Familiarity with your mixer is probably the most important aspect in the process. Knowing reflexively where everything is on the console and what everything does will virtually eliminate any fumbling around when making adjustments. You want to think of the mixer as an instrument, just like the ones you are recording, knowing where things are, and what they do will give you the freedom to use the most important part of mixing, Your Ears.
Whether you are mixing a live performance, mixing down from a multitrack recorder, or recording into a multitrack unit, the same general principals apply and can be adapted to any of these situations.
Obviously your first step for a "live" band is to set up all the musical equipment that you will be recording, making certain that all cable runs are neat and professionally laid out. this may not seem important, but if you develop the practice of being professional your work will quickly develop an air of professionalism that will lead to quality work. Assuming everything is set up, the next step is to turn on the individual instruments amps "BEFORE" turning on your mixing console and playing with the knobs. Remember always "instrument amps on first, and off last". The reason for this is to prevent those little "pops", that amps like to make from damaging your studio equipment. What should go without saying is that all volume pots should be zeroed before powering up any equipment, most of us are familiar with the morning after when we find the car stereo was left on 11. Always, always, always zero volume pots when shutting equipment down, whether studio equipment, instrument amps, or home stereo.
For a multitrack patch the multitrack outputs to the mixer inputs in order, starting at either end of the input modules. That way the meters on the multitrack deck relate to the input levels on the mixer.
Prior to turning on your mixer, reset all your controls to a normal position, EQs flat, Pans centered, and so on, that way you won't be halfway through the job and realize that your initial signal readings were messed up because you started out using settings from the last mix.
Make sure everyting is tagged properly, this is a simple as using some medical adhesive tape, it comes in several widths, it's white and easy to write on, it sticks well and removes easily. Don't rely on memory, there is nothing more aggravating than fighting to get those drums sounding right while your fiddling with the guitarists input control knobs. Keep a notepad handy so you won't be repeating the same settings over and over when trying to get the sound right, write down what works and what does not.
Set the min - max on your faders, this can be accomplished while the band warms up, (live), or by setting the multitrack playback output levels, (inputs to the mixer), to just under redline. turn the trim dials for the individual channels so that your mixer just redlines at full setting on your faders, this will give you maximum range of control. Your fader controls are not much use if you are hitting redline at 30%, you lost 70% of your ability to control the signal.
When mixing you are trying to re-create that live sound on Tape/CD so the listener will have the impression of being there, take note of the physical arrangement that the musicians would typically use in performance, if the guitarist is standing to the right of the drums then you would pan the guitar track to that position, does the drummer have his toms to the right or left of the kick drum, basically you want use your pan controls to place the appropriate sound in it's spatial relationship to the rest of the band. By paying attention to this spatial relationship, you will avoid that cluttered feeling, and you end product will have a more natural sound.
Panning places your audio signal in the "stereo" field, hard left, hard right, or anywhere in between. Panning within the stereo field should be thought of as any other technique you would use to influence a mix, but it is not the only way our ears percieve stereo sound, sound placement is also affected by delay. Delay can be used to move the performers forward or backwards in the spatial sound field and, as with panning a little goes a long way. Sound works in three dimensions, but for our purpose we can only affect two dimensions, left - right, and front - back, too much pan and the instruments sound unaturally wide, not enough and they sound cramped, likewise too much delay and the drums are coming from far out in center field, no delay and your mix could sound flat. Again think of the spatial relationship of the performers when you make your adjustments and try for a realistic, natural sound.
Remember, mixing is basically balancing the incoming sound levels so that music will be heard and the noise will not. You are attempting to use effects and techniques to enhance the sound, while at the same time trying to give the sound a "natural" untouched feeling. The less the signs of your presence in the final outcome the better the job you did, so use your effects sparingly.
Keeping your signals from going over the redline is achieved by using your Gain controls. Set the gain for each channel/instrument by turning the gain to minimum and slowly dialing up, (with a signal present), to a level that is just under the redline/distortion range. Building the sound levels from the foundation/rhythm up is a good practice, set your drums, (bass,toms,snare,cymbals) , horns, bass, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, keyboards, and vocals so that each layer can be heard clearly. There are several effects that can be used to make these layers distinguishable but not overpowering.
Compression is one of the more important tools available to audio engineers. Your favorite CD has probably gone through 4 or 5 different compressors before you bought it, one while recording, one or two while mixing, one while mastering, and yet another when it's played on your favorite radio station. Compression works by reducing the volume of loud passages and increasing the volume of quiet passages. It helps bring out subtle details, control a vocalist with bad mic technique, limit distortion from loud, transient sounds, and give a track more consistent levels.
Compressors have a few basic controls: threshold, ratio, attack, and release. Threshold controls how loud the signal has to be before its volume is reduced, high threshold means less compression, low threshold means more compression. Ratio controls the amount of compression that takes place, with the ratio set at 2:1, an increase in input level of 2 dB above the threshold will result in an increase in the output of only 1 dB. Higher ratios will cause more compression of signals that reach threshold level. The attack and release controls work together with the threshold control to determine when compression should begin and end, Attack controls how long after threshold is reached that compression occurs, and Release controls how long after the signal goes below threshold that the compression stops. Compression also works as a de-esser, reducing the unwanted sounds of vocalists, such as "s", "th", and "f", which often have highly exaggerated high-frequency response in recordings. Like all effects, use sparingly, too much can suck the life out of a mix, too little can give your mix an uncontrolled bouncy feeling.
Reverb creates ambiance by simulating an environment such as a room, hall, or arena. Reverbs work by mixing delayed versions of a signal with the original signal to create a sense of depth and producing an echo of the original sound. Reverb, together with compression, can do wonders for a "not so great" vocal performance.
The most common reverb types are: Hall. The sound of a large concert hall. - Room. A smaller space, like a club, garage, living room. - Plate. A simulation of a vibration in a large plate of sheet metal. Gated. Reverb that ends abruptly, rather than fading out. - Reverse. Applying reverb to a signal where the reverb actually occurs before the signal, creating a "swell" effect. Reverb is controlled by Decay which determines how long it will take for the reverb to fade to silence, Pre-delay which adds a of delay before the reverberant effect engages, Diffusion creates a more complex/diffuse and therefore realistic reverb.
EQ. When using the equalizer your best friend is the EQ in/out button, frequent use of this will let you know if your on the right track, and moving in the right direction. Some general frequency ranges:
Voice: light presence (5 kHz), sibilance/essey(7.5 - 10 kHz), boomy (200 - 240 kHz), full/deep (120 Hz)
Electric Guitar: full/deep (240 Hz), biting (2.5 kHz), airy/light (8 kHz)
Bass Guitar: deep (60 - 80 Hz), snappy/crisp (700 - 1000 Hz), string noise (2.5 kHz)
Snare Drum: full/fat(240 Hz), crisp (5 kHz)
Kick Drum: full/deep (60 - 80 Hz), snappy/crisp (4 kHz)
Hi Hat & Cymbals: airy/light (7.5 - 10 kHz), clanky (200 Hz)
Toms: snappy/crisp (5 kHz), full (120 - 240 Hz)
Acoustic Guitar: brash (2 kHz), boomy (120 - 200 Hz), cut (7 - 10 kHz)
Equalization is a good tool when used very sparingly, it can be used in place of the fader as a means of increasing a particular tracks presence, or decreasing unwanted noise. The best practice in the long run is in removing the unwanted rather than adding, sometimes backing off everything else is the best way to enhance a particular track. Boost the 2k-5k frequency range by about 3dB. Then reduce the same band in the other parts by the same amount. You can do this during a mix if you have to.
Beyond these basics, everyting else is a matter of taste, (theirs first,yours second), trial and error, and practice. Let your ears be your guide and take frequent breaks. Your ears, like everything else will get tired, and what sounded good yesteday afternoon will frequently sound hellish the next morning. Another interesting technique you can use during your project is to take one of your favorite CDs, and occasionally use it for a reference point when you are mixing. having a reference helps. When you feel that everything is right; Record, Listen, Repeat! , as often as necessary.
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