Thursday, October 31, 2013

How To Overmix a Song

I thought I would make a funny post today, but with an underlying lesson. This is "how to overmix a song."


1. Start by mixing the song. Then mix it again, then clear your faders and go on to step 2.

2. Spend the next three hours going through each track, obsessing over tiny resonances and things that need to be fixed.

3. Fix the tuning and timing on every single track, make it all perfect. So perfect, it actually becomes wrong again. THAT is how perfect.

4. Duplicate every track and process them all differently. That makes it more interesting.

5. Make sure to use up every single pan spot between 100L and 100R. You should have about 200 tracks in your mix so that's about right.

6. If there are not 10 effects on every track, your mix will be boring.

7. EQ, Compress, and Gate every single track, even if it doesn't need it. All the pros do that.

8. Spend at least an hour messing with the master bus compressor, or add up to 15 compressors in series, each compressing 0.2dB, it sounds better that way.

9. Automate every measure of every track - get those dynamics going....

10. ...then crush all the dynamics with an L2 on the master, cutting off anywhere from 2 - 25dB of reduction.

There you have it. That's how to overmix a song. I hope you've learned something!


The lesson here is this: it is REALLY easy to overmix a song. Obsessing over details, feeling the need to do things to every track, feeling the need for tons of effects, feeling the need to add a master bus compressor, honestly feeling the need to do anything arbitrarily -- it's not a good thing. We are mixing MUSIC, we're not splitting atoms. There is usually no need to obsess over these things. Sure, some mixes need a lot of work, and there is no denying that. But really, the longer you spend with a mix, the worse it will get. It's like a bell curve -

Imagine the X axis as "time" and the Y axis as "how good is your mix." There WILL BE some time required to get your mix good. As you move up this curve, the mix improves, stuff becomes clearer, the song really starts to take shape. The problem is, the longer you tweak, almost 100% of the time, the mix just gets worse. I have done some mixes in a few hours that were more exciting and focused that mixes I spent days on. Why? A few reasons:

1. In the short mix, I wasn't worried or stressed. I was just thinking "no big deal, just a quick mix."
2. In the short mix, I wasn't worried about details. I didn't have the time to stress over them.
3. In the short mix, I didn't have time to fix everything.
4. In the short mix, I had to make quick decisions and condense things down.
5. In the short mix, I really listened.

In general, it takes me about 8-12 hours to mix a song start to finish. If you add in the extra time making corrections and fixes from the artist, on average a total of 10-14 hrs for a single mix. This stuff takes time, and I've been doing it every day for the last 7 years. I'm no expert, and I'm no legend. I'm just a guy like you trying to do the best I can with my skills and my setup.

Back in the day, mixing wasn't nearly as complicated. Now, a LOT of work is done in the mix. People back then weren't recording much in homes, they were recording in professional facilities, almost EXCLUSIVELY. In retrospect, they were some of the best musicians of all time, and they were using some of the best instruments and recording equipment ever made, and they were doing it all on tape. Decisions had to be made. Things had to be worked out before ever setting foot into the studio. It was a cutthroat world. Now it's different - people can make stuff in their untreated bedrooms and work on cheap equipment.

The point is, what you put in is what you're going to get out of it. The room matters. The instruments matter. The playing and emotion matters. When you really grasp that, when you really understand that the source -- meaning the song / instrument / performance --- is the most important thing in the chain, you will worry a lot less. The MIX is a function of making these elements have emotion. It's not about "how much 3khz does this have." It's never been about that. The specifics don't matter.

When you're EQ'ing something, try to think less about "this needs less 5k" or "this needs some compression" and instead try to look at a mix more creatively, saying things like "this needs to be warmer" or "this needs more punch." You wouldn't think this would make a difference but it does - when you think in generalities, you don't sweat the details, and you often will come up with a better mix. It's quicker, it's more focused. You're worrying less about frequencies and attack times and more about "does it sound good or not?" Because that is what matters.

And for Pete's sake, don't spend days or weeks mixing a single song! Set yourself a time limit, let's say two days, and give yourself HOURS. So if you only have a few hours each night to mix, then say "okay I'm going to mix for 3 hours tonight, 3 hours tomorrow, and it should be pretty close." Don't just mix for 30 minutes and then stop, then come back to it in a week, then reset everything...don't do that! You will lose all emotion and creativity for your mix. Mixing a song is like playing a gig. You can't just play a song and then take a break. You have to put in the hours and really PERFORM. That's what mixing is. It's a performance just as much as a song is a performance. Doing it in a single block of time often yields much better results than spending days upon end, or even doing little by little for a week...

Friday, June 28, 2013

Getting the Right Drum Sounds

Today's blog post is inspired by a reply I made on Gearslutz. The question was basically about "what preamps should I use on my drums?" Very common question, but I sort of...well...ranted on for a while. I thought maybe this would help some of you understand the planning and process of a drum sound -

"One of my biggest fascinations in my job is the planning that can, will, and should be involved with each project. The idea of "we want drums to sound huge" is not enough. Everybody wants rockin drums, rockin guitars, huge vocal, huge we know music in the production side is all an illusion. It's about recreating some sort of musical event, either realistic or imaginary, honest or impossible, and putting it between two speakers to somehow create this representation in our mind's eye...or really, our ear's mind.

So if the drums are sitting in a very dense mix, you will probably need to prioritize the close mics. As much as I hate to say that, it's true. The denser the music, the less "roomy" stuff you can often get away with. Track counts of 120 don't lend themselves to tons of room mic. I often find myself riding the room mics and overheads CONSTANTLY in these types of songs to push them in and out of focus when there is room. Instead, the kick, snare, and tom mics poke through, while the rooms and overheads provide the "overall kit" sound, but in a production this massive, you cannot have tons of cymbal wash anyway, because this usually involves a wall of other midrange instruments like pianos, strings, and guitars. My point there is that the denser the project, the simpler each part can and probably should be.

If the drums CAN have a large palette of space, and they have more room to breathe and fill out the music, I would prioritize the room mics and or overheads. Get those to sound as good as possible - and again, not just "good" but RIGHT. It is my contention that 9 times out of 10, getting drum sounds that are RIGHT for the production is FAR MORE IMPORTANT than getting drum sounds that are GOOD. Now I'm not saying "you have to make dirty lofi drum sounds" and "distort all the mics and run through amps." No, no, no. I'm saying that if you go for a typical setup of 2 OH, kick/snare/tom/tom close mics, a room mic or two, and outside/bottom mics on certain drums, you're going to get that typical sound. In the right context it can work great, no question! In the wrong context, it sounds "bad" to our ear because it's wrong for the production. Make careful note of what your ear is hearing as "wrong" versus "sounding bad." Believe it or not, your gut is right most of the time. If something sounds "bad" it's probably not because of the mic pre, I can guaran-damn-tee that.

When you're sound checking the drums, it's so easy to say "man that kick sounds huge" or "man those toms sound good." This is a slippery slope that will lead you to add way too much everything to everything. Too much low end, too much attack, too much compression, too much gating, too many mics. One of the things I learned that helped me a lot was, when getting drum sounds, don't get them to a scratch track. Get them to the whole band. It's impossible to really understand how the drums should sound unless you hear the whole band. The range of the vocalist, the key, the other instruments, the midrange content, will determine how much space the drums take up, how big the snare sound can/should be, how massive or small the kick can/should be, how long the cymbals can decay. Don't get them in solo or you will be enamored with wow factor. A great cymbal can sound great in solo, and terrible in a song. No question.

What is the span of the drumkit? Is it wide? Is it narrow? Is it big bass and bright treble? Is it more midrangey and woody? Again, this will also depend on your production. If the drums are supposed to be wide, you will probably want two overheads. If they're supposed to be narrow, you might want a mono overhead. There is NOTHING wrong about narrow drums - Led Zeppelin, Tom Petty, Van Halen, Train, Queens of the Stone Age, Michael Jackson, almost any artist you can think of has had major hits with narrow if not mono drums. The same goes for VERY wide drums. Both work - but again, don't necessarily think that it worked because the mixer just happened to be very good at making it work. Now sure, most of the mixers and engineers who worked on these records are some of the best in the world, but the production side of the music determined what sound was RIGHT for the production.

Don't get caught up in this romantic idea of "drums sounding amazing and huge" and instead focus on "what can I get away with in this production" or worded differently, "what's surrounding the drums that will define the drum sound?" Does the drum sound define the sound? Without that drum sound would it sound like a different genre? Is there going to be a wall of guitars? Is is an acoustic-based production? Is it a piano-based song? What IS the piano playing? How much distortion is on the guitars? Are there a lot of vocals? How loud is the lead vocal going to be? All of these factors can determine the drum sound. I cannot stress enough the importance of understanding the song as a while before putting up a single mic.

If you're wanting the drums to sound as though there is a drumkit 5-20 feet in FRONT of you, it doesn't make much sense to worry about the close mics as much. They are the fill-ins to the rooms/overheads. If you want it to sound as though you're sitting AT the kit, surrounded by drums, the close mics seem to be a viable way to get that sound.

The point is, if you view your overheads as cymbal mics, then that would drastically change what mics you use, what position you place them in, and what preamp you choose. If you go for the same drum sound every time, or if you specifically work in one genre that demands a certain sound, then you can probably get away with using set-and-forget type methods of placement that "work" for you in your space (metal for example seems to demand a specific sound that EVERYONE uses and without these norms it doesn't sound like metal drums to us). Granted, I said it would work, I didn't say it would be interesting.

I used to "experiment" a lot more and say things like "let's just try to get a weird drum sound, something totally different!" When in fact, what I learned is that only certain productions lend themselves to a lot of experimentation. That sounds very anti-hero of me, but it's true. Sometimes the typical setup is what the production NEEDS. Sometimes you need that multi-mic'ed hyper-real drum sound, not only because that's what the band likes, but because that's what fits the song and serves the song best. It's no mistake that those types of drum sounds are generally associated with dense rock - it works very well in that style of production. It's not selling out, it's logic. Now sure, if you have a production with a lot of space and subjectivity for the drum sounds, something that not only has a nice hole for the drums, but something that also lends itself to be a more "arty" sound, there's no reason not to experiment . One of my favorite drum sounds of all time is the 4-mic drums on Fiona Apple's song "Criminal." Brilliant! Fits the production so well. Speaks for itself. Serves the song. Serves the mood. Makes you feel a cohesive feeling from every instrument.

So. In summary, just figure out:

a) what do I want the drums to sound like
b) where do I want the drums to sound in the production
c) where am I placing the listener in relation to the drums
d) how big / important are the drums in this production
e) what sound best serves the song
f) what is logical for my setup

Friday, May 3, 2013

Transients - Analog and Digital

 This is my reply to a post on Gearslutz about "Transients" and how they are "they Enemy." The original argument was that transients make music sound peaky, harsh, and should be compressed to get a "pro" sound. By TRANSIENT, we mean the initial spike of a waveform. The attack of a snare, the pluck of a bass, the attack of a kick, etc. That INITIAL part is called the transient.

I think a lot of people forget that when the tonality of an instrument changes, the wave shape changes. Something that has more low end (or, less spikey transients) will generally have a fatter looking (and of course, sounding) waveform.

It's my contention that transients are essential. I think what is being confused by some is "transients = bad" when really, you mean "spikey ice pick transients are bad," which I agree. Tape takes care of the spikey stuff. Digital picks it up.

One of the reasons I feel like digital is pretty acceptable on things like modern Jazz, film scoring, orchestral music, and other (what I would call) "hifi" type genres is because the transients are well preserved. Also keep in mind, however, none of these genres tend to have instruments that create super spikey transients, and even when they do (like drums on a jazz song) they aren't mic'ed or processed in such a way where they need a hard attack or a close mic'ed snare half the time. Plus, lots more room mics are used, mics have distance, and as we (should) know, air is a great compressor. Putting a mic close on something is a sure fire way to have a hard edged transient. The genres themselves soften the blows of the attacks because when they are well recorded, the dynamics of the band take care of that. Digital (in my opinion) sounds great on these genres.

Now when it comes to rock, pop, etc., we seem to like everything "slamming," as if it were played as hard as possible. I feel like the reason a lot of us like the sound of compression is because it has an energy. It makes things more exciting. It helps us try to capture, enhance, or harness that "live energy." Thus, drummers are hitting harder, guitarists are strumming harder, and bassists are plucking harder. One of the best interviews I ever heard was with T Bone Burnett - they asked "how do you get your records so loud, so competitive with the market, but without sounding compressed hardly at all?" He simply said "I had everyone play quietly and evenly." or something like that. Sorta blew my mind. The less hard the attacks are, the louder the sustain/body can seem by comparison. Not always, but in general.

So does that mean we should play soft in rock? No, not necessarily. Let's talk about my memorable experience with transients.

In my experience, there are few things that can solve spikey transients better than tape and good analog front end. I've had some success with saturation plugins, but when I'm recording the project myself, I'd much prefer to do it myself with a good front end, tube mics, nice pres, analog compressors, tube equipment., etc.

One of the biggest issues with compression ITB is not that the compressors suck, or that they don't "sound like the analog versions," I think it's that they're given a much higher transient to look at. For example - my friend Michael and I did a test regarding this phenomenon. We recorded a snare drum with a Radial mic splitter, split each to a 1073, one to tape, and one to the DAW. We then brought in the tape snare into the DAW just to compare the waveforms, and it was pretty obvious. We weren't even slamming the tape or anything. To the ear, they sounded about the same volume, the tape snare was a bit fatter and a little darker. The really interesting thing was when we tried compressing both.

You see, the initial transient hit of the digital snare was much higher in level than the "meat" of the snare. On the tape snare, the transient was the same level, but the "meat" was much higher. (Obviously, it's not that the meat was "really" higher, it was that the tape compressed that very initial part, which made the decay part of the ADSR envelope louder).

Okay, I know this is super rough haha---even a little exaggerated for demonstration purposes, I just did this drawing on the computer in like 10 seconds! I attached a simple drawing of "something" like the waveforms we saw. When we compressed each, the peaky transient of digital registered above the threshold, but the compressor was much less effective (because when it reached full gain reduction, it had very little to actually compress -- The sustain and body were so much lower in comparison to the transient. When we compressed the tape snare, it got squishy, fat, and still had a nice smooth attack. It actually was compressing the body of that snare. We HEARD it easier. It was very obvious, even with just a few dB of reduction. The digital snare compression seemed to not really do anything until we cranked it to -10, when it was really affecting the body of the instrument, but then, the transient sounded super spikey. See the issue?

This is just my rationalization of this argument. Others might have very different experiences, but maybe this makes sense to some of you. I've been writing a book (no masterpiece by any means) about mixing, and I show some of these tests in the chapter on compression because it's so important. A compressor is a machine. It takes a skilled engineer to understand what you're feeding the machine and how to manipulate it to the song's advantage. Constantly evaluate statements like : "X compressor (or Y compressor settings) will always work on snare." Tape snare? Digital snare? Loop snare? Deep snare? Piccolo snare? Sample snare? Wood? Steel? Brass? Fast song? Slow song? You get the point. End rant.

Slut note: having nice monitors is a big help to hearing transient in detail. I feel like a lot of low-end monitoring systems compress them or something - I don't know the details of technical monitor design, but they just don't have the detail on tap to allow you to really hear whether or not a transient is spikey, an "ess" is harsh, or a snare is spikey. Getting "flat" monitors is not the only factor - you need monitors that can actually let you HEAR how you modify the transients. My personal set, Barefoot MM35s...well they're just dandy at that.
Attached Thumbnails
Transients are your worst enemy!-snare.jpg  

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Layering Guitars

Okay, so I'm going to talk a little bit about layering guitars. It's something I'm very familiar with; I record a lot of rock music with lots of guitar layers. Sometimes the easiest way to get a big wall of guitars is to just play a track on the left, then double it as tightly as possible on the right. Sure, that's the old standby and that almost always works. But what about three layers? Or Four? Or Sixteen (which I have totally done before - not recommended). What about when you don't want the guitar on the left to sound like the guitar on the right? 

Sometimes all you need is these two parts. It's often "bigger sounding" to have two parts and nothing else. My favorite "goto" is to have two well written parts, one left, one right, and any leads in the center. Various parts in the song may contain other little guitar riffs or whole note chords on the chorus or last note of the song, but nothing drastic--the frame is built around the two main guitars.

So, here are some tips when it comes to layering guitars. The best guitar tones Ive ever gotten as far as "layers" go have come from:

a) carefully selected guitars
b) carefully selected amps/pedals
c) carefully written parts
d) vision

I'll tackle these one at a time.

a) Carefully selected guitars. My favorite guitar layering sounds come when the tones match. So for example, if you're going for "big rhythm" a lot of times that means two guitars, left and right, probably humbucker but sometimes single coil. IF you're going for more chimey guitars (think 90s rock, Country, Pop) you might be better off using a single coil, or something like single coil left, P90 on the right.

The tones you choose don't have to match exactly, it depends on the role they're playing. Big chorus guitars that create a wall? Probably big humbucker sounds as aforementioned. If your goal is to make it sound "doubled," then DOUBLE IT. If the goal is to make it sound more like a BAND, then you may be better off playing two separate guitars.

I generally try to match the LOW end on the guitars. Like, You generally don't want a really thin guitar on the left and a really thick one on the right. It's generally something like, slightly warmer on the right, slightly edgier on the left. Sure, you can clean up the low end in the mix with filters, but it's generally best to think of this during tracking. So like, two Les Pauls make sense together. A Les Paul and a Tele will be a little harder to match in terms of low end, but there are a few tricks:

-Have the Les Paul Play Higher Up / Tele Play Lower
-Use a "bigger sounding" amp for the tele and a "smaller sounding" amp for the LP.
-Try neck pickup on the Tele and Bridge on the LP.
-Try a ribbon for the tele and a 57 for the LP.

You really just want them to sound like they belong together in the context of the band. Their midranges will differ, which is good, that's what gets you separation. The low end will define its size. So just be cautious when you're matching up guitars.

b) Carefully selected amps/pedals. Though I find that most of the time guitars sound best going straight to the amp, but sometimes pedals can provide a special sound that's not achievable by any amp - like a Tubescreamer does "a thing" that amps don't really do. Pedals often have a sort of compression in them that can help sometimes depending on the part. I generally find that MUCH LESS GAIN is needed when adding guitar layers. I like to think of it this way:

-The more notes being played in each chord, the less grit you can get away with. Solos can sound great with tons of distortion. Big chimey G/C chords? No way. Power chords? Decent amount, but not as much as lead (generally).

-The more layers of guitars you plan to have, the less distortion each one needs. Distortion adds up and starts to sound like "one fizz" coming from the speakers. Heavy rock guitars aren't really that distorted - it's that they need to be played evenly and tightly. It's usually "just enough gain to sound chunky."

-Distortion is essentially clipping. Part of what we "like" about distortion is how it controls the level, not just how it sounds. However, you don't really get "PUNCH" always - it starts to sound well, clipped. Thus, I find that recording mildly driven guitars and compressing them to heck sometimes sounds a LOT better than recording super dirty guitars and not touching them with a compressor. I find that the compressor helps it have the evenness of a distorted guitar sound (which makes the player happy) but it doesn't sound like buzz buzz buzz (which makes you happy).

c) Carefully written parts. I think this is rule #1 (even though it's letter C...) IF the part conflicts with the vocal's range, it will always conflict with the vocal. Think about that. If you're playing the exact same notes that the vocalist is singing, no matter how you EQ it, those notes will be in there. Then you'll be upset and say "aw man I hate making my tone sound like crap in the mix - it sounded sooo good before!" Well, the tone can be perfect, but if the part is wrong, you can't EQ it out.

Beware of where the VOCAL sits. Generally speaking, power chords are easy to fit in a mix (provided the tone is right) because that rarely clashes with a vocal. It's when you start getting into the E-B and G strings that you really start to conflict. In that case, try to avoid playing the exact same notes the singer is singing (unless you're doubling the vocal melody on purpose, which can sound really cool). Another tip that can help here is doing what...oh...LAYERS. Record the "big guitars" down on the low three strings with your meaty drive, but then record cleaner, even lightly driven guitar parts on the higher strings. On both parts, avoid crossing over to each others territory, ie., try to stick to the low 3 or 4 strings on the power chords, and try to stick to the high 3 or 4 strings for the cleaner parts (mostly).

d) Vision. Before you lay down a single guitar, you NEED to have vision of the picture you're about to create. I always like to make a "roadmap" so to speak of the guitar arrangement, because it's so easy to just add and add and add. If you know where you want to end up, you can carefully select tones. Remember before when I said basically that the more guitar parts you have, the less big each one needs to be? Well, if you start by thinking "this song just needs two guitar parts" and then you even up adding 5, they may NEVER fit together because you didn't consider all five in the process.

So. Listen to the song, the rough, the demo, whatever, and try to map out what's needed. Here's an example.

Intro - 5 guitar parts, two power chord Les Pauls, fairly gritty. Then, two chimey Teles with LIGHT grit. LPs Hard left and right, Teles 50/50, lead guitar, creamy distortion, panned center.

Verse 1 - Les pauls drop out leaving the Teles. Probably need a little more grit, but not necesarilly low end or body. This less the low end of the verse drop out a little so it feels smaller but not wimpy. Both teles playing carefully written parts

Prechorus - lead part comes in in the background, not super full, don't step on vocal.

Chorus - Les Pauls come back in, which creates the illusion of the song exploding (as the other guitars are just 50/50, these are 100L/100R.)


With this type of vision, you can plan out the tones for each section, each part, and try to envision how it will all come together before you even put up a single mic. TRUST ME, it will save you a lot of pain and suffering later down the road. In the digital world, you can fix a LOT of things. One of the only things you can't hardly fix is over distorted guitars. When in doubt, less gain can work just fine. When in a LOT of doubt, always record a DI.

Another side tip - a lot of n00bs will pull the whole "mic up an amp with two mics and pan one left and one right." As someone said before, that will do nothing by take up a bunch of useless space. It will NOT sound big. Come on, just play it again, is it that hard? It sounds SO much better that way!!! Nevertheless, there are a few times when I will play with out of phase sounds on purpose. I once did a track that needed "something" in the verses with the drums, bass, vocal, and main guitar. But we didn't want an organ or pad, because they wanted a pretty close representation of their sound live, which is just 3 guitars, bass, drums. In that verse, the middle guitar was the only one playing, while the other two sat out. What we ended up doing was using a half-cocked Wah pedal filtering out all the top end of a guitar, and mic'ing up a cab with two 414s in a weird stereo placement. I then flipped one side out of phase and panned them hard left and right. This created the typical "behind my head" sound that out of phase stuff creates, but with the part SUPPOSED to be almost more felt than heard, it worked out beautifully. In the track it sounded so cool because you couldn't really pinpoint what it was...or where it was coming from. It was VERY low in the mix.

I hope these thoughts have been helpful to someone out there!