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5 mixing mistakes that I used to make… and how to avoid them

5 mixing mistakes that I used to make… and how to avoid them

Not properly preparing

Having your sessions prepared for mixing will not only allow you to mix faster and more efficiently, but you’ll also free up your mind to make more important decisions. Edits should have crossfades, vocals should all be comped, backup vocals and multi mic’d instruments should be grouped or bussed appropriately, etc. Every time you make a decision while mixing it taxes your brain, and it becomes harder to focus on the more important things. By preparing beforehand, you don’t have to worry about which vocal take you want to use but instead can just focus on the more important aspect of how that vocal is sitting in the mix.

Make a list of everything you need to have done to adequately prepare for a mixing session. Pretend you have an assistant and ask yourself what you’d ask your assistant to do before you needed to mix, then do that.

Monitoring way too loud

Get an SPL meter and start checking at what level you’re monitoring. About a year ago I had my first real scare when it comes to my ear health. I woke up one day with an ear infection which turned into tinnitus which turned into asymmetrical hearing loss. Your ears are fragile, and you should take care of them.

My hearing issue was a blessing in disguise. I was a habitually monitoring at loud volumes, I wanted to “feel” the music. It wasn’t until I was told that if I continued, I could further damage my ears that I was forced to monitor at lower volumes.

I’ve always heard people say it is better to monitor at low volumes, but every time I tried, I’d still find myself slowly raising the volume until it was back to 100db. After my hearing issue, I had no choice. I couldn’t risk further damaging my ears. It turns out, everyone that said monitoring at lower volumes is better was right. Not only does it save your ears, but it is also great for leveling purposes because you can hear transients better. More importantly, the lesson I learned is to try new things that are difficult because you’ll always learn something.

Having my phone out while working

Text messages, email, Facebook, Instagram… These things are only there to inhibit my workflow by distracting me and making my work take longer. Breaks are essential, but distractions will stop your thought process and make it difficult to keep focused on the task at hand. For example, say you’re mixing a song, and while you’re listening to the song you say to yourself, I want to tweak the EQ on that guitar. Then you get a text message from your friend, Joe, who starts asking you how to deal with a problem he’s having with his girlfriend, Rita. When you finally get back to work, it’s likely you’ve forgotten all about how you wanted to tweak the EQ on that guitar.

Not listening to references or rough mixes

I used to purposely not listen to rough mixes or reference mixes because I didn’t want them to “distort my own original ideas, man!” Okay,  I never said that or I’d have to kick my own ass, but I did still feel like listening to another mix right before a session wasn’t a good idea. Time and time again I found my mixes coming back with revision requests. But why? They weren’t down with my creative ideas? Didn’t they realize I’m the next Chris Lord Alge?!

No– the reason is that they’ve been listening to a rough mix for eight months and I just gave them something back that sounds completely different. The human brain appreciates habit and what it’s used to. If you give a client back a mix that’s completely different from what they’ve been listening to then it’s likely they won’t like it solely because it is different than the rough mix. You shouldn’t make a mix that’s exactly like the rough, but you should use it as a reference point.

Adding a mix bus compressor last

If you want to compress the mix bus, don’t slap one on after fine tuning everything without one. That goes double for when you’re inexperienced and don’t know what you’re listening for. It takes years to really understand and hear compression and a few more years on top of that to understand mix compression.

If you’re going to be adding a mix bus compressor do it in the very beginning. Once I have two or more elements going through my mix bus, I will insert a mix bus compressor. This allows me to mix into the compressor rather than, get my levels and then completely destroy them by adding a compressor that wasn’t set properly.

Mixing into the compressor and giving the mix movement and life makes it sound more interesting. If you don’t mix into compression then you probably shouldn’t add it later, leave that up to an experienced mastering engineer.

Related articles:
Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering
[Even more] Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering
EMT 250 and the birth of digital audio
The “your mixes sound bad in the car”

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The best designed and most enjoyable effects unit ever: Eventide H3000 UltraHarmonizer

Letter Brian Eno wrote to Eventide in 1992

When one of the most influential and well regarded electronic musicians praises your effects unit as the best, it should hold some weight. Not only did Brian Eno love his Eventide H3000, but he loved it so much that he actually took the time to write to Eventide to congratulate them on designing it.

Eventide started in the basement of the Sound Exchange, a recording studio located in midtown Manhattan. Their control room wasn’t big enough to fit a tape op so studio owner Steven Katz commissioned Richard Factor to create a device that would allow him to locate the tape to a specific time. Eventide was born.

In 1974 they developed the H910 Harmonizer, one of their most notable products, which was the first digital pitch shifting device.  From the H910, the H3000 would be born. Interestingly enough, the H910 Harmonizer was first used to speed up the dialog of older sitcoms, like I Love Lucy, without changing the pitch of the voice.

In 1986, Eventide released the H3000. But what makes it so special? Before this unit, if you wanted to speed up time, you also had to speed up the pitch. This one significant advancement inevitably leads to tools that are paramount to modern recording like Auto Tune, Melodyne, time stretching, etc.  I think to truly grasp the full magnitude, you have to consider the period during which it was released. Up until that time, every effect that anyone ever heard was produced through hardware. There were no plugins. The majority of the time there was one piece of hardware that did one specific effect.

If you could design the most perfectly laid out effects unit, with what seems like unlimited capabilities, the H3000 would be it. With only 7 buttons, a jog wheel and number pad, finding and altering your favorite presets is quick and easy for even the most novice engineer. The H3000 could not have been better received and it wasn’t long before every studio had an H3000 in their rack. The H3000 was the first unit to offer true diatonic shifting or shifting that stays in key, but other features include*:

  • Dual Shift –  Two separate pitch shifters
  • Layered Shift – Two pitch shifts from one input
  • Stereo Shift – Mono-compatible stereo pitch shifting (maintains stereo imaging)
  • Reverse Shift – Backwards-talking pitch shift
  • Swept Combs – Six sweepable delay lines, with stereo panning
  • Swept Revere – A dense reverb with smooth sweep capability
  • Reverb Factory – A full-featured reverb with EQ and flexible gating
  • Ultra-Tap – Twelve delay taps with full control over panning, level, and delay, Includes a diffuser to generate dense gated reverb effects.
  • Dual Digiplex – A stereo delay with smooth delay change
  • Long Digiplex – A 1.5 second delay with smooth delay control
  • Patch Factory  – A “modular” effects program which lets you design your own effect. “Patch” together delay lines, filters and pitch shifting to create never-heard-before effects.
  • Stutter – Get that st..st..stutter sound – effortlessly
  • Dense Room – Our densest reverb, with unique front/back position control
  • Vocoder – This is our version of the classic vocoding effect
  • Multi-Shift – Two six-octave pitch shifters, two delays, panning, and patchable feedback paths make this program incredibly useful.
  • Band Delay  – A multi-tap delay line feeding eight resonant bandpass filters make for some sounds like you’ve never heard.
  • String Modeller – This program lets the H3000 double as an extra voice in your MIDI rack
  • Phaser – A wonderfirlly thick, smooth, phase-shifting effect that is hard to beat

*List source: Vintage Digital

It’s over 30 years after the release, but the H3000 is still found in countless studios across the world. Through all the changes in technology the unit and its effects not only hold up, but many would argue still surpass anything made in the modern era.

Eventide has given engineers a cheaper option– they released the H3000 plug-in for $350. I can’t vouch for how good it sounds or how it compares with the real unit, but you can download the demo here and try it for yourself.

Below are samples I’ve recorded of vocals going through our H3000:

Dry (no H3000)

Dual Shift

Stereo Shift

Flanger

Pitch Quantize

DigiPlex

Big Vocal Plate

Tight Room

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Why your voice sounds different when you hear it recorded

Why your voice sounds different when you hear it recorded

Did you know that just using earplugs isn’t always enough to protect your hearing? You don’t only hear sound through your auditory canal. Vibrations are also picked up by your bones and sent to your inner ear through what’s called bone conduction. Bone conducted sound is perceived to be lower and deeper in tone. When the sound through bone conduction blends with the sound your hearing directly through your auditory canal, it sounds fuller and deeper. When you hear a recording of your voice, you no longer hear the deeper tone provided by bone conduction. This is the reason your voice sounds different when you hear it recorded.

This is also the reason why wearing traditional hearing protection isn’t always enough to prevent damage. This article that was written by Officer.com talks about a ten year study on police says,

…a study from the Department of Otolaryngology, National Taiwan University Hospital, Taipei, Taiwan, found that even with double ear protection, hearing loss still occurred in about 75 percent of those studied.

Bone conduction headphones convert sound waves into vibrations that are received by the Cochlea. While wearing these headphones, sound waves never pass through your eardrums. The main issue with these headphones is they actually vibrate on your head, which can be unsettling, they also lack bass response and volume.

Interestingly enough hearing sound through bone conduction was first discovered by Ludwig van Beethoven. Due to his deafness, Beethoven found a way to hear music through his jawbone by biting his piano. The patent for the first bone conduction listening device was registered in 1924 by science fiction writer and inventor, Hugo Gernsback. His device used rubber plates that gripped to your teeth.

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Setting yourself apart: recording unique sounds

Recording Unique Sounds

It seems the older you are in the recording industry, the more credibility you have, and for a good reason. An engineer who has been working since the 80s has seen the transition from tape machines to Napster and the first two channel interface in just a couple years. If someone has been working that long and been able to stay relevant, it’s a huge accomplishment in an industry that’s known to chew you up and spit out without any remorse.

As I mentioned in “[More] Things I wish I learned sooner about audio engineering,” there used to be a mentality in the audio industry that trade secrets were just that, secrets. Only the select few included in the inner circle would get to learn them. It wasn’t until the internet that people started to realize giving away these secrets was an excellent way to pad their pockets with a little extra spending money.

What I’ve learned from the older generation of engineers, that I see younger engineers sometimes lack, is going out of their way to be unique and original. In a world where everyone can have the same plugin, it’s uniqueness that will set your sounds and productions apart from the rest of the engineers using the same cracked version of RCompressor as you. I’m not saying you have to be Sylvia Massey and record drums through a garden hose (you’d be cooler if you did though). But, if you can use a weird guitar pedal as an insert or record vocals through a cassette player, then you’ll at least be able to include a sonic footprint that is uniquely your own. Not many people have that weird guitar pedal, and I doubt anyone is using the same cassette deck to saturate a vocal track.

Sylvia Massey’s special drum hose mic technique in action

The convenience of digital recording is the reason many of us are even making and recording music today. Computers have made the barrier to entry for musicians to record themselves almost nonexistent while the internet has made it easy to find information that was once only found under lock and key in the major studios of New York and LA.

But the problem with digital and the abundance of information is that it’s almost too convenient. Everyone wants to know how so and so got that sound? What guitar did they use? What microphone? Creativity thrives due to necessity, and it can’t flourish when everything is easy. You can’t be a revolutionary using a tool that everyone else uses trying to get the same tones that everyone else has. Can you imagine what Sgt. Peppers would sound like if they had Pro Tools in 1967?

Instead of being able to go to a plugin preset, George Martin, Geoff Emerick, and the rest of the crew at Abbey Road had to make everything on their own. Effects, tape loops, and any processing was all carefully thought out and made in house; but you don’t need a crew of electrical engineers to be original. Experiment with unusual mic placements, use real hallways and bathrooms for reverb. Think outside the box. All of these things will set your recordings apart from Johnny “Audio” down the street.