This page is holder for a pair of video tutorials that talks about what to do & expect when sending your music off to a Mix Engineer.
The piece you hear is a fragment of a track written by Jamsey (James Burlakos) called “Handing Out Hysteria” that he let me mix as an example.
As you will hear, his original mix has a nice balance of the elements but the overall tone is very bright & brittle with no weight in the lower part of the frequency spectrum. Not attractive to listen to.
I’ll leave you to decide on the After Mix as that is my creative work. I am happy as it still shows off the elements, whilst bringing all the oomph & welly back to make the track pulse for modern ears.
Thanks to James for being a real sport by sharing his track and this process with us all.
Thanks for making the video and not tearing into me for being a dick at first. I watched the videos and now I have a good understanding of what I need to do for an engineer to understand my vision and how to prepare the song for mixing. Your decisions on the mix and guitar parts are spot on. Perfect, the sound I hear in my head, the sound I do not have the experience nor desire to spend years learning. I am a musician and songwriter that’s it. I find no joy sitting in front of the computer for hours on end, rather sit behind the guitar. I will highly recommend you to everyone. Thank you for your kindness and hard work.James Burlakos (Jamesey)
It’s All In The Game
The two videos below are long but contain a lot of advice and show how your Mix Engineer thinks & feels as they try to come to terms with your material, Stems and how to approach the mix.
Part 1 is more of the set-up and Part 2 is the final mix. It shows some “mix secrets” but that is not really the aim of this tutorial as the aim is help you understand how to get the best from your Mix Engineer.
- Stems – most Mix Engineers will work from Stems. Stems are a universal way to share raw audio tracks with any mixing environment out there in DAW-land. Stems are the digital equivalent of sending over the multi-track tape that all the instruments were recorded to. Every Stem is the whole length of the track so all your parts load in any DAW in the perfect place – nothing worse than the screaming solo from bar 234 landing on bar 1 with no sure way to be sure where it belongs! Many DAWs have options for exporting Stems to help you in this process.
- Condense Recordings – Before you hit any export button, check what is being exported. Unless expressly asked for, you don’t want to send your Lead Vocal splashed across 78 different takes. That is 78 tracks that your Mixer has to try to make sense of. If you have a Compiled (or Comped) take then send the compiled track instead of all the parts so your lead vocal is on one track. You can ask your Mix Engineer to Comp for you but ask first so they can account for it in the quote – also some loathe doing it so would rather someone else does it. If you have backing vocals then one track for each voice/line so your Mix Engineer can handle each part separately.
- Enough Material – There is nothing worse than getting into a mix and discovering that there isn’t really enough material to create a great mix from. If you know you will want guitars or backing vocals Hard-Panned or Ganged but haven’t provided at least two discrete takes, the Engineer either has to ask you to re-record or try to fake it. Faking it sounds clever, like you beat the system, but you really can’t. If you want the Twin Axe Attack sound then you need two separate performances – one for each side. If you want a Gang Vocal sound then you need to either record a gang of everyone in the studio at the time or take several passes yourself using Phil Spector’s trick of singing in a different accent every time (subtle phrasing differences help too). Having a Producer on-board will help you plan this before you hit the studio. Otherwise, ask your Mix Engineer before you hit the studio, what he is likely to want. Preparation is king.
- Guitar Re-Amping – Guitar re-Amping is where a Mix Engineer decides to use an Amp Simulator to create a different guitar tone from the one you initially had. There is debate over this and I see two sides. Your sound is your sound BUT if another sound makes the song better, would that not be the right choice? Ego vs Song. I choose the song. I try to always work with the player’s tone but sometimes it just isn’t cutting it. If I have the raw guitar sound with no drive or processing, I can fire up a Cab Sim and craft a tone in the mix, the one the song wants. The best way to do this is that whenever you record you split your signal just out of the guitar and send a) clean to an audio track (will sound terrible), b) through your usual rig to another audio track. If the above method is absolutely not doable then make a second pass at the line and record only the clean signal (even if you are hearing your cab sound). Now everyone has options.
- MIDI – MIDI is simply your performance recorded as data which can be edited or applied to another instrument sound. Common sources of MIDI performance are keyboards & synths but electronic drums, MIDI’d guitars and Electronic Wind Instruments (EWI) are not uncommon. This is like the guitar re-amping thing. Your keyboard sound may be just the shot or maybe it can be replaced with a better one that raises the feel of your track. If there is MIDI then you can send it. I sure like getting it.
- Only What is Relevant – While I just asked for more tracks, be sure every track you send is relevant. If you recorded a Banjo but decided against it then don’t send it – or send it and say you don’t have confidence in it because [insert reason]. Also if you have had a play at this mix yourself but decided to hire it out after all, then be sure that any extra tracks you cloned are not exported & sent lest they become mess & confusion
- No pre-Processing or Effects – If you did take a stab at mixing yourself then you probably have some effects or processing on some tracks. Make sure all of these are removed (or at least Bypassed completely) as once it is printed to audio, it can’t be removed. Your decision may be a good one but it also may not be. This is what you pay your Mix Engineer for. Don’t ask your mix guy to be creative when you have removed many of the options. If in any doubt, ask.
- Export Format – WAVE files or AIFF if you are Apple-oriented. There are some other standards being explored but unless your Engineer agrees, pure Wave files are universal. If you are lucky, your chosen Mix Engineer might have the same DAW as you in which case he may agree to take your project file. If so then make a version as per all the advice above. I take Reason files but so often they look like the work of a crazy person and frustrate me as I try to unpick strange decisions.
- Export Quality – quality is a bit of debate too. Best to ask. CDs are 16 Bit at 44.1kHz so I am happy to work at that rate. Others cry heresy at anything less than 24/96 (or higher). Try to avoid mp3 at every point – if you must 192kbps would be the bare minimum. FLAC may be lossless but it doesn’t always open everywhere.
- Naming Convention – Naming is a real bugbear for many Mix Engineers. They open up your 48 Stems and then can’t work out what they mean. It is always frightening enough at that point but if I have 28 guitars called “Guitar” then I am about suicidal. I also hate it when every single track is named with the song name first. I have to chop it off as otherwise every Track is called the same darned thing. Name EVERY track for what it is in a hierarchical format, something like; Kik – 2nd – Chorus. I’ll soon work out that it is a second kick you layered in on the Chorus. Guitar – Lead makes more sense than Lead Guitar as I can immediately see it belongs to everything else starting with “Guitar” like Guitar – Rhythm 1 – Verse and Guitar – Rhythm 2 – Verse. If you use shorthand like “I sum my Kik, Sn, HH, Perc & Bass to the Ry Bus” then if it isn’t immediately clear, feel free to include a ReadMe that translates for your Engineer.
- Other Information – Track Tempo is nice, as is Key Signature etc. Sometimes that gets embedded in the Wave files but still nice to share that. If I have tempo correct then I can ask about something in Bar 23. If I have to modify a note then I can work out what notes belong. Please also add any extra information like if you have used an unusual construction or arrangement. Not always a biggie but you’ll see how I got this song backwards – understandable with a lack of pointers like vocals. If you have a nice neat sequence in your DAW you can always take a screenshot and send that over in the pack. By Pack, I mean one (1) Zip file only. Don’t make your engineer run all over the web looking for parts.
- Remember your Mix Engineer isn’t a Cog in your Machine – sadly some clients think that their Mix Engineer is an extension of themselves who will automatically do what they think without expressing it. The Mix Engineer is a real person who needs to feel included & engaged. No one likes working for that boss so why be one? It isn’t good business to be a dick. Especially when working with Creatives as they are the first people to walk away when they never get praise but always get nit-picked – especially if the pay is a pittance. If you want support in this business then give support. If unsure, ask instead of trying to bluff your way over it. If you are a cool person, people will be good to you.
- Talk to your Mix Engineer – I don’t think I’ve spoken to an Engineer who doesn’t want this. Sure, many of us are on the Autism Spectrum and somewhat prone to introversion but we still like to be able to understand who you are and what your music is trying to achieve. Engaging with the person mixing your material makes a huge difference in the results.
- Answer Questions & Be Specific – like really answer questions dude. Being blase may seem cool. Or answering questions may require thinking that hurts. Mix Engineers understand BUT they also want to understand so they can do a great job that everyone is happy with. So saying something like “make it sound good” means nothing as your idea of good may not be the same as the Mix Engineer’s idea of good. Be specific and use examples. Link to 2-3 tracks and explain what you like in each. Sometimes questions may feel odd (Engineers are often odd) but answer em anyway as there is something your Mix Engineer is trying to understand.
- Fill In Forms – some Mix Engineers work with forms to collect all the common information they are likely to want to work on your tracks. We know forms are boring but that info will help you. Similarly, if your Engineer asks to keep mix feedback in one place like only over his email or on a Web Form, then please comply. It helps tremendously as having (often conflicting) feedback from 5 band members over 5 different mediums & timeframes is just plain frustrationing. You don’t want to hear that frustration in your mix.