Virtual drums and guitar processors are certainly capable of delivering great sounds — but they don't always behave as you'd expect when it comes to mixdown.
When a track is hard to mix, the reason can usually be found further up the production chain. Perhaps the song isn't very good, or the arrangement hasn't been well thought-out. Sometimes the playing and singing aren't up to scratch, or poor recording has let the side down. As long as these fundamentals are sound, though, you'd expect to be able to push up the faders and get a rough balance that works. Mixing then becomes the process of refining this initial balance into something more polished.
On the face of it, then, Andy Zuk's anthemic indie-rock track 'Thought Experiment' shouldn't have been hard to mix. Not only is it a fine song, but Andy had really considered the arrangement, augmenting the basic guitar, bass and drum tracks with some very effective electronic elements. He has an excellent voice that suits his material perfectly, and as he'd used high-quality drum samples and guitar amp modelling throughout, there were no obvious quality issues with the recording. Yet Andy struggled to mix the song — and so did I.
Andy Zuk is a musician, songwriter and producer, originally from Barnsley but living in Berkshire. Having developed his musical skills while playing lead guitar for Indie band Ghosts (1998-2005), he moved on to explore a more electronic palette as half of instrumental hip-hop duo Ambulance Chasers. Now focused on releasing his own material, Andy's first full-length album The Horizon Slips combines alternative rock with electronic influences.
When Andy sent over the multitracks, a few minor issues were apparent — the vocal was a bit thin and roomy, and the guitars perhaps a little too overdriven — but there was nothing to set the alarm bells ringing. Yet it proved mysteriously impossible to get a workable rough balance. No matter where I positioned the faders, every instrument was either inaudible or too loud, and the track as a whole just refused to gel. After an hour or two of head-scratching, I could relate to Andy's frustration, but I was nowhere near even matching his mix, let alone improving on it!
Andy's own mix definitely had good qualities, in particular its loud and proud presentation of the lead vocal with very appropriate reverb and delay effects. However, it all felt a bit over-processed (as is often the case when a struggle has taken place in the mix room) and the overall tonality felt a bit off-kilter, with too much low bass.
It took a lot of thought, and plenty of trial and error, to overcome this frustration and untangle the reasons why 'Thought Experiment' refused to be mixed. I won't describe all the dead ends and false starts that I followed along the way, but one point is crucial. When you're going through a challenging project over and over again, trying to understand what's going on, familiarity is the enemy. Repeated listening can make you accustomed to almost any mix balance, and it becomes increasingly hard to figure out if the adjustments you're making are actually improving the bigger picture, or whether you're just getting used to hearing it a certain way. It's all too easy to get sucked into focusing on details because you've become inured to more basic problems with the mix.
Retaining the right focus in these circumstances boils down to self-discipline and good mixing habits. Force yourself to take regular breaks. Switch monitoring systems for a different perspective, and listen in mono, ideally on a single speaker. And, most importantly, find some appropriate references and use them properly. It's particularly vital to make sure your references are accurately level-matched to the track you're mixing, because this is the foundation of all the comparisons you'll be making. You can often fool yourself into thinking that a reference track has more low end or a brighter guitar sound than yours, when in reality the whole track is just a couple of dB louder.
Disciplined mixing also means being ruthlessly honest with yourself. You may have established ways of processing drums or vocals that have worked on every other mix you've done. You may simply have poured hours and hours into pursuing a potential solution to a problem. But, painful though it is, you still need to be prepared to admit that it's not working, tear it all down and start again.
In the final analysis, the issues that made 'Thought Experiment' hard to mix mostly stemmed from the use of sampled...