This is where you can reap the rewards of your forward planning, or curse your
impetuousness as appropriate. The vital factor about planning is to avoid bouncing
instruments together unless you can make a good guess at the relative levels
they will need in the final mix. You could, with the combination of instruments
and vocals in my example have ended up this:
- Track 1: Lead vocal
- Track 2: Keyboard and harmony vocal 2
- Track 3: Bass and harmony vocal 1
- Track 4: Drums and guitar
This is obviously a worst case scenario, but it does illustrate my point.
How could you assess the relative levels of the drums and guitar without the
bass? How could you balance the bass and harmony vocal? And so on. You will
never end up with anything as unlikely as this, but what you need is for everything
to be as good as possible. Each collection of bounced parts must be perfectly
balanced within itself, and capable of being balanced against the other tracks
without individual instruments becoming too prominent or too quiet. Guitar,
bass and drums are straightforward to balance, harmony vocals usually are too.
Whatever you intend recording, start planning your final mix before you lay
down a note.
Supposing you have finished up with a sensible grouping of tracks, all you
need do is balance them and add a little bit of reverb as you see fit. The reverb
is supplied by sending signal from the Auxiliary Output (called the Effect Out
on the Tascam 464), controlled from each channel by the Auxiliary Send (Effect
Send) knob, and the reverb signals are brought back to the Auxiliary Inputs
(called the Stereo Inputs on the 464). On simpler cassette multitracks you will
use the foldback outputs (sometimes called Cue or Monitor outputs) which otherwise
have no function during mixdown. The Fostex X18 has two Auxiliary Return inputs
to receive the reverb signal.
When you’re mixing you are going to have to take some important decisions
about how you want the track to sound. If you have recorded everything cleanly
then you might be able to get away without using equalisation to alter the frequency
balance of the sounds. (The Fostex X18 doesn’t have EQ so you’ll have
to pay more attention to getting sounds correct in the first place, which isn’t
a bad thing). If you are new to multitrack recording, use EQ to correct problems.
Ask yourself, “Is there anything wrong with the sound that I could correct
with EQ?”. Often there will be too much bass in instruments other than
the bass line and drums. Cutting the bass in these can enhance the clarity of
the mix. If the vocal isn’t cutting through enough then try adding some
presence at around 3kHz, but not too much or you’ll make it sound ‘thin’.
Moving on from EQ, I don’t have to say that it’s the easiest thing
in the world to cover everything in a thick layer of reverb. It covers problems
as well as wood chip wallpaper covers cracks in the walls. But covering up your
problems isn’t going to make you a better recording engineer or musician,
nor is it going to allow the song to come through to its best advantage. I like
to listen to each track individually and add the smallest amount of reverb to
make the tracks sound good by themselves, and I don’t often find it necessary
to alter the amount of reverb once I start balancing the levels.
When you have experimented with the mix to your heart’s content and you
are certain you have a good balance, and you know exactly when to boost the
vocal to correct any unevenness in level, you are ready to transfer the mix
to stereo tape (Mark the fader positions with chinagraph pencil so you can reset
them easily if the mix goes wrong). Since you have the count in on tape you
can stop the multitrack just before your song starts. Start your stereo machine
in record and press the play button. At the end of the song bring down the channel
faders as each track finishes and then the master fader (if your machine has
one) after the reverb dies away. It may take a few tries to get right, but in
the end you’ll have something which, if you have put in enough toil and
trouble, will be the best recording you have made yet. It won’t be the
best recording you’ll ever make, but that’s the beauty of the cassette
multitrack, you can spend as much time with it as you like in the privacy of
your own room, learning your trade as a multitrack recording musician.
Listening to your mix
If your mix is a good one, it should sound good anywhere in any situation.
Here are a few places and situations you could try it out. In every case you
should compare it with how your favourite CD recording would sound.
- Late at night
- With people talking in the room
- In the car
- On the motorway
- From the next room
- On your portable stereo
- On your Walkman
- At a party
- Through your television’s AV input
- Through your band’s PA system
- Copied onto another cassette
- With the person you like the most
- With people who will laugh at you if they don’t like it
I’m not kidding – you really will learn a lot about mixing by submitting
your work to this harsh series of tests. Each situation will expose weakness
in your mix – and any mix for that matter. The last one is the killer. Even
if your friends don’t utter a word you’ll know by sharing the listening
experience, forcing you to apply new standards of self criticism, whether your
recording is good.