MIXING AGAINST THE GRAIN
Calrec Artimus Console
Now here’s one of those scenarios that can sneak up on you and serves as an excellent “lesson learned.”
Background: I get a fair amount of work remixing live band performances that have been videotaped for videos. It is fun and challenging work, but one of the things I often miss out on is the ability to hear the band playing live and hear how the ensemble worked together live. In my capacity as a specialist, the files are delivered to me and I often have to decode them after the fact. As a result, there can be a hidden factor that is necessary to make the rhythm section work, but isn’t particularly evident when I look at a collection of twenty to fifty tracks with no volume relationship to one another. In this situation, you are in control of a lot of parameters and it behooves you to take a minute somewhere along the way and ask, “Is there is anything in my approach such as my biases that would prevent me from making the mix from come together?”
In pop and rock, I usually build from the drum kit up. The kit forms the heartbeat of the rhythm section, so I get it working, including any parallel compression and ambiences, then I’ll put that on a submix. Before moving on, I’ll add the bass and make those two talk. Next, I’ll cleanup and add the remaining rhythm instruments and create an ensemble. At that point I’ll address the vocals, doing any cleanup and basic leveling necessary and adding the ambiences again. If there are several voices, they go to a submix as well.
Then we get down to mixing. First, the basic relationship between drums, rhythm section, and vocals have to be established via the submixes. Then the absolute dynamic volume peak of the song needs to be found and zeroed, and the rest of the song’s dynamic is structured with that as the ultimate top line. From there it boils down to tweaking out the interactions between the various instruments, drums, and voices and making sure the audio portion of the program matches any camera shots or at least doesn’t fight them. And here is where, without having heard the band live, you can begin to feel that sinking feeling like something is missing from your interpretation.
I can give you a recent example. I was mixing a seven-piece band with four harmonizing vocalists. The drum kit came in on twelve mono tracks, the electric guitar on three (left, right, and echo), keys on two, the bass was a single direct (the amp wasn’t mic’d), and four nice vocal tracks from Neumann KMS-105s. One of the songs was a power ballad. I built the basic mix as described above and had it nice and tight. I then moved into getting the final mix and adapting it to the visuals in the video file once I got it synched in my DAW. At that point it became clear that something was up with my interpretation of the intro. The drums felt, mmmm… “notchy,” just the beats, as if they lacked some kind of sparkle. The guys in the rhythm section were boogieing out, but the sound of the band seemed, ahem, anemic at that particular point.
The drums were powerful enough. The bass was consistent, the guitar and keyboard were strong. But there was something missing. I brought in a friend and played it. Without being prompted, he noticed the problem as well. Everything felt too controlled. I opened up the gates on the kick, snare, and toms a bit to get some more splash, but we both still felt something was missing. And then occurred to me: I am not big on crashy, splashy, slurpy cymbals. I feel they fill up every corner and rob the mix of clarity. To that end I had backed down the drum overheads and the ride cymbal to make room for the rather excellent four-part harmonies of the vocalistas in the main part of the song. Because of the huge intro, the video director had started the shoot with a wide shot of the whole stage, really wide, with Varilights swinging, fill lights flashing to the beat, and a big splashy backdrop illuminated behind the band. From there he went to the drummer, who was whanging away at… wait for it... the crash cymbals. In that atmosphere, my tightness and control weren’t a positive. The drummer had built his intro groove around whacking the crash cymbals and I had backed them off. In the process I had lost the drive of the intro. So I opened up the overheads and ride cymbal mic by about three or four db. Voile’. Instant match to the visuals. Excellent contextualization. A better and smoother groove and more balance and sparkle in the band. It took working against my personal tastes to make the band’s own sound work, and that little balance change made all the difference in the world to the overall effect of the song. The producer dropped in, watched it through once, and approved the mix.
So, when scratching your head about “something missing” in a mix, keep in mind that it could be something as simple as a clash of tastes. Keep an eye on your own proclivities and see whether you’ve caused the problem yourself... and keep an open mind.