Drawing our mini-series to a close, we take you on a detailed tour of the mix and mastering stages of the Damnation’s Hammer album Unseen Planets, Deadly Spheres.
Although mixing is a creative endeavour, the technical aspects are important, especially in the metal genre. Attending to the technical tasks before you mix avoids interruptions to the creative process. For this project, drum edits (discussed last month) were done before overdubs were recorded, and considerable time was spent establishing the right guitar and bass tones when tracking, so re-amping was not required. The only additional performance edits involved the occasional isolated guitar riff, which needed to be super-tight, and a number of vocal timing tweaks.
It’s often overlooked by inexperienced producers, but accurate vocal timing can significantly enhance the rhythmic impact of a mix. During our half-day of vocal tracking I’d captured great attitude, but the start points of certain lines or syllables occasionally needed a nudge in the right direction. I also removed headphone bleed and other unwanted sounds between lines, while carefully retaining unobtrusive breath inhalations which enhance the emotional content of a performance. I then went through the guitar and bass tracks, editing to remove hiss/noise from the starts and ends, and during breaks in the performance. Partly due to the cymbal bleed in the tom mics, I also edited the toms, leaving little other than the tom hits themselves with appropriate fades (edits are far more accurate than noise gates).
Having consolidated my edits and crossfades, I labelled the tracks and made unwanted tracks inactive and hidden. I then added timeline markers for the song sections, and created some group busses.
The tonal density required in this style means incorrect polarity settings or comb filtering must be corrected early on: if a track requires polarity inversion or phase-alignment when the mix is under way you’ll also need to rework any EQ settings, which severely interrupts the creative flow. So I set about finding the combination of polarity settings that provided the fullest low-frequency reinforcement across the drums as a whole (a subject explored, along with phase, in SOS April 2008 (www.soundonsound.com/techniques/mix-rescue-phase-relationships) and April 2010 (www.soundonsound.com/techniques/phase-demystified).
I used Sound Radix’s Time Align plug-in to phase-align the kick and snare spot mics with the kick port-hole and snare top, which were used as the reference ‘anchor’ (and later used to implement sample reinforcements, which were also phase-aligned) as well as the bass DI and amp-modelled track. Due to the care taken when recording, no phase alignment was required for the rhythm guitars.
The last preparatory technical task was to gate the kick and snare. As a rule, the unfocused off-axis spill captured by kick spot mics seldom benefits the overall drum sound, whereas for some projects, the spill captured by snare mics provides a subtle but valuable contribution. In this instance, hat/cymbal spill on the snare tracks (due to the hard-hitting metalwork performance discussed last month) would be accentuated unhelpfully by the high-frequency boosts I’d knew I’d need to apply to help the snare to punch through the wall of guitars. So I hard-gated the snare top and bottom mics, using the UAD SSL 4000 E channel strip’s (reduced-chatter) G2 expander/gate.
To ascertain the central mix challenges and decide my broad processing tactics, I sometimes start a mix using only pan pots and level balancing — no processing. Other times, I’ll go from left to right across the mixer, gating, compressing and EQ’ing the kick, then the...
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