How to achieve best results when mixing down to a stereo pair for mastering

A few thoughts on how to achieve best results when mixing…

Obviously, being a blog post (and not an essay!), I don’t have the scope here to go into massive detail. I can, however, take a more reflective approach…

The way I see mixing, a mix engineer’s job is in two parts: Knowing the tools, and using the tools.

Know thy weapon

Like any craftsperson, the mix engineer has several tools available. At a basic level almost all mixing involves adjusting the tone and dynamics of several audio tracks. Usually tone is adjusted using EQ and dynamics are adjusted using the channel fader and compression. Delving deeper, there are many variants of each and even hybrid processors that change both tone and dynamics simultaneously.

Different EQs are designed with different focusses and trade-offs. As such, different EQs sound different. Sometimes this is because the internal design is very unique – two EQs might sound differently even with the same front-panel settings. Sometimes, however, it is the front-panel design itself that makes the EQ sound different. The number of bands, knob ranges and discrete settings vs continuous settings will make you, the mix engineer,  think differently when you’re using it. For example, you might be dealing with a voice recording that is too muddy. Listening to it, you might decide to reduce the energy in the lower mids and boost the top. The exact frequencies you use and the amount of boost will depend on the design of the EQ you’re using. Even the number of EQ bands you use might vary from EQ to EQ. To see this for yourself, try EQing a sound with a particular EQ, then take it out of the chain and use a different EQ with a different design. It’s likely you’ll find that, knob settings aside, you’ll come up with a (slightly) different sound. Your mind is working differently. It’s taking a slightly different problem-solving approach, dependant on the capabilities, limitations and suggestions of the tool in front of you.

The same applies to compressors and other dynamics processors. The internal design affects attack and release curves, program-dependancy and other ways in which the device responds to the sound and the sound responds to the device. The front-panel design also affects the way you, the mix engineer, thinks about how to apply compression. Do you have the full compliment of knobs (attack, release, threshold, ratio, makeup)? Are there additional knobs (eg. knee, detection mode, etc)? What about the relative size of the knobs? You might configure the compressor one way if all the knobs are the same size and lined up neatly, or another way if the threshold and ratio knobs are large and the attack and release knobs are small.

Hybrid processors can come in many flavours. At one end of the spectrum there are EQ processors that apply some small amount of saturation (which compresses the sound somewhat). At the other end of the spectrum there are compressors that apply some tonal shift in addition to gain reduction. In between is a strange world inhabited by dedicated saturators, dynamic EQs, multiband compressors, harmonic exciters, and more extreme tools like amp simulators and filters. These tools are even more diverse than regular EQs and compressors, and as such the decisions that went into their design play an even bigger part on how they interact with the audio, and how you interact with them.

For better or worse

Hopefully it should be pretty clear from the above that there’s no single “best” tool in each category. Of course different tools will respond differently depending on the audio you’re working with. Your choice of tool also depends greatly on YOU – does the tool help you get the sound you want? Regardless of what others say, do you find yourself fighting with it to get results? More control (ie, more knobs or faders) doesn’t always translate to better control. Conversely, there’s no point using a tool with limited controls if you can’t get a sound you like. Your choice of tools may very well be different to someone else’s – even if they work with similar music to you.

Thoughts about using the tools will have to come another time… ;-)

-Kim.

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    • jdt
    • March 19th, 2009

    Nice, well written and informative.

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