Alright so what's up with the title of the post - let's talk about balance for a minute. This upcoming RECORDING LOUNGE PODCAST episode is about getting things to fit in a mix using reverb, compression, and EQ. Figured I'd share a story about this.
The time was last week, some late weeknight, and I'm working on a mix. At that time I had drums and bass grooving together, guitars starting to work, and the vocals in the verses. I kept looping the verse and working on that and it sounded awesome. Eventually I got to a point where I said, man I love this verse. Time to move on to the chorus. The chorus had a different selection of certain parts (different guitars, different pads) so I was trying to mix those all in with the already solid drums and bass.
The problem I began having was that the chorus just did - not - work. I kept blaming the parts. This guitar part isn't working, so I'd mute it and then the chorus would sound empty. Then I thought, okay maybe it's just too loud, so I turned it down. Then that didn't work. So then I started messing with the EQ. The part I was really having trouble with was this guitar part that was subtle but added a lot to the chorus live. When it was recorded, it just was not working.
I decided to take a different approach. I muted the guitar part and just listened to the chorus. Nice pretty highs, nice powerful lows, but the mids seemed to be a bit empty, and it was primarily in the 400-1k range, which we generally think of as boxiness. It wasn't that I had filtered out too much on other instruments, it was just like someone in the band wasn't playing that was supposed to be - that's literally how it sounded!
Now, this guitar part was sort of a chimey guitar that sounded amazing on its own, but in the mix just didn't work. What I decided to do was reamp the guitar part through a wah pedal and a dark tube amp and got this dark murky filtered sound with virtually no top end and very little bottom end. When put back in the mix, the chorus sounded amazing.
Why was that? Well, when I listened to the chorus without the guitar part and liked the balance but it seemed to miss something in the mids. The guitar part was chimey so lots of pretty highs and beautiful bell like high mids. But no body. Darkening it up with the wah did change the band's "intent" of that part, however, it made the chorus really gel together. It taught me something really great about balance.
Moral of the story: balance is not an individual track by track feat. It's not all about volumes (loud and soft) and pans (left to right), it's also about depth (front to back) and microdynamics (percussive performance vs. smooth performance) as well as tonality (EQ and part selection). When you listen to songs or sections of songs, try to listen to what is "missing" in the section's makeup. If nothing is missing, you are very likely to love that section. If something is missing, it may be some gap in the highs or in the lows, maybe the bass part changed or the guitar part is weird and now there is a gap in the low mids and mids.
Try not to listen to "guitars" and "bass" and "drums" but instead listen for the EQ CURVE of the mix. Listen to what "high frequencies" are coming through as well as what "low frequencies" are coming through. Try to think of it in that way artistically and you may find your mixes changing in a great way. If you ask yourself "what's going on in the mids" you could easily list almost every track, but if you start saying "what's going on in the 500-1k region" and if there's a deficit (or a surplus) then it might sound very off.
It's not about making a mix where every frequency is represented the same volume as every other frequency. This is where the age old quote "follow the song" comes in. Each section will offer a different dynamic balance, tonal balance, and spatial balance. The more you learn to recognize these things as an artistic means to an end, the better your mixes will sound because you will mix quicker, less analytically and more creatively. Also, you will probably find yourself using less processing and EQ!
Good luck. Listen for the next podcast tonight - search iTunes for RECORDING LOUNGE