Mixing Process
How do you usually start a mix ?

everything around it without eating up all of my headroom. The key here is
gain structuring, and making sure you’re not going to blow up everything
when you add the vocal on top. I worked hard to know where I want things
to sit, in fact. It took a lot of practice. But now I can dial my kick drum into
a particular level and tone, and I know everything will hang more or less
fine around it. It’s like a foundation stone, and I build around it.
Once I have a basic balance in place, and I feel like the track is really
grooving, then I can get creative and worry about aesthetics and emotional
content. This may mean I throw things slightly out balance here and there,
for effect. But that’s the emotional part I was talking about, where you’re
directing the listener’s attention and feelings to help convey the underlying
meaning of a song.
Let’s say it’s a jazz session, though. Are you still going to
start the process the same way? Are you going to start with
a kick and get your balance?
Not necessarily. Sometimes, if it’s a jazz record or in a similar genre, I’ll
still work on the drums first and work outwards from there. However, in
that case, I’m not worried so much about where the kick drum is sitting
dynamically. In fact, on a jazz record, you often barely hear the kick drum;
you hear the snare and the cymbals more than you hear the kick, because
the overheads and room mics are doing most of the work. In that way, mixing is a bit ‘looser’. With rock, you have to be so careful about levels and
headroom because you know, at the end of the day, the mix is going to be
squeezed for every last bit of dynamic space the mastering engineer can
manage. So with jazz you know you have room to maybe sacrifice some
level in favor of a deeper tone or feel. But you still need to balance things,
and the kick is a solid place to start.
In fact, with genres like jazz, mixing entails a lot more trial and error
for me. That’s nothing inherent in the genre, though. I just don’t mix a lot
of jazz records, so I don’t really have any common practice techniques that
I rely on. I’m sure if I mixed jazz a lot, I would have a fairly rigid method
worked out for it. Given how important I just said the ride cymbals are in
jazz, I might start there.
In general, regardless of what genre I’m mixing for, I want to figure
out what’s important in the mix. If it’s a solo instrument that is going to
be really loud, then I hang all the mix elements around it, both in terms of
their level and tone.
For a pop mix, on the other hand, there’s a bit of a formula at work.
Certain obvious things need to be where they need to be. In this case, I’ll
start with a big bass-heavy kick drum. The bass is really important for me,
so I tend to start mixing there, whatever the music I’m working on. This
is partially preference, but it’s also a technical thing. Mixes get messy and
overwhelming, really fast, in the bass region. Bass pushes a lot of energy,
and often you don’t even consciously hear it doing so. Bass frequencies are
really big waveforms, and take a lot of energy to propagate, and take u

a huge part of the speaker load. If you take a massive kick drum and then
add a bass guitar on top of that, and then a bass synth, or any other bass
element you might add, your bottom end will quickly blow up and get out
of hand. A mix where the engineer hasn’t filtered the bass can easily make
your 2-Bus compression really go insane, and that’s going to compromise
some level and your mix will sound all the quieter and muffled because of
it. So that’s why I like to start with the bass, regardless of genre. Almost
on reflex, I’ll start by rolling some bottom end off a bass, because I want
the kick drum to push the absolute bottom frequencies of a mix, and then
I will fit the bass guitar around that. It depends on the mix of course, but
that’s where I like to start. It is all about organizing the frequency spectrum
and giving each element a place.
Have you ever hung a mix around the vocal rather
than the kick?
Not so much. I have done it in the past, though. And I have seen other
mixers do it. And I’ve met and interacted with a lot of engineers who say
that’s their way of doing things.
It seems like that process would be similar, but also very
different, from what you just described. Can you take us
through your impression of a ‘vocals first’ mix process?
I don’t think it’s necessarily a conscious decision. It’s just one of those
things where that’s what that particular mixer does, probably because that’s
just how they learned to do it. They may have come up being trained that
way, being around people who did it that way. They consider the vocals the
most important part of the mix right from the start, and they work in a way
that, in their opinion, best serves that notion.
Also, it’s worth noting that a lot of ‘vocals first’ mix methods aren’t
necessarily ‘vocals first’. Often, they will treat the vocals relative to some
other important mix element, so they can get levels that work. Especially
with pop material, for instance, you’ll see a lot of mix engineers start that
process by focusing on the vocals in relation to the kick drum. Once they
get those tracks balanced, they fit everything else around them. And that’s
because the vocals and the kick drum are both the most important elements of a pop mix. If you listen to the pop mixes, that’s most likely what
you’re going to hear being emphasized.
I can see how that works, and I agree with it. It’s just not how I do
things personally. There’s nothing wrong with that sort of diversity, in fact.
There’s no single correct way to mix a record. It’s only the results that
matter. Some people might say that my method is ‘backwards’, because
once I drop in my vocals I have to go back and tweak all the tracks to
accommodate the vocals. The problem is that if I were to start with a vocal
track, I wouldn’t personally know where it should sit. I need to hear the rest of the track to decide where the vocals should go. Is it going to be a really

loud mix? Is it going to be really bright, as a whole? I need to answer these
sorts of questions before I start on my vocals. But, again, that’s just my
personal way of doing things. And I do things that way not for any metaphysical reasons. I just ‘came up’ around engineers who mixed that way.

Part Three: Mixing for Markets

When you talk about how mixing reinforces the emotional
content of a song, it reminds me a bit of the way that some
cinematographers explain their craft. Would it be fair to say
that what you do, when you’re mixing, is similar to what
a cinematographer does when they decide how to shoot a
I do think mixing is similar to cinematography. Mixing is directing the
audio image, making the track flow. The arrangement is largely determined
during production, before a track ever gets to the mixing stage, but as a
mixer you still have to work on how the track flows, so listeners feel different things in different parts of the song. Mixing is subtle in that regard.
If you want a verse to feel very intimate, for instance, you will probably
want the vocal to be very clean, then, and maybe add some subtle reverb
and delay to enhance it a bit. When the chorus comes, and the song needs
to feel very aggressive all of a sudden, you might distort the vocal slightly,
and even double it. Maybe you’ll add a lot of reverb, too, because you want
it to feel less ‘up close and intimate’ than in the verse. Those are the kind of
‘cinematography’ things I was talking about, which can add support for the
emotional content of a song, and which subconsciously guide the listener
through the song in the process.
Another obvious example that I can think of, right off the top of my
head, has to do with the way you treat screamed
vocals in a mix. If a screaming vocal is mixed
to sound really present and right in your face,
that’s going to produce a very different emotion than if those same vocals are mixed back in
the mix. The mix with the present vocals is going
to feel much more aggressive than the one that’s mixed, so
there’s a bit of distance between the listener and the vocalist. You’re going
to have a different emotional connection with the song, given each mix.
At the same time that you’re supporting the emotional content of a song
through your mixing, you might also generate some emotional content of
your own—use mixers to make listeners feel tension, relief, excitement
or any other emotion that’s available and you want listeners to feel. The
guitar part in a particular section of a song might sound really interesting,
for instance, so you try to make sure listeners hear it through your mixing.
The guitar part could be going the whole time, in fact, and it’s only in a
particular place in the arrangement where you want to make it the main
focus of the mix. So you bring it forward dynamically, maybe brighten it

Mixing for Markets

a bit, and then it sticks out of the mix all of a sudden at that point. Then
the vocals are back in, so you bring the guitar part back down in the mix.
Do you do different things when you’re preparing a mix
for different markets? If so, can you give some specific
examples? How might you treat the kick drum differently if
it’s metal vs. pop vs. rock? What different things might you
do to the vocals given the same genres?
There are definitely things that you do differently when you’re mixing
records for different markets. I’ve already talked about how I would mix a
rock versus a jazz record. The jazz market doesn’t want to hear a ‘thump,
thump’ underneath everything, like the rock market does. Jazz fans want
to hear the intricacies of the recorded performances. Let’s face it, jazz
musicians are often amazing at what they do. So their fans don’t want to
hear a four-on-the-floor kick drum pattern the whole time. That would be
totally distracting. So I don’t emphasize the bottom of the kick drum the
way I would in other genres. Sometimes, in fact,
jazz drummers don’t even play the kick.
Definitely, there are lots of things I do differently when I’m working on different genres.
Let’s start with rock. Rock bands and rock
mixes have ‘big’ kick drums. The kick drum is
usually prominent in a rock mix. The snare is big and ‘snappy’,
the guitars are a wall of sound around the kick and snare, and the vocal is
in the center, too, but it’s not stupidly loud like it might be in pop. The vocal
track is there, and you can understand it. But it’s not EQ’d overly bright. In
fact, it can be dull, or can have a megaphone effect on it, or it can even be
distorted in rock. The market is fine with each of those different treatments,
whereas in jazz those effects are often out of the question.
Of course, pop is often the ‘flip side’ of the rock coin. The kick drum in
pop mixes doesn’t usually have a ‘tick’ to it, like it does in rock, but it’s still
very prominent and what we engineers sometimes call ‘woofy’. The kick
drum kind of drives the pop arrangement, in fact; the whole track is often
based on the sound of the kick drum. Sometimes there isn’t even a bass guitar
or bass synth in a pop mix, because the kick drum fills out all the low frequencies, and this is especially true when the kick is just
an 808 with a very drawn-out decay.
So the kick is really prominent in pop.
There’s often not so many guitars these days,
but there are a lot of synths that you need to
fit around the mix. The vocal is stupidly loud and
really bright, with lots of reverb and lush effects. Finally,
the vocal is the center point of any pop mix, whereas in rock it’s not.
With metal, on the other hand, you still want ‘big’ guitars. Mixing in that
genre is even less about the vocal, often because the singers are screaming and you can’t understand what they’re saying half of the time anyway.
The vocal track is not really loud in metal, though because of the screaming

and shouting it can often seem like it’s loud. It’s present, of course, and you
can hear it in the mix, but it’s not the same level of loudness as in a pop mix,
for instance. The kick drum in metal is not as big as a rock kick drum, but
it’s very ‘ticky’. Half the time the metal performers are playing very fast and
intricate kick drum parts, so the drum has to be ‘ticky’ or else you aren’t
going to hear those intricacies. You can’t have a big kick drum going on when
the arrangement calls for thirty-second notes—it just isn’t going to translate.
Then you go to jazz or blues, and mixing decisions become more about
balancing all the parts in the track together, as a whole. There’s no big kick
drum as a center point, and there’s no big vocal as a center point, in those
genres. Instead you have to feature everything, in a way, and bring individual tracks forward only during solo sections.
Are there any other things you might do differently when
you’re mixing tracks for different markets?
Actually, I’ll probably choose different samples to swap out or pad the
drums. I have ‘rock’ samples that are very ‘big’ and that sound like the quintessential rock kick drum and snare. For metal, I have very different samples,
though. Those are very ‘ticky’ and ‘attacky’, and they have less ‘body’ than
the rock samples, because the metal samples need to cut through the wall
of guitar shredding that tends to characterize metal. And for pop, I have yet
another set of samples. With pop, in fact, you can use electronic or totally
sequenced kits. So the samples you use for a pop record often vary from
track to track. But in general, my pop samples tend to be a bit more ‘boomy’
than the rock and metal samples, and less ‘ticky’ or ‘attacky’ overall.
What about vocal treatments? You mentioned vocals and
level before, but what about how you process vocal tracks?
The way you approach mixing vocals, and the default vocal chains you
use, will be different for different markets. The pop ideal is very bright,
very compressed and very ‘in your face’ throughout the entire track. The
rock ideal is slightly less compressed, less ‘in your face’, and isn’t quite
as bright as in pop and has more grit to it and can be dirtier. The modern
country ideal is very bright, very ‘in y

our face’ like in pop, so it’s kind of
a mixture of the pop and rock ideals