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Quick Tip: The Importance of Alternative Mixes

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When mixing down a track, it's important to keep all elements in balance with each other, and for many beginning and even seasoned audio engineers, it can be quite a challenge to envision the finished product from a rough mix.

One of the best ways to make sure you end up with the proper finished mix is to create more than one mix. By tweaking the levels, compression and other parts of the mix, it's easy to create alternative mixes that can be great for comparison. In this quick tip, we'll examine what an alternative mix is and how to create your own.


What Is An Alternative Mix

Quite simply, an alternative mix is a mix that is different from the original mix that you created while working on a track. While you may think that you know what the levels for each instrument should be, when working on a mix for hours, ear fatigue can lead to a distortion in the perception of audio.

Additionally, when it comes time to master, it can be quite obvious that, while a given instrument sounded great on its own, in the finished mix, it doesn't quite have the power it needs. Sometimes, this is apparent just by listening to a single mix, but the best way to tell how well a mix stands up to others is by having something to compare it to. By changing the levels of the lead vocal, the bass and creating instrumental mixes without the vocal, several alternate mixes can be created that might save you later on.


The Lead Vocal

The lead vocal is quite often the hardest part to get to sit perfectly in the mix, because it tends to attract the most attention and often covers a wide dynamic range that can cause it to compete with other instruments.

Once you have it mixed to a level that you think is appropriate, create 4 other mixes, two with the vocal boosted .5 dB and 1 dB, and the other two with the vocal down .5 dB and 1 dB respectively. This will allow you to listen to each mix and hear what sounds best, especially when listening with fresh ears.


The Bass

Arguably the other hardest element to perfect in a mix, the bass is a tricky element due to the fact that many audio systems have a different color and feel to the bass than others. By using the same technique as with the lead vocals, it can be easy to create some different mixes that you can then listen to on various audio systems to get the right feel. Just burn the mix out to a CD and listen to it on your home stereo, your car stereo, and any other environments you can.

The other thing you can do alternately in a mix with the bass is to add or remove sidechaining based on the kick drum. As many of Mo Volan's tutorials have covered, sidechaining is an essential part of working with bass (and some synths), but hearing the effects with it turned on and off can help you perfect the mix.


A capellas and Instrumentals

Perhaps the two most practical parts of creating alternate mixes involve creating instrumentals and a capellas. An instrumental, quite obviously, is the entire mix without any vocals. This can be very helpful for helping the vocal sit properly in the mix, as well as getting all the instruments in balance without being tricked by parts of the vocals.

A capellas mixes with only vocals, and they can be alternatively helpful for making sure all parts of the vocals, such as chorus and ad libs fit together. Additionally, both of these mixes are essential parts of any remix pack.


Some Extra Tips

Now that you know the major types of alternate mixes, there are a few final tips on alternate mixes that are important to know:

The first, is to properly label and store your mixes and to backup your original mix. If you don't know what you changed in the mix, knowing that it sounds better won't be all that helpful, so naming your session files can be a lifesaver. Backing up your original mix is important so that if you accidentally overwrite it, you aren't suck trying to fix it to get back to where you were.

Lastly, when in doubt about any part of a mix, make an alternate mix. Changing the vocal level and bouncing it to CD make only take a minute, but it might save the entire mixing process, or at the very least, some significant work later on.


Loudness Wars

Alternates can also be applied to mastering, although they are in a bit of a different method. Since the early 1990's, many mastering engineers have been engaging in a practice that is essentially known as a loudness war. In essence, mastering engineers have been trying to get the loudest sound possible, by throwing a compressor and limiter on the final mix and boosting the levels.

If you're mastering a track, don't assume that the loudest sound you can get will be best, as every client has their own final tastes. Instead, create a few alternate mastered versions with the levels boosted by varying amounts (or an unboosted version) that the client can listen to. While the loud sound seems to appeal to the public, even to the point of some clipping occurring on kick drums, every genre and artist has a different taste.


Conclusion

In this quick tip, we looked at how to create alternate mixes and why they are incredibly important for the mixing process. We looked at a few of the practical uses for alternative mixes, and also some extra tips on how to use them effectively. Lastly, we applied a similar concept to the mastering process. I hope you found this tip useful, and if you have any questions or feedback, please leave a comment!

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