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Two-stage Mixing

Making The Most Of Home Recordings By Neil Rogers
Published March 2022

Dan’s home studio setup in Bristol.Dan’s home studio setup in Bristol.

Our tame engineer describes a new approach to mixing that helped him to get the best out of an EP that was recorded remotely during lockdown.

Tackling the issues that arise when mixing material that wasn’t recorded in a traditional studio environment isn’t exactly a new experience, but plenty of musicians who have happily avoided self‑engineering in the past have been forced by the Covid‑19 pandemic to get up to speed with home recording. Often, that also means band members recording their parts in different locations, and while they may be competent or even pretty skilled on the technical side, the locations typically restrict what’s possible, particularly when recording things like drums.

Over the last couple of years, then, professional engineers have increasingly found themselves needing to mix such projects and that, in turn, has led many of us to adapt our usual mixing workflow, in search of the best results. In this article, I’ll explore an approach that I developed during a recent mix project — it proved to be a really effective way for me to create a pleasing mix for an EP project, whose multitracks had been captured in bedrooms on either side of the Atlantic. The result pleasantly surprised both me and the artist!

Homeward Bound

The Travis Waltons is the musical vehicle for Bristol‑based singer‑songwriter Daniel Flay, with whom I’ve worked for several years — regular readers may recall that he has featured in a couple of my previous articles. Normally, Dan would come to my studio and record in person, but the UK’s first lockdown resulted in him being stranded in Spain for several months. While there, with a little remote guidance from me, he started to put together a small ‘home’ recording setup, and he continued to use it when he got back home to Bristol, which is still several hundred miles from me!

A few months later, he was keen to see if I thought his home‑recorded tracks were good enough that we could create a release‑quality mix, so he asked if I would like to have a go at mixing one. I said yes, and what followed saw me develop a slightly time‑consuming but, ultimately, simple process that I found was great for getting into the right mindset for mixing, whilst also delivering some practical advantages.

The drums had been recorded in a bedroom in Los Angeles.The drums had been recorded in a bedroom in Los Angeles.It wasn’t just Dan working remotely, though. Across the Pond, in LA, his drummer Tim had laid down parts at home too. As many SOS readers will know all too well, capturing live acoustic drums in a home studio can be really challenging; the acoustic characteristics of the space they’re captured in tend to mean you need more microphones and channels than normal if you’re to capture a nice, balanced kit sound (though more mics also means you have to work harder to avoid introducing phase‑cancellation problems).

Exploring the files I’d been sent, I found I had four drum tracks to play with: overhead rear and front, and close kick and snare channels. Happily, Tim had done a good job of the recording technically, and I was encouraged by the standard of the playing — which, let’s face it, is the real deal‑clincher! Nonetheless, the drums inevitably had that characteristic boxy, dry, bedroom sound, with little going on acoustically in the room to support the natural sound of the drums. It was a similar story with the rest of the production too: when listened to in isolation all the guitars, vocals and synths had been played well and recorded soundly, with no clipping, excess noise or wildly inappropriate acoustics. Despite all these plus points, though, when I attempted to create a rough balance using only the faders, I couldn’t seem to get a sense of the song or, for that matter, whether I was going to be able to make it all work to my satisfaction and Dan’s.

Getting Into Shape

A common piece of advice you hear about mixing is to try and avoid listening too much to the different elements in isolation while you tweak them, but to perform your processing while listening to the whole track; ie. that the context is important. It’s generally pretty sound advice too, particularly when you’re starting out, and I still tend to adhere to it when I’m approaching the later stages of a mix. But when you have more experience of both recording and mixing under your belt, you’ll find that you’ve developed an instinct for roughly what the individual elements need to sound like to get you close to where you need to be. For one thing, when you’re recording, then unless you’re hearing a live band playing all together you don’t really have the luxury of that ‘whole song’ context!

For this project, since I knew from the moment that I’d tried to set that initial balance that I would need to be quite heavy‑handed with many elements, I decided to adopt a two‑stage process, the first stage of which was to approach the song more as if I were doing a recording session than mixing it. This involved an initial pass, processing each part to get the ‘mix’ into good enough shape that I could pull up the faders and it would all make sense. The key thing I need to explain here is that at the end of the first stage I committed to those sounds: I rendered all the tracks through the processing I’d applied, and then deleted the plug‑ins that had got me there, leaving me with my ‘re‑recorded’ audio as a clean starting point for stage two: actually mixing the song.

That I settled on this tactic perhaps makes a bit more sense if I explain that I used an outboard processing chain on the first song; I found this helped bring the sound of the disparate elements together. Rendering this chain as audio that I could work with in the box made good sense. But the outboard wasn’t essential for all the songs on the EP, and once I developed a better sense of what this chain was actually doing (more on this later), I still found it useful to adhere to the same workflow for the last two tracks on the EP, even though the processing I applied to them was done entirely in the box.

The track count was pretty light and getting the mix past this first stage took me around two hours; I probably wouldn’t have the patience to do anything much larger than, say, 20 tracks this way. To me, the most beneficial aspect of working like this was that, having hived off this ‘re‑recording’ as a separate stage in the process, when I came to actually do the mixing it was much easier to think about the song and the finer points of the mix, instead of being distracted by the need to knock the various individual elements into shape. Furthermore, committing to sounds at this point reduced the risk of disappearing down various rabbit‑holes, as I questioned and revised my processing decisions.

This process had some additional benefits too. For instance, I could use as many of my CPU‑intensive plug‑ins as I wanted in the first stage, without worrying about conserving power. While I have a pretty powerful custom‑built PC at my studio, it’s old enough now that it’s just starting to creak when I get towards the end of a mix! But, with this approach, by the time I’d finished stage one and had a working mix up and running, I had a nice clean DAW session with the sounds 95 percent of the way there and very few plug‑ins active.

At the end of the first stage... I rendered all the tracks through the processing I’d applied, and then deleted the plug‑ins that had got me there.

The Heavy Lifting

So, stage one was about being more in a tracking mindset than a mixing one, but what was actually involved? Starting with the drums, I had limited options in terms of the available channels. The majority of the sound was coming from the pair of overhead mics that were recorded with something resembling the Recorderman technique, which uses a front and rear mic placement (check out my SOS February 2021 article if you want to learn more about this and other minimal drum‑miking techniques: There were no spot mics for the toms, and I was initially concerned that I wouldn’t be able to get the tom sections cutting through what was quite a dense, guitar‑heavy track.

Oeksound's Soothe 2 was used to tame harshness in the cymbals.Oeksound's Soothe 2 was used to tame harshness in the cymbals.

These mics scrubbed up pretty well, though. I found that some carefully judged EQ helped to remove some of the boxy frequencies that were compromising the sound — although I had to tread carefully here, so as to not lose the weight of the toms into the bargain. Dialling in 1‑2 dB of gain reduction with an 1176 compressor also helped to bring out both a bit more of the energy in the performance generally and, specifically, a little more of the air around the snare drum. Finally, a generous helping of Oeksound’s Soothe plug‑in helped to tame a 3‑4 kHz harshness in the cymbals.

Acustica's Purple3 P1 EQ.Acustica's Purple3 P1 EQ.

The close kick and snare mics sounded fine but they had very little weight, which I felt was needed if they were to give the drum sound any impact. This was swiftly remedied by a heavy dose of the cut‑and‑boost Pultec technique, courtesy of Acustica’s excellent (though rather CPU‑taxing!) Purple3 P1 EQ. With a boost‑and‑cut at 60Hz for the kick drum and 100Hz for the snare, this really did work wonders.

FabFilter’s Saturn saturation plug‑in was employed to round out the transients with a sort of tape‑style compression.FabFilter’s Saturn saturation plug‑in was employed to round out the transients with a sort of tape‑style compression.

On different tracks, Roger Mayer’s 456 HD tape emulation units and FabFilter’s Saturn plug‑in were employed to create a unified drum sound.On different tracks, Roger Mayer’s 456 HD tape emulation units and FabFilter’s Saturn plug‑in were employed to create a unified drum sound.As well as the processing I’ve already mentioned, I ran the individual drum tracks out through my Roger Mayer 456 500‑series tape processing units — I did this for all the drum channels, and it really helped to knit the whole kit together. It’s important to point out that using the outboard was not a deal‑breaker by any means — it’s just nice to use this stuff if you have it — and if you prefer not to go down the hardware route, it’s worth me noting that I managed to achieve very similar results in a later mix by using FabFilter’s Saturn saturation plug‑in to round out the transients with a sort of tape‑style compression, and an EQ to filter out the more extreme low and high frequencies.

As a final touch for this first stage of the drum mix, I experimented with the old production trick of playing the drums out into a larger room — over a PA into my studio’s live room — and recording the sound of the drums in the room. Typically, this technique is used to introduce room sound to close mics, without the cymbals, but I actually liked the sound of the overheads when captured in this way. Used subtly, it added a nice depth to the drums whilst also adding a nice lo‑fi character that I could bring up and down at certain parts of the song.

Reamping the drum overhead tracks by playing them over the PA in the live room at Half Ton studio, and capturing the result with mics.Reamping the drum overhead tracks by playing them over the PA in the live room at Half Ton studio, and capturing the result with mics.

Embracing Problems

It wasn’t obvious at first, but of all the elements the guitars ended up requiring the most work to get feeling right. This involved a similar process to the one I’d used for the drums — knocking sounds into shape with assertive EQ moves and creating a more solid tonal structure with an analogue input chain that leaned heavily on tape‑style processing.

Software guitar amp emulations have come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, and when listened to in isolation can be very convincing indeed. As I described earlier, I often find it harder to get sounds feeling ‘integrated’ in a mix. I suspect this is partly because it’s easy to be somewhat blinded by the sheer choice of sounds that are available, meaning you might not necessarily pick sounds to fulfil a specific role in a production. Another reason is the less‑definable difference that recording sounds through amps and a decent signal chain can still make — in my experience, these small differences often only become apparent when getting towards the business end of a dense mix. In this case, I couldn’t seem to bring the high‑mid frequencies forward without introducing any unpleasant harshness. I spent rather too much time trying to crack this nut, and even asked Dan if he had any of the DI files he could send me, so that I might try reamping them. It turned out that this wasn’t possible, though, and the solution proved to be more arrangement‑oriented than any sort of ‘mix magic’.

The two main distorted guitar parts sounded good as they were but I felt that they needed some extra presence, and I ended up finding this a bit lower down the frequency spectrum than I’d normally anticipate. I’m probably guilty of paying insufficient attention to the 1‑2kHz area when mixing guitars sometimes, but boosting around 1.5kHz had the effect of pushing them forward just enough without adding anything unpleasant.

Along with the guitars, the drums also sounded good with a darker, more rolled‑off sound at the top end. There’s a lesson in here somewhere — I began to appreciate how this was leaving space in the higher frequencies for the keys and vocals to sit in, and what had initially felt like it would be a limitation ended up being a good approach for the song.

Quiet Confidence

I would say 80 percent of this mix was spent working on the drums and guitars, as I’ve described above. The rest of the track consisted of an electronic bass line, synth parts and, of course, the all‑important lead vocal. I’ve worked with Dan for a while and in that time have observed that the tone of his voice changes quite dramatically depending on how loud he sings: the quieter he is, the more of the nice, chesty tone of his voice comes through, and with less sibilance too.

Because he couldn’t make too much noise at home, Dan was naturally steered into singing a bit quieter than he would in the studio — and it sounded great! I ended up pushing the lower range of his voice during the first mixing stage, using a Pultec‑style EQ to boost around 100Hz. Dan’s voice also seems to soak up compression like a sponge, and a hefty dose of a slower tube‑style compression, combined with a faster 1176‑style tool, helped his vocal sit in front of the guitars and synths. I applied this processing during the first ‘re‑recording’ stage of the mix and as I bounced the vocal down through this processing I also rode the level of the vocal going into the compressors. The result was a vocal part that felt consistent throughout the song, and which only really needed dressing with a few effects towards the later stages of the mix.

Learning To Adapt

The process I’ve described in this article might sound a bit long‑winded but it worked very well with this artist and the material I’d been given to mix. Having deliberately inserted the pre‑mix stage into my workflow, where I did most of the heavy lifting in terms of processing, when it came to actually mixing, the song pretty much revealed itself to me, and I was able to get creative — finding the right effects, judging the fine balances, automating levels and parameters... and all of the good stuff that hopefully brings a song to life.

I find that writing articles like this can make me a bit over‑analytical about some of my processes; it’s easy to impose a false sense of structure in hindsight, as you try to make sense of everything. But in this case it was definitely a deliberate process, and I was genuinely surprised at how nicely the project developed. It’s sown some seeds for me, in terms of how I can adapt my setup so I’m able to turn home‑recorded material pretty quickly into something that feels like it has been recorded in a well‑equipped studio — though note that I’ll only do that if I feel it’s the right approach for the song.

It’s not just a lesson for recording during a pandemic though; most of the artists I work with have very limited budgets and when it comes to recording at home versus tracking in a professional studio, the winds of change have long been blowing hard. I say this as a studio owner but recording at home can have lots of advantages: I’d much rather work with a competent recording of a great performance than a great recording of a competent performance any day of the week!

Listen & Learn!

I have a small but carefully selected collection of preamps and outboard at my studio, and working on other people’s DIY recordings has helped me to appreciate just how much of a cumulative effect recording through transistors, tubes and even tape can make by the time you reach the mixing stage of a project. If you’re interested in understanding a bit more about what’s happening with this stuff on a technical level, then I recommend reading Hugh Robjohns’ deep dive into the subject a few years back, which is free to read on the SOS website: Of course, many plug‑ins are so good now that you don’t always need the real hardware to get the same benefits. Yet, choosing the right tools for a project from a vast set of options, spanning almost every piece of hardware used to create music in the last 80 years, can present its own challenges, and simply slapping on a good plug‑in doesn’t always achieve quite the same thing.

The best advice I can offer here is to use your ears and take the time to get to know these software tools, just as engineers were once pretty much forced to do with hardware: try to get a real feel for what each plug‑in is or isn’t adding, and try to develop more of a targeted approach to using your ‘colour’ plug‑ins — based on what you’ve learned, rather than allowing yourself to be led by a nice‑looking GUI or what a certain engineer reportedly uses. Sometimes, you might find that combining such plug‑ins with more bread‑and‑butter tools, such as the high‑ and low‑pass filters of a basic EQ, can lead to more satisfying results. For this particular mix, I found that filtering out the extreme high and low frequencies when I was using a tape emulation plug‑in did a very convincing job of recreating the effect of using my outboard hardware equipment — so much so that I was happy to stay 100 percent in the box for some of this project’s other songs.