THE SILVER MIXING BULLET
Everybody loves taking shortcuts, especially creative-minded people. This means we are naturally looking for quick solutions to fix our problems. Yes, tracks-yet-to-be-mixed are a problem. Once you finish a mix, you solve a problem. Joe Gilder over at Home Studio Corner has a nice video on this subject.
You know how you read gear/plugin reviews or watch them on Youtube, only to find yourself checking your bank balance, to see if you can afford them RIGHT NOW? That's our human desire to find that ONE shortcut, that ONE piece of gear that will have the biggest impact on our mixes. This, my beloved reader, is the silver mixing bullet.
As a side-note, if you google "silver mixing bullet", you'll see how hard it might be for this article to show up in the first few pages.
Now, some say there is no such device, people such as Graham Cochrane from The Recording Revolution. His point in the article is that there are no shortcuts to having a good final mix: you need to take your time with the writing, recording and mixing phase. I wholeheartedly agree with him on this. There are no shortcuts to having a great final product. (I'll post about this soon).
Although, I did find one piece of software that seems to be one of those mythical silver mixing bullets; can you guess what it is? (hint: look at the picture).
This thing is a beast: it saturates the low and high end harmonics of the signal as you turn the two controls. This gives the sound beautiful highs and thick lows. You win whenever using it, whether on a dull vocal track, a small sounding kick drum or on a bass guitar that needs a bit more shimmer. Here's a video of it in action.
Revival has a low CPU footprint and it's free. Well, sort of. The software itself is free, but you need an iLok 2 USB key to authorize it. (yes, an article on this is on it's way)
REMEMBER: use a trim/gain plugin after using any Slate processor plugins, as they add around 1dB to 1.8dB of extra gain, in addition to whatever you're adding.
People don't care...
...what tools you use to mix their songs. As previously mentioned in my Analog vs Digital post, what really matters is the end result. Is the artist happy with their song? If yes, good times! If not, try again and again, if necessary.
There is something to be said about skipping parts of the learning process: if one relies heavily on shortcuts during the early years of mixing , he/she will miss out on a lot of skills that are a necessary in this industry.
For example, I fell into the trap of using an analyzer whenever eq-ing, which leads to my ears developing much more slowly than if I wouldn't be using one. I plan on weaning myself off analyzers.
Note: I just received Fraser's answers to the interview and added them to this post, which has been written a while back. It's great that he touched exactly on the issue of staring at the analyzer, instead of listening to the music. It's almost as if he peeked into my blog post archive...hm.
What is a magic bullet?
- The idea that there is some kind of magical, "easy" solution to a problem - in this case, talking about recording and mixing, this would be some kind of tool that can be used to achieve great results with minimal effort....every time, which in my experience is highly unlikely!
Are there any tools that fit this description?
- Software (and hardware) developers would have you believe that this is the case - and there are some great tools out there that will help you get good results, but the truth is you still have to know what you're doing with those tools. For example, a Neve preamp can make your audio sound great - but in the wrong hands it's still possible to make it sound terrible, obviously. Surely not - it's a Neve!
A good preamp or EQ will make the process easier, and get you there more quickly. The same goes for plugins - just because you have Slate VMR or millions of Waves plugins, it doesn't mean your mixes will sound great - the key is understanding how to use these things. Having the 'best' plugin in the world will not guarantee that your mixes sound good. If you can't create a good mix with a couple of EQ and compressor plugins, then you can't mix.
To give you an analogy - imagine giving a Formula 1 race car to someone who has just passed their driving test, does this mean they would be able to control it properly and win a race? Probably not, they'd probably crash within the first few minutes of driving it. But give them a few years in that car and they'd get better. Experience, creativity, and understanding of the tools is what gets results in my experience.
Do they pose a danger for fresh mixing engineers?
- Up to a point - yes. It's amazing that everyone has access to such advanced equipment and software these days, as it's opened up the creative part of recording to everyone, which is great. It used to be such an expensive and exclusive thing, but now anyone with a laptop can make a 'track'. But how good is that track?
Sometimes people ask me if I'm worried about everyone having Garageband etc, and the fact that anyone can make music these days. The answer is no! There is much more to music production than simply having access to a piece of software. Don't get me wrong - it's great that lots of people have access to production tools, but the tools themselves are not enough.
For example - before the digital recording age, you were forced to make decisions, and that included deciding which pieces of gear you would use on specific tracks. You might only have one decent compressor available in the mix - what will you use it on? Kick drum? Bass? Vocals? Now we can stick a million plugins with presets on every channel - but those plugins and presets might not actually be the best tool for the job. Just because a preset is called 'acoustic guitar', doesn't mean it will make your acoustic guitar recording sound great in the mix. You have to know what you're hearing. The plugin doesn't know what your recording sounds like.
So in terms of new mixing engineers, it might be counter-productive in terms of creativity, technical ability and also developing a unique sound or style.
Another modern trend is 'looking' at the mix or EQ curve on the screen. Analysers can be useful, but music goes into your ears, not your eyes. Stop looking at the frequency curves. If it sounds right, it's right. I've seen people EQ-ing things without playing the audio! Sometimes the curve will look all wrong, but the track will sound amazing.
Do you find yourself to be depending on a specific piece of gear a bit too much?
- Not really, but I do find myself coming back to the same pieces of gear again and again for specific things. So I might go to some SSL outboard for electric guitars, or an old-skool hardware reverb for a crunchy ambience on the snare. But it's possible that I can get the same results, or better, using something else, so I'll try different things if I have time.
Sometimes you reach for certain gear automatically, because you know that they've worked well in other mixes. Then again, sometimes they don't. So I'm open to trying out new gear / plugins on tracks. I don't want to get into a stale "by the numbers" workflow, especially with mixing. You want to improve with every track you work on, and sometimes trying new things is the best way to do that. I also don't want to get bored when I'm producing or mixing; I like to push myself. It's great to try new things out.
So I used a Fabfilter EQ on the kick in the last track I mixed - ok, let's try something else on this track? I try not to play it too safe; it's a good way to keep improving and developing your craft.
If you could give 20-year-old Fraser some advice, what would it be?
- Good question! Probably to be aware of the opportunities that are all around you, not just the ones that are right in front of you. I've tried to do this in my career so far, but sometimes the best gigs / collaborations come from unexpected places. The people who shout the loudest are not always the most talented or have the most potential - very often there's someone in the background who has written a bunch of amazing songs and is just waiting to find the right person to work with, someone who understands their vision etc.
Oh - and also: don't stop doing what you believe in. This is a tough industry, but if you keep going you'll get somewhere. And one more thing - don't be distracted by the expensive gear - if you can make cheap stuff sound good, you'll make the posh stuff sound great.
...And that's it!
Thanks go to Fraser for answering my questions in spite of him being extremely busy, and for sharing much knowledge.
Have a good one.