How to Mix Sound, Session 1: Let’s get started

I’ve given classes in sound mixing, and there’s no reason the course can’t be online here in a serial form.

If you know me, you know that I have over 30 years experience in television and sound production, so I do know a little about the subject. Being a technical writer, perhaps I can convey the concepts here.

Going into this, let me gently remind you that all this work presented here as serial blog material is copyrighted 2011-2014. You may reproduce it by permission only. Please respect the work I’ve put into it; this is not something I happened to scribble down on a rainy Saturday afternoon, but it is the work of many, many hours of research and checking.

Introduction

This is all about taking you through the thought-process required to put together a successful mix. When you’re done, you should have the concept of a ‘good mix’, and be able to enjoy the work put into it by the sound crew.

Overall, the art of mixing sound is about 90% just plain listening, then the rest is making the sound fit your mental picture of how it should come out. So where do we get that mental picture?

It’s all about the…

Stage of Sound

Imagine a theatrical stage: You have players to the sides, some to the back, and the lead characters are usually in front. Sometimes in the drama, they’re to one side or the other, but usually they’re in front.

When you’re at a live production, try to sit near the stage just once so that you’re not hearing “the house” sound (in other words, noises and echoes from the venue itself), then close your eyes and listen. Hear how the main performers feel closer to you? Listen to how the secondary performers sound more in the background – farther away from you. Others may be off to one side or the other, closer or farther away. This is what you should always try to achieve in your mix.

So now what you have to do is make your sound feel like that stage. Got it?

We’ll go back to this, later. But keep this idea in mind; it’s a concept called Spacial Location.

This is enough for now, but the #1 important concept to remember is that every source of sound, whether it’s a performer or an instrument, has a physical location on the stage, and it has to sound like that.

Homework:

Find yourself a copy of some ‘classic’ music and listen to how the sound crew put together the three-dimensional stage of sound. Find something that matches your tastes and give it a good, deep listen with your eyes closed. Some examples would be:

  • Classical and symphonic music from most any era
  • Jazz music from any era up to the 80’s
  • Rock/Pop from any era up to the 80’s
  • Vocals from any era up to the 80’s

So why not later than the 80’s? There was a big breakthrough in recording technology (the dbx Compressor) which took a lot of the creative burdens off the sound crew. Or they just got lazy because ‘the compressor will catch it’. Concurrent with that, recording profits began to fall dramatically. People began to get lazy about how they did mixdowns in the effort to get the music out and to bring dollars in. The early CD compression technology also required a lot of extra effort to get the mixdown right, and producers just didn’t have the time/money to spend on the art and craft of a really good mix. Of course, painting with a broad brush never works; there are performers like Barbra Streisand (for instance, and of course there are many others) who cared a LOT about every single aspect of the end product, and it shows. Other examples are Jefferson Airplane, the Bee Gees, Bob James, It’s A Beautiful Day, and individual performers like Liz Story.

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