It was my birthday a couple of weeks ago and for a present Naomi bought me a five hour, one on one session with an engineer to go over the finer points of mixing and mastering. I thought I’d share what I learned in my session with you.
The morning was crisp and there was definite excitement and nervousness in the air as Naomi and I wandered down the back streets of Hoxton to the London Academy of Music Production where the lesson would take place. Naomi was accompanying me as I didn’t actually know where I was going but soon we pitched up outside the front door waiting for the tutor to arrive.
She left me there to go and have tea and cake with a photographer friend of ours whilst I toiled and had my brain mangled with new concepts and ideas. She did, however, promise a nice ale at the local booze house afterwards, so I had a reward waiting for me after all my hard work/to help my brain to recover.
So here I was, being taught how to use Pro Tools after 7 odd years of using it haphazardly and the thing I found out? I suck at Pro Tools! Seriously, I didn’t realise how little I actually knew about the platform. So it was a great experience to be able to just ask questions and have my tutor guide me through.
We started at the basics, I finally got explained to me what the key buttons that exist in the edit window do (linking and unlinking cursors and the like essentially). Then we dived into the song itself.
The first thing I was told to do was to make sure all faders are set to 0. You do this so you can see what it all sounds like to begin with, and to be honest, it sounded horrendous! Everything competing for your attention like a school classroom you’ve asked if they want to go outside and play.
Then we made sure the workflow made sense. In mixing, it seems to make the most sense to start at the back of the band and gradually work your way forward. This means starting with the drums. When sorting out your workflow it’s easiest to work from left to right so stick your drums on the left hand side of the mix screen. Then put your bass instruments, then keys/guitars/strings and finally vocals on the right. This makes sense as you work from left to right in the same way as you read a book.
Now to work on the drums. We recorded the bass drums with two mics. One to capture the low end power and one to capture the click of the beater and the more mid-range snap. So you now have to make those sit together nicely and not cancel each other out. One way to do this is to invert the phase of the mics. As I understand it, this inverts the audio wave so the positive wave becomes negative and the negative positive. The easiest way to think of this is when you invert the colours on a photo.
The next thing to do is isolate the individual drums and listen out for anything that you don’t want. You want to use a decent EQ plugin and remove any frequencies that are superfluous. So we start with the deep bass drum mic. Anything below 35-40 hz isn’t needed so you can put a high pass filter on, set it to 12/18 db/oct and move up slowly from about 30 hz until you hear the sound of the bass drum being affected. Then move it back down until the sound’s back to sounding good. This is the essence of EQing and one thing that I’d never really understood about it. You’re trying to get to the essence of the sound and cut away anything that isn’t necessary. You can then have a look at 125hz, 200hz, 300hz, 400hz, see if they sound good or bad and cut away what you dont need.
Another thing you need to know is that when you cut at lower frequencies, you can have the Q setting quite thin as people can’t hear that sort of cut at that frequency. When you move up the frequencies over 1k, you have to have the settings more broad as people’s ears are more attuned there and will notice things you do. Be gentle.
After that you can move onto the other bass drum mic which is there to add more snap and capture the beater sound and the higher bass drum frequencies. So you can cut away the lower frequencies as they’re being covered by the other mic. To do this you can set a lower ratio on the high pass filter, 6 db/oct, and move up the sounds dong the same thing. You then blend the two sounds together and find the best fit with the two of them. You’re looking for one to provide the power, low end boom and the other to provide the higher snap, punch and crack of the bass drum. Blend those two together right and it’ll sound huge!
Next we’re onto the snare drum and we mic’ed the bottom and top of the snare to get both sounds, similar to the bass drum. Again all you have to do is cut away the things you don’t need and keep the good stuff. The high pass filter can be set similar to the second bass drum mic with 6 db/oct and then move it around a bit higher up until you get to where it sounds good. Remember that the snare will have been picked up amply by the over heads and so these close mics can be used just to add detail to the sound rather than being relied upon to provide the majority of the tone. Key frequencies here are 100-250hz, 1-3khz and 5khz. They are for the body, bang and stick/rim shot sound respectively.
Following the snare, come the toms and these bad boys sit around the bass drum. Low frequencies rule here and you have to be quite the surgeon with your lower frequency cuts. This will allow all of the toms and the bass drum to sit nicely together and you need to make sure of that. Solo the drum then un-solo it to see how the tom is sitting in with the rest of the kit, then solo again, tweak and so on. It’s really about trusting your ears and allowing them to show you what’s good and what’s not. Frequencies to look at here are 220hz, 330hz and 1.2khz, try cutting the two former and boosting the latter. The first ones are for resonance and boom, the last is for stick noise.
We then moved onto the overheads. These are there to pick up the cymbals and higher kit frequencies so don’t worry about trying to hear everything through these mics. Cut the lower frequencies out with a 6 db/oct high pass filter and then find the nasty harsh sounds in the overheads and remove them. I’ve read different things about where to pan overheads, some say pan slightly wide but not extreme but we did and it’s good to have the drums spread wide over the spectrum in my opinion but that might not work for your song.
Hi hats are a strange one as some people think it’s pointless to have them recorded as they’ll be coming through the overheads. I think it’s good to have them as they can get lost and need a little definition but use them judiciously as they can quickly become fatiguing. High Pass filter set up quite high (around 1.15khz) with 12 db/oct and then cut the harshness as well.
We had a room mic as well that gives you more depth to the sound and is there purely to pick up room reflections. You can treat this like an overhead and just worry about the higher frequencies as well. High Pass Filter and cut harshness.
I suppose the key thing that I learnt at this session is that you have to listen hard to your sounds and really get to know them well. We were lucky to have a great engineer (Adam Lunn, you’re amazing!) recording us and so he got us really clear, well recorded sounds that allowed us to really dive in and monkey about with.
Hope you enjoyed this and we’ll post up the next parts in 2012! Let me know if you’ve got any EQ tips or general ideas on micing and the like.