Friday, July 6, 2012

Cheap Seats 5: Mix Mix, Stir Stir

After a seemingly interminable two-month break after the end of recording (a day of righteous drum tracking), Justin and I are mixing this record.  It's also worthwhile to note that it's been seven months since this album's first recording dates back in December and two years this week since I wrapped up recording for my last album in my parents' basement!  Time, naturally, flies, and it's sort of hard to believe I've been working so long on a single project. 

We've got two business weeks for mixing and at this point Justin's doing pretty much all of the work--I mostly sit around and do things like this while he sorts through the amorphous pile of tracks I heaped upon him, and after he works on a song for a few hours I chime in with some kind of verbal ingratitude like "the lead guitar isn't very audible, can we do something about that?"  While I've got a musician's and seasoned listener's ears for mixing, Justin has a professional's ears and the skills to make things happen efficiently, quickly, and with an ever-present sense of each song's big picture.

The process starts with the drums; since the record contains recorded contributions from two drummers, it's possible to dial in the mixing settings for one drummer, apply them to every song recorded with those drums to save time, then tweak them minimally for each song.  After that, Justin seems to work on the bass (if there is any) and so forth on to the guitars, horns, vocals and other instruments.  To treat this like a mixing version of A Day in the Studio, let's start by saying that "mixing" basically means arranging and adjusting the characteristics of all of the tracks that make up a song in order to make them sound cohesive, organized, and to properly represent the song's arrangement and most important elements in a way that's audible to the listener.  The process involves things as simple as setting the volume and panning (whether the track's coming from the left speaker, the right, or a mixture of both) of each track (which can actually become quite complex when there's lots of tracks), but also encompasses things like compression, equalization (or EQ; adjusting the bass, midrange and treble of a track to compensate for too much of something or allow two tracks with similar frequency ranges to coexist without covering each other up, a problem that can happen with dense arrangements like the ones in a lot of these songs), and all sorts of effects--commonplace ones like reverb and delay as well as more "proprietary" tricks of the trade.

In a nutshell, the fact that Justin's done this hundreds of times means that he has a method and a creative vision that form a solid launch pad for each song well before we even get to the point where I'm giving my own input.  As with all of the phases of this project, mixing has been a real learning experience.  I've gotten to hear the consequences of the arrangements I've made--sometimes things work great and there's space for all of the instrumental voices to sound audible and distinct, and sometimes things I thought we'd be able to fit in end up sitting atmospherically in the background, where they certainly contribute, but not quite as identifiably.  It's also been instructive to see how Justin reacts as a listener to the ideas and concepts in the music--more than a couple of times ideas I've had regarding the mix have met with questions about why exactly it needs to happen.  Not that there's some kind of creative struggle happening, but rather Justin's been quite helpful with providing feedback as to how well ideas I've had are actually audible in the music, and whether or not the things I want to do are actually making it easier for the listener to grasp the concept.  Though I don't have a lot to do to make the mixing happen, I'm trying to learn as much as I can conceptually to use during my next project--there are a lot of things I could do ahead of time to make things run smoother, and and I have a better idea of what kinds of things will later become problematic.

Hopefully, I'll also be able to maintain the inspiration that naïveté brings--I want to remain focused on coming up with the weirdest, most distinctive ideas I can rather than thinking of the mixing process first--things have a way of working out, and everything can be fixed, in one way or another!  Bottom line, this record's sound is a week away from being 95% complete...after we finish mixing, it's mastering, duplication and release!  Stay tuned for more overarching Cheap Seats content (including interviews!), as well as details about preorder and release of this behemoth. 

Cheap Seats Part 1
Cheap Seats Part 2: Non-Commercial Music 
Cheap Seats Part 3: A Day in the Studio 
Cheap Seats Part 4: The (Un)Happy Accident