Welcome to part 3 of our long journey to make our upcoming 4th album. In part 1, I talked about the early stages of the album, the writing and recording of it. In part 2, I talked about changing engineers, the preproduction process, and distractions that took us away from working on it.
In part 3, I’d like to take you through the process of where we’re currently at, by talking about what a first pass mix actually entails, what the various passes of each mix mean, and how and why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Read part 1: The Journey Of Our 4th Album Part 1: Recording
Read part 2: The Journey Of Our 4th Album Part 2: Preproduction
As I said in part 1, the initial excitement was about writing, recording, and releasing a new album in the shortest time frame we’d ever done. Though the process started out on track to achieve that goal, many events, distractions, and priority changes got in the way of that initial idea.
We decided that instead of making it the fastest album we’d created, we’d make it the best sounding album we’d ever done (which is something that aligns more with my personal principles and values anyway). The tradeoff is that we needed to be willing to take our sweet time to make that new goal a reality.
Eric was now helming the mix and production side of the album, and we had gone through each song, layer by layer, building up more experience and knowledge in the pursuit of making this album sound on par with major label records.
All the last details of the preproduction phase were in place by the fall of 2016, and after years and years of setbacks, distractions and priority changes, we were finally ready to mix this beast!
I was really excited! After all this time, the album was about to become real.
So, what’s a typical day of mixing like for us?
Due to our busy schedules (Well, mostly Eric’s busy schedule), we’re only able to work on Sundays. Occasionally we’ve managed to find a rare evening in the week when time randomly frees up, but it’s not consistent.
The good thing is that we usually get to use the whole day to just focus on mixing the current song on the docket.
I’ll usually get over to Eric’s place as early as 9am (which rarely works for anyone but me) or right after lunch (which works better for Eric since he’s probably awake by then).
What’s odd for me in this situation is that I basically become a client, which I’m not used to. Eric sits at the helm and does all the work, while I sit behind him as a “back seat engineer”.
It’s definitely a weird role change, not being the one in the driver’s seat, so initially I was more fidgety, and restless, as Eric did all the work. After some time, I learned to understand my function in the situation, and that’s to let Eric focus on the details and the solving of the sonic problems, while I focus on the big picture goal of the direction of the song, and a little bit of organization and scheduling.
So again, I’m a client.
Rather than try to interrupt him every few minutes as he’s working on something, I now bring books with me, and spend a lot of my time reading, only occasionally looking up from my book to confirm a choice he’s made, “yeah, I really like that!”, question something, “what did you do to get it to sound that way?” or steer the song in a different direction, “I don’t know if that’s going to fit the song. Can we make it more [insert esoteric musical description here]?”
Generally the environment is cordial and fun, with plenty of silly jokes being thrown back and forth to keep the atmosphere as light as possible. However there are moments of anger and frustration when we can’t figure out how to solve a problem, when we have to go back and redo something, or the worst, when we have to deal with errors and technical issues that completely fuck up the mood of the day.
And when Eric is angry, the lamp death toll increases (see drum recording in part 1 for the reference).
Before I talk about what our approach is in the mixing process, it might be a good idea, especially if you’re not a musician, to talk about this word, and what it is.
Here’s my take on it.
Mixing is the phase in the album creation where we begin putting all the elements of the song together, and go from focusing on each individual instrument, to focusing on how each instrument works together in the context of the whole song.
In a way, you could look at one aspect of the process as “balancing” things. Making sure that the vocals can be heard, but aren’t way too loud. Making sure the kick drum isn’t disappearing in the sound field, while the toms and cymbals are insanely loud. (Hint: bad).
Another part of this process is focus.
I mentioned this concept a bit in part 2 during the preproduction phase.
Our goal in any song is to find the most important element (which can be different in each song) and make sure we’re focusing the ear on that element (which could be a melody in the guitars or synths, a vocal, or even a drum groove).
One way I’ve come to think about it is that one aspect of the song is the main “storyteller” for the audience, and the rest of the parts play supporting roles to flesh out the energy, context, and emotion of it. Sometimes finding the focal piece can be a bit challenging when you have a lot of cool parts you want people to hear.
Another key piece of the process is sound sculpting.
Sound sculpting (or sometimes I’ll call it audio surgery) is the process of shaping each element and instrument so that it not only stands out and brings out its most important sonic aspects, but that it also plays well with the other sounds and layers in the overall mix. Sometimes this means “shaving” off frequencies of one instrument that aren’t vital to its core character, in order to allow space for another sound to breathe in that same sonic range.
In this way, it really does feel like working with an audio version of clay or marble. Taking a bit off here and there to reveal the shape you want to show to the world. It’s a very detailed process, and though sometimes we get lucky and have something sit well in the mix very quickly, a lot of times it proves to be a struggle, and we’re in audio surgery for hours, sometimes even days.
This of course leads to frustration from both Eric and I… but especially Eric. The amount of times I’ve talked to him through one of those “I’ll never be good enough, I can’t do this fast enough, I need to just magically be better, everything I do sucks” moments would surprise you. Unless it wouldn’t surprise you. Then it wouldn’t.
Once we’ve sculpted the frequencies (overly simplified: treble and bass) and transients (how hard or soft notes hit), we’ve gotten them to sound good and play nice with the other kids on the playground, we’ve found the focal element of the song, and balanced the rest of the instruments, ideally we should have something that actually sounds like “a real song”.
Both Eric and I are similar in the fact that we both put a lot of pressure on ourselves, and anything less than our overly ridiculous standards and expectations for how we “should” be, and what we “should” know, how things “should” sound, and how much time it “should” take, results in us beating ourselves up mentally and emotionally.
Oh, to be an artist. So much fun.
Hopefully that made some sense. If not, you can expect a full refund for the time you spent reading that last section.
So now that I talked about what mixing is, in a basic way, what is a first pass mix?
Well, I usually tend to break up the mix into multiple passes, with each successive pass getting more and more detailed and subtle with the changes. Of course, that is assuming we did a good enough job on the first pass, that we’re not super angry and start over from scratch on the second pass! (I’ve actually done this several times on previous albums).
The goal of a first pass mix, is to lock in all the major elements of the mix (as I talked about in the previous section), so that it is actually listenable. It needs to sound like “a real song”.
If that goal sounds funny to you, let me say that there are many times throughout the process of mixing in which it definitely does NOT sound like a real song. It might be at the point where the drums are sounding good, but the vocals haven’t been worked on yet and as a result sound dry, dull, and lifeless. That doesn’t sound like a song to me. It sounds like a work in progress demo that would require an explanation to anyone who would walk in at that point and hear it.
A real song should require no explanation. “Here’s the song”, press play. I shouldn’t need to say “Oh, and the guitars aren’t quite right yet, and the snare drum needs more reverb, and there’s going to be this delay effect on the vocal eventually that really makes that post-chorus part work… and…”
So, once things are sounding pretty close to “a real song”, we will also do some light automation on the key tracks.
What is automation, you ask?
Oh wait. You didn’t ask?
It basically means we are writing in changes like volume, or effects levels (like reverb and delay).
Say you want the lead vocal to be a bit louder on the chorus. Well, this is where automation comes in, where we can lock in the lead vocal volume on each chorus to be just a tad higher than the verses.
This also works with damn near any aspect of the mix that you want to have change over time. Perhaps the synths need to be really quiet after the chorus and then swell in volume before the second verse starts. Well, guess what? We can do that. (And have).
The goal in first pass automation is to just get in the general, easier changes. Things that won’t get too complicated, and we can do within an hour (by which I mean all of the changes combined).
We go through the whole album, song by song until we have a first pass mix on everything.
Now, it really should sound like a album. (Emphasis on “should”. Doesn’t mean it always does).
The second pass mix goes back through each song, but this time focusing on more detailed changes, and anything we feel we need to fix or change from the first pass.
Perhaps we started getting the guitars sounding the way we wanted them by the 4th or 5th song. So that means we’ll need to do some more work on the first few songs to match the guitar sound we liked.
For automation, we’ll get a lot more anal and start looking at individual notes on each instrument, or specific words in the vocals that aren’t quite coming out as much as the others. Then we’ll either raise or lower the volume of those individual notes, words, drum fills or what have you and make sure these little pieces are where they need to be.
Once we’ve completed a full pass of this all the way through the album, we’ll usually take a break to rest our ears, then listen to what we have so far and see what still jumps out at us.
From here on out, be it a 3rd, 4th or 17th pass mix, the focus becomes more and more narrow. Tiny things that jump out that we feel are important to fix or change. However there comes a point in which the changes become so small, and so unnoticeable by most people, that you reach a point of diminishing returns. Knowing when to stop is an important skill in itself!
It should be noted that we’re still learning this skill.
Our process for mixing a song begins with the most foundational element of the song. In our case, that is usually the drums.
Why the drums first?
Because it usually provides the structure and backbone of the song. All of the other instruments rely on the drums for time, rhythm and energy. So if we can get the drums sounding how we want them, it’ll actually inform our decisions of how to deal with the other instruments.
We start by shaping and sculpting the sound of each element of the drums until we’re happy with it, which can take hours and hours, to be honest. And since Eric is also a drummer, guess which instrument he obsesses over? (Did you guess banjo? Good).
Usually it’s the kick drum first. We shape it and work with it until it’s what it needs to be for that song, and then move on to the snare drum and repeat the process.
What makes it a challenge is that every song will require something different. One song might work great with a really punchy kick drum sound with a lot of bright attack, whereas another song sounds terrible with that treatment. One song might call for a really slamming, tight snare sound, while another one sounds best with a loose snare that’s tuned lower.
This is why this process can take such a long time. We have to understand what each song needs and why. Just because a sound is cool on its own, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for that particular song.
We then repeat this process going through each instrument and layer in order of importance.
On this album, we’ve usually followed this pattern: drums, vocals, bass, guitars then synths (though we have some songs on this album where the synths have more priority than the guitars). Imagine that each element has to be placed in 3D space, single file, in front of you (like people waiting in line), and you have to make a decision about which element is standing in front, which comes right behind that and so on, until you put the final elements in the back where they’re not quite as noticeable.
This is where understanding what the song is really about (musically), and therefore what the main focus is, really comes into play.
Rather than starting from song number 1 and going through each song in numerical order, we’ve decided on a different approach.
We’re doing the most complex and difficult songs first (in terms of amount of tracks, layers and sounds), and slowly moving our way down to the songs that have less instrumentation, and less moving parts. It’s a kind of “jump into the deep end” approach, and the hope is that things will get easier as we go, and also take less and less time (which is sometimes true, sometimes not).
There are many ways to approach mixing an album, and what we’re doing right now is not right or wrong. We could have done the opposite and started with the simplest song, and gradually built momentum to the most challenging ones. It just depends on what kind of workflow works best for you.
We just happen to like the feeling of knowing that the most challenging songs to mix are behind us now.
One important aspect of mixing is using references.
A reference mix is something you compare your current mix to, as a guide for how you’d like it to sound. This can be a song you’ve already completed yourself, or commonly, songs from other known artists.
This can be a wonderful tool to help really see where your mix is compared to what you might want it to sound like. When we listen to our own mixes for hours on end we get what is known as “listener fatigue” in which our ears stop hearing the critical aspects of the mix and become used to it. By using a professional reference mix, you can retrain your ears to hear the accuracy of your mix again, by changing to another mix that you know already sounds good.
Often times we’ve felt that a song we’re working is really shaping up well sonically, only to realize we were completely off base after listening to a reference mix. “Jesus, suddenly our mix sounds all muddy! What the hell?” Yep, there’s that good ol’ listener fatigue for you.
One specific plugin I will mention that has been a life saver for Eric and I is the Sample Magic “Magic A/B” plugin. This has been amazingly helpful in our process of trying to get these songs to sound the best that we can make them.
One recent song we worked on, we pulled in some strangely competing reference tracks. Evergrey, and TLC. What the?
Just the fact that we only have the one day a week is definitely an exercise in patience.
At first, I wanted us to get one song done a week (still just first pass mix, mind you). But after mixing for a month or so, I found that this goal, though motivating, was also unrealistic. Sometimes things took longer than we wanted, sometimes they went faster then we expected. But overall things just don’t happen the ideal way we’d want them to in our minds.
This process has actually helped me with learning a very important skill, and that is acceptance.
I’ve tended to get angry and frustrated easily in the past, when something didn’t quite go the way I wanted it to go. I would bitch and complain about how much it sucked, and dwell only on the negative aspects of the situation. But now I find myself reacting much more calmly and almost indifferently to setbacks and schedule conflicts that push back the project.
Well, not always. But much more so than before.
I’d say that’s a positive personal improvement.
The thing I try to keep in the forefront of my mind, (and I also try to instill this in Eric when he gets frustrated), is that we only have one real goal. And that is Quality. Nothing else really matters beyond doing what it takes to make this music the best we can make it. If it takes longer to do that, fine. If we let time become the main goal, then we risk rushing out an album that we would possibly be unsatisfied with, and always regret that we didn’t spend the extra time to make it great.
But hey, it was fast, right!?
It’s a difficult lesson ignoring the voices in your head that continually tell you that you’re not fast enough, and you aren’t getting enough done. I still struggle with those voices, but I have gotten better and hope to continually get better as time goes on.
What’s really become important to me is learning to be okay with where I am in the moment, without pushing or forcing my goals and desires upon it.
Leaning to simply be and accept.
And that, I have to admit, is one of the most challenging “projects” I’ve even taken on!
Okay, well then. Where does that leave us at the moment?
Right now we’re 3/4 through the first pass mix. The end of the year, as some of you might understand, was a dead zone for productivity on the album, due to family events and holiday schmutz.
But Eric and I are very excited and looking forward to hitting the ground running this year.
What initially tried to be the fastest album we’d ever created and released, has become the album that’s taken the longest. It’s been an amazing learning experience in many ways. And though it has taken quite a while to get here, the results we’ve been getting are actually beyond my original hopes for this project, and I often find myself smiling and saying “Wow, this sounds like a real record!”
I’ll keep you updated once we hit the second pass mix. Looking forward to finally sharing this with you later this year!
Thanks for reading.