More Cowbell: The IVC Production Series Pt.5

With a majority of today’s songwriters having powerful recording tools at their disposal just a laptop’s click away and the line between home and studio recordings blurring daily, writers/artists are now finding themselves, more and more, in the role of de facto producer when looking to capture their latest creations. With that thought in mind, IVC’s “More Cowbell” series will look to dissect, simplify and offer insight into the (sometimes daunting) process and art of DIY music production.

(Missed the previous installments of “MC”? Here are links to parts one, two, three and four of the series.)

Mixing (Cont.)

Picking up where we left off last post, we now continue discussing the mix phase of our production process.

- Compression. A compressor (or limiter - a compressor on steroids) is a processor that’s primary function is to electronically control spikes in volume (transients) present in an audio signal. It can, for example, automatically tame peaks in level on a vocal track and reduce those peaks by an adjustable amount. Once those spikes in volume have been controlled by a compressor, you are now free to raise the new, more consistent, overall level of said vocal in your mix without the danger of signal overload. In addition to its main leveling function, compression can also be used as an effect. 200 blogs could probably be written on the subject of compression. Educate yourself on the topic; begin by watching this great tutorial on compression basics and don’t be afraid to experiment. That said, if you’re confused about compression (& if you are, you’re not alone), refrain from using it on that “mission critical” demo until you get a handle on the ins and outs.

- De-essing. A de-esser is a processing tool used to remove excess sibilance from an audio signal. If, say, you find your recorded vocal track sounds a little harsh when your vocalist sings a word with an “s”, “t” or “c” sound (or similar) in it, try using a de-esser on the track to electronically lessen those sibilant frequencies. Be sure to educate yourself (here’s a de-essing tutorial) and experiment before using this tool on an important vocal track. Misuse of a de-esser can give your singer a serious speech impediment.

- Effects. Effects processors - reverbs, delays, chorus, distortion, wideners, etc - are tools used to add sonic depth, color and texture to a mix. There are a myriad of different effects and many applications for each. As such, the topic of effects usage is, unfortunately, too vast to explore in detail within the confines of this space. As always, education and experimentation is key. Jump on the web and look up each effect mentioned above as a start (highlighted effects link to tutorials), then find those effects in your DAW software and begin to investigate.

- Panning. Panning refers to the practice of placing instruments/tracks left, center or right (& all points in between) across the stereo field in efforts to create the perception of space within a mix. Note: While panning covers left to right placement, adding the aforementioned effects of reverb or delay to instruments can help place those elements back to front in the soundscape.

- Balancing act. With some/all of the above processing and panning in effect, use your DAW’s virtual console faders to balance the volume level of each instrument (relative to the others) in your song to taste. You should already be close to a semi-decent blend if you’ve been “rough mixing” each individual element in as recorded (suggested in our recording rundown) to assess if said parts were working from a production standpoint.

While balancing, realize that one set volume level placement of a track may not always sound right for the entire duration of a song. That track’s instrument may have to move up or down in level several times over the course of a mix. Program you DAW software’s automation function to perform these adjustments for you.

Also, when balancing, monitor your mix at varied volume levels (loud, soft) to get different perspectives on instrument placement and remember to take frequent breaks from all the heavy listening. Ear fatigue can send you down some undesirable mix roads.

- Reference. Use a professionally produced, stylistically similar, favorite song as a sonic reference. Compare your mix to the “pro” tune and see how close or far off you are in terms of the overall picture; does your mix have too much or too little bottom-end compared to your reference track? Is the model track brighter than your mix or are the top-ends similar? Adjust your work accordingly. Warning: At first it will be fairly discouraging (to say the least) when comparing your mixes to pro cuts, but the knowledge derived from these exercises will help you grow and shape your work for the better.

Next, check out your mix on different playback systems to get a sense of how it’s translating outside of your workspace. Listening on boom boxes, in cars, on computer speakers and ear buds will lend you some valuable perspective. Obviously, your mix will never sound the same on each of these systems (mastering, the next step in the production process, will help with that) but if you’ve done a good job with your mix, your track should sound fairly balanced in terms of levels and frequencies wherever you play it. If an element of your mix is calling attention to itself when you’re listening on speakers other than the ones you mixed on, you might need to revisit that instrument again and adjust.

Lastly, once you’ve got your mix sounding the way you want it, bounce/render a stereo file of the tune (this will become your 2-track “master”) and save both your mix program file and your newly created stereo master file across numerous hard drives or DVDs for save keeping/future reference.

If you have any questions in regard to mixing, leave a comment (above) or feel free to email me directly at - mark@markbacino.com

Next up, "More Cowbell" (Pt.6) goes to “11” as we enter the mastering phase of our production process.

-Posted by Mark


Mark Bacino
is a singer/songwriter based in New York City with three album releases to his credit as an artist. When not crafting his own melodic brand of retro-pop, Mark can be found producing fellow artists or composing for television/advertising via his Queens English Recording Co. Mark is also a contributing writer for Guitar World as well as the founder/curator of intro.verse.chorus.

www.introversechorus.com

More Cowbell: The IVC Production Series Pt.4

With a majority of today’s songwriters having powerful recording tools at their disposal just a laptop’s click away and the line between home and studio recordings blurring daily, writers/artists are now finding themselves, more and more, in the role of de facto producer when looking to capture their latest creations. With that thought in mind, IVC’s “More Cowbell” series will look to dissect, simplify and offer insight into the (sometimes daunting) process and art of DIY music production.

(If you missed the previous installments of “MC”, here are links to parts one, two and three of the series.)

Mixing

With your song now fully recorded, we’re ready to move into the next phase of the production process, mixing.

- Disclaimer. Not unlike recording, mixing is a subject/art so vast, with approaches so varied, one could never hope to cover the topic properly within the confines of a blog post. There are many great mixing tutorials on the web (one of the best/straightforward can be found here), educate yourself and begin learning the basics. In the meantime, here are some rudimentary thoughts to get you going.

- Monitoring. As was the case with recording, it’s very important that you become sonically familiar with the speakers you’ll be listening through while mixing. You don’t necessarily need expensive studio monitors (although owning a pair couldn’t hurt), just make sure to listen to a lot of music on whatever speakers you’ll be working with before starting to mix so you’ll know what things are “supposed” to sound like in terms of lower, middle and upper frequencies when evaluating your own work.

Truth be told, there are many factors that come into play with monitoring; the amplifier you pair your speakers with, the placement of your speakers in the room, the use or lack of acoustic treatment in the space, etc. Educate yourself on the aforementioned when you can, but for now, intimately knowing how other music sounds on your speakers in your space will, at least, give you a solid chance at crafting mixes that will translate decently out in the real world.

- Clean house. Before beginning your mix, take some time to go through each of your recorded tracks (use the “solo” function in your DAW software) and remove any stray pops, clicks, noises, etc that may have accumulated during the recording process. The rustling of a lyric sheet, the clearing of a throat; it’s best to address these problems now so they won’t interrupt your creative flow once you get down to mixing.

- Adjust recorded volume levels. While tending to your house cleaning duties, also listen to your tracks for any glaringly obvious, internal volume inconsistencies they may have acquired during the record process. If your singer’s vocal gets quiet on the bridge because the dynamics of the song call for that, great, but if one line of the chorus sounds a lot louder than its surrounding phrases, go in and tweak said line down in volume at the waveform level to make it consistent with its neighbors. There are tools/processors that can make these adjustments for you electronically, but you should always try and remedy the larger, more overt problems manually.

- EQ. Equalization, or the process of adjusting the balance between frequency components within an audio signal, is a deep topic worthy (& the subject) of many books, blogs, etc. Do your research, educate yourself (check this tutorial) but first, here are a few EQ basics to prime the pump:

Try cutting frequencies before boosting them; If, say, an instrument in your mix sounds dark/muddy to your ears, don’t immediately add top end, first try to remove some bottom or low-mid from the signal by either lowering the volume level of those frequencies or by utilizing a high-pass filter to gain the clarity you’re looking for. Boost frequencies only when cutting fails to achieve your desired result. Cutting rather than boosting will keep your mixes phase coherent.

Lastly, think of the sonic space in a mix as real estate. In order for instruments to be heard clearly, they must be assigned their own frequency-based parcel of land, so to speak. If too many instruments try to occupy the same space in the frequency spectrum, they’ll sound muddled and loose their definition. Attempt to carve out unique, frequency homes for as many elements of your mix as possible.

Again, education is key, try to learn as much as you can about EQ and the fascinating world of frequency that exists between 20Hz and 20KHz.

Next time, "More Cowbell" (Pt.5) keeps tweaking with the continuation of our mix rundown.

-Posted by Mark


Mark Bacino
is a singer/songwriter based in New York City with three album releases to his credit as an artist. When not crafting his own melodic brand of retro-pop, Mark can be found producing fellow artists or composing for television/advertising via his Queens English Recording Co. Mark is also a contributing writer for Guitar World as well as the founder/curator of intro.verse.chorus.

www.introversechorus.com