Starting: Where the Artist Left Off or From Scratch

There are two places to start the mix: (1) where the band/artist left off or
(2) completely from scratch with the faders set to zero and without any
plugins. I believe that picking up where the artist left off, which could
possibly mean leaving all the plugins inserted and routing intact that was
used during the tracking and recording process, allows one to hear the mix
from the exact place that the tracking process was left off. Mixing from
this point of view allows for continuity in tone and shape. In this approach,
bypass plug-ins to see how the treatment is working. Does the EQ’ing
feel accurate? Do the compression times and ratios feel good? How about
muting effect returns? Ask yourself if this treatment is adding to or taking
away from the song. Continuing in this way, you can have the client print
a rough mix at the end of the tracking process before they pass it on to be
mixed. Then, begin by zeroing out the faders and throwing all the plugins
into bypass. Next, build the mix back up based on the rough mix and reinstate the plugins as you go. The result may be that you ultimately tweak
parameters to your liking and substitute your own preferred plugins. In a
sense, this can be a hybrid of how the mix came in with your own magic
wand waving on top. Beginning the mix from scratch is another possibility
for starting a mix. In this process, you would not refer to any rough mix
and rebalance from zeroed-out faders. This allows for the most creative
freedom from a mixing standpoint. After deciding which of the above
ways to take, there are then a couple of places to start with the song itself,
instrumentally speaking. The two main ways I begin a mix are either with
the foundational—low-end world of drums and bass—to the lead melodic
element, which in most cases are the vocals. See Phil Harding’s chapter in
this book (chapter 4) for an expanded discussion on this.

I tend to think of mixing as starting from a broad 10,000-foot view and
moving towards a very minute microscopic view. It’s like beginning with
broad brushstrokes followed by touch-ups. This can be a cyclical process:
starting broad and moving into fine details and then zooming out to broad
again. I mix in phases, building up the mix with equalization and compression in stages. I try to be mindful to not build the drums and bass up
too much in size and lose space to fit other main elements, such as guitars,
keys, and vocals in. It’s a gradual process of using broad sweeps on the
EQs, along with first cutting any undesirable desirable frequency. I’m a
big fan of the importance of low mids. To me that area is the ‘gut’ of the
mix with some muscle. This area is tricky from an equalization standpoint,
because it is intertwined with the mud range of 250 Hz. A common thing
I hear is the cutting of too much low mids with a bell and high-pass filtering too far on instruments like vocals, acoustic guitar and electric guitar.
The result starts to lean towards more of a smiley-face mix, which is not
my style. In my arsenal or palette, I like to have my staple EQ and compressors and the fun one-trick ponies. My current picks for EQs fluctuate
between the Neve 1073, API 550a and the REQ by Waves. The REQ has
a bit of color, so it is not totally transparent. A really cool thing about the
REQ is it makes use of the resonant shelf design that Pultecs incorporate.
The one limitation I find, however, is the Q, which sometimes doesn’t get
as narrow as I’d like. In that case, the QEQ can be a better choice. My
first move in the chain, if needed, is subtractive EQ to clean up any harsh,
muddy or excessive buildup of frequencies. Next, for any additive EQ
along with some tone color, I’ll go to the 1073 or 550. A common question
that arises is what should sit on the extreme very bottom of the mix. The
most common options are bass, eclectic or synth, or kick on the bottom.
One other way to frame it is to have the two elements work as one unified
thump. In the early stages of the mix, I do not mind starting with extra
fat on the bone. I build it up as large as possible, somewhat grand within
reason to the tune, like the Technicolor version. For example, there’s only
so far you can take an acoustic guitar and voice song. The framing of the
song can be larger than life, a grand holiday meal, or a bit more realistic,
like your average daily honest family meal. Therefore, I build it up as big
as possible and then scale it back. For me it’s very similar to tracking. I’ll
start with seeing what kind of extension I can get on the top and bottom
of the frequency spectrum. The analogy I like to think of is sculpting with
a blank piece of marble and chipping away. For example, in the low end
I like to imagine the song as having more of a defined sub/round shape
bottom around the area of 60 Hz–80 Hz. The other shape would be one that
is punchier, around the area of 120 Hz–130 Hz. These two shapes could
be used in one song, though in different sections. One way this can be
determined is by tempo—slower tempos have more time between the beats
to let the sustain ring out and more up-tempo pieces typically need a kick
with shorter decay. Other factors in defining the low end, of course, is the
key of the song and the fundamental frequencies involved. For different
shapes of the kick and bass elements, check out ‘Grey/Afro’, ‘Santorini’
and ‘Danger and Play’ from Buck 65. After addressing the kick, I’ll look

at the snare and overheads. My typical approach for overheads is a solid
composite picture of the entire drum kit. However, this is entirely reliant
upon the tracking engineer’s approach, because one belief of the purpose
of the overheads is more for the cymbals and some snare. Of course, the
kick might not be so represented, but there can be some frequencies present in the area of 80 Hz and above, so I just won’t throw a high-pass filter
on up to 200 Hz. This type of equalizing ties in to the overall approach to
seeing how far or large I can build up the song. I may dial a touch out of the
mids in the overheads where the snare is prominent on this initial balance
of the drums. Next, I’ll go through the remaining drum mics and on to the
bass. Once I get the rhythm section feeling good, I’ll throw in the vocals or
the other supporting element and work from there