Mixing & Mastering, by Mark Garrison
When I teach recording classes my favorite lesson is this critical listening exercise. It’s fun and light, and practicing it helps us all improve our mixes. First, let’s look at what makes a great mix, then we’ll jump into the exercise.
The Elements of a Mix
Do all instruments feel like they have appropriate weight in the mix? Are any instruments being lost in the mix because they are being overpowered? Are some instruments more prominent then others? (The answer may often be yes to the last one, but that should be a deliberate decision, not an accident.)
Do instruments sit at various points in stereo field (left to right speakers)? Does the point of interest shift within this field?
Are all frequencies represented somewhat equally? Is there something happening in all frequency ranges? (There are times when we deliberately have little happening in a frequency range – a violin concerto would sound silly with pounding bass – but again this should be a conscious decision.)
Do some instruments sound closer or farther away than others? Is there a sense of movement in the mix? Dynamics
Does the song change over its duration? Most often in recording we use the term dynamics to refer to changes in volume, but we need to consider other dynamic changes such as tempo, time signature, key, or major/minor tonality.
There are two important sides to interest. First is the hook - is there something memorable about the mix? This could be a melodic hook, or a memorable tonality (think Cher’s “Do You Believe” or Smashmouth’s “Walking On The Sun”).
The second, and less thought about, side of interest is this: What pulls the listener through the song? When the lead instrument stops playing, what takes over as the focus of the song? The analogy I like to use is that of a TV show or play. If the characters leave the stage, other characters must enter right away to keep the viewer’s interest. If a TV show had long gaps of just background between dialogue and action everyone would get bored and change the channel. Music is no different.
It All Starts With Arrangement
Keep in mind that the first step in all of these comes with arrangement. Keeping these elements in mind during the arrangement process will make mixing far easier. The Exercise
Now that we have outlined some criteria that we can use to critique a mix, pick some commercially produced recordings and pick them apart. Do this on a regular basis and it will become instinctual. Your mixes will improve and your creativity will soar.
Step 1: Listen For Balance
Try to pick out each instrument being used and take note of exactly what it is doing. In a well-mixed song this should not be difficult. Poor balance often results in instruments being hard to pinpoint. What instruments do you notice the most? What instruments are subtle enough that you only notice when listening carefully? In this song the bass and percussion are very prominent. They are what drive the song forward. The vocals are clear and upfront as they are the focal point of the mix (after all, it’s Michael’s name on the album cover).
Step 2: Check For Panorama
Picture where from left to right each instrument seems to be coming from. If it helps, you may want to draw a line on a piece of paper and make a tick for where each instrument seems to be. The percussion, synths and backing vocals in this tune take full advantage of the stereo field. Note the double-tracked backing vocals panned left and right such as at 0:44 and leading into the chorus at about 1:28.
Step 3: Examine The Frequency Range Being Used
Listen for low, low-mid, high-mid and high frequencies. Is there content in each if those ranges? Does it feel like there is too much in any given range? In this song the thin kick and snare make room for the thick bass.
The synth fills the mids subtly in the verse, thickening along with some guitar and additional vocals in the chorus. The highs have some percussion, backing vocals, and the higher overtones of the synth.
Step 4: Listen For Dimension
This is a harder one. It may help to close your eyes. Imaging that you are watching this being performed on stage. Which instruments feel closer to you? Which feel farther away?
In “Billie Jean”, the bass and kick feel right up front. The snare and other percussion is farther back, as are the lead vocals. The synths are farther back still. The layered backing vocals sit at various depths (such as at about 2:50).
Step 5: Observe Any Dynamic Changes
Take note of changes in the song. The most obvious dynamic changes in this song are the energetic choruses, which contrast nicely with the more reserved verses (see about 1:30).
Within the chorus itself the guitar provides a dynamic change. It comes in first at 1:39 and plays double time in alternating 2 bars on, 2 bars off and then 2 more bars on, greatly changing the feel of the chorus while it plays.
Step 6: Take Note Of Where Your Interest Goes
Pay attention to what is holding your interest at each moment in the song. Again, pen and paper may help. Here, the interest is pulled forward by the interplay between the additional vocal tracks, the guitar and the synth which each take their turn as focal point when the lead vocals pause. Let’s take the turnaround at the end of the first verse as an example (1:14). At the end of the first line the sax-like synth takes over our attention between lines (1:17), then after the next line the backing vocals (the famous Michael Jackson “Heee-eee”) do the same (1:20), then the synth again (1:25), then the layered backing vocals pull us into the chorus (1:26).
Remember that ear fatigue can alter your sonic judgment. Keeping your ears fresh can be as easy as:
- Being aware of the problem and potential risks to your hearing.
- Giving your ears a rest by taking short breaks
- Keeping volume levels down
- Paying attention to room acoustics – according to MIX magazine, a dead room or brittle system can accelerate ear fatigue.
Be seen. Be heard.
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