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The Two Stage Mixing System

Brandon Drury —  October 5, 2011 — 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.

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!

Saved Comments


moleunion – 10-04-2011, 12:42 AM
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More good stuff! Keep it coming.

kredd’s Avatar
kredd – 10-04-2011, 08:55 AM
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right on! good words to live by!

Chased’s Avatar
Chased – 10-04-2011, 09:06 AM
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Ah, Brandon, I really like where you’re going lately with this manic “excite the listener” stuff – are you working on another e-book treating just this juicy topic, perhaps… Meaning, I wanna hear more, this article is just so tantalising. I’d love to read more detail and your thoughts on just paragraph 4 of the Stage#2:The Next Morning section, just as a starter. All most enjoyable in the usual finest quality wool for the thinking cap, cheers.

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Bo Polatty – 10-04-2011, 09:09 AM
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A few lines into this article and I’m already mumbling “Absolutely!”

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Mike Upchurch – 10-04-2011, 09:10 AM
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Quote Originally Posted by moleunion View Post
More good stuff! Keep it coming.
Good piece, but other than mentioning “automation” (which? Volume, EQ, Effects?) this lacks much explanation of the specifics of Phase 2. Got any specific advice, of better yet- another piece on the specifics of the creative mix?

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Canadian Guy – 10-04-2011, 09:14 AM
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Brandon, as usual you are totally on. I never considered it as a right brain, left brain thing but I used to finish a mix late on a Sunday night (I have to work weekdays) and I’d swear it was the best thing I’d ever done. A couple of day slater, I’d listen again go, “This is really s*****”. What was happening is exactly what you’ve described – I was EQing, fading and fiddling. Doing all technical stuff with no emotional focus. I now leave my mixes for a whole week and this “space” definitely helps. When I go back, I’m listening with fresh ears, I’m more critical and more objective.

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dvorme – 10-04-2011, 09:26 AM
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Yes. And if I push myself to Just Get It Done, I’m guaranteed to hate the mix later.

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racherry – 10-04-2011, 09:34 AM
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No doubt. If you are a guitar player, rest assured the guitar will be on top in the mix, same same piano, sax, etc. Every audio and speaker system has a slant on the mix, be aware. Get away and come back to it for a fresh percpective.

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redworks – 10-04-2011, 10:43 AM
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yeah man, this is where it is at. take the mix and mix it up and then you can start to get excited. i hear too many people trying to get a song to sound nice and forgetting that we want it to sound great not nice.

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DanTheMan – 10-04-2011, 11:01 AM
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This article is another great one. I hate doing all the technical crap while I’m trying to record myself. It’s like I’m straddling a fence. Perhaps that’s why I have trouble staying in key? Anytime something is up close and personal with the boys, my vocal cords are in primal mode. They’re good a grunts and screams, but not much else. Anyway, getting a dedicated friend that you can help and will help you make home recordings seems to be an ideal way of separating duties and allowing the brain to do what it wants to do–focus on something! Of course these means you have to trust that your partners skills are up to snuff. I find that hard to do.Dan

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mofo pro – 10-04-2011, 12:30 PM
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I’ve got to admit, I get spammed with tons of email new letters from people just talking Sh#t about audio… Seems like everyone with an opinion feels compelled to be an expert… a lot of time trying to package and sell this “wisdom” as brilliance. Then I read Brandon’s articles and honestly, even after being involved in music production for 40 plus years, I always come away with something valuable, if only a refresher in something I’ve not thought about for years… or a fresh perspective on something I have…Thanks Brandon… well done… damn near every time

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brandondrury – 10-04-2011, 02:03 PM
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. Got any specific advice, of better yet- another piece on the specifics of the creative mix?
Hmmm. I’m not sure if CAN be taught in general terms. On top of that, it’s subjective as hell. Hmmm.Much as I discuss towards the end of the little article, if the mix “sound good” (or even great), you screwed up. That’s NOT the point (not that we want it to sound bad). The point is the head bobbing, the mom crying, or the foot tapping depending on what you are up to. If none of those things occur, something is broken.You should wrecklessly and chaotically pursue that emotional response from people. If you aren’t dancing in your seat or banging in your feet I has to ask, “WHY NOT?”. When a song is awesome and my body is moving to the music I know I’ve got the mix right. There may be details that need to work out, but the mission is accomplished.When a production isn’t exciting, I usually scruntch up my eyebrows and get fairly radical with our options. For real bands this needs to be done in preproduction. If I’m feeling an emotion that the song isn’t supposed to convey (boredom, the not-dance feeling, etc) it’s time to start trying stuff. What stuff? Hell, I don’t know. I guess this needs to be another article or maybe even a video. To hammer out all the possibilities may take a full blown product. Not sure. I hate to even start with generic stuff. I could tell you, “Why not double time the hi-hat?” but that’s the kind of crap we all know. Maybe the point is to put yourself in a position where you use that side of your brain while mixing (in Phase #2). Did you ask if a hi-hat needed to be doubled? Did you ask what would happen if you killed the bass in the verse? the chorus? Maybe this “learn to ask” thing is part of it. By trying things types of things, it’s crazy how much a song can change in 10 minutes.Of course, everything affects everything. Sometimes half-timing the verse, causes the transition to the pre-chorus to sound screwy which changes the way the chorus hits. It’s all complex and getting all the pieces to fit perfectly is a challenge.
No doubt. If you are a guitar player, rest assured the guitar will be on top in the mix, same same piano, sax, etc
Agreed. Then when you over compensate you end up with them way too low in the mix. WE CAN’T WIN!!!
Anyway, getting a dedicated friend that you can help and will help you make home recordings seems to be an ideal way of separating duties and allowing the brain to do what it wants to do–focus on something!
DEFINITELY! In the old days we referred to this person as a “producer” or “engineer” even if it’s just you and the bass player switching off. I’m HUGE on this concept. I love to be in the room with a band writing. People are HORRIBLE at realizing when they do something AMAZING. Maybe they are self-conscious. I like just sitting there and when something is great saying, “YES YES YES YES YES!!!!!!!”. THAT THING is it!! Then if I’m not excited, that’s a sign, too.
I’ve got to admit, I get spammed with tons of email new letters from people just talking Sh#t about audio… Seems like everyone with an opinion feels compelled to be an expert… a lot of time trying to package and sell this “wisdom” as brilliance. Then I read Brandon’s articles and honestly, even after being involved in music production for 40 plus years, I always come away with something valuable, if only a refresher in something I’ve not thought about for years… or a fresh perspective on something I have…Thanks Brandon… well done
Thanks a ton for the praise! Now that I’m a defeated husband being beat on by a dominating wife, I could use the little pick-me-up. (Okay, she’s not turned into a monster YET, but it’s only been 3 days.)

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Burny – 10-04-2011, 05:53 PM
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Quote Originally Posted by brandondrury View Post
…but it’s only been 3 days.
Congratulations then!

For keeping her in check THAT long, of course :-)

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chacka – 10-05-2011, 03:04 AM
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Quote Originally Posted by brandondrury View Post
Now that I’m a defeated husband being beat on by a dominating wife, I could use the little pick-me-up. (Okay, she’s not turned into a monster YET, but it’s only been 3 days.)
What? You married just a few days ago? Congrats, man! All the best.

On your article, that is just what I needed right now! I’ve gotta train that switch muscle more.

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andresix – 10-08-2011, 11:17 AM
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Great one Brandon! I feel that every and each time i read one of your articles i’m getting inspired. Often it’s things i didn’t even though about so it’s forcing me to use brain (yeah, sometimes i do… not too often^^). Thx ! I’ll try and get that feel to my next mix!

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bilkin – 10-09-2011, 04:40 PM
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Good luck on the whole marriage thing there Brandon.

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ZanetheVocalist – 10-18-2011, 10:51 PM
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Great way to approach this. Of course the easiest way to add the contrast is via automation, but good automation take up a great deal of time to set up properly. If you have the time then by all means do it. I have a bad habit of mixing technically. Staring at the meters, worrying if the guitars should be half a db louder or the vocal reverb a little wetter… I should just go with how I feel and stop comparing new songs to old. Its one thing to use an old mix as a reference, than to try and copy what you did before again. Doing something different and making each song unique is my goal for all my future mixes.

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widnikprod – 10-20-2011, 11:15 AM
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Great article, especially as I go into day 2 on a mix and find that I apply most of what you’re saying already. I’ll be rethinking the things I don’t do now.

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Audio~Geek – 10-23-2011, 01:37 PM
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I wish I could get a mix done in two days. The stuff I’ve been working on lately, after each mix the songwriter sends me 5 new tracks to add. His rough mixes are just a mess, there’s no room for anything else. I mix, clear up a ton of space, spectrally and spatially and fix the timing. Magically the songs don’t sound as full. The mixes take weeks.

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Austin4 – 11-15-2011, 10:55 AM
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Fantastic article. Will be sharing with my Audio Engineering instructors.

LazyE – 11-26-2011, 09:42 AM
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nice! i will apply these techniques for `raindeer rawkus`cheers:-)

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doug hazelrigg – 01-17-2012, 11:23 AM
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I have a largely contrarian view here. First, it doesn’t surprise me that a mix that peaks at -6dB RMS would seem “boring.” In-your-face loud from start to finish IS boring! And when I read all this stuff about how a mix — as opposed to the song itself — should make people want to get up and dance, etc. I really wondering what specific things we’re talking about here.. why do I suspect we mean massive compression and hyped EQ?

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coolcatbro – 03-26-2012, 07:50 PM
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great article. i been reading all over of mixing tips and this was an interesting angle to separate the two stages.
preventing burn out is a big concern.

 

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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