Mixing Audio: Concepts, Practices and Tools / Edition 1 available in Paperback
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Mixing AudioConcepts, Practices and Tools
By Roey Izhaki
Focal PressCopyright © 2008 Roey Izhaki
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMusic and mixing
Music – An extremely short introduction
You love music. All of us are mixing because music is one of our greatest passions, if not the greatest. Whether starting as a songwriter, bedroom producer, performer or a studio tea boy, we were all introduced to mixing through our love of music and the desire to take part in its creation.
Modern technology has pushed aside – or in some cases replaced – some art forms. Reading literature, for example, has been replaced by watching TV and staring at computer monitors. But with music, technology has provided new opportunities, increased reach and improved quality. The invention of the wax cylinder, radio transmission, tapes, CDs and software plugins have all made music more readily accessible, widely consumed and easily created. One of mankind's most influential inventions – the Internet – is perhaps music today's greatest catalyst. Nowadays, a mouse is all one needs to sample and purchase music. Music is universal and all encompassing. It is in our living rooms, in our cars, in malls, on our televisions and in hairdressing salons. Now that most cellphones have an integrated MP3 player, music seems almost impossible to escape from.
There is a strong bond between music and mixing (other than the obvious connection that music is what's being mixed), and to understand it we should start by discussing the not-too-distant past. History teaches us that in the western world, sacred music was prevalent up until the 19th century, with most compositions commissioned for religious purposes. Secular music has evolved throughout the years, but changed drastically with the arrival of Beethoven. At the time, Beethoven was daring and innovative, but it was the way that his music made people feel that changed the course of music so dramatically. Ernest Newman once wrote about Beethoven's symphonies:
The music unfolds itself with perfect freedom; but it is so heart-searching because we know all the time it runs along the quickest nerves of our life, our struggles & aspirations & sufferings & exaltations.
We can easily identify with this when we think about modern music – there is no doubt that music can have a huge impact on us. After Beethoven, music became a love affair between two willing individuals, the artist and the listener, fueled by what is today an inseparable part of music – emotion.
Today music rarely fails to produce emotions – all but a few pieces of music have some sort of mental or physical effect on us. Killing in the Name by Rage Against the Machine can trigger a sense of rage or rebellious anger. Many find it hard to remain stationary when hearing Hey Ya! by OutKast, and for some this tune can turn a bad morning into a good one. Music can also trigger sad or happy memories, and so the same good morning can turn into a more retrospective afternoon after hearing Albinoni's Adagio for Strings and Organ in G Major. (Which goes to show that it's not just emotive lyrics that affect us.) In many cases, our response to music is subconscious, but sometimes we deliberately listen to music in order to incite a certain mood – some listen to ABBA as a warm up for a night out, others to Sepultura. Motion-picture directors understand very well how profoundly music can affect us and how it can be used as a device to garner certain emotional responses from the audience. We all know what kind of music to expect when a couple fall in love or when the shark is about to attack. It would be a particular genre of comedy that used YMCA during a funeral scene.
As mixing engineers, one of our prime functions, which is actually our responsibility, is to help deliver the emotional context of a musical piece. From the general mix plan to the smallest reverb nuances, the tools we use – and the way we use them – can all sharpen or sometimes even create power, aggression, softness, melancholy, psychedelia and many other emotions or moods. It would make little sense to distort the drums on a mellow love song, just as it would not be right to soften the beat of a hip-hop production. When approaching a new mix, we should ask ourselves a few questions:
What is this song about?
What emotions are involved?
What message is the artist trying to convey?
How can I support and enhance the song's vibe?
How should the listener respond to this piece of music?
As basic as this idea might seem, it is imperative to comprehend – the mix is dependent on the music, and mixing is not just a set of technical challenges. What's more, the questions above lay the foundation for an ever so important quality of the mixing engineer – a mixing vision.
The role and importance of the mix
A basic definition of mixing is: a process in which multitrack material – whether recorded, sampled or synthesized – is balanced, treated and combined into a multichannel format, most commonly two-channel stereo. But in addition to that – and more importantly – a mix is a sonic presentation of emotions, creative ideas and performance.
Even for the layman, sonic quality does matter. Take the cellphone, for example, people find it annoying when background noise masks the other party. Intelligibility is the most elementary requirement of sonic quality, but it goes far beyond that. Some new cellphone models with integrated speaker are no better than playback systems from the 1950s. There is no wonder that people prefer listening to music via their kitchen's mini-system or the living room hi-fi. What would be the point of more expensive hi-fi systems if the mixes we play on them sound like they are being played through a cellphone speaker?
Sonic quality is also a powerful selling point. It was a major contributor to the rise of the CD and the fall of compact cassettes. Novice classical music listeners often favor new recordings to the older, monophonic ones, regardless of how acclaimed the performance on these early recordings is. Many record companies these days issue digitally remastered versions of classic albums, which allegedly sound better than the originals. The now ubiquitous iPod owes its popularity to the MP3 format – no other lossy compression format has managed to produce audio files so small, that are still of an acceptable sonic quality.
So we know that it is our responsibility as mixing engineers to craft the sonic aspects of the final mix but we also control the quality of the individual instruments that constitute the mix. Let us consider for a moment the differences between studio and live recordings: During a live concert, there are no second chances. You are unable to rectify problems such as bad performance or a buzz from a faulty DI box. Both the recording equipment and the environment are inferior compared to the ones found in most studios – it would be unreasonable to place Madonna in front of a U87 and a pop shield during a live gig. Also, when a live recording is mixed on location, a smaller and cheaper arsenal of mixing equipment is used. All of these elements result in different instruments suffering from masking, poor definition, slovenly dynamics and deficient frequency response, to name just a few of the possible problems. Audio terms aside, these can translate into a barely audible bass guitar, honky lead vocals that come and go, a kick that lacks power, and cymbals that lack spark. The combination of all these makes a live recording less appealing. A studio recording is not immune to these problems, but in most cases it provides much better raw material to work with, and in turn better mixes. With all this in mind, the true art of mixing is far more than just making things sound right ...
Many people are familiar with Kurt Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic as the band members of Nirvana, who back in 1991, changed the face of alternative rock with the release of Nevermind. The name Butch Vig might ring a bell for some, but the general public will be unlikely to have heard of Andy Wallace. The front cover of my Kill Bill DVD makes it extremely difficult to not notice Tarantino's writer and director credits. But it is seldom that an album cover credits the producer, let alone the mixing engineer. Arguably, the production of Dr Dre can be just as important as the artists he produces, and perhaps Nevermind would have never gained such an enormous success had it not been Andy Wallace's consummate mixing. Nevertheless, record labels generally see very little marketing potential in production personnel. Ironically, major record companies do frequently write fat checks in order to have a specific engineer mix an album or a track because they all realize that:
To understand why, one should listen to the four versions of Smells Like Teen Spirit indicated below. The link between the sonic quality of a recording and its ability to excite us means that it is fair to assume that in order of appeal – the rehearsal demo would be the least appealing and the album version the most appealing. Having looked at the differences between a live and a studio recording, it should be clear why most people would find both the rehearsal demo and the live recording less satisfactory. Compare Vig's and Wallace's mixes and it will give you a great insight into what mixing is really about, and what a huge difference a mix can make.
Both Vig and Wallace used the same raw tracks; yet, their mixes are distinctly different. Vig's mix suffers from an unbalanced frequency spectrum that involves some masking and the absence of spark; a few mixing elements, like the snare reverb, are easily discernible. Wallace's mix is polished and balanced; it exhibits high definition and perfect separation between instruments; the ambiance is present, but like many mixing elements it is fairly transparent. Perhaps the most important difference between the two mixes is that Vig's mix sounds more natural (more like a live performance), while Wallace's mix sounds more artificial. It is not equipment, time spent or magic tricks that made these two mixes so dissimilar – it is simply the different sonic visions of Vig and Wallace. Wallace, in nearly an alchemist fashion, managed to paint every aspect of this powerful song into an extremely appealing portrait of sounds. Like many other listeners, Gary Gersh – Geffen Records, A&R – liked it better.
Straight after recording Nevermind, it was Vig that started mixing the album. Tight schedule and some artistic disagreements he had with Cobain left everyone feeling (including Vig) that it would be wise to bring fresh ears to mix the album. From the bottom of prospective engineers list, Cobain chose Wallace, mostly for his Slayer mixing credits. Despite the fact that Nirvana approved the mixes, following Nevermind's extraordinary success, Cobain complained that the overall sound of Nevermind was too slick – perhaps suggesting that Wallace's mixes were too listener-friendly for his artistic, somewhat anarchic taste. Artistic disagreements are something engineers come across often, especially if they ignore the musical concept the artist wants to put forth. Yet some suggested that Cobain's retroactive complaint was only a mis-targeted reaction to the massive success and sudden fame the album brought. Not only did Nevermind leave its mark on music history, it also left a mark on mixing history – its sonic legacy, a part of what is regarded as the Wallace Sound, is still heavily imitated today. As testament to Wallace's skill, Nevermind has aged incredibly well and still sounds fresh despite enormous advances in mixing technology.
Excerpted from Mixing Audio by Roey Izhaki Copyright © 2008 by Roey Izhaki. Excerpted by permission of Focal Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction
Part I: Concepts and Practices
Music and mixing
Music - an extremely short introduction
The role and importance of the mix
The perfect mix
Some axioms and other gems
Louder perceived better
Percussives weight less
Natual vs. artificial
Learning to mix
What makes a great mixing engineer?
Methods of learning
The process of mixing
Mixing and the production chain
The mix as a composite
Where to start?
Finalizing and stabilizing the mix
How long does it take?
Mixing domains and objectives
Part II: Tools
How did we get here?
The room factor
Processors vs. effects
Basic signal flow
The monitor section
Correct gain structure
The digital console
Tracks and mixer strips
The internal architecture
What is phase?
Working with faders
How stereo works?
Types of tracks
Beyond pan pots
The frequency spectrum
Types and controls
Equalizing various instruments
Introduction to dynamic range processors
Dynamic Range Processors in a nutshell
Principle of operation and core controls
Controls in practice
More on compressors
Operation and controls
Other modulation tools
Reverb properties and parameters
Reverbs and stereo
Other reverb types
Reverbs in practice
Ways to generate distortion
Methods of drum triggering
Pitch shifters and harmonizers
Exciters and enhancers
The automation process
Part III: Sample Mixes
The Hustler (drum n' bass)
Temps (hip hop)
Donna Pomini (dance)
Appendix 1: Notes and frequencies
Appendix 2: Delay time chart