Adventures In Audio
Automated Mixing (part 1)

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of Adventures In Audio.

Thursday January 1, 2004

When the human anatomy was designed, two hands and ten fingers seemed like
a perfectly adequate provision to cope with most likely circumstances. And it
was - until multitrack music recording was invented. Multitrack recording as
we know it today really got started with the introduction of eight track machines,
where it was possible to allocate each instrument to a track of its very own,
in simple arrangements. There were people at the time who didn’t believe
that it was humanly possible for one engineer to control eight faders at the
same time during the mix! However, this was also the time when people believed
that it wasn’t possible for an engineer to dress in anything other than
a white lab coat and sport a short back and sides haircut. Controlling eight
faders really isn’t all that difficult for most mixes unless something
really went wrong in the recording process. But in modern times, for most of
us eight tracks are just not enough. We want sixteen, twenty-four, thirty-two
or more. I’m sure the day will come when nothing less than a hundred tracks
will be considered enough for a serious recording. But even at the sixteen track
point, which most Sound on Sound readers will have attained or aspire to, it
is usual for a mix to be so complex in terms of the faders that have to be moved
at specific times, that it can take many attempts before the finished stereo
master is achieved. Typically if the artistic qualities of a mix are decided
on by early evening, it will be at least midnight before the engineer has managed
to perform that mix all the way through without making a mistake. With most
music mixes these days going down to DAT, being able to perform to perfection
on the faders from the start of the song all the way through to the end is a
very valuable skill.

Move those faders

Before DAT, in the days of analogue reel to reel tape, a mistake during a complex
mix would not have been too much of a problem since editing can be simply achieved
with a razor blade and splicing tape. Just go back a bit and pick up from just
before the point where you got it wrong. But since DAT is uneditable without
extra equipment, and you have to get it right all the way through, there is
the inevitable temptation to set a standing mix and leave the faders in the
same places all the way through to the final fade. I have to say that if you
are doing this, then either you are a totally brilliant engineer who always
records totally perfect multitrack masters, or you are simply not setting yourself
high enough standards. You should consider it normal for faders to be moved
during the mix. In almost any recording there just can’t be any parts which
couldn’t do with being just a little bit louder here and a little bit quieter
there. If you listen carefully to mixes produced in top studios then you will
hear levels changing all the time, all the way through the song. Note that you
will have to listen carefully because the artistry of the top mix engineers
is such that the dexterity of the fader finger will very easily deceive the
ear. A simple thing to notice is the way a song will often start with just a
few instruments belting out a riff or beat, then the vocal comes in, and the
arrangement may become thicker and more complex towards the end. Assuming that
the recording is coming right up to peak level at the end when all the instruments
are playing, then what level do you suppose it starts at? Right, it starts close
to peak level too, even though there are fewer sounds going on. The engineer
has subtly brought down the levels during the song so that extra sounds can
be added. No-one but another recording engineer will ever notice this, but if
it isn’t done then you won’t get that all important initial impact
when the song starts. I suppose I should add that another part of the engineer’s
skill is in EQing sounds so that they all dominate their own little part of
the frequency spectrum, so that bringing in new sounds doesn’t increase
the overall level so much. If you do this, then getting a good balance will
be so much easier.

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