When we last left our hero, he had begun to learn the ways of recording on quality equipment, but was mired in the merciless maze of mixing. With some essential element missing, he decided to break the music down to its most basic pieces to deduce the elusive issue…
The Road So Far… - Pt. 3: Year 2
At its most basic level, mixing is the practice of taking the individual recorded audio files for each separate instrument in a song, and arranging them for clarity, filling the “sonic space” to create a single, coherent song. Or, for fans of bands such as The Sonic Youth, mixing is arranging the tracks to create a single incoherent song…
Most of the literature on mixing discusses different ways to tweak and fiddle with the individual tracks for different instruments, yet they stress the fact that this should always be done in the context of the whole track. Basically, what they’re saying is that when you mess with the frequencies, or add reverb, or pan a track, it should be done while all the other tracks are playing. After a year of working like this, I decided to ignore the literature, and listen to each of the tracks individually. That is when I noticed “The Echoes”. *Wiggles fingers in a spooky gesture*
To understand “The Echoes”, stand in a closet, close the door, and say ‘hey’ to yourself a bunch of times, listening closely to the sound after each time. Now open the door and do the same thing. You should notice that the closet sounds kind of stuffy with the door closed, and sounds more free with the door open. If you don’t notice this, keep doing it until you do. Also, make sure to perform this exercise with people around. It’s much funnier that way. This is because you look like an idiot.
Once you do hear the difference, do the ‘hey’ shouting thing a few more times for everyone’s entertainment value. Then you can go back to binge watching House of Cards while texting, playing Candy Crush, reading this blog, and driving.
Listening to the tracks individually (especially the vocal tracks), I noticed that, in addition to the main audio recording, a whole bunch of quiet echoes were also present on each track. These echoes were the sound reflections caused by the room I was recording in. This explained the issue I was having with compression because the more compression I put on, the more the echoes were noticeable. Also, without going into a discussion of sound waves, the echoes were repeating at a time interval that caused sound cancellation with the initial sound, causing it to sound tinny (like the whole two cans connected by a string thing). If you’ve ever tried to set up an expensive sound system, avoiding this effect is why the system needs to be calibrated to the room.
(At some point in the future I’ll most likely write posts on compression and wave cancellation. Hopefully I can explain both in a way that makes you feel like you just watched Bill Nye, and doesn’t make you feel like you overdosed on Valium.)
How did I overcome this seemingly insurmountable problem? (Thank you for asking.) I built a roughly 4’ x 6’ x 8’ sound insulated, and sound treated box. The box works through magic and promptly Deus Ex Machina-style solved all of my recording problems.
With the actual recorded tracks fixed, all of the tricks, tweaks, and fiddling I had learned to do to tracks to get them to play nice together started to work. *Relieved sigh*
While this made the tracks sound like a single entity, when compared to modern recordings, something was still missing. (Nooooooooooooooo!) *Bangs head against desk*
Luckily, this time I knew exactly what was missing.
Having read multiple books on mixing, I was quite aware that following the creation of “The Final Mix”, the track moves on to a stage where the track is fiddled and tweaked with as a whole. This treatment is called mastering.
According to most authors of books on mixing, mastering is “that thing that happens after the track is finished”, and go on to explain that mastering engineers just make sure that all the tracks are of a comparable volume, burn them to a CD, and then you have your album! Hooray! To quote Vonnegut, “Everything is beautiful and nothing hurt!”
Mastering is actually a very involved process involving EQing, compressing, and sound limiting the track to get it to sound uniform, and to play as loud as possible without distorting. Following some basic techniques in a book on mastering, I finally got my tracks to sound comparable to modern productions. Yay!
Though I will continue to work to improve my mixing and mastering techniques (I am currently working on a theory that combines acoustic engineering and sound engineering to use sound meters to mix and master music), my tracks are finally emerging at Broadcast Quality. The key for the future is to continue to write quality music and build a large catalogue of tracks.
Whew! Did it just get long winded in here? Someone open a window. Anywho… Though many dangers and perils lie ahead, our hero has gained the equipment and knowledge necessary to continue down the path he has chosen, devoting his time and effort to the creation of music. Thank you for listening. This has been “The Road So Far…”, brought to you by Kuper Productions, inc. Written and produced by Jack Kuper. Copyright © 2016 John B. Kuper.