Have you ever sat back and listened to an old mix wondering what went so wrong at the time that you just can’t stand it now? Usually I’m one to advocate for critical listening of old mixes, but only for the sake of moving forward and making better mixes in the future. If something is released, there’s no point in beating yourself up over it unless you’re working on a re-mixed/re-mastered version.
Time and time again though, engineers will listen to something older (or even more recent mixes) and start questioning their whole career because of how something they worked on sounds. No matter what your experience level, I’m willing to bet these two things have affected you at one point or another: loudness and laziness.
Neither are a personal attack; we can all get carried away with our volumes to compete and we can all get bored/distracted during the hours of time and effort that go into a session. I think it’s imperative to understand how these key roadblocks affect your sessions though if you hope to move past them.
Let’s Start With Laziness
Laziness in a session is something that can sneak up professionals and eager beginners alike. We like working on the stuff that excites us, but for every thing we’re revved up to do, there are about a dozen housekeeping steps that go along with it.
Things like session setup, tuning and editing can all be parts of the laziness puzzle. Stuff like gain staging & proper bussing makes the cut too. Think of all the things that you want to skip so you can get to the exciting part – these are the areas of any session most prone to laziness.
Some of these things can be outsourced over time. If you find somebody that enjoys cleaning up vocals or editing drums that you like working with, there’s nothing wrong with sharing some of the workload if there’s enough to go around.
For some tasks though, you’ve got to be proactive or you risk derailing your session out of sheer ignorance. Things like bussing can be done early on in the mix setup so you don’t have to worry about it later when your creative juices are flowing. Set up the stuff you know you’ll need: a drum bus, vocal bus, guitar bus, etc…
Then add in a few time-based effects aux tracks that you know you’ll need, such as long/short delays & reverbs. You don’t need to commit to these effects now, but when you’re in the heat of mixing looking to add a quick delay throw, you won’t get sucked out of the creative moment just to set up a new bus.
If your routing is good from the start, mixing becomes easy. You’re essentially creating templates to speed up your workflow. Even with your routing taken care of and your session prep complete, there’s one major risk you’ve still got to be cautious of…
There’s good loud and there’s bad loud, which has been a hot topic on the blog in the past. The good kind is the stuff you can control. It’s the intentional clipping and harmonic saturation, not the digital overages that degrade your audio quality. Knowing the difference is imperative for a great mix.
Bad loudness can be a result of trying to get your mix to sound competitive with a reference track or just trying to get the most volume possible out of your DAW. These are usually mistakes made by new engineers that either don’t realize or don’t care that their reference track is mastered or that a punchy, dynamic mix can be achieved without driving their DAW into the red.
Another way to get there is through laziness.
Engineers should be concerned with what each and every plugin does to their sound. “Volume creep” happens when you start adding bigger and better signal chains to a track without doing any type of level matching or gain staging along the way. If you’re not careful, that guitar that peaked at -6 dB during tracking can be solid red on the meter with just a couple of plugins.
By watching your monitors as you go and level matching along the way, you can keep your sound consistent and avoid the pitfalls that too many fall for with plugins they think sound “better” simply because they’re louder. Then when you’re ready to add a bit of gain and saturation, you can crank up a plugin like JST Clip loud & proud knowing that the signal going into it isn’t already distorting unexpectedly.
Winning The Loudness War
The only engineers that win the loudness war are the ones who mix intentionally. Major releases have been over compressed to the point that they have no range or vibe to them. These releases get torn apart, especially if they’re plagued with harsh digital clipping.
No matter if you’re going for a first release for a local band or a major label album, you can get a better sounding mix just by forcing yourself to pay attention and consciously maintaining the appropriate levels within your mix.
Come join the discussion with us over in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum. I’d love to hear what everyone’s doing to keep their levels in-line while they mix!