I had several people ask me to do a post to offer up how I record/mix/master my songs. (I know there are some purists who say that you can only “master” a group of songs, as opposed to a single song – so when I refer to mastering, I’m talking about the “final” step in my mix, where I add the mastering compression, eq, set the overall volume, etc.)
First of all, let me offer my disclaimer: I do not consider myself a professional, or great mixing engineer. I am confident in what I do but always learning. Some of my methods are probably not the best way to do things, but they work for me (until I learn a better way ). I welcome any comments and especially welcome your tips/suggestions on what works for you. (That way I can steal some of your techniques, and get better!) This will be a pretty long post, so here goes.
For my ground rules for mixing, my most important equipment is my ears. I have seen excellent mixes come from the least expensive setups, using good ears! I think somebody on this forum used to have a signature that said: “if it sounds good, it is good”.
Part of what makes a good mix is a good arrangement. The more complex the arrangement, usually the more difficult it is to get a “good” mix. So most of the time, simpler is better. I try (many times not too successfully) to remove every part that is not contributing to the overall quality of the mix. So many times, I have had really hot guitar/keyboard/drums/etc parts that sounded awesome alone, but just didn’t fit in the mix. Remember nothing is sacred about an individual part unless that part it the central focus of the song. If you keep your arrangements very simple, and your mixes clean, people will think more about your productions, and your singing will even sound better.
It’s important to have a clean recording of each part. With BIAB, that is pretty simple. Most of your foundation will be clean, and professionally recorded (if using Realtracks), and MIDI is pretty easy to record, as it is a “controlled” sound. So that leaves your vocals or any “external” instruments that you may play. I do everything “in the box” – In my computer for all my recording/mixing/etc. I have both a PC and a Mac. When I’m using my Mac, the daw is Logic Pro. When I’m using my PC, the daw is Sonar X1 Producer. (I like both. In my opinion, nowadays for the most part, a daw is a daw. They all pretty much have the ability to produce pretty good quality recordings. It’s a matter of preference what you use. If you have BIAB for PC, it comes with RealBand, which is plenty good enough to start with. I use a Focusrite Saffire 6 USB interface, and have a couple of decent mics that I use – Audio Technica 3525 and an MXL. They’re not too expensive $200 or so, each.
Now for my method of workflow.
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I do the basic arrange for my songs in BIAB. Once I have the arrangement done, I export each part to a WAV file and then import each WAV file into Sonar/Logic. (When I export to WAV, never include any effects or tone changes – I add any effects/eq/etc in Sonar/Logic). I set the volume on each part to 111, and export to WAV. (111 because I’m too lazy to type other numbers!)
Once the BIAB WAV’s are imported into Sonar/Logic, then I record vocals. Usually record 1 track for Lead Vocals verses, and a separate track for Lead Vocals choruses (maybe a 3rd for bridges, transitions, etc.) When I record my Background Vocals, I record usually at least 3 separate tracks for each harmony part. It’s not uncommon for me to have 16-18 tracks of just background vocals. Don’t worry, doesn’t take long to do – I just find the verse/chorus where I want to add the vox, and 1 pass record each track til I have them all done. When the BGV’s are layered, the slight imperfections actually help to “thicken up” the sound. I usually only re-record a BGV if a word is mispronounced, etc.
I take the drums generated by BIAB and place them on 3 tracks: 1 track eq’d for the mix, a 2nd track with effects, and a 3rd track no eq/effects, with the WAV nudged to the right a few milliseconds (not enough to cause any phasing problems). Then I bring the 3 tracks up to combine the drum sound – the 1st track (eq’d) will be the dominant drum sound, then bring the “effects” (usually reverb) to suit the sound, and finally, the “nudged” track is brought up to “fatten” the sound.
Bass is done somewhat similar concept, with the bass part on 2 tracks. 1 track eq’d for the low end, and the 2nd track eq’d for the mids and highs. I usually send the 2 bass tracks to a bus where I put any finishing touches (distortion, amp sims, compression, etc)
I also send all my Background vocals to a bus where I put reverb/delay, etc. I also eq the BGV pretty thin, with a High-Pass filter taking out everything below around 200Hz or so – sounds drastic, but I don’t want my BGV’s competing with the Lead Vox.
As to the overall mixing process, I use a LOT of High Pass filtering so the true low-frequency sounds I want don’t have to overcompensate and make the mix too boomy. Generally, the bass guitar and kick are the primary parts I want to be heard in the low end. Instruments like organ and piano can have a lot of low end in them, and I can usually take out most of their low end without compromising the mix.
As to effects, this post would be WAY too long to go into too much detail there. It’s a matter of taste and using your ears. I use Waves quite a bit. They are very good quality, but they can be a little pricey. There are a lot of good free plugins, and every daw that I know of comes with most of the basic plugins you need to get started.
For my mixes, I set up every track to go to a stereo bus that I create (I call it MIX). The Bass, BGV’s and any other buses that I have created all go out to the MIX bus. There is a method to my madness! With EVERYTHING routed to the Mix Bus, I put all my “mastering” plugins in the Mix Bus. The Mix Bus is routed out to the Master track/bus that all daws use. THEN, I import a PROFESSIONAL track from a comparable cd to what I want my sound to be like. This PROFESSIONAL track is NOT routed through the Mix Bus but is routed directly to the Master track. I put an Analyzer plugin on the Master track, so I can “see” the frequencies used in BOTH the Professional Track and my output from the MIX BUS. (This way the Professional Track is not treated by the “mastering” plugins in my Mix Bus.) I keep the Professional Track Muted. Now, once I start getting my song “dialed in” in the mix, I just simply Solo, and unmute the Professional Track, so I can A/B the sounds, and try to get as close as I can to emulating the overall “sound” of the professionally produced track. You can get pretty close. Just remember, George Strait has a virtually unlimited budget, uses the most expensive equipment, and the best engineers in the business. I have a thousand dollar computer, and I’ve been married 35 years, so I have 35% hearing loss in my right ear!
There is a lot more about what I do, but this is the foundation. Remember, the most important instrument is your ears for mixing. Also, no matter where we are, that’s where we are. We can grow from here. I believe it was Frank Zappa who once said “You never really finish a project. An album is just a snapshot of where you were the day you walked out of the studio.”
Stephen W. Young is a singer/songwriter/musician with a broad range of musical styles. His songs reflect inspiration and encouragement, with an occasional dose of humor. He has been involved in music and recording projects for over 35 years and has had several songs recorded by notable artists.