I get a lot of questions asked about auto-tune, quantization, etc and I feel that there is a general confusion by musicians about what part of work is actually what part.
I will explain the differences so when you contact a studio or engineer you can communicate easier with our pronunciation and understand exactly what it is we do, without further ado, let's get started!
Music Editing: Contrary to popular belief, editing tracks and such is NOT, I repeat, NOT mixing. Editing is just that: Editing. What areas does editing concern itself with in regards to album / studio production?
1. Pitch Correction- Be it vocals or sections of an out of tune instrument, all tuning happens during the editing stage, not the mixing stage.
2. Pocketing and drum quantization- Aligning drum tracks to a grid and adjusting the overall feel of the track / creating “pockets” or sections.
3. Compounding tracks- This is the process of editing Multiple takes together, be it 5 vocal takes and taking the best sections from those 5 different tracks or comping guitar parts. The word “Comp” stands for Compiled or master track.
4. Drum Replacement- This is the process of replacing poorly recorded drum tracks with samples using a plug-in such as Slate Digital Trigger or Drumagog. (This step can be completely skipped if started in the recording venture as the MIDI / sample information is already there and the tracks will sound great and near ready to be mixed.)
Now let's move on to Mixing. Mixing is the process of completing the painted picture known as a recording. Imagine mixing audio as photoshoping a picture. The goal is to make that picture as beautiful as possible with the given production values and sounds. Some records can not be worked with because of too much noise in a recording or other various factors so if a mix engineer turns your project down, do not take it personally, if you can, re-record, if not, it means the track most likely will not have a pleasant exit in the end.
Mixing involves the following:
1. Gain staging / track volumes- This is one of the most critical parts of the entire production process as having proper gain (level in Decibels) is pertinent to a pristine, clean mix. Too many people record their tracks way too hot in the digital world when they do not need to. There is no reason to beitting in the red with records in a 24-bit environment. Typical calibration is -18dBFS which means most tracks have an average level of -18 per instrument with peaks around -10 to -7 and this offers an optimal dynamic range and crest factor for use in mastering.
2. Equalization- This process is the most important part of mixing next to gain staging as this is the part where carving out bad frequencies and good frequencies in a track. If an engineer does not know his frequencies, expect horrible sounding mixes. Without an ear for frequency, mixing can not be properly done.
3. Panoramic Placement- The setting of Left / Right / Center placement in the sound field which creates further separation between instruments and gives the overall stereo balance which can wide or narrow.
4. Dynamic control- The third most important aspect of mixing is dynamic control which refers to using compressors and limiters during a mix. I use the word “squashed” a lot when suggesting to keep a mix open and dynamic in regards to mixing / mastering. Refer to the post / video on compression for more information on this subject. A Squashed mix / master basically means that the dynamic range of the track is small and sounds do not have much room to breathe and move. Improper limiting and compression causes artifacts such as a snare with all snap and no body.
5. Effects- This stage of mixing involved time based effects (delay, reverberation, flanging, etc) to push an instrument back or to beef it up. A common way of beefing up a vocal is to add a short delay and a small amount of reverb to make it “pop” more. Dynamic control also plays into this. This is also where overall ambiance may be added, for example a haunting keyboard melody or guitar riff likes to be slathered in a nice big reverb at a certain section or through the entire track.
6. Automation- Automation is the longest part of the mixing process because it involves such minute level changes and is generally always needed on vocals. Some mix engineers let the compressor / limiter do this job for them, however a great vocal is always automated. In other words us mix engineers take the vocal track after the mix is near completion and use our ears, eyes and mouse to make sure every syllable and word is thoroughly heard and understood. Automation can also be done on individual instruments as well, for example a bass note that's just too loud at a certain point in the song and needs to be tamed. Automation is also known as manual compression.
Hopefully this has helped clear up some confusion for everyone out there and you now have a much better understanding of the production processes. Do not be surprised when you find an engineer (like myself) who does not edit. It is not my nor their specialty. I specialize in recording tracks and mixing music, nothing in between. My skill set does not allow me to do such things, this does not make one a bad engineer, in fact it's quite welcome as it's generally beneficial to have more than one set of ears on an album production.
One last thing on the word “Track” a Track is an individual instrument in the session. Kick, Snare top, Snare bottom, tom1, tom2, tom3, FL tom, so on and so forth down the line.
A lot of people in the hip hop community refer to a track in the means of a stereo WAV file of pre-mixed and most likely and unfortunately mastered tracks. Require multi-track sessions from whoever you buy your beats from if possible as a stereo beat with vocals recorded over them is not exactly mixing considering all you're doing volume matching and putting a limiter across vocals to match the loudness of the mastered track . It's essentially a pointless task. It's great for practicing vocals but for a real mix, it's very impractical. If you can not get the multi-tracks for whatever reason, ask that they send an unmastered version and you will always get a better sounding mix in the end.
I also hope that you'll begin to realize why album production costs money. You can not spend $ 600 total for all of this sort of work and expect a great album, it will sound like a $ 600 album. If an engineer quotes you $ 1,500 + JUST for mixing Do not be shocked, go somewhere and find out the truth!
As always, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me,
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