Bands are still recording music even though they can’t use professional studios or play together — and this means new challenges for mix engineers.
The Covid crisis has prompted lots of musicians to get stuck into home recording. As a result, many mix engineers have been tasked with bringing order to unruly lockdown projects! Every mix bring its own challenges, but current circumstances often introduce particular issues. In this article, I’m going to look at some ways of dealing with these, with the help of well‑known Cambridge musician Nick Barraclough.
Nick went into lockdown with a brand‑new copy of Pro Tools, some great songs and a bulging contact book. In most cases, he began by recording his own parts: electric or acoustic guitar, vocals, and sometimes double-bass. He then sent the skeleton tracks to collaborators, before stitching together everyone’s contributions. As Nick describes it: “Contributors’ technical abilities ranged from those far more adept than me with studios, to those whom I had to supply with recorder, mics and even headphones! Some said they missed the buzz of live collaboration. Others said they appreciated the opportunity to get their part right, in their own time, without the presence of others pressurising them.”
From the point of view of the mix engineer — me — that meant a starting point rather different from a conventional studio‑recorded session. Some of the musicians had recorded themselves to a very high standard. In other cases it had been a struggle to get anything at all on disk. Quite a few of the drum parts came in as single tracks, and not always even in stereo. Some parts were ‘mix ready’, some were vanishingly low in level, while others pushed the endstops. Some were dry, but many bore the stamp of various different domestic environments. And although the piecemeal recording process had delivered great individual performances, these didn’t always sum into a satisfying whole.
In a sense, then, this article will be less about mixing itself, and more about the preparatory work needed to make a project like this ready for mixing. I’ll be illustrating it with examples from Nick’s songs, which you can hear by going to https://sosm.ag/lockdownmixdownaudio or downloading the ZIP file below.
Most people can spot when a note is out of time and move it a bit to the left, or use their DAW’s comping tools to assemble the best bits from multiple takes. However, inexperienced engineers often don’t make the cleanest job of tidying up after the editing process. If you solo the edited tracks, zooming right in in both horizontal and vertical axes, and listen on headphones, you’ll often notice all sorts of issues that aren’t apparent at first listen. You need to fix these even if they don’t generate audible clicks and pops, because the resulting audio will usually sound unnatural, if only on a subconscious level.
One thing that’s often neglected by home‑studio recordists is fades. Every single region boundary in a project should be protected by a fade, even if this is only a few milliseconds long — and that includes all of the new boundaries that are created by audio edits and comps.
Another common problem is gaps. Anything recorded with a mic, especially in a home studio, will have ‘room tone’ and reverberation in the background. Our ears quickly get accustomed to that when it’s...