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How to Mix a Dense Folk Pop Mix

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Dense mixes can be tough to work out. There's a lot of instruments, vocals and stuff that needs to be heard. A lot of times it's about creating space, but there are a lot of different ways you can go about it. In the following Premium tutorial I'm going to walk you through a folky pop that has a lot of things going on. At the end you will see how you can use EQ, compression, routing, A.D.T. And a plethora of other processors to make everything in the mix play nicely together.

I'm going to assume that you know the basics of mixing. Since EQ and compression can be fairly subjective, I'll assume that you know how to use a compressor and know the frequency spectrum. What I will however explain, are the choices I use for this particular genre.

Before you start mixing, it's a good idea to listen to the mix after setting levels but before you do anything. Just to see how everything sounds and what possible complications might arise.

Let's listen to a part of the song we're working on:

It's a pretty flat mix without any processing. Possible problems that you should notice on first listen:

  1. The guitars all blend into one and need separation.

  2. The lead guitar sounds weak and needs to grab the attention of the listener.
  3. The acoustic guitar takes up too much space and is too close.
  4. The singer sounds behind everything, and the background vocals clutter everything up.
  5. Finally, the drums sound flat and uninspiring.

So now that we've identified some key problems we can start tackling them one by one.

Let's start with the drums.


Natural Drum Feel

The drums in a folkesque mix like this is not as punchy as the one you would encounter in a rock or metal mix. There's less drastic EQ and we give the drums more room to breathe. Sometimes we also have less to work with.

In a normal rock mix you have mics on every drum, but in a folk mix you are often left with only a few mics around the drums. In this particular case we have five drum mics. One spot mic both on the kick drum and snare drum, two overhead microphones in the recorderman position, as well as a room microphone about 10-15 feet from the center of the drum-kit, at waist level.

This leaves us with less options, but you shouldn't really need more to get a good sound for this genre. What it does mean is that you need to make every mic count in the mix.

Natural EQ – When I talk about natural EQ I usually mean cuts and boosts that aren't super drastic. Whereas in a metal mix you might see a kick drum EQed like this:


Instead, we would EQ this particular kick drum like this:


Similarly, we'll do the same things to each of the drums, using “smooth” EQ changes to get the sound we want.

Overheads – The natural feel of folk drums comes from the level of the overheads. Whereas other genres might place a big emphasis on spot miking, the overheads in a folk mix are what determine your drum sound. Use the spot mics, in this case on the kick and snare, just to bring out the attack and accent those drums.

Room mics – It's great to record the room sound, especially if you record in a nice sounding room, to bring out the natural feel of the drums. Sure, you can use artificial reverb to create the space, but there's always more of an authentic depth to a room mic than a reverb.

Here are the drums with the room microphone on:

Here are the drums with the room microphone off, and the overheads sent into a room reverb:

Can you hear the authenticity of the room reverb as opposed to the reverb plug-in? The snare sounds weird in the reverb engine, but everything sounds more natural when we use the room mic. There is actually a little bleed from the scratch guitars in the room mic, but that's just the nature of recording live.

Buss Processing – Finally, when it comes to the drums I always route them to one buss where I can control the volume as well as add extra processing across the board if I need to.

Listen to how we've changed the drums in the context of the whole mix:

Everything still has the same problems as before, but we've at least made the drums sound good.


Thick Bass

The bass for this track was recorded DI through a tube pre-amp. It sounds fine on its own but it still needed some thickness and definition at the same time. Use a combination of mid EQ boosts and a guitar amp emulator to get an edge and clarity but a tube-like compressor for warmth and depth.

This is before any processing:

This the EQ I had on the bass:


Notice the boosts in the mids to get that string definition, as well as the cuts in the lower-mids to get rid of muddiness. Additionally, to get a smoother sound and avoid cluttering the guitar and vocals I've filtered out a lot of the high-end.

I used Tony Maserati's B72 compressor, but you can achieve the same results with a Class A compressor or an optical one, with a low ratio but a high threshold. With a medium attack and a medium release those long notes sustain but don't pump or chop when he starts picking more.

Lastly, just to get a “re-amped” sound without re-amping, I used a bass amp simulator to get the illusion of depth without any space to clutter up the mix. I don't usually use reverb on bass, but there's many different ways to get depth.

Processed bass in context with the mix:


Dealing with Guitar Tracks

This mix is mainly dense because it has a lot of different guitar tracks. It has acoustic guitar, electric rhythm guitar, electric lead guitar as well as overdubs during the choruses. In addition it also has two solo parts tracked by two different guitarists that were recorded using two mics. In a DAW, that looks like this:


In order to not have to deal with all these different tracks, just send each track type to their own buss.


Much simpler. I can't stress this enough. If you're dealing with a dense mix that has a ton of tracks, simplifying the process like this can make everything so much easier. I devoted an entire chapter in my book about simplifying your mix, I think it's that important.

Cluttered Guitars – Although the guitars in solo might not sound too bad with each other, in the context of the rest of the mix they don't really have definition and you can't tell them apart.

Guitars in solo:

In order to separate them I've done the following:

  1. All the guitars are high-pass filtered up to at least 126 if not more to allow for the bass to sit in that area.

  2. The lead electric guitar has cuts up to around 500 Hz. I'm looking at the lead guitar as a treble instrument whose lines are supposed to poke through the mix, but shouldn't take up too much space. By rolling off the lows you brighten the guitars up subjectively without adding any additional energy or clutter.
  3. The same is done for the electric rhythm guitar, just not as drastically and I've boosted 275 Hz and 1.1 kHz for body and bite respectively. I've also used a high-shelving EQ to smooth out the high-end, essentially doing the opposite effect of the lead guitar. I want the rhythm electric to blend in more, whereas the lead guitar should cut through.
  4. Finally, all these guitar tracks are sent into a room style reverb to glue them together. The reverb is compressed and the highs are rolled off to make the reverb blend into the tracks instead of making it clutter up the guitars.

Here are the EQs for the electric guitars. Notice how much of the frequencies I've cut.

Lead Electric Guitar


Rhythm Electric Guitar


Now, notice how much better everything sits together, especially when we put it with the bass:

The mix so far:


Making the Vocal Stand Out

Now, if you listened to the mix so far, you can hear how we've drowned out the vocal with all the processing on our instruments. It's time to make the vocal cut through the mix.

  • Nasal Sound – I've gotten rid of the nasal sound by cutting out the frequencies around 900 Hz to 1 kHz.

  • Presence – A broad boost at 5 kHz really brings the vocal forward
  • Compression – The Class A_R compressor in Logic is really good at bringing out the presence of the vocal without actually compressing that much. At 4:1 ratio and only a dB or two of gain reduction, it really pushes the vocal to the forefront.
  • Exciter – I'm using an exciter to add artificial harmonics to the top-most frequencies. The vocal is a little dull in the high-end, so to make it sparkle I've added an exciter targeting 12 kHz and above. Check out The Unknown Way To Add Excitement to your Vocal for more on this technique.

Artifical Double-Tracking – I'm using A.D.T. To get a thicker vocal sound. It's a great technique when you don't have the resources to get an actual double, but I use a few different techniques to get a doubled feel.

  • Stereo delay – A delay is a must to get that doubled feel. Instead of doing a simple repeat I've done it in stereo, with one side repeating at 20 ms, and the other at 30 ms. This gives the double an extra layer.
  • Pitch shifter – Put a pitch shifter after your stereo delay to slightly detune the double. This creates a little bit of separation between them. A few cents is plenty, as you don't want to make the vocal sound out-of-tune.
  • Another stereo delay – Here is where the double becomes a little bit more. Instead of adding delay on a separate track, I've added a 100 and 150 ms delay after the pitched and doubled signal. This creates even more space, and almost acts as a reverb without creating clutter.

Here is the vocal double without the extra stereo.

Perfectly acceptable double, but lacks a 'wowness' factor. Here it is with that extra stereo delay:

To top it off, a 1.0 second plate reverb sent from the main vocal track is added to our mix:

We've come a long way from that unmixed mess we started with! The only thing left to do is to blend in the backup vocals.


Backing Vocals and Harmonies

The main trick with backup vocals is to make them blend in with the lead vocal. You want them to push through the mix but not cast a shadow on the lead, like a good supporting character in a play.

  • Actual Doubles – All the backup tracks are real, recorded doubles. They are panned opposite of each other, male backup is hard left and right while the female harmonies are closer to the center. This creates a much bigger sound than if you would just use A.D.T.

  • Subgroups – Like the guitars above, I've simplified my processing by routing all the backup vocals to a separate track. I've EQed the female and male vocals differently on their respective tracks, but they all end up in the same group for further processing.
  • Long Delay – I use a fairly long, but low volume delay for the backing vocals. It makes the long sustained notes in the chorus bigger.
  • Large Reverb – I use a large reverb to push the backup further back in the mix.
  • Compression – To glue all the doubles together I've compressed them on the buss track. This makes them more manageable and they sound as one instrument when compressed together.
  • EQ – A great way to make space for the lead vocal is to make a broad cut at around 3–5 kHz. That's where we perceive the human voice the best and where it has the most presence. By cutting it in the backups you give more space to the lead.


One Extra Trick to Bring it Home

The thing with mixing a song is that everything in the mix reacts to everything you do. So that when you've got one thing down, something else is now out of balance. For example, once I've done all this mixing for this song I notice that the drums are still sort of buried behind the mountain of processing I've with everything else. Luckily, an easy way to give the drums some punch is to add parallel compression to the whole drum mix.

  • Squash – Compress the drums heavily and bring them up underneath the normal drum mix.

  • EQ – Boost the highs and the lows to compensate for the heavy compression.

Simple and easy fix to get the drums back to where you want them.

Now go back and listen to the mix before we started, and then listen to the finished mix below:

What a difference!


Conclusion

I hope you've learned some new tricks to tackle your own dense mix. Many of these tricks are universal, and can apply to any dense mix, but they're especially great for a folky pop song such as this.

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