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The Two Stage Mixing System

Brandon Drury —  February 18, 2012 — Leave a comment

If there’s any common muscle that never seems to need more exercise in audio recording land, it has to be the left brain / right brain switcher.  Being able to switch from a guy who can troubleshoot a video card or wire a patchbay to a guy who create a melody that makes you imagine you have three arms is not an easy task.  In recording land you  MUST learn to use this left brain / right brain switcher muscle.

Mixing-System

In my experience, no one is great at this.  I’ve never really seen anyone who was equally good at equalizing a vocal and determining how much emotional intensity was in that take all at the same time.  You can kinda teeter totter back and forth between the two brains, but if you’re under the gun of any time limitations, very few of us consistently nail both.

Any time I get a chance to bust up the two types of task, I do.  When tracking electric guitars, for example, I always reamp.  It does take more time.  I don’t care.  I’d rather plug the Les Paul into a DI, run it through some emulator, and not have to think about anything tonal.  I can then focus on making sure the guitar player plays tightly, in-tune, and grooves properly.  I don’t have to concern myself with 6L6 vs EL34 vs EL84 or Vintage 30 vs Greenback or dynamic mic vs ribbon.  I just need to get the guitars down.  I like being luxury of focusing.

Most of all, I’ve really gotten into mixing in two main stages.

Stage #1 Mixing

The goal with a Stage #1 mix is to come out with a full-blown mix, but do it with half the good brain.  In other words, I force myself to get all the tracks organized, color-coded, and routed in ways that I like to work.  I need to cut out all the noise.  I need to try to solve any and all obvious problems I may have in individual tracks.  Then I need to go ahead and force a real mix.  I say “force”, because this generally means I need to make the left-brain/right-brain switch.

I think this may be the crucial cerebral mistake that many new guys to mixing make.  They believe mixing is a technical process.  In the preliminary stages of any mix it probably most tecnica, but the purpose of mixing is to  excite the hell out of the listener.  In order to do that, you can ONLY do it within an emotional context yourself.  The rigid adherence to technical ability runs out of rope several yards from the main goal.  Technical-only mixers simply don’t have what it takes to pull this off and that’s why I’m not worried about robots taking our jobs in the next 20 years.  The irrational, emotional side of you is required.

Note:  In all seriousness, the most crazed women should have an extreme natural aptitude for mixing.  It’s rather surprising to me that we don’t have nearly as many women at the upper echelons of the mixing world.  Maybe some of this Stage #1 business is more geared for guys.  Not sure.

Anyhow, I am going for a real-deal mix with Stage #1.  The only thing that separates it from a Stage #2 mix is how seriously I take it the next morning.  I realize that this mix was contaminated with right-brain usage so I don’t take it too seriously.  I can’t.  It’s tainted.

It’s absolutely essential that this mix holds up at full-blown RMS level.  This is technical junk.  Using the TT Dymamic Range Meter, I’m now mixing to hit -4dB RMS in the loudest sections. That is as LOUD as what Britney Spears or Avenged Sevenfold will be.  Wedging 30 tracks into -4dB RMS isn’t easy.  It takes twice as much work as hitting -6dB RMS.  Yuck!  However, I look at this like a basketball coach holding his players up to higher standards in practice.  If the mix can’t squash to -4dB without pumping, distorting, or sounding like something went way wrong it’s definitely not ready for stage #2.  I CAN NOT be dealing with these kind of issues in stage #2 as it’s a sacred, emotional place.  If I’m pulling out frequency analyzers or questioning if I have the right kick and bass sounds, I have a major problem.  At Stage #2, I can always hit the multi-band a little less or hit the brickwall limiter a little less and come out at -6dB RMS.  The last thing I want to hear from the client is that  -6dB RMS is not loud enough.  I have heard this and it’s a HUGE pain after Stage #2 as it generally breaks most of my creative stuff.

I may as well get my mixes in shape early and let them take it easy if just happen to stumble upon my first client to ever NOT want it loud.

Stage #2:  The Next Morning

Like a strong hangover, you always view the world quite a bit differently the next morning.  I don’t like to listen to my Stage #1 mixes that night.  I always like to wait until the next morning.  The “new me” is a lot tougher on a mix than the guy who’s all proud of whatever decisions he made.

The overwhelming majority of the time, the mixes are often good.  I usually have one or two tiny little problems that I knew I was pushing the limit and I need to back off a bit.  However, there’s one gigantic flaw that I see almost every time.  The first mix is almost always BOOOOOOORINNNNNG.

What makes a mix “boring”?  The overwhelming thing I hear in my Stage #1 mix is a lack of change.  Everything feels really constant.  The first verse always seems to sound like the second verse.  The last chorus, aside from whatever additional tracks are used to pump it up, isn’t that far from the first chorus.  This lack of contrast within the song is kinda like eating only a piece of steak for supper.  It may even be one hell of a steak, but nothing beats eating a piece of t-bone and then grabbing a bite of corn, taters, or green beans.  The next bite of steak seems new again.

A major part of the Stage #2 mix is ensuring that I give the listener those side pieces to chew on. Some of this is a per-genre thing.  In pop music mixing, my creative freedom/responsibility is quite a bit higher.  I have to sort through numerous possible tracks and find ideal ways to “escalate” the song here and there.  In rock music, the performances should naturally do this quite a bit, but nowadays we are often given more tracks than we’d ever need and these can often be great tools to add contrast within the mix.  Even with a sparse arrangement, automation can be used to brutally manipulate what the listener feels.

Note:  It’s important to note that a “boring” mix of a great song will still sound pretty badass.  A person just listening for fun who likes the song will like it in Boring Mode.  They won’t even understand the mix sucks.  Maybe this is “squint mode” stuff.  However, a great song with a great mix should FEEL 30 zillion times better.  It’s the difference between the song making you want to move or the song sounding good.

A person who listens to your mix and says, “Sounds good”, just gave you the middle finger.  That’s a HUGE sign that you’ve royally screwed up.  A metalhead should be bangin’ his head.  Dance music should inspire dancing from everyone in the room.  Any radio genre should require you to ask the band to sing along softer so you can hear the monitors.  Exceptions to this are when the band is too insecure to enjoy their music or the song wasn’t that good in the first place.

Conclusion

When you do your first mix of a song, get all the technical hurdles out of the way and do you damnedest to crank out a mix that kills.  Listen on another set of speakers with completely fresh ears and see if the mix makes you move.  If not, go back and attack it with that goal specifically in mind.  Rely on your emotions and toss logic out the window.

I’ve found the 2-stage mixing system to be absolutely crucial to my way of working.  I avoid the problems associated with switching the left-brain/right-brain muscle.  Hopefully in the end everyone is dancing.

Good luck!

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of RecordingReview.com and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.
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