One trend we all seem to notice in mixes is that to get things to sound the way we hear them in our minds, we often end up adding top end, and or taking out low end, carving spots in the low mids, finding things to accentuate in the high mids, getting instruments focused to their midrange, etc particularly in dense mixes. Not necessarily a "lot," but regardless it seems we always have to do it. Very rarely can you just put up a session flat and have it sound almost finished.
So WHY do things cloud up in the low
end? I mean obviously a bit part of it starts with arrangement, how
things are played, instrument and amp choices, particular settings on
these, etc. Is it related to the fact that while recording we often make
everything sound big and full? You know "hit the kick drum" and we get
levels and say "yeah, sounds like a kick," but in the mix it's not
bright enough, and so on?
Is it that a lot of "homebrew" recording engineers are using gear that
is often muddy and unclear in the mids and highs? I remember the first
time I heard an A/B between a rack of real 1272s and a rack of newer API
512s. The vintage 1272s were SO much brighter and clearer than the
APIs. Not that this is a bad thing whatsoever, just a different flavor.
Is it that many inexperienced engineers are recording in quite muddy
sounding rooms in the first place? Even in mixes I get that are done by
talented engineers, I still have to carve space.
Is it that electronics and recording technology in general can't
process sound the same way that our ears do? Our ears seem to have the
amazing ability to "make stuff sound better" when we can see it,
experience it, etc. McGurk Effect, Coctail Party effect, any other
scientific explanations will tell you that we are highly influenced by
our eyes, when, if we were actually close our eyes while listening to a
band at a concert (and I never do this!), it may not sound that great in
comparison to the record or whatever.
The only real justifications for tracking things with big full low ends that I can find are:
1. Isolation. Micing things close with cardioid mics unfortunately gives us proximity effect
2. Getting what the client wants out of their sound - they hear it
through the monitors and want it to sound huge. Make them happy, then it sucks in the mix.
3. Being able to bring certain instruments more full range at some
sections than at others (for example, acoustic guitar intro, full band
starting at the chorus - acoustic can easily be filtered for the rest of
Other than those three though, it absolutely drives me up the walls. I
feel like on the next project that I record , I'm going to double mic
every close mic'ed source with a far mic. Let them hear the close mic so
they can say : "dood yeah that is my TONE so fat and analog and huge and warm...but also super clean and digital and detailed and crisp" but then...secretly...my other mic is actually picking up the real sound.
I am quite convinced that since the beginning, every instrument is
designed to function as a full range solo instrument. This is why a mix
of acoustic guitar and vocal needs much less mixing work provided that
the stuff is recorded well. When you get a typical rock track it's like
trying to fit twenty solo instruments on sixty tracks down to a left and
right. No wonder people have such a hard time learning to mix... It's
totally counter intuitive to the way we listen to our instruments in real
space. Live situations often have FAR more low end than recorded
material. And it's totally valid for that application.
This brings up another interesting thought...
If you track something with low end and then roll it off, you may be
reaping some of the benefits of the harmonic content naturally
associated with a "big sounding" source. We can potentially all agree
that in general a fender Bass through an ampeg sounds pretty great.
Sounds great in the room, everyone's happy, so theoretically the mic
choice and placement (eg. Brighter mic than we may usually use on a bass
cab) might more effectively capture the source rather than recording
with a big sounding mic and then rolling it off...
I'm no acoustician but I assume the result would be much different if
you recorded a thin sounding bass through a thin sounding cab with a mic
like a fet 47. The harmonics created in the mids may not be there since
we've neutered our bottom end. It would probably actually sound worse.
Plus the client would be completely in the dark in terms of getting
"their tone." I'm a musician too like many of you, so I totally would
hate a recording engineer making me completely falsify "MY SOUND" in the
live room. In the mix, it obviously has to fit, but I'd be put off
(even knowing what i know) if he was like "hey screw your 2x12 let's use
this 1x6 cab to fit in the mix"
Plus, tiny sound is interpreted as tiny in a room mic, even if the close mic fits in the mix... Room mic would sound terrible.
Mic placement vs mic choice vs tweaking the source...
I guess it's my assumption that the source should be tweaked until it
sounds good in the room, not neutered so to fit in the track as I
previously joked... I think in practice having a big sounding source in
the room is not always a bad thing... Makes the client happy and is of
course the sound they are used to hearing in their own spaces. Now to
This is where the real art or engineering comes into play I guess. The
right mic and placement is much more important than EQ obviously but the
low end is a great example of why. It's proof. It's probably the same
reason why we often start with overheads or rooms and just fill in...
The overheads rarely have an overpowering low end which helps us out in
the long run.
As far as mixing goes, checking on reference monitors and checking reference mixes when level matched is a GREAT way to see if you're in the ballpark. Low end and low mids WILL make or break your mix. Period.
A sidebar about low end -
I generally find that there's not much going on below 100hz that is anything but kick and bass. Maybe a little floor tom ,but that's it. Reverbs have HPFs, vocals and guitars and pianos have HPFs, everything gets a highpass. Most things can stand a filter pretty high - some things up to 300 or 400hz! I generally find myself putting a HPF on kick and bass at 30-50hz, depending. Usually just to get rid of sub clutter. Guitars are generally around 100, vocals are generally 120, keys really vary depending on the role they play in the track. Pads can sometimes stand a filter up to 300 if they're supposed to be airy. Backing vocals usually get up to 150 or so, again, depending on their role.
Remember that mic distance also will affect the low end of a source, as well as mic polar pattern. Using a mic just 1" away from an amp sounds a lot different than 5" away from the amp. Proximity effect can really add up in the mix and can start to sound bad.
THE most common recording mistake I hear in tracks I get from novice engineers is low end mud. Everything is muddy. Too much lows and low mids on everything. I attribute that to the things above - proximity effect (placing cardioid mics too close to the source), sub-par acoustic environments (causing buildup of muddy frequencies), and cheap gear that is unclear in the midrange and top end.
Think about it!