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Working With the Intangibles of a Mix

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It’s easy to think that getting a good mix is just a matter of pushing up some faders, getting a reasonable balance, adding some effects and your done. Sure, that might work for a rough mix, but there’s a lot more that goes into making a great mix that’s way beyond the basic issue of balance. These are the things that usually take some experience or a mentor to realize. While it’s so much easier if you watch and listen while a great mixer does his thing, let me point out a number of intangibles that are vitally important to a great mix. Awareness is always the first step in learning, so here are some things to consider before you start to move faders around.

The Arrangement

It’s really easy to get caught up in just the audio portion of being an engineer, but unless you seriously consider how the music itself is put together (assuming that’s what you’re engineering, of course), your ultimate product probably won’t sound great no matter how good you are at balancing tracks.

I’m sure that anyone with a little experience has found that the arrangement is usually the #1 non-audio problem in a mix. In these days of unlimited tracks, it’s all too easy to pile more and more musical elements along with doubles and triples and stacks of everything you can think of. You can easily wind up with a hundred tracks to wade through, and that gives you an impossible task of making it sound like something more than a wad of dense audio goo. A good producer will usually bring some sense to the arrangement, paring things down to where it’s reasonable, but sometimes the producer is the one demanding everything but the kitchen sink be added on. And if the songwriter doesn’t have an innate sense of arrangement (many do, luckily), you’ve got a mess on your hands.

That’s why it’s important that the mixing engineer be aware of some basic music arrangement principles, because a big part of being a mixing engineer is knowing when to mute things and knowing just what elements take precedence at a certain part of the tune.

Good balance actually starts with good arrangement, so it’s important to understand arrangement because so much of mixing is actually subtractive by nature. This means that the arrangement, and therefore the balance, is changed by the simple act of muting or lowering the level of an instrument whose part doesn’t fit well with another. If the instruments fit well together arrangement-wise and don’t fight one another, then your life as a mixer just became immensely easier. But what exactly does “fighting one another” mean?

Fighting means that two mix elements are demanding attention at the same time. It could be that the rhythms are clashing, or the instrument’s frequency ranges are the same, or the general sounds are too similar. Regardless, your ear doesn’t know what to listen to because each is demanding attention, so it just gets confused. When you ear gets confused, it also gets fatigued, and when it gets fatigued, it loses interested all-together. You’ve just defeated the intention of the mix in the first place, which is to gain attention, not lose it.

So how do you get around two instruments “fighting” each other? First and foremost is a well written arrangement that keeps instruments out of each other’s way right from the beginning. The best writers, arrangers and producers have an innate feel for what will work arrangement-wise and the result is an arrangement that automatically lays together without much help. Experience will also help a writer or arranger know pretty quickly what works together and what doesn’t too.

But it’s not uncommon to work with an artist or band that isn’t sure of the arrangement (very common), or is into experimenting with every sound they can find, or just allows an instrument to play throughout the entire song instead of just the intended section, thereby creating numerous conflicts. This is where the mixer gets a chance to rearrange the track by keeping what works and muting or lowering the conflicting instrument or instruments. Not only can the mixer influence the arrangement this way, but also the dynamics and general development of the song as well.

In order to understand how arrangement influences balance, we have to understand the mechanics of a well-written arrangement first.

Most well conceived arrangements are limited in the number of elements that occur at the same time. An element can be a single instrument like a lead guitar or a vocal, or it can be a group of instruments like the bass and drums, a doubled guitar line, a group of backing vocals, etc. Generally, a group of instruments playing exactly the same rhythm is considered an element. Examples: a doubled lead guitar or doubled vocal is a single element, as is a lead vocal with two additional harmonies singing the same melody. If the bass plays very tightly with the kick and snare, that can be a single element too. Two lead guitars playing different parts are two elements, however. A lead and a rhythm guitar are two separate elements as well. So what’s an element then?

Arrangement Elements

There are 5 elements in every arrangement.

  • Foundation - The Rhythm Section. The foundation is usually the bass and drums, but can also include a rhythm guitar and/or keys if they’re playing the same rhythmic figure as the rhythm section. Occasionally, as in the case of power trios, the Foundation element will only consist of drums since the bass will usually have to play a different rhythm figure to fill out the sound, so it becomes it’s own element.
  • Pad - A Pad is a long sustaining note or chord. In the days before synthesizers, a Hammond Organ provided the most often used pad and was later joined by the Fender Rhodes electric piano. Synthesizers now provide the majority of pads but real strings or a guitar power chord can also suffice.
  • Rhythm - Rhythm is any instrument that plays counter to the Foundation element. This can be a double time shaker or tambourine, a rhythm guitar strumming on the backbeat, or congas playing a Latin feel. The Rhythm element is used to add motion and excitement to the track.
  • Lead - A lead vocal, lead instrument, or solo.
  • Fills - Fills generally occur in the spaces between Lead lines, or can be a signature line like the intro to Coldplay’s “Clocks” or the Stones “Satisfaction”. You can think of a Fill element as an answer to the Lead.

Where Things Go Wrong

The biggest problem with most arrangements that don’t work is that they have too many elements happening at the same time. You can’t have 4 percussion elements, 5 guitar elements, 3 keyboard elements, a rhythm section and lead and background vocals and not get physically tired from listening because there’s just too much going on!

The mind unconsciously longs for simplicity and rewards a simple arrangement with attention, which is what we want to have happen, of course. But what does simplicity mean?

You should never have more than 4 elements occurring at the same time. You can get away with 5 every once in a while, but 4 is usually the max. “But there’s usually more than 4 instruments playing in most things I listen to these days,” you say? Yes, but they’re usually playing the same parts. For instance, if you have a doubled guitar part with a 3rd track playing the same part an octave above, that’s 3 instruments playing only 1 part, so that counts as only 1 element. If a guitar is doubling a bass line, that’s only 1 element. If you have a lead vocal that’s doubled with another vocal an octave above, that’s still only 1 element. A symphony orchestra may have 120 instruments, but when you break it down they’re all just playing a limited number of elements. Eventually, everything comes down to 4 of the 5 elements mentioned above.

Here are some examples of how the arrangement elements work in various songs. If they seem familiar it’s because I’ve used some of these examples in The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook, but they’re a good review even if you’ve read them before.

Bob Seger’s Night Moves

In Bob Seger’s radio standard Night Moves, the instruments playing are bass and drums, acoustic guitar, piano, Hammond organ, lead vocal and background vocals. This is how they break out.

  • Foundation - Bass, Drums, Acoustic Guitar
  • Pad - Hammond Organ
  • Rhythm - Piano
  • Lead - Lead Vocal
  • Fills - Background Vocal answers and sometime the piano fills in the holes

Usually an acoustic guitar falls into the Rhythm category as the strumming is pushing the band and creating excitement. In “Night Moves”, however, the acoustic guitar is pulled back level-wise in the mix so it melds into the rhythm section, effectively become part of the Foundation element. That’s how the mixer can influence the mix by balance when he’s aware of the arrangement.

Alanis Morissette’s Thank U

Alanis Morissette’s Thank U contains several good examples of both rhythm and pads. What’s different is that there are two sets of each; one for the intro and chorus and a different set for the verses.

  • Foundation - Bass, Drums
  • Pad - Synthesizer in intro and chorus behind the piano; different synths in chorus
  • Rhythm - Piano; “breath” sample in the verse
  • Lead - Lead Vocal
  • Fills - Guitar fills in the second verse

Of course there’s so much more going on in this song track-wise, but any additional tracks are either replacing or doubling the above elements. The number of elements remains constant.

Gnarls Barkley Crazy

Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy is a very stripped down song with very few layers, but the four main elements are always there.

  • Foundation - Drum machine
  • Pad - Synth playing voice sample to chorus, where a second set comes in an octave higher
  • Rhythm - Bass with the doubled guitar line
  • Lead - Lead Vocal
  • Fills - String lines during chorus

This song is unusual in that the bass with the doubled guitar line actually push the song forward and actually become the rhythm. Quite unusual, but effective!

Rascal Flatts What Hurts The Most

Rascal Flatts’ What Hurts The Most is an example of the “new” country music, which closely resembles layered pop music except with the addition of traditional country instruments (steel guitar, banjo, fiddle).

  • Foundation - Bass, Drums
  • Pad - Steel guitar and electric guitar in chorus
  • Rhythm - Acoustic guitar in verses to banjo and shaker in chorus
  • Lead - Fiddle in the intro, Lead Vocal, lead guitar in solo
  • Fills - Steel answer to fiddle in intro and harmony answer vocal at the beginning of the outro

This song is unusual because it has no signature line, or Fill element, in the intro and outro, and a true Fill only in one spot for each. The bass is also mixed very loud and takes up a lot of space in the mix.

Garth Brook’s Two Pina Colodas

  • Foundation - Bass, Drums
  • Pad - Steel guitar
  • Rhythm - Acoustic guitar and shaker
  • Lead - Lead Vocal
  • Fills - Electric and acoustic lead guitar; occasional steel fill

This song is different because there’s no true Pad in the traditional sense, but the steel guitar playing softly in the background acts the part well and shows that it’s possible for non-traditional instruments to play that role.

Rules for Arrangements

There are a couple of easy to remember rules that will always make even the densest arrangement manageable.

Limit The Number Of Elements

As said before, there should be no more than four elements playing at the same time. Sometimes three elements can work very well. Very rarely will five simultaneous elements work. This is your number one focus as a mixer. Make the producer and artist aware of how much better the mix will sound with fewer elements instead of more.

Balance Saves The Day

Now if someone (like the artist) is married to a part, there’s no amount of begging, pleading or show and tell that will change his mind, so one thing you can do is control the balance of the offending instruments. If 2 or more elements are fighting, they just can’t live at the same level so be prepared to make one a supporting character. Sometimes an element pulled way back in the mix can blend into another element and actually make it more interesting, but only if the following point is observed.

Everything In Its Own Frequency Range.

This rule is so important that it needs to be stressed. The arrangement will fit together better if all instruments sit in their own frequency range. For instance, if a synthesizer and rhythm guitar play the counter elements in the same octave, they will usually clash. The solution would to either change the sound of one of the instruments so they fill different frequency ranges, have one play in a different octave, or have them play at different times but not together.

Battling Instruments

When two instruments with essentially the same frequency band play at the same volume at the same time, the result is a fight for attention. Think of it this way; you don’t usually hear a lead vocal and a guitar solo at the same time, do you? That’s because the human ear isn’t able to decide which to listen to and becomes confused and fatigued as a result.

Guitars frequently battle it out looking to be heard. This usually happens when you have a guitar player stacking parts using the same guitar and amp, or in a live situation when you have two guitar players each with the same kind of guitar and amp (two Les Pauls and two Marshalls using the same pickup settings would be the nightmare scenario, for instance).

In the studio, the first thing you have to do is convince the guitar player that it’s really to his benefit to try playing some of those great parts with a different guitar or amplifier or speaker cabinet or even all of the above. That will make any parts or stacks just that more interesting without having to even touch an EQ knob. It’s easier said than done though, because sometimes a guitar player will get married to his (or her) sound or guitar and refuse to change (as a breed, we guitar players are like that). Now it’s time to reach for the EQ. By the way, changing pedals doesn’t count in this situation since they’re usually just boosting the gain and may not be changing the frequency balance of the instrument that much. A modulation pedal can work if it changes the tonal spectrum of the instrument.

In terms of a band playing live at a gig or in the studio with the guitar players using the same model instruments and amps, that’s when it’s time to teach them the reason why tone controls were put on amplifiers. As a general rule, most musicians have no idea how to use anything that adjusts the frequency bands of their instrument. There are 3 general reasons to use the amplifier EQ:

1. Many instruments (like bass and guitar) have dead spots on the instrument where a few notes can drop in level. A bit of EQing can help smooth things out if you can zero in on the frequency band of the notes that are dropping out.

2. You need to compensate for a wide range frequency deficiency. This could mean a situation where a Strat might not have enough bottom when played through a Marshall Jubilee so you’d add some low end with the tone controls to compensate. On the other hand, a Les Paul through the same amp might be too bottom heavy so you’d subtract some bottom. And then that same Strat might just have a mid-range that’s like an ice pick through the eardrums on certain notes, so you’d back off on the mid-range a bit and pull the pick out of the ears.

3. And finally, in our two Les Paul - two Marshall scenario where 2 players use the same model instruments and amplifiers. In order to fit well together frequency-wise, one player would adjust his tone to have a bit more bottom and maybe scoop out the lower midrange while the other player would go for more top end with a midrange peak just where the other guy scooped it out. There you have it - instant blend.

Of course things are never that easy in real life. Most guitar players never get to nirvana with their sound, and they’ll never deviate from anything they’re comfortable with. But if they get to hear how successful the technique works in the studio, they’re usually a bit more open to experimentation afterwards. Of course you can always tell them that xxx (fill in their favorite artist) does it that way, because he probably does.

The Point of Interest

Every song has something that’s the main point of interest or something so compelling that you can’t take your ears off it (if it doesn’t, send the song back to the drawing board. It’s not complete).

Although having control over how the previous five elements appear may be sufficient for many types of audio jobs, and might be just fine to get a decent mix, most popular music requires a mix that can take the song to another level. Although it’s always easier with great tracks, solid arrangements and spectacular playing, a great mix can take simply OK tracks and transform them into hit material so compelling that people can’t get enough of it. It’s been done on some of your favorite all-time songs.

So how can we get to that point?

More than being just technically correct, a mix must be as interesting as a good movie. It must build to a climax while having points of tension and release to keep the listener subconsciously involved. Just as a film looks bigger than life, a great mix must sound bigger than real life. The passion and the emotion must be on a level where the listener is sucked in and forced to listen.

And the way to do that? Find whatever element is the most important to the song. In some cases (like Dance and Rap music), the most important element is the groove. Yet in other genres (like Country), it’s the vocal. It Rock and Pop it might be a signature line or hook.

Even though the most important element is often the lead vocal, it doesn’t necessarily have to be. It could be a riff like from The Stone’s Satisfaction and Start Me Up or the intro to Coldplay’s Clocks or the rhythm on the verses of The Arctic Monkey’s I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor. It’s always a part so compelling that it forces you to listen to the song.

Whatever part is most important, the mixer must identify it and emphasize it in the mix in order for the mix to be elevated beyond the ordinary.

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