The Silent Majority: sometimes the best way to improve a mix is to take a break from it.
This month, I’m going to take you through a recent re-mixing job of mine, for a track called ‘2-bit’ by three-piece indie rock band The Silent Majority. The twist in this particular tale is that it was me who did the original mix. Why did my own mix need ‘rescuing’? Well, I’d recorded, and was very close to finishing mixing, three songs for the band early last year, when the latest addition to my family decided to arrive a little earlier than scheduled, so my mixing work had to take a back seat for a while! Thankfully, the band were already happy with the ‘nearly’ finished mixes I’d done. But while they weren’t bad, I was conscious that there was room for improvement, so when the band recently asked if I could master ‘2-bit’ for commercial release, I was looking forward to applying a little more polish. When I listened to the track with fresh ears, though, I didn’t think it sounded ready for mastering, so I resolved to revisit the mix, and see if I could better my rather hastily concluded original.
Three-piece indie rock & roll band The Silent Majority formed in 2013, after a few drunken rants about the state of the current guitar band scene, and feature guitarist/songwriter Oliver Yates, drummer Ben Piper and bass player Pat Parker. After playing many gigs on their local scene to an enthusiastic response, they’ve released three singles, ‘This Is Their Town’, ‘Don’t You Know What You Want?’ and ‘What I Tried’, which are available in the usual places, including iTunes and Spotify.
It’s not particularly unusual for us audio engineers to pick holes in our work — we’ve spent so long listening to every little detail that any ‘imperfections’ that most folk won’t hear are easy to spot. It’s all too easy to develop an unhealthy fixation on achieving perfection — I’m sure some of you have spent weeks or even months remixing the same track in the search for improvements, and no doubt often with frustrating results. Thankfully, over a number of years of regular recording and mixing, I’ve become reasonably good at finishing and mentally signing off a project. It’s not that I ever stop caring or trying to do the best for the music I’m working on, but I’m far better at balancing all that with the time that’s available. (Working commercially helps, of course, but if you find this is a problem for you, perhaps try setting yourself a deadline, after which you’ll move on to your next project — you might be surprised how much more decisive you become!)
With this song, though, I knew that I hadn’t been able to give it that very final section of mix time that can be the difference between an OK mix and a good one; sometimes, those final tweaks can make things worse (in which case it’s easy enough to backtrack) but often it’s that final five or ten percent of work on the mix that makes a track sound finished.
What’s more, I was conscious that this was one of the first projects I’d undertaken in Half-Ton Studios following our major revamp. Inevitably, it takes time to become accustomed to working in a new control room; since doing that first mix I’ve become much more familiar with it, and have also made some acoustic improvements. When revisiting the track, then, I could hear a few things in the original mix that I’d want to attend to.
So, what was it that I didn’t like? Don’t get me wrong: it was more than respectable, and I liked the subtly distorted ‘all in a room’ vibe we’d captured and tried to preserve in the mix; the majority of the instrumentation was recorded live, with just the vocal and an extra guitar part recorded as overdubs. But it wasn’t without issues, the biggest of which was that it felt a little ‘thin’ overall — I suspect this was related to my lack of familiarity with the bass response in the new control room, coupled with my instincts to make things sound like they did in my old (imperfect) control room. I also thought the room sound made the drums sound slightly ‘washed out’, and this prevented them from driving the track along as they should.
The band, with mastering in mind, had also raised the thorny subject of loudness. Obviously, they wanted their track to sound as loud as everything else on iTunes and similar services. This may make many of us roll our eyes — we long for the day when loudness isn’t an issue we have to consider. But while some services offer loudness normalisation, different services implement it in different ways, and it’s not yet universally adopted. And to simply dismiss an artist’s direct concerns about the issue would just be plain wrong. In my experience, most don’t typically care for our detailed explanations of loudness normalisation; they just want to feel like their music is on a level playing field. I’ve started to change the way I work to accommodate a bit more level, which I’ll explain later, but I think it’s important to be clear that what bands are often describing is not just ‘loudness’ as we understand the term, but various other issues that go into making a good, modern mix. I’ll discuss this as I progress, but it’s important to know that this was an issue I had in mind as I set out to craft my new mix.
The biggest thing I had to decide straight away was whether I would continue where I’d left off or start the mix afresh. In terms of instrumentation, it was a fairly simple track, with the usual complement of drum channels, bass amp and DI, three guitar tracks and a couple of vocals. So, as it had been over a year since I’d worked on the track and I’d moved to a different DAW in that time, I decided I’d start with a clean slate, so I got the session loaded up — it was all nicely organised of course — and reacquainted myself with the unprocessed tracks.
A few things struck me immediately. It was quite ‘raw’ in places, and there was a lot of amp noise on the guitar tracks that, whilst fitting with the whole live vibe, needed more attention. The recording of the kick drum perhaps wasn’t my finest engineering moment either, as it lacked a little weight and mid-range balance.
We’ve also done a reasonable amount of work on the acoustics in the live room in the past year, the biggest change being that we installed an absorbent drum ‘cloud’, and its benefits were fairly obvious whilst listening to this pre-cloud recording; as the overheads had too much obtrusive, mid-range room tone on them that needed some fairly brutal EQ cuts to tame. So much so that I found it difficult to build a drum sound around them without relying very much on the contribution of the close mics. By contrast, the stereo room mic sounded really nice, and I was surprised to find I hadn’t used this more prominently in the original mix.
After spending just a few minutes auditioning the raw sources, I knew what I needed to work on first and generally how I wanted to build the mix.
I wanted to focus on the drums a bit first as they were a major factor that I felt was lacking in the original mix. I was keen to see if I could build the drum sound around the room mics rather that the overheads, so set about doing some balancing with the room channels quite prominent. Being very careful to check the relative phase/polarity between the drum channels, I found a nice combination using the stereo room mics to provide about 60-70 percent of the image of the drum kit. To achieve this I high-pass-filtered the room channels above 13kHz and then allowed a little of the overhead mics to ‘fill in’ the missing high frequencies.
This was all sounding very promising, and it was now a case of fitting the close mics into the image I’d created. I wanted, predominantly, for them to add some weight, so I devoted some time to considering possible strategies.
That kick recording was fairly straightforward to bring into line: an EQ boost around 68Hz, coupled with a cut to the low mids (around 300Hz) filled things out without things getting too flabby. This was better, but still a little lacking in weight, so I used the Softube FET compressor for a little 1176-style parallel compression, using the plug-in’s side-chain filter to prevent the lowest frequencies triggering the gain reduction. Finally, I added just an extra dollop of low-end goodness using Waves R-Bass set at 55Hz. With any bass harmonic exciter plug-ins like this, I will always revisit the settings much later in the mix, and might even decide to remove them, but for now it was sounding good.
The snare drum used by drummer Ben Piper was of the thin ‘piccolo’ variety. It was nice and bright, so it cut through well, but it seemed to have very little substance below around 200Hz. A little visual help from the FabFilter EQ’s spectrum display confirmed that nearly all the natural weight of the drum was around 214Hz. Boosting much below this with an EQ didn’t really do much — there wasn’t really anything to boost!
I usually like to try a few different techniques before resorting to triggered samples but on this occasion that seemed like the most likely route to getting the drum to sound, well... less like a piccolo! It’s important to try and match the tuning if you’re layering in samples. I found a sample of a much deeper ‘black beauty’ snare drum sounded nice when down-tuned a touch and blended in at about 20 percent.
As a few final low-end enhancers to play with later in the mix, I added a 100Hz snare ‘tone’ — a very, very short sine wave that sounds like an unmusical ‘doink’ in isolation but seems to create the impression of weight without changing the snare sound. I also used the Softube Transient Shaper to add a little low punch, whilst simultaneously tightening the sustain of the high frequencies to reduce some unhelpful cymbal bleed.
Before heading into mixing proper, I spent a little time exploring the bass guitar’s relationship with the drums, trying to work out what would lend me the weight I wanted, and where. As is very often the case with guitar-band music, the kick drum and bass guitar both had a lot of energy in the 90-120 Hz region. This is one of those particularly crucial areas of the spectrum, as the bass’s contribution here will be more audible on a lot of playback systems than anything it gives you lower down. It’s a very hard part of a mix to get right, and to make our lives harder it’s also an area that will ruthlessly expose the acoustical limitations of your listening environment — that’s where I suspect most of the issues with my original mix stemmed from.
It’s good to have some sort of strategy, then, and as a bare minimum I think it’s important to decide whether it’s your kick drum or your bass guitar that will occupy the lowest reaches of your mix. Another tip that can help is that you’ll find you can often cut out a little energy around 110Hz on a kick drum without robbing your drums of much impact. This can create just that bit more for your bass guitar to sit in — lots of little differences like this can add up!
A kick drum might be pitched, but typically it doesn’t change pitch, so it often makes sense to me to let the kick drum have a bit more low end, especially on a down-tempo track. On a more lively track like ‘2-bit’, however, I really want the bass to hold the very low end. In this case, I was concerned about a section of the song where the bass player went considerably higher up the neck — I didn’t want it to feel like the bottom end was falling out of the mix. On the other hand, perhaps it would result in a nice natural dynamic, and result in a nice moment when the low frequencies came back in? The latter theory sounded infinitely more interesting to me, so I ploughed ahead with my original plan. I’ll touch on how I managed the low frequencies a bit more later on.
By this time, I was well up and running with the mix, which was certainly feeling like a weightier affair, with the drums and bass driving the song along nicely. Looking briefly at the guitars, my influence was reasonably limited, as they’d been recorded very much in a ‘good to go’ style. Fairly heavy reverb had been applied via the guitar amp, and by the sounds of things, a little high-pass filtering on the way in.
I did find a few ways of subtly enhancing the two guitar tracks though, via some band-pass (ie. HPF and LPF ‘bracket’) filtering. I’ve been using a technique recently of exaggerating the little resonant bump you get on the corner of a high- or low-pass filter to add a touch of weight and brightness. Doing this at different points for the two guitar parts seemed to work nicely, and after a tiny bit of parallel compression on the guitar group bus, it was just a case of playing with the levels and panning.
When I look back on what I’ve done in a mix, I’m often very surprised at quite how much processing I’ve applied to a lead vocal. This amount of processing is seemingly a big part of the modern sound I referred to earlier. In my case, the first plug-in is nearly always a little corrective EQ, mainly involving a little high-pass filtering up to 100Hz and perhaps notching out some harshness somewhere in the 2-4kHz region. Then, not unusually, I’ll get stuck into a compressor or two and begin a process of nudging around the controls to make the vocal feel bright, upfront and consistent, but without having excess harshness or sibilance.
For this track, though, I went off-piste, with a slightly unusual technique I was keen to try. I was recently discussing this technique with a notable producer who uses it and he demonstrated it to me. The idea is to deliberately let the lead vocal have some low, almost sub-bass qualities. Whilst you can’t really pinpoint the sound when listening to the mix, you do notice when it’s removed: it’s a trick that helps to add some sense of weight and authority without really changing the vocal timbre. Being relatively new to it, I’m not at all sure this would work for every track or every voice, but I really liked what it did here in a somewhat hard-to-describe way. It certainly seemed to result in no collateral damage, so I left it in.
I alluded earlier to the need to get a mix to ‘stand up’ against other modern commercial tracks and, whilst it’s not the only relevant issue, it’s hard to avoid the subject of loudness. I don’t personally like having to mix and master things to be loud, and I’m not the best person to describe how to really push your mix in search of truly hot levels. However, whether it’s going to a mastering engineer or me applying any loudness processing, I want to ensure while mixing that I have some control over the sonic impact of what can, after all, be quite dramatic processing. A skilled mastering engineer can do wonderful things of course, but just slapping a limiter on your final mix, with upwards of 7-8 dB of gain reduction, is going to change the relationships you’ve carefully fostered in your mix — it might sound loud, but it will sound awful!
So, with the mix broadly in shape and balanced, I started to think about how to ensure the negative impact of limiting would be minimal — how to ‘future proof’ it, if you like. The biggest single thing I do is to ‘spread’ the impact of the limiting, by building it into different sources and buses, and try and make it part and parcel of the mix.
The first thing to hit a stereo-bus or mastering limiter will be the transients, and the loudest and most numerous of those are usually from the drums. With that in mind, I like to put a limiter as the last insert on my main snare drum (and sometimes the kick), and at the loudest sections of the song it will probably be knocking 2-3 dB off. I’ll then have a further limiter as the last insert of my drum bus, applying a further 1-2 dB of gain reduction to the whole kit. I’ll very often also have a limiter shaving a few decibels of gain reduction off the bass and vocals.
The logic behind this is that no single limiter does all the work, or affects more than one signal at once — the lead vocal isn’t rapidly ducked along with the snare, for instance. As you are also ‘mixing into’ the processing, as with conventional stereo-bus compression, you’re also able to react to any changes that the limiting introduces, in a way that you can’t when applying limiting to the stereo bus or printed mix.
Once you’ve pinned down the dynamics of the track to your satisfaction, you can then start to add some movement back into the track via automation, effects and other processing. For this mix, I tried to spend as much time as I felt was constructive nudging the overall level of the drums and guitars up and down via automation at various points in the track to add a little movement and excitement.
As I enter the final stages of a mix, I like to compare it with a few reference tracks and in this case, I was keen to compare it with my original version. It had a slightly different flavour, mainly due to my choice of vocal effects, but I’d certainly filled out the low end, and was reassured enough to head off into the final detailed stages of the mix process. I’ve made more of a point of checking on headphones recently, and it was whilst using these that I made sure none of the excess guitar-amp noise was sticking out too much, carefully automating the level down when the guitar wasn’t being played.
As I’ve described already, I had a few different plug-ins either adding low frequencies or creating the illusion of more low end. Such tools can be great, but it’s imperative that you review what they’re doing in the later stages of your mix. I felt pretty good about what they were adding in this case; I was using them very subtly just to slightly enhance the low end in a way that would help bring the mix into line with some of my up-to-date references. Sometimes, it’s hard to make the call as to how much is too much, particularly given how skewed the bass response of many project studio rooms can be. My tip is that if you’re worried about pushing low frequencies too much, your car stereo can be a good guide, as most modern cars seem to have ridiculously hyped bass — if the mix is still holding together nicely in that environment, that’s probably a good sign.
Generally, I think I’ve really improved upon my original mix. At the very least, it now has that finished feeling that the original was lacking, and the band were really pleased — though I’ve created a rod for my own back, as I’ve now been asked to go back and re-mix the other two songs!
I had a particular set of circumstances that created a year-long gap between these mixes, of course, but it turned into a really great exercise for me. It was almost like hearing my work through someone else’s ears. I’ve been trying to think about why I neglected the excellent sounding room mics in my original mix. Did something happen during the recording that influenced my thinking? The reality was probably that I was going though a phase of trying to mix a certain way and headed off down a different avenue. Consequently, I’d overlooked a real asset in the recordings. However you end up doing it, being able to constructively and realistically self-assess your work is important if you want to improve your mixing.
Please don’t take away from the fact I started with all that detailed drum work that you should set out to tackle a mix in some sort of isolated ‘modular’ fashion. It’s an easy impression for beginners to form, particularly as much of the information we might absorb online these days tends to focus on one particular aspect of mixing. But rather like trying to mix at moderate listening levels, it’s really important to spend as much time as possible listening to the mix as a whole.
It sounds very obvious, and of course you’ll hit the Solo button occasionally, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what something sounds like on its own; no-one will ever hear it like that. As you get more experience under your belt, you’ll begin to get a feel for how things should sound when you hit the Solo button — this is why you’ll often see an experienced mixer doing so a great deal — but you still need to make sure everything works in the context of the mix.
My strategy for this particular mix was to do some initial work on the drums and bass to try and fix the perceived problem with the lack of low end. I would then look to work on the overall balance, and try and mix as much as possible with the mix as a whole, before deciding what else would need closer attention to build towards a finished mix.
I go through phases with this technique, but at a certain point in the mix I spend 20 minutes or so listening and balancing the track in mono. I’m not necessarily doing this because I’m worried about mono compatibility — although it’s better to spot problems early on, so this is a useful bonus — but rather because I like the way it highlights what’s ‘sitting’ on top of what in the frequency spectrum, something that can be obscured by the greater separation in stereo. It makes me work that little bit harder to get a good balance, and when I return to stereo monitoring I always seem to have improved some aspect of the mix.
It’s also really good to double-check all your drum phase relationships when listening in mono, as this often exaggerates any undesirable differences.
I’ve discussed loudness in detail in the main article, but there are a few other issues I’ve touched on that I think can make a guitar band in particular not sound out of place in 2016. A heavily processed, up-front lead vocal is important, but the frequency balance of the mix as a whole is crucial. More commercially oriented guitar pop (of the kind my teenage daughter loves, and which I am therefore obliged to listen to in the car) is very lean at the bottom end, and generally very bright and upfront in terms of the upper mid-range — as my daughter’s generation listens to music almost exclusively on tablets and phones, this makes a lot of sense! For more expansive mixes by the likes of Tchad Blake (Black Keys, Arctic Monkeys) and Tom Elmhirst (Arcade Fire, Beck, Adele), which I often reference, the bottom end is often a lot more generous, and they’re seemingly able to traverse eras in terms of sounding both retro and modern at the same time. That’s quite a feat!
We’ve placed a number of audio examples in a ZIP file on the SOS web site, including both the original and new mixes, so you can download them and hear what Neil is writing about.
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