Mixing can be simple, you just have to think one step ahead...
I'm not much of a golfer, but I do play occasionally and I'm always keen to improve. So when I met a semi‑pro golfer friend recently, I took the chance to request a few tips for improving my putting. After pondering for a moment, my friend replied with the following words of wisdom: "Well, Rob, if you want to improve your putting, you might think about trying to land your approach shot a bit closer to the hole!” I realised then that playing golf can be just like mixing a record. You see, many people ask me for tips on how they might improve their mixing, and the fact is that, for many projects, mixing really does start at the recording stage. The easiest way to guarantee a good final mix is to think one step ahead and record the sounds better in the first place!
George Massenburg is quoted as saying "there's a reason mixing seems so simple: it is simple.” This might sound a little optimistic at first, but with care and attention at the recording stage it really can be true. Personally, I'm a big believer in the 'Good' rule (good musician + good instrument + good mic + good placement + good signal chain = good recording) and when this is implemented, mixing can be as simple as just bringing up the faders.
The most fundamental recording techniques can yield the best results: it doesn't always have to be complicated! For example, ribbon microphones measure sound in a very simple and direct way, with no clever acoustic baffles or phantom power required. In my experience, a good ribbon mic can give the most accurate and pleasant result, when used with a good-quality preamp. Unfortunately, due to their simplicity, ribbon mics have a fixed figure-of-eight pattern, so more attention to placement is required, given that more room ambience will be picked up.
Similarly, if you record a snare drum from both two inches and two feet you will get completely different recordings, and the one from two feet will sound much more realistic. This is because the sound of a drum comes from the vibration characteristics of all the different elements of the instrument, so it is not until the air pressure disturbances have all travelled a little distance that the sound has become acoustically mixed. You don't listen to a snare drum from two inches away, so it doesn't really make sense to record one from two inches away. Of course, particularly with drums, compromises have to be made, but if you are willing to find a good room and record drums from a distance, or with fewer mics, better results can be achieved. This applies similarly to all instruments; jamming a mic right up against the cone of a bass guitar cab rarely yields the best results.
I find it's also wise to make choices at the recording stage. Recording a guitar cab with three different mics can give too many choices at mixdown, and, in many cases, mixing the three signals will cause some form of phase cancellation or comb filtering. The fundamentals of phase cancellation are described in numerous SOS articles, but can be much more complex in reality, as there are far too many variables to account for. I generally find that the only way to avoid comb filtering is to use as few mics as possible and to listen carefully for a clear and accurate sound while recording.
All mix processes add something to enhance the audio, but often take something unnoticed away, perhaps adding small delays or noise, or reducing the clarity of the top end. So as more and more processes and plug‑ins are added, the audio can easily become muddy and cluttered. I'd recommend you think about the types of mix processing you typically use and then attempt to engineer them out at the recording stage. Use different guitar setups to achieve spectral separations, rather than using harsh EQ curves. If you want a nice top‑end snap to the kick drum, make sure you can hear it in the room when the beater hits the drum head; remember, you can only boost frequencies that are present in the first place. And don't be afraid of natural reverb and ambience: it often sounds great!
So, like the golfer who wishes to improve his game, the key can be to think one step ahead and prepare for the next challenge well in advance.
Rob Toulson is a Producer/Engineer at Half‑ton Studios in Cambridge (www.halftonstudios.co.uk) and also lectures in Audio and Music Technology at Anglia Ruskin University.