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Mix Rescue: Daniel Thompson

Our Experts Rework Your Tracks
By Matt Houghton

Several of the recordings suffered from recorded noise problems, the most intractable of which was a  buzz on the lap-steel guitar that varied in level. To tackle this as best I  could I  automated both a  low-pass filter's frequency, and the wet/dry mix of a  ReaFIR plug-in set up as a  noise-remover.Several of the recordings suffered from recorded noise problems, the most intractable of which was a buzz on the lap-steel guitar that varied in level. To tackle this as best I could I automated both a low-pass filter's frequency, and the wet/dry mix of a ReaFIR plug-in set up as a noise-remover.

We tackle some thorny noise problems, and add a couple of extra parts to breathe new life into this month's track.

Daniel Thompson had been writing and recording songs for years without getting deeply engaged in mixing, for which he'd relied on the efforts of bandmates or professional engineers. The final product had never quite delivered what he sought, though, so he decided it was time to learn to do it himself and emailed SOS to ask for some pointers. Eventually, we hit on the idea of a Mix Rescue: I'd find out what he wanted a specific track to sound like, and would do my best to create a mix that delivered what he wanted.

The track in question is a largely acoustic and somewhat wistful number called 'Every Dream'. Daniel had played and recorded this "with decent mics in one guy's basement", along with his Connecticut-based band MARMO, who've been together just over a year. It comprised lead and backing vocals, acoustic guitar, lap-steel guitar and harmonium. He felt the original mix sounded "like it's just got a lot of busy stuff going on, which makes it feel like you're not sure what to listen to". And when I asked what he wanted the mix to deliver, Daniel responded that "a good record should have a sense of space. And this particular one might give a sense of listening to us in a small club or bar or honky-tonk. Guitar player in front singing his heart out, harmonium to one side, lap–steel on the other. Big backing vocal 'oohs' on the chorus." Importantly, he also said that, "you can do anything you want with these tracks including muting, adding tracks, changing things, whatever you think will make it sound good. But I'd like to get an understanding of your approach and reasoning, because fundamentally I want to get good at this over time."

With that in mind, I auditioned the original mix. A few things struck me immediately. There was no dedicated bass or percussion; the acoustic guitar combined with the harmonium to provide the main rhythmic interest, and the same guitar provided the nearest thing the song had to a bass line. The mid-range was rather congested and, presumably because of this, the vocals and guitar levels were high in the mix. There was also precious little stereo width generally, and it all added up to the whole sound stage just feeling constrained. I liked the song, though, and the performances themselves seemed decent enough.

Nixing Nasty Noises

Having brought the multitracks into Reaper (I chose this DAW since Daniel uses it), I created a couple of group busses to manage the pairs of guitar and backing vocal tracks, and set out to establish a rough 'faders–up' mix, listening all the while for any noises that might need removing. Unfortunately, I could hear several problems, including hiss and rustling on the vocal and guitar recordings and, most notably, a loud hum/buzz that came in part way through the lap-steel part, and decided to attend to this before moving on.

Mix Rescue: Daniel Thompson

I started with edits, chopping away obvious knocks and bangs and paying close attention to the sound of the fades. I also made extensive use of Reaper's ReaFIR plug-in as a de–noising tool — to use this for noise-removal, you select its Subtract mode and would normally play it some exposed noise to 'learn' and remove. But the files must have been rendered edits, as I had no exposed noise available! Persevering, I drew some noise profiles in manually and, for the vocals and acoustic guitar, I achieved a worthwhile improvement. A few audible edits when fading the exposed count-in were disguised with some more controlled noise sources, courtesy of iZotope's free Vinyl plug-in and a noise generator, both mixed in very low.

The lap–steel's broadband buzz seemed an intractable problem. Not only was it really audible, but it varied in level, becoming particularly bad towards the song's end. I spent about an hour frustratedly tweaking various noise-removal tools before I hit upon my get-out-of-jail trick: I dialled in fairly aggressive static settings for ReaFIR (set to Subtract) and a low-pass filter, and...

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Published July 2019