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Mixing Techniques: Balancing the Rhythmic Section Part (1)

We have been talking about the importance of having the session of a song ready to be mixed. We talked about having all the different sections of the song marked, that is, add markers were the intro, verses, and the chorus begins and ends, etc. It is essential to make sure that the tempo of the song is calculated correctly. And that the song starts at the beginning of the session (in the first downbeat). Make sure the unwanted noises are "cleaned" or edited.

Furthermore, assure the instruments such as the drums are playing on time, and of course, the voices and instruments are well-tuned. In this post, we will discuss and practice the mixing of the song named "Come Back To Me" (used previously). This topic contains all the ingredients necessary to practice mixing; that is, a variety of instruments to apply balance techniques, equalization, compression, etc., which we will talk about in future posts.

The process of mixing music is subjective and personal. There are no rules or formulas to achieve the right mix. What I can tell you is that, when you start in this fun and creative field, you don't know where to start the mix. Every time I teach the mixing class in my school (, the students spend the first two hours trying to make a mix of a provided song. That's when I realize that everyone starts mixing in different ways. For example, some start by putting in Solo an instrument. Then, they begin to equalize and compress without realizing how it will turn-down in the mix with the rest of the musical instruments.

Others bring all the faders up and start adding effects such as reverbs and delays, among others.

Everyone has a different way of starting a mix, and many times the results are not favorable. That's why it is useful to follow some tips or guidelines from people who have mixed for years. Using those guidelines does not mean that those are the formula for mixing, but we can adapt them to start creating our mixing techniques later on in our career as a mixing engineer.

It is essential to learn to know when a mix is done and ready. You can take as much time as you want, but sometimes making it worse instead of making it sound better. One day, in a studio here in Los Angeles, I asked a well-known producer, "Hey, when do you know the mix is ready?" And he replied, "When the budget runs out," and he laughed. He continued, "In the studio, I was using to mix the record, they charged me $3,000 per day (10 hours a day), so obviously, I had to make a decision when the mix was ready." Nowadays, things have changed a bit with the proliferation of "Home Studios," where someone can spend hours and hours mixing a song. Others might say they can finish mixing a song in an hour. I can only imagine how it will sound. Anyway, whatever it is, we will try to follow a specific order of tasks as a guideline to the mixing process. And, as I mentioned earlier, the process I am going to discuss here, is by no means an absolute way of doing things; this is just a guideline; at least for those of you who are still confused on how to start a mix, so, let's get to work.

The song "Come Back to Me," which was recorded and edited in Pro Tools, has the right choice of instruments that includes bass, drums, percussions, acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards (piano/ synthesizers), and voices. Do you notice the order in which I mentioned the instruments? Well, this is a standard order to order the musical instruments on the mixing board. It is a good idea to order the musical instruments in "families" to later group them and be able to manipulate them easily.

As you can see in Figure 1, I have ordered the tracks of the instruments of the rhythm section, in the way I just mentioned above. Also, notice that all faders or volume controls are down. The pan controls are in their center position, none are pan to the left or the right, and that the colors of the tracks in the Mix window in Pro Tools are assigned in a single gray color. Also, notice the creation of a Master Fader track to control the overall tracks output in the session. You might want to keep this Master Fader track at its 0dB position or Unity Gain, and it is recommended to leave it in this position throughout the mixing process to maintain a constant reference level of the output.

In Figure 2, you can see that now, the tracks are colored according to the "family" of instruments. For example, the Red tracks belong to the "family" of the drums. The tracks in medium orange color are percussions. The blue ones are the guitars. This way, it is easier to distinguish and control them while mixing.

Since everything is ready, it is time to start raising the faders and start balancing the levels. It is a good idea to concentrate first on stabilizing the sound of the drums, so you get a solid rhythmic section. Also, I advise you to focus on the chorus section first when you are balancing all the instruments, which is usually the section where all of them start playing, and the total level of the mix goes up in volume. So I'm going to select the first chorus section of the song. To achieve this, I will click on the marker called "Chorus 1a", then I will press and hold the Shift key, and do another click at the end of the "Chorus 1a" marker to get the full selection of the chorus section (see Figure 3).

Since the chorus is selected, it's time to start playing the song and first raise the fader of the kick drum. And why first the kick? Because it is perfect practice to assign a reference level so that the rest of the instruments in the song, can be based on this level. Of course, one must have the monitors calibrated and have a visual aid with a suitable analog or digital meter, either hardware or software. If you are using Pro Tools, I advise you to assign the plug-in called "PhaseScope" in the Master Fader channel (see Figure 4). This meter will help you visually monitor the levels of your mix, as well as its phase.

This song was recorded with three kick drum tracks. One track was recorded with the microphone inside the kick drum. The second track was recorded with the microphone outside the kick drum, and the third with a subsonic bass drum to add very low frequencies. This microphone technique is common nowadays to give a fuller sound to the kick, with a good body and depth. In Figure 5, you can notice the three faders of the drum combined. You may also see that the meter is showing a level between -5dB and -4dB assigned on the VU scale (is the advisable level to start your mix with). If you are using another recording program such as Cubase or Logic, try to assign some meter, or if you have an external one, then go ahead. This way, you can practice with a reference song you have and compare it with the one you are mixing. Of course, this level will change by adding the rest of the elements of the Drum set and even more when adding the rest of the instruments, but it is a good start.

Well, that is all for now. In the next post, we will add the rest of the drums and level its elements. Also, we will assign the panning until we get the sound of the drums that sounds like a unit. Do not miss it.

Until next time!

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