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CREATING MOOD (EVEN WHEN THE PARTS DO NOT)
Mixing is more than making sounds louder or softer. Mixing utilizes sonic illusions to support the song's intended expressive aspects. In order to create a more believable sonic illusion, it is important to have a good understanding of the material you are working on. You can try to fake mixing a style of music you don't like to listen to, but chances are the music will be less expressive as a mix by someone who appreciates that music style.
Dance music mixed by someone who has never been to a club (and I don't mean observing, but being able to FEEL the beat and how a good DJ can work a room) will not make you move as much. A ballad mixed by someone who is not moved by subtle beauty may not contain the lush swirling "waves" that the song deserves. A rock song mixed by someone that has never felt the power of a Marshall stack may not have the "push" it requires.
Now that we have established that you should be able to appreciate the mood of the material you are working on, lets talk about how to achieve it.
Remember that you are only dealing with a limited number of variables when you mix.
SOUND: The sound of each instrument (which can be automated and change throughout the song), including the amount of punch, smoothness, clarity, warmth, edginess, etc.
VOLUME: How loud?
SOUND FIELD PLACEMENT: Where in the sound field is each instrument placed.
SPACE: Each sound can exist in it's own space through reverbs, delays and surround sound placement.
PERFORMANCE ALTERATION: This includes fixing pitch, muting parts, moving parts, or adding delays to change or introduce a rhythm).
* The interaction between all of the instruments as these variables change throughout the song IS the mix. *
Often you will mix songs that already have sounds and parts that express the proper mood. When you encounter a song that has sounds and parts that seem to push the song in a different direction (such as a club song with no steady rhythms) you may have to try to use the recorded parts as RAW MATERIALS for new parts or sounds that are more fitting to the feeling of the song.
Here are some suggestions for a few example styles of music. This is not intended to be a checklist of things to do for every style. For anything not listed below, think about what is important for the song you are mixing and tweak your raw materials to make the parts appropriate.
If you are trying to mix a ballad, you may have to "smear" some parts with reverb or delay. Depending on if your ballad is lush or stark you may prefer a wide sound or an intimate one. If you are looking for wide and have only mono sounds, try stereo spreading plugins or simply panning the track to one side while sending it into a very short delays panned to the other side. Be careful of the drums. Ballad drums should be gently pushing, getting aggressive when the vocal gets strong but except for rock ballads rarely overpowering. I always try to establish intimacy in my ballads, so when I am working with "swirly pads" I always ride them early in the mix to help define the vocal space.
There are many different types of dance music that have their own particular flavors and sounds, so I am not going to get too much into specifics here. Generally, make the beat as strong as you can. Although wide use of stereo can help to clear up busy rhythm tracks, remember that dance music will ultimately be heard in large rooms with speakers far away and separated by lots of people. In other words, people may only get to hear one speaker. If a sound is important to the overall rhythm try not to pan it completely to one side.
If the drum parts you are working with have the wrong rhythm for the material you are mixing, you may have to mute certain parts at specific places or even add delays to change the rhythm. The 1/8 delay used on the kick drum in Robert Palmer's "Hyperactive" totally changed the feel of the song.
More complicated use of delays (such as 1/8, 1/4 or triplet notes) can take a simple kick - snare rhythm and turn it into a funky or driving beat.
If the guitars you are mixing are too clean for the function of the part they are playing, you may need to add additional distortion. The LA2A was great for this because the distortion was very musical. I used to plug fuzz boxes and other guitar effects into board (after compensating for the different in/out levels) and mix through them. Now there are guitar amp plugins that create some decent distortion, but use them carefully.
If the drums sound too dry for an "arena-rock" song you may be mixing, you will most likely want to send them into reverb for a bigger sound. Don't just send everything in at the same amounts. Get your sounds up using your kick and snare, then after adding toms and overheads into the reverbs check to make sure you have not lost too much punch (you may need to back off a little). A popular trick is to gate room tracks and have the gate triggered by the kick, snare or toms, even setting up different sets of room track faders triggered by the individual drums and processed differently (with the snare triggered room being sent into an additional reverb, etc).
Of course if you are trying something dramatically different I suggest you try to give the client one mix they like with the tracks as they were recorded. Having "taken care of business" you can then move on to my favorite part of mixing..."Take 2". With very rare exception, every one of my "Take 2" mixes were used instead of the approved first mix.
Sometimes Take 2 involved nothing more than different sounds or rides. Sometimes Take 2 has involved muting or moving parts. A few times I have removed song sections. One time I removed a huge power guitar solo bridge section, complete with big drum fills and full wailing band...leaving only the intimate vocal and acoustic guitar verses and choruses. I literally cut out several minutes (and no doubt quite a bit of recording expense) from the 2" tape copy that I made, and left the instrumental section in a pile on the floor. The only thing I kept was the howling guitar feedback from the very end of the solo, which I flew all over the song at an extremely low levels and slowly sweeping around in a deep reverb. The singer burst into tears saying, "this is how I always thought it should be" and even the guitar player liked the song better that way. I gave him the pile of tape form the floor and told him he can simply use it for some other song.
Remember to have your client happy with a first take before trying anything drastic, and also to be fast with your Take 2. The client has every right to expect you to move on, so it may be hard to convince your client to let you take the time to develop an idea. Try to consider alternate ideas while mixing and be ready to change to the second direction in 15 minutes or less. Then let the client hear it and ask if they want you to continue or move on.
Here is a great Take 2 story:
I was mixing for a famous singer (don't ask who or where). During the entire album every mix that was approved was followed with a "Take 2" mix that was preferred as the choice mix. I was mixing one slow moody piece, and the producer (not the artist) kept telling me to push instruments that was taking the song away from this intimate, soft and comforting feeling I was shooting for (that was matching the lazy laid back vocal performance). He wanted it to be more direct and punchy.
I gave the producer what he wanted, and the artist came in (he was booked to sing some takes live with an orchestra in another room). Everybody liked the first take, and I was told to move on. I said, "give me 20 minutes for Take 2, please" and I was told "No, move on to the next song". I explained that I felt there was a better mix that needed at least to be heard and both the producer and artist insisted that since the first mix was so perfect I should move on. I changed the tape to the next song and they went to the other room to record.
I tried to bring up the next song, but about 10 minutes in I was still angry at not getting the chance to do Take 2. The song had been one of my favorites, and I knew I could make it much more beautiful and compelling. I reasoned that they hired me and brought me to the studio to mix because they wanted MY sound, and if I felt that strongly I should at least spend 10 minutes trying. At that point I was so convinced that the song HAD to be mixed right I was prepared to be fired for my actions. I told my assistant to put the previous song back on (he said, "Yes!" and ran to it, after having to listen to me bitch and rant).
I gave the rhodes that old stereo-pan-with-a-smallstone sound, softened the heavy conga, backed off the pads, made a few other changes and I was where I had imagined. I then re-rode the vocal and horn solo, as well as a few other sounds at various places to better fit the new image. Then I listened back to make sure I was done, and asked the artist's assistant (who had been in the room the whole time) to get him. The assistant refused.
The artist's assistant explained that the artist was going to be very angry and he did not want to be part of the project not proceeding as ordered. He refused to be the bearer of bad news. My own assistant jumped at the chance to get the artist, and went to the other room. A few minutes later he returned with the news that the artist was indeed rather angry with me.
I went to the other room (on a different floor of the building) and stood respectfully off to the side in the control room while he was performing a take with the orchestra. When he was finished he saw me and came in to speak. I apologized profusely for the interruption and asked him to please come listen to only a few seconds of Take 2.
In the elevator he was silent but obviously mad. The producer was with him, and he did not seem too happy either. I brought them into the studio, sat them in front of the speakers, dimmed the lights, and played the mix.
After the mix ended there was a long pause before the artist said, "now it is perfect...unless you hear anything else?". He insisted I perform Take 2 on every song, and even suggested I listen back to the finished mixes to see if I had any other ideas. He then went back to the other room and recorded a great vocal. End of story.
DON'T TRY THIS AT HOME! I was ready to put quite a bit on the line because I felt strongly about my opinion. I was also banking on the artist's ability to listen with an open mind to the mix - which I knew was based on both his appreciation of the finished mixes and my reputation. As a new mixer you should NEVER be as arrogant as me - regardless of the outcome of my story.
You must learn to be fast enough to present an idea of what Take 2 will be within a short enough period of time so the client does not view it as "wasteful experimentation with something that is already finished and approved". Eventually your reputation will cause clients to be patient while you (quickly) throw up new ideas for Take 2.