm sound has always relied on a third speaker channel in the center to keep the sound anchored. This third channel never caught on in music circles until recently.

Three panoramic areas in the mix seem to get the most action: THE CENTER, THE EXTREME HARD LEFT AND RIGHT The solution is to throw away one of the stereo tracks (throw away the chorused one, but keep the dry one) and make your own custom stereo patch either with a pitch shifter or delay. Then instead of panning hard left and right, find a place somewhat inside those extremes. One possibility is to pan the left source to about 10:00 while panning the right to about 4:00. Another more localized possibility is to put the left to 9:00 and the right all the way to 10:30. This gives the feeling of localization without getting too wide.

Every element in its own frequency range

PANNING IN DANCE MUSIC for David Sussman: For a dance club record, its best not [to] go extremely wide with important elements, which would be kick, snares, hi-hats, and cymbals. Because of the venues where the song is being played, if you pan a pretty important element on the left side, half the dance floors not hearing it. So it might be best to keep important elements either up the middle or maybe at 10:30 and 1:30. Lead vocals are almost always up the middle.

PANNING IN MONO for Don Smith: “I check my panning in mono with one speaker, believe it or not. When you pan around in mono, all of a sudden youll find that its coming through now and youve found the space for it. If I want to find a place for the hi-hat, for instance, sometimes Ill go to mono and pan it around and youll find that its really present all of a sudden, and thats the spot. When you start to pan around on all (New York Dance Remixer) 23 your drum mics in mono, youll hear all the phase come together. When you go to stereo, it makes things a lot better.

PANNING FOR CLARITY for Joe Chiccarelli: The only thing I do is, once I have my sounds and everything is sitting pretty well, Ill move the pans around a tiny bit. If I have something panned at 3 oclock and its sitting pretty well, Ill inch it a tiny sliver from where I had it just because I found it can make things clearer that way. When you start moving panning around, its almost like EQing something because of the way that it conflicts with other instruments. I find that if I nudge it, it might get out of the way of something or even glue it together.

Element 3: Frequency Range – Equalizing

We can break down the audio band into six distinct ranges, each one having enormous impact on the total sound:

  1. Sub-Bass: This is the very low bass between 16 and 60Hz that encompasses sounds that are often felt more than heard, such as thunder in the distance. These frequencies give the music a sense of power even if they occur infrequently. Too much emphasis on this range makes the music sound muddy. 
  2. Bass: The bass between 60 and 250Hz contains the fundamental notes of the rhythm section, so EQing this range can change the musical balance, making it fat or thin. Too much boost in this range can make the music sound boomy.
  3. Low Mids: The midrange between 250 and 2000Hz contains the low order harmonics of most musical instruments and can introduce a telephone-like quality to the music if boosted too much. Boosting the 500 to 1000Hz octave makes the instruments sound horn-like, whereas boosting the 1 to 2kHz octave makes them sound tinny. Excess output in this range can cause listening fatigue.
  4. High Mids: The upper midrange between 2 and 4kHz can mask the important speech recognition sounds if boosted, introducing a lisping quality into a voice and making sounds formed with the lips such as m, b, and v indistinguishable. Too much boost in this range, especially at 3kHz, can also cause listening fatigue. Dipping the 3kHz range on instrument backgrounds and slightly peaking 3kHz on vocals can make the vocals audible without having to decrease the instrumental level in mixes where the voice would otherwise seem buried.
  5. Presence: The presence range between 4 and 6kHz is responsible for the clarity and definition of voices and instruments. Boosting this range can make the music seem closer to the listener. Reducing the 5kHz content of a mix makes the sound more distant and transparent.
  6. Brilliance: The 6 to 16kHz range controls the brilliance and clarity of sounds. Too much emphasis in this range, however, can produce sibilance on the vocals.

How to make Kick and Bass work together

EQ the kick drum between 60 to 120Hz as this will allow it to be heard on smaller speakers. For more attack and beater click, add between 1 to 4kHz. You may also want to dip some of the boxiness between 300– 600Hz. EQing in the 30–60Hz range will produce a kick that you can feel, but it may also sound thin on smaller speakers and probably won’t translate well to a variety of speaker systems. Most 22″ kick drums like to center somewhere around 80Hz.

Bring up the bass with the kick. The kick and bass should occupy slightly different frequency spaces. The kick will usually be in the 60–80Hz range, whereas the bass will emphasize higher frequencies anywhere from 80 to 250 (although sometimes the two are reversed depending upon the song). Shelve out any unnecessary bass frequencies (below 30Hz on kick and 50Hz on the bass, although it varies according to style and taste) so they’re not boomy or muddy. There should be a driving, foundational quality to the combination of these two together.

I put the bass up first, almost like the foundation part. Then the kick in combination with the bass to get the bottom. Because sometimes you can have a really thin kick by itself, but when you put the bass with it, it seems to have enough bottom because the bass has more bottom end. I build the drums on top of that. For bass, I use a combination of a low frequency, usually about 50Hz, with a limiter so itll stay tight but still give it the big bottom. Add a little 7k if you want a bit of the string sound, and between 1.5 and 3k to give it some snap. For the kick, I like to have bottom on that, too. Ill add a little at 100 and take some off at 400, depending on the sound. Sometimes I even take all the 400 out, which makes it very wide. Then add some point at 3 or 5k. On the snare, I give it some 10k on the top end for some snap. Ive been putting 125Hz on the bottom of the snare to fill it out a little more.” – Benny Faccone

If you’re having trouble with the mix because it’s sounding cloudy and muddy on the bottom end, turn the kick drum and bass off to determine what else might be in the way in the low end (Check on frequency audio effect Ableton). You might not realize that there are some frequencies in the mix that aren’t really musically necessary. With piano or guitar, you’re mainly looking for the mids and top end to cut through, while the low end is just getting in the way, so it’s best to clear some of that out with a hi-pass filter. When soloed, it might sound too thin, but with the rest of the mix, the bass will sound so much better, and you’re not really missing that low end from the other instruments. Now the mix sounds louder, clearer, and fuller. Be careful not to cut too much from the other instruments, as you might lose the warmth of the mix.

For Dance music, be aware of kick-drum-to-bass melody dissonance. The bass line over the huge sound systems in today’s clubs is very important and needs to work very well with the kick drum. But if your kick has a frequency of A at around 50 or 60Hz and the bass line is tuned to A#, it’s going to clash. Tune your kick samples to the bass lines (or vice versa) where needed.

Element 4: Dimension – Adding effects

Dimension can be captured while recording but usually has to be created or enhanced when mixing by adding effects such as reverb, delay, or any of the modulated delays such as chorusing or flanging. Dimension might be something as simple as re-creating an acoustic environment, but it also could be the process of adding width or depth to a track or trying to spruce up a boring sound.

As a general rule of thumb, try to picture the performer in an acoustic Space and then Realistically re-create that space around him.

Smaller reverbs or short delays make things sound bigger. Reverbs with decays under a second (usually much shorter than that) and delays under 100 milliseconds (again, usually a lot shorter than that) tend to create an acoustic space around a sound, especially if the reverb or delay is stereo.

EQing reverb and delay

From the early days of reverb chambers and plates, it’s always been common to EQ the reverb returns, although the reasons for doing this have changed over the years. Back when plates and chambers were all that was available, usually some high-frequency EQ at 10 or 115kHz was added because the plates and chambers tended to sound dark and the reverb tended to get lost in the mix without the extra high-frequency energy. Nowadays, EQ is added to reverb to help create some sonic layering. Here are some points to consider when EQing a reverb return. The type of reverb (digital, real plate, and so on) doesn’t matter as much as how it is applied, and that depends on your ears and the song.

Equalization Tips for Reverbs and Delays:

  • To make an effect stick out, brighten it up.
  • To make an effect blend in, darken it up. (Filter out the highs.)
  • If the part is busy (like with drums), roll off the low end of the effect to make it fit.
  • If the part is open, add the low end to the effect to fill in the space.
  • If the source part is mono and panned hard to one side, make one side of the stereo effect brighter and the other darker. (Eddie Van Halen’s guitar on the first two Van Halen albums comes to mind)

Sonic Layering: Sonic layering means that each instrument or element sits in its own ambient environment, and each environment is usually artificially created by effects. The idea here is that these sonic atmospheres don’t clash with one another, just like with frequency ranges.

Layering tips for reverbs and delays (so the sonic environment doesn’t clash)

  • Layer reverbs by frequency with the longest being the brightest and the shortest being the darkest.
  • Pan the reverbs any way other than hard left or right.
  • Return the reverb in mono and pan accordingly. Reverbs don’t need to be returned only in stereo to sound big.
  • Get the bigness from reverbs and depth from delays, or vice versa.
  • Use a bit of the longest reverb on all major elements of the track to tie all the environments together.

Long delays, reverb predelays, or reverb decay push a sound farther away if the level of the effect Is Loud Enough. As stated before, delays and predelays longer than 100ms (although 250 is where it really kicks in) are distinctly heard and begin to push the sound away from the listener. The trick between something sounding big or just distant is the level of the effect. When the decay or delay is short and the level loud, the track just sounds big. When the decay or delay is long and loud, the track just sounds far away.

If delays are timed to the tempo of the track, they add depth without being noticeable. Most engineers set the delay time to the tempo of the track. This makes the delay pulse with the music and adds a reverb type of environment to the sound. It also makes the delay seem to disappear as a discrete repeat but still adds a smoothing quality to the element.

Delays are measured tempo-wise using musical notes in relation to the tempo of the track. In other words, if the song has a tempo of 120 beats per minute (bpm), then the length of time it takes a quarter note to play would be 1/2 second (60 seconds/120bpm = .5 seconds). Therefore, a quarter-note delay should be .5 seconds or 500 milliseconds (.5 × 1000ms per second), which is the way almost all delay devices are calibrated. But 500ms might set the source track too far back in the mix. Divide that in half for an eighth-note delay (500ms/2 = 250ms). Divide in half again for a sixteenth-note delay (250ms/2 = 125ms). Divide again for a thirty-second-note delay (125/2 = 62.5ms, or rounded up to 63). That still might not be short enough for you, so divide again for a sixty-fourthnote delay (62.5/2 = 31.25, or rounded to 31ms).

Calculating the Delay Time:

  • Start a stopwatch when the song is playing and count 25 beats.
  • Stop the stopwatch on the twenty-fifth beat and multiply the time by 41.81. The result is the delay time in milliseconds for a quarter-note delay or 60,000 ÷ song tempo (in beats per minute)
  • The timing of the delays and reverbs is the missing element for most beginning mixers, but it makes a huge difference in how polished the final mix sounds. If delays are not timed to the tempo of the track, they stick out. Sometimes you want to hear a delay distinctly, and the best way to do that is to make sure that the delay is not exactly timed to the track. Start by putting the delay in time with the track. Then slowly alter the timing until you achieve the desired effect. Reverbs work better when they’re timed to the tempo of the track. Reverbs are timed to the track by triggering them off of a snare hit and adjusting the decay parameter so that the decay dies by the next snare hit. The idea is to make the decay “breathe” with the track. The best way to achieve this is to make everything as big as possible at the shortest set.
  •  The predelay of a reverb (the space between where the note of the source track dies off and the reverb begins) can change the sound of the reverb considerably and is usually timed to the tempo of the track

Tricks and tips for effects

FOR FATTER LEAD OR BACKGROUND VOCALS: Use some chorusing (short modulated delays) panned hard left and right to fatten up the sound. Also, use different EQ and reverb settings on the delays. (Make sure you check the mix in mono to be sure that the delays aren’t canceling.) Then ride the chorusing effect, adding and subtracting to it according to what sounds best. Try mixing various reverbs. Set up three for a typical mix: short, medium, and long. (The specifics of the actual lengths vary with the songs.) On a non-ballad vocal, favor the short and medium over the long. The short (try a .3 to .6sec room or plate) one thickens the sound as you describe without a slap effect. Blending in the medium (1.2 to 1.6sec plate or hall) creates a smooth transition that is quite dense but still decays fairly fast. Add a little of the longer one (2 to 3+ second hall) for whatever degree of additional decay you want. The three combined sound like one thick, meaty reverb that sticks to the vocal and does not muddy it up with excess length and diffusion. It sounds good even when used sparingly in the modern relatively dry style. In a way, this approach is the opposite of adding predelay to a reverb.

FOR ELECTRONIC KEYBOARDS: You can achieve a nice delay effect that simulates a small room by using a stereo delay and setting the delay times to 211 and 222ms.

FOR FATTER GUITARS: Delay or offset the guitar about 12ms (or whatever the tempo dictates) and hard pan both the guitar and delay. This sounds like two people playing perfectly in sync, but it sounds bigger and still keeps a nice hole in the middle for the vocals.

Element 5: Dynamics – Compression and gating

Compressors work on the principle of gain ratio, which is measured on the basis of input level to output level. This means that for every 4dB that goes into the compressor, 1dB will come out, for a ratio of 4 to 1 or 4:1. If a gain ratio of 8:1 is set, then for every 8dB that goes into the unit, only 1 will come out of the output. Although this could apply to the entire signal regardless of level, a compressor is usually not set up that way. A Threshold control determines at what signal level the compressor will begin to operate. Therefore, threshold and ratio are interrelated, and one affects the way the other works. When a compressor operates, it decreases the gain of the signal, so there is another control called Make-Up Gain or Output that allows the signal to be boosted back up to its original level or beyond.

Most compressors also have an additional input and output called a sidechain, which is an input and output back into a compressor for connecting other signal processors to it. The connected processor only gets the signal when the compressor exceeds threshold and begins to compress. Sidechains are often connected to EQs to make a de-esser, which softens the loud SSS and PPP sounds from a vocalist when he exceeds the compressor’s threshold.

You can combat sibilance with a de-esser, which is a unit that compresses just the S frequencies, which are between 4 and 6kHz.

There are two reasons to add compression to a track or mix:

  1. To control the dynamics
  2. To add an effect. Here are a few instances where this would be useful:

On a bass guitar: Most basses inherently have certain notes that are louder than others and some that are softer than others. Compression evens out these differences.

On a lead vocal: Most singers can’t sing every word or line at the same level, so some words get buried as a result. Compression allows you to hear every word.

On a kick or snare drum: Sometimes a drummer doesn’t hit every beat with the same intensity. Compression can make all hits sound the same. When controlling dynamics, a small amount of compression (2 to 4dB or so at a 2:1 to 4:1 ratio) is usually used to limit the peaks of the signal.

A gate keeps a signal turned off until it reaches a predetermined threshold level. Then the gate opens and lets the sound through. You can set the gate to turn the sound completely off when it drops below the threshold, or you can just lower the level a predetermined amount.

Examples for use: On drums, you can use gates to turn off the leakage from the tom mics because they tend to muddy up the other drum tracks. Or you can use a gate to tighten up the sound of a floppy kick drum by decreasing the after-ring.

Some expander/gates have a setting called duck mode. This is actually another use for the side-chain, but this time the gate stays open until it sees a signal on the key/trigger input and lowers the level of the gate. An example of this occurs in an airport when you hear music over the sound system that is decreased automatically (or ducked) when an announcement comes on.

New York Compression

One of the little tricks that seem to set New York mixers apart from everyone else is something I call the New York Compression Trick. It seems like every mixer who’s ever mixed in New York City comes away with this maneuver. Even if you don’t mix in NYC, after you try it, you just might find yourself using this trick all the time because it is indeed a useful method to make a rhythm section rock.
Here’s the trick:

  1. Buss the drums, and maybe even the bass, to a stereo compressor.
  2. Hit the compressor fairly hard—at least 10dB or more if it sounds good.
  3. Return the output of the compressor to a pair of fader inputs on the console or two additional channels in your DAW. 
  4. Add a pretty good amount of high end (6 to 10dB at 10kHz or so) and low end (6 to 10dB at 100Hz or so) to the compressed signal.
  5. Then bring up the fader levels of the compressor until it’s tucked just under the present rhythm section mix to where you can just hear it.

In most modern music, you use compressors to make the sound punchy and in your face. The trick to getting the punch out of a compressor is to let the attacks through and play with the release to elongate the sound. Fast attack times reduce the punchiness of a signal, whereas slow release times make the compressor pump out of time with the music. Because the timing of the attack and release is so important, here are a few steps to help set it up. Assuming that you have some kind of constant meter in the song, you can use the snare drum to set up the attack and release parameters. This method works the same for other instruments.

  1. Start with the slowest attack and fastest release settings on the compressor.
  2. Turn the attack faster until the instrument (snare) begins to dull. Stop at that point. 
  3. Adjust the release time so that after the snare hit, the volume goes back to 90–100 percent normal by the next snare beat. 
  4. Add the rest of the mix back in and listen. Make slight adjustments to the attack and release times as needed. The idea is to make the compressor breathe in time with the song.

FOR VOCALS: A good starting point for a lead vocal is a 4:1 ratio, medium attack and release, and the threshold set for about 4 to 6dB of gain reduction.

Element 6: Interest – The key to great mixes

  1. Figure out the direction of the song.
  2. Develop the groove and build it like a house.
  3. Find the most important element and emphasize it.

A common misconception of a groove is that it must have perfect timing. A groove is created by tension against even time. This means that it doesn’t have to be perfect, just even, and that not all the performances have to have the same amount of evenness. In fact, the groove feels stiff if it’s too perfect. This is why perfect quantization of parts and lining every hit up in a workstation frequently takes the life out of a song. It’s too perfect because there’s no tension. It’s lost its groove.

The trick for the mixer is to find what instrument defines the groove and then build the rest of the mix around it. Even though the most important element is often the lead vocal, it doesn’t have to be. The most important element could be a riff as in The Stone’s Satisfaction” and “Start Me Up” or the Rick James loop from Hammer’s Can’t Touch This.” The most important element is always the part that is so compelling that it forces you to listen to the song. Whatever part is most important, the mixer must identify it and emphasize it in the mix so that the mix can be elevated to extraordinary.

This summary contains excerpts of the original book, “The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook”. You can buy it here

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