SEPARATING MUSICAL PARTS IN THE MIX
It never fails. An amateur band's first recording has most of these problems:
- The instruments all seem to clash together.
- One part seems to stick out like a thumb hit with a hammer.
- Two instruments meld together into an unseparatable mess.
- Parts disappear.
- The vocalist fades into the distance.
- Everything sounds murky and muddy.
- Some notes overpower and others recede.
This is what separates the experts from the novices. It takes practice. But there are some things you can do
about these problems:
- You need to plan your final mix so similar instruments are separated in space and time.
- Make sure the instruments aren't playing the same part. Even if they are an octave apart, you will
never pry them apart if they are playing the same darn notes.
- Pan instruments in the same frequency band to opposite sides.
- Try to avoid having instruments that sound like each other. Piano and acoustic guitar are so alike in
frequency bands that they tend to blend together into a "guiano." Another similarity creates the
- Separate similar instruments by having them play in counterpoint (for an example, think
"Dueling Banjos"), or in alternate verses.
- Separate similar instruments with different EQ settings.
- Many times, there are just too many instruments fighting for top billing. Get rid of a few, or
alternate them, if that's the case.
- At most, only one instrument should be playing chords. If more than one instrument plays chords, they
are very hard to separate.
- If the instruments are really "clashing," you may have a tuning problem. Make sure everyone is in
tune. And don't tune acoustic instruments to each other. Use the keyboard, or some other fixed pitch
reference. Also, if you use a tuner, make everyone in the band use the SAME tuner (yes, they can be a little
off from each other).
- Remember that when you do an internal bounce to one track, the result is in boring mono. Now you have
a whole bunch of stuff inseparably panned to the same place. You need to plan your bouncing, so that
dissimilar instruments end up panned together in the final mix. Like this:
- Track 2 - Far left: backup vocal 1, keyboard
- Track 1 - Mid left: lead guitar
- Track 4 - Center: lead vocal, bass, drums
- Mid right: sax (recorded during the mixdown)
- Track 3 - Far Right: backup vocal 2, rhythm guitar, percussion
- Note that, unless you use stereo tracking and bouncing techniques, or record parts during the
mixdown, you can have no more pan positions than you have tracks.
- If your studio is acoustically live, and the musicians play loud, a lot of reflections get into
other mics when tracking instruments together. The result is mud.
- Check your trial mix out on several different sets of speakers, so the coloration of one set doesn't
alter your mix.
- If your monitors reproduce a frequency band with less volume than other frequencies, you will tend
to overexaggerate instruments that work in that band. This is especially true at the extreme high and low
- Practice your bounces several times before actually recording them. Vary the level of each track
until the mix for the bounce sounds balanced to you. Only when it sounds right to you in the various sets
of speakers you try should you actually record the bounce.
- Mix with your ears, not the control positions or meter indications. Make it sound good to you. The
recording level meters are there to tell you the signals are there, and to keep them from overloading the
tape. They can't tell you how much of a part is too much, compared to the other parts.
- Solo the clashing parts (if you have solo), and check what they sound like together, but without
the other parts. For me, an after-fader solo is a must to getting a proper balance.
- What??? No solo buttons on your PortaStudio??? You can fake it quite easily on all but the MiniStudios.
- Select either Effects 1 send or Effects 2 send on the headphones. It must not be in use for an effect.
- Turn down the gain on the Monitor.
- Turn all of the individual channel Effect sends for the selected send down, except the ones you wish to
solo. Turn those selected channel Effect controls to unity gain.
- Open up the monitor pot to hear the after-fader solo in the headphones. Now, balance the channel faders
of those channels in the headphones.
- If the singer seems to be hiding in the next county, check to see if too much room, or too much reverb,
is getting into the singer's track.
- If the singer is off key, or the wrong level, check the monitor levels. It might be that the singer
can't hear himself, in relation to the other parts.
- Don't put two parts that need to be in tune with each other in opposite ears of headphones. People
can't stay in tune without both parts in the same ear.
- If the singer is too far from the mic, he will sound like he is too far from the mic. But if the singer
is eating the mic, then his or her voice will be changed by the presence of the microphone in the area of the
vocal tract, changing the shape of the vocal tract, and thus the sounds it produces. Usually 2 to 6 inches is
the best spacing between mouth and mic.
- One thing that really messes up a mix is when a mic picks up a monitor during tracking. This can cause
all kinds of unexpected changes in the mix, including making parts disappear, moving pan positions, canceling
out certain frequencies, and making parts seem distant and hollow. Use headphones when recording with
- Tame that room! All of the following are methods to reduce reflections, standing waves, and other
problems in the recording room:
- The worst case is a room with hard parallel surfaces, which create many standing waves and frequency
- Get a rug. Don't let that hard surfaced floor ruin your takes.
- One trick is to hang blankets about a foot from each hard-surfaced wall.
- Bookcases with randomly sized books make excellent sound diffusers. This can tighten up a studio's
response, and eliminate standing waves.
- Amazingly, as long as there are no resonant or rattly objects present, clutter can fix up the sound in
- Gobos are used to separate each part from another part's mics. They can be anything handy, including
hanging blankets, old mattresses, couches, overstuffed chairs, coatracks loaded with coats, and pillows.
- Build a tent over that guitar amp. Put a blanket over the speaker and an overstuffed chair, and hide the
mic under the tent.
- Room response is NOT linear, but varies with how loud the instruments are being played. Turning down
during recording will give you better tracks.
- Don't use a concert amp stack to record with. By the time the guitarist gets it up to where the
speakers produce the distortion he wants, the poor little mic has already given up on making good sound, and
the room is shocked into resonance. Use a smaller amp or speaker box, and the recording will sound
like it was made with the big amp.
- If you (the engineer) also play an instrument, be careful to not subconsciously overemphasize or
underemphasize the part played on the same instrument.
All it takes is a little work and practice, and soon your recordings will sound like they were done by a
Mixing your own sound