(or, “How to Keep Your Mastering Engineer Happy”)
We all go through periods of both development and frustration in our careers.
Whenever you are trying to improve your skill level or acquire more knowledge, you will have moments of epiphany followed by dark periods of hopelessness and self-doubt. Mixing is no different.
Our first mixes are often rudimentary, as we tend to focus on balance more than anything that’s interesting or specific about the song. We convince ourselves that if you can hear everything then it must be a good mix.
As we become more comfortable with the process, we are often left wondering why our decently-balanced mixes are so boring and do so little to capture the listener’s attention. We may wonder why another mix that is clearly not that perfectly-balanced can be so exciting and compelling to the listener. “What about balance? I thought that was the most important thing?”, we may think.
My own development as a mixer followed a similar path, as I found myself going through several stages:
First it was all about the balance. Then, I started paying more attention to EQ. Next up was getting the ambience right. Then, I paid close attention to making the low end big and clean.
After that, I started looking at the bigger picture with my mixes. I started to pay more attention to what “the thing” was about each song. I started to think more about trying to create a compelling sound that was unique to each song, and how to enhance what was cool about it. Things really started to come together at that point.
But beyond this, there was yet another area of focus that I had not yet thought of: The tonal balance of the mix.
A Great Mix is a Tonally Balanced Mix
A mix has great “tonal balance” when there is a meaningful relationship between the tone of each element and every other element in the mix. The total mix should have a sound that makes sense, and is cohesive and purposeful when taken together as a whole.
For example: If the cymbals are dark, then the hi-hat should be similarly dark. If the kick drum has a lot of low end, then the bass, or any other low frequency elements, also have an ample amount of low end. If the lead vocal is bright and sibilant, then the backing vocals are similarly bright.
Or, to take it a step further: If the vocals are very dark and wooly, then perhaps the cymbals and hi-hat shouldn’t be very bright either.
You may be thinking: “I want to mix how I want to mix, and to hell with what you say about things being tonally mismatched!”
Fair enough, but you had better hope that your finished mixes are very close to sounding exactly how you want, particularly within the context of the record. This is significant because of what has to happen to your mixes when they are mastered.
A Great-Sounding Master Comes from a Tonally Balanced Mix
When mixing, you are not constrained to making general adjustments, because you have access to each individual track. You can change the tone, level, position and ambience of practically every element. But mastering requires a more global approach to manipulating the tone and balance of a mix, because we are simply dealing with completed stereo mixes in most cases.
For instance, if I am mastering a song that needs more presence, then my first step might be to try to EQ some additional presence into the vocal. I might do a gentle, broadband boost of 1 dB at 2.5kHz with a wide bandwidth to push the vocal forward.
While that may make the vocal feel a bit more up-front and present, it will probably bring the snare drum and the rhythm guitar up along with it, simply because both instruments have considerable energy in that same frequency range.
Next, I might target the snare and the guitar, with a slight cut around 500Hz, but that will affect the vocal tone as well. This may fix one problem while creating another one. Now, your vocal may have the presence you were looking for, but the snare may have lost some of its body while the guitars now seem too edgy.
The same can apply at the low end of the mix: What if the kick drum has excessive low frequency energy and sustain, but the bass guitar is little thin in the low end? As soon as we pull back the most resonant low frequency to tame the kick drum, we have also affected the bass guitar, making it even thinner as well.
We can try to be surgical, by boosting and cutting adjacent frequencies in low range, but oftentimes this leads to some notes on the bass guitar being disproportionately loud and others seeming to disappear. This does not help the overall low frequency energy of the entire mix either.
Since mixing is a skill that requires time and practice to truly master, there is no way to quickly remedy all of the potential problems that can crop up in mastering. However, I have devised a way to keep yourself in check with regards to tonal balance.
The Merits of Mixing Through a Stereo EQ?
I remember reading an interview with Richard Dodd [Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne] many years ago about using EQ while mixing. I’m paraphrasing here, but his general point was this: If you’re going to brighten up every channel on the console while mixing, why not just put a good EQ across your stereo mix and add your EQ there?
This made sense to me on so many levels: Primarily, it reduces the amount of noise and cumulative circuitry that the mix must travel through (these were the analog days, mind you) to achieve practically the same goal, and it seemed to reduce the effect of the inherent phase shift that is present in most EQ circuits..
It also means that you put your best EQ on the whole mix and get the benefit of that upgrade in quality rather than using a bunch of decent EQs on individual tracks. I started doing this right away in my mixes and it helped immeasurably.
Taking this approach also made me reconsider how and why I went about applying EQ to individual tracks when I started a mix. I would now ask myself if I was EQing to fix a problem or if I was EQing to shape the overall tone of the track. I began to use the channel EQs for tuning in to specific problems with a source, while the 2-Mix EQ would be used for overall brightening and adding some low end girth.
This certainly made the tracks sound better (subjectively, anyway) and more cohesive, but it also forced me to pay attention to how every element of the mix responded to global EQ changes on the 2-Mix.
If, for instance, I was happy with the sound of the vocals, hi-hat and guitars, but noticed that the hi-hat started to jump out too much when I boosted some high frequencies on the 2-Mix, then it would force me to make a choice: Do I EQ the hi-hat to make them a little darker? Do I EQ the vocals instead to make them brighter, and leave the 2-Mix alone? Should I just turn down the hi-hat instead? Does the addition of the EQ on the 2-Mix affect everything positively, or just a few elements?