Push up the faders, balance the mix, add some EQ, adjust the pans, add some effects and you’re finished. Those are usually the only things that many of us think about when we’re mixing, but there are a number of additional items to keep in mind during mixing besides the mixing process itself. Many less experienced engineers may not be aware of these issues in the first place, and some mixers that are aware sometimes forget in the heat of audio battle.
What am I referring to? Let’s take a look at the concerns beyond making your mix sound tall, deep and wide.
How Long Should A Mix Take To Finish?
Many musicians and engineers that haven’t worked on a label project have nothing to compare their experiences to, so they’re not always sure when a mix is finished. How long should a mix take anyway? When you first start out, you fly through mixes and think you’re finished after an hour or two, but then you begin to discover that there’s a lot more to it than you ever conceived. As always, the only way that you can gauge what you’re doing is by comparing yourself to a pro.
Let’s assume for a second that you decide that you’re going to have someone else mix your songs, either because a record label is demanding it, or because you just think it’s a good idea to employ someone with skills better than yours (you should be applauded if you think this way).
In the days of analog consoles, we used to figure that a mix would take anywhere from a day to a day and a half per song, especially if you used an A-list mixing engineer. The first day was used to get the mix pretty much 95% of the way, and the 2nd half-day was to eek out as much of those extra five percent as you could with a fresh set of ears. While you might get lucky on the first mix that took a day and a half, it was not uncommon to continue remixing from there until everyone was happy, which for a big budget legacy act could take six or eight weeks on the same song. For example, legendary engineer Bruce Swedien states that there were 91 mixes of Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean and they wound up choosing number 2. And it took U2 six full weeks to find the perfect mix for I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. Don’t let that amount of time alarm you; there were more songs mixed in the day and a half time frame than there ever were in 6 weeks.
Of course, the time it takes for a mix is dependent upon the song, type of material, how it was recorded, number of tracks and elements, and the mixer. If the recording was a live concert with a power trio and vocalist, for instance, and all the songs sounded pretty much the same, an entire album might only take a day to finish. On the other hand, an R&B song with 100 tracks could take a few days just to get a handle on. And a song that had poorly recorded tracks that needed a lot of editing and fixing to bring it up to snuff might take even longer than that. On the other hand, producer/engineer Kevin Shirley has been known to mix entire albums in a single day, such as the best-selling Journey records he worked on in the 80’s.
Regardless of how long the initial mix took in the analog days, tweaks or changes after the fact were once dreaded by all involved since resetting the console and all the outboard gear almost always resulted in a mix that sounded slightly different (not to mention the time of setting things up again – See figure 1). As a result, producers and mixers did everything they could to avoid any redos, which mostly consisted of taking extra time on the mix to be sure that it sounded as perfect as possible, mixing multiple versions of the song (more on this in a bit), and doing just about anything to ensure that there was a final version in some way, shape or form when they walked out the studio door. Now with mixing “in-the-box” in a DAW, it’s easy to bring back a mix exactly where you left it days, weeks, months, or even years before, making mix fixes fast and easy as long as you’re not using any outboard gear. As a result, this has taken some of the pressure out of the mixing process, unless you’re still mixing in the analog world with a console and outboard gear. Then it hasn’t really changed much at all.
So when is a mix considered finished? Here are some guidelines:
- The groove of the song is solid. The groove usually comes from the rhythm section, but it might be from an element like a rhythm guitar (like on the Police’s Every Breath You Take) or just the bass by itself, like anything from the Detroit Motown that James Jamerson played on (Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On or The Four Tops Reach Out, I’ll Be There and Bernadette for instance). Whatever element supplies the groove, it has to be emphasized so that the listener can feel it.
- You can distinctly hear every instrument. Every instrument must have its own frequency range to be heard. Depending upon the arrangement, this is what usually takes the most time during mixing.
- Every lyric, and every note of every line or solo can be heard. You don’t want a single note buried. It all has to be crystal clear. Use your automation. That’s what it was made for.
- The mix has punch. The relationship between the bass and drums is in the right proportion and work together well to give the song a solid foundation.
- The mix has a focal point. What’s the most important element of the song? Make sure it’s obvious to the listener.
- The mix has contrast. If you have the same amount of the same effect on everything (a trait I hear from so many neophyte mixers), the mix will sound washed out. You have to have contrast between different elements, from dry to wet, to give the mix depth.
- All noises and glitches are eliminated. This means any count-offs, singer’s breaths that seem out of place or predominate because of vocal compression, amp noise on guitar tracks before and after the guitar is playing, bad sounding edits, and anything else that might take the listener’s attention away from the track.
- You can play your mix against songs that you love, and it holds up. Perhaps the ultimate test. If you can get your mix in the same ball park as many of your favorites (either things you’ve mixed or from other artists) after you’ve passed the previous seven items, then you’re probably home free.
In the end, it’s best to figure at least a full day per song regardless of whether you’re mixing in the box or on an analog console, although it’s still best to figure a day and a half per mix if you’re mixing in a studio with an analog-style console. Of course, if you’re mixing every session as you go along recording, then you might be finished before you know it as you just tweak your mix a little.
Mixing In The Box
Where once upon a time it was assumed that any mix was centered around a mixing console, that’s not entirely true any more. Since DAWs have become so central to everyday recording, a new way of mixing has arrived; mixing in the computer without the help of a console, or mixing “in the box” (ITB).
Many old-school mixers who grew up using consoles have disliked mixing in the box because they find it’s hard to mix with a mouse and they didn’t like the sound. While it’s true that the sound of the very early workstations (meaning mostly their A/D/A converters) didn’t sound very good, this is no longer the case today. Indeed even the least expensive converters have come a very long way so that’s not the issue that it once was. Another objection has been that the sound of the internal mix buss of a DAW degraded the signal and once again that isn’t quite the case anymore. It’s true that each DAW application uses a different algorithm for summing which makes the sound vary from a little to a lot, but a bigger issue is the same one that has faced mixers in the analog world almost from the beginning; it’s how you drive it that counts!
What has changed with ITB mixing is HOW you mix multiple songs. No longer are we restricted to working on a single song at a time like in the days of analog. Now it’s possible to work on several songs all at the same time (in fact, I know a lot of name mixers who work this way). It’s great if you suffer from ADD, but I think it actually helps to work on several songs at once because they take on a more cohesive sound. In the analog days when a mix was built around a console, it wasn’t uncommon to have songs that sounded really different after they were mixed. The songs might have used the same players, been recorded in the same studio, mixed on the same console and outboard gear, but there was always a few songs that had a different sound. Now when you work on multiple mixes at once, the sound of all of them tend to get a bit closer to one another since there’s an instant comparison to what sounds good and what sounds bad with every mix.
Suffice it to say that whether mixing in the box or with a traditional console, the principles are the same. Although you or your mixing engineer may have a preference for one or the other, you can expect similar quality from either mixing method.
It’s now standard operating procedure to do multiple mixes in order to avoid having to redo the mix again at a later time because an element was mixed too loudly or softly. Even with the ease of calling up a digital project in a DAW, a producer and/or a mixer does not want to revisit a project when it’s complete if at all possible. In order to avoid a remix, the mixer will do alternate mixes that takes any element that might later be questioned, such as lead vocal, solo instrument, background vocals and any other major part, and provides a separate mix with that track recorded slightly louder and again slightly softer. This is referred to as the “Up Mix” and the “Down Mix”. Usually these increments are very small; 1/2dB to 1dB, but usually not much more (yes, that small does make a difference in a tight sounding mix).
There are all sorts of ways that alternate mixes can be valuable. It’s easy to to correct an otherwise perfect mix later by simply editing in a masked word from one of your alternate mixes. Or it’s easy to substitute a chorus with softer background vocals without going back to remix. An even more common occurrence is when an instrumental mix is used to splice out objectionable language during mastering.
Although many record companies ask for more or different versions, here’s a typical version list for a mix from a rock artist. Other types of music will have a similar version list that’s appropriate for the genre.
- Album Version
- Album Version with Vocals Up
- Contemporary Hits Radio Mix – Softer Guitars
- Album Oriented Radio Mix – More Guitars and More Drums
- Adult Contemporary Mix – Minimum Guitars, Maximum Keyboards and Orchestration
- TV Mix (the entire mix minus lead vocal)
The artist, producer or A&R person may also ask for additional versions such as a pass without delays on the vocals in the chorus, more guitars in the vamp, or a version with bass up. There is also a good chance that any singles will need a shortened radio edit as well if you’re working with a hit artist.
Thanks to the virtues of the digital audio workstation and modern console automation, many engineers leave the up and down mixes to the assistants since most of the hard work is already complete.
Mixing With Mastering In Mind
Whether you master your final mixes yourself or take them to a mastering engineer, things will go a lot faster if you prepare for mastering ahead of time. Nothing is so exasperating to all involved as not knowing which mix is the correct one, or forgetting the file name. Here are some tips to get you “mastering ready”.
Don’t Over-EQ When Mixing — Better to be a bit dull and let your mastering engineer brighten things up. In general, mastering engineers can do a better job for you if your mix is on the dull side rather than too bright or too big.
Don’t Over-Compress When Mixing — You might as well not even master if you’ve squashed it too much already. Hypercompression (see part 1 of my Mastering posts) deprives the mastering engineer of one of his major abilities to help your project. Squash it for your friends. Squash it for your clients. But leave some dynamics for your mastering engineer. In general, it’s best to compress and control levels on an individual track basis and not on the stereo buss except to prevent digital overs.
Getting Levels Between Mixes To Match Is Not Important — Just make your mixes sound great, matching levels between songs is one of the reasons you master your mixes.
Getting Hot Levels Is Not Important — You still have plenty of headroom even if you print your mix with peaks reaching –10dB or so. Leave it to the mastering engineer to get the hot levels. It’s another reason why you go there.
Watch Your Fades — If you trim the heads and tails of your track too tightly, you might discover that you’ve trimmed a reverb trail or essential attack or breath. Leave a little room and let the mastering engineer perfect it.
Document Everything — You’ll make it easier on yourself and your mastering person if everything is well documented, and you’ll save yourself some money too. The documentation expected includes any flaws, digital errors, distortion, bad edits, fades, shipping instructions, and record company identification numbers. If your songs reside on hard disc as files, make sure that each file is properly ID’d for easy identification (especially if you’re not going to be at the mastering session).
Especially don’t be afraid to make a note of any glitches, channel imbalances, or distortion. The mastering engineer won’t think less of you if something got away (you wouldn’t believe the number of times it happens to everybody) and it’s a whole lot easier than wasting a billable hour trying to track down an equipment problem when the problem is actually on the mix master itself.
Alternate Mixes Can Be Your Friend — A vocal up, vocal down, or instrument-only mix can be a life-saver when mastering. Things that aren’t apparent while mixing sometimes jump right out during mastering and having an alternative mix around can sometimes provide a quick fix and keep you from having to remix. Make sure you document them properly though.
Check Your Phase When Mixing — It can be a real shock when you get to the mastering studio and the engineer begins to check for mono compatibility and the lead singer or guitar disappears because something in the track is out-of-phase. Even though this was more of a problem in the days of vinyl and AM radio, it’s still an important point since many so-called stereo sources (such as television) are either pseudo-stereo or only stereo some of the time. Check it and fix it before you get there.
How Much Should A Mix Cost?
While we’re at it, let’s answer the question of what a mix should cost? If you’re mixing someone else’s project you have to know what the going rate is so you know what you can charge. Likewise, if you’re hiring someone to mix your project, you’ve got to know what it might cost so you know what to budget.
Mixers are all over the board in price, especially in the current depressed music market. At one time there was a mixer (who shall remain nameless) who was charging as much as $10,000USD per mix plus a point to mix just one song. What was even more outrageous was that he’d do as many as three mixes a day, since his settings for each instrument never changed because it was “his sound” (in other words, the bass would always go into the bass channel of the console with the same EQ and compression, the guitar into the same channel, etc.)
Very few budgets can support that kind of excess anymore, and mixer’s prices, although still at a premium, have come down in recent years. While some mixers charge by the song, others charge a daily rate so the price might escalate pretty fast if there are fixes or the mix goes longer than expected. The rates might be as little as $500USD a day to $2500 or more (although most are somewhere in the middle these days). These rates do not include the studio costs, which are separate and beyond the mixer’s rate. That means that mixing could theoretically be costing as much as $5000 a day with the mixer included at top rates!
Because budgets are so small these days, mixing specialists are caught in a dilemma – the client can only afford the studio or the mixer, but not both. As a result, many mixers have resorted to creating their own mixing environment with an all-in price that makes it much more affordable for the producer. This is one of the advantages of the digital age and DAWs, as it was impossible to build and equip a suitable mixing room for less than million dollars back in the analog days.
Since the music business is weak at the moment and budgets are way down, there are a lot of great mixers available for a lot less money than ever before. If you’re willing to wait as the mixer fits you in on down time, or agree to let him mix alone without you or the artist attending, you might be surprised at the rate you’ll get. Even if what you have to offer is below his rate, chances are he can work something that will get you a great mix for a price you can afford.
You probably want to mix your project yourself, and I don’t blame you. But the advantages of having someone who’s a really good mixer take a shot at it is that you’ll learn a lot in a very short space of time, get a fresh set of ears on the project, and hopefully end up with something great in a lot less time than you could do it yourself.
Still, that’s usually not an option for most musicians and engineers on a small budget (or not budget at all). So if you’re jumping in with your own two ears, just observe some of the tips in this post and hopefully you’ll save yourself some time and effort, and have a better project in the end.