How do you mix a song?
Let me start with a very happy belated Happy New Year! It has been a minute from the last post, but things were a bit hectic on my side. Anyway, some time back I was in the habit of posting what I called sound facts on my Facebook page. After receiving a lot of direct messages asking for further explanations, I decided to start expounding them one by one in the blog.
Today let’s start with the 4th sound fact:
“First, always think in terms of texture, dynamics and space. Not plug-ins, loudness and gears.”
The fact itself is a bit cryptic, and it deserves the right amount of attention to be expounded further. When we approach mixing a song, sometimes it’s hard to have a clear focus on the idea and on the final result we want to achieve. Our DAWs are often clogged with plenty of plugins, which tempts us to immediately try this processor or that effect, consequently making us drift from the bigger picture because we are focused on a small detail.
The idea comes first!
We should always take a minute to think first, build the idea by taking into consideration what I think are the fundamental elements of a song, but more with the general outlook of an audiovisual product. Why is the idea so important? Through the idea we can identify, add, enhance the connotative and denotative elements of a song, we can understand and resonate with it and maximize the efficiency of our intervention. Also, let’s not forget that the original meaning of “Idea” is a primordial and substantial essence. We need to understand that essence because it is behind the originality and the uniqueness of every piece of art.
Uncovering the elements
That being said, what are the fundamental pieces that compose the idea of a song?
- Texture: in simple layman terms, this is the frequency balance, or the timbre of a song. It is composed by the extension and the sonic interactions of all the instrument and the sound sources present in the composition. It is the basic, raw material that contains most of the information and the connotative and denotative elements, like the bio-metric page of a passport. The texture also contains the signatory elements which are proper and particular to the genre of that song. The complexity of the texture is actually given by the different interactions between instruments, not by the quantity of them and, with some approximation, we can say that a complex texture requires major attention to details, but it can also be more rewarding to the creation of that primordial and substantial essence. Processes that usually help us to achieve an optimal texture balance are: side chain compression, multiband compression, equalization, saturation and time based effects (for some extents and in some specific cases). Two of the key song we can listen are Adele – Hello, very rich in texture and John Legend – All of Me, with a simpler and essential texture;
- Dynamics: we’ve been taught for years that the correct definition of dynamics is the difference between the quietest and the loudest level that a signal can assume. This is true, but there is more to it. In a song, from a sound engineer’s perspective, the dynamics assume a significant role in the expression of a song and in the build-up of the texture. There are two types of dynamics: Micro and Macro.
- The micro dynamics express all the interactions and the relationships between different sound sources creating what we can refer as the eunoia of a song, made by the arrangement in layers of the threads of our sonic texture. Simple micro dynamics are generally associated with genres of music which do not require a lot of participation from the listener, with some exceptions, of course.
- The macro dynamics are reflected in everything that concerns the loudness variations on the overall structure of a song. The importance of this element, is in the final listening experience: loudness variations creates a more interesting and emotionally driven listening. Unfortunately in the past decades, the commercial trend has leaned towards flattening the dynamics, with something known as loudness war. In pop music in particular, there are very low loudness variations which makes the listening obvious and flat. Luckily this trend is finally changing: the major music streaming platforms are actually penalizing songs with low macro dynamics.
To work on dynamics some of the process we can adopt are compression, parallel compression and expansion. To better understand the concept,you can listen to Major Lazer – Lean On, with a flat dynamic and Foo Fighters – Sky Is A Neighborhood, a song with deeper dynamics;
- Space: well, this is self-explanatory. In a song, the space is a virtual semi-circular area with an extension of 180° where the listener represents the 0°, also called “phantom center”. Within this space is where we position the various instruments or sound sources, giving to the listener a virtual and visual perspective of soundscape. As opposed to the texture and the dynamics, the space factor has been strongly codified since the first orchestral execution. In most cases we will always have the lead vocal, the bass and the kick centered, while instruments or sound which contribute to the harmony of the song will be panned to the left and/or the right, “wrapping” the rhythmic part of the song. With space we can also refer to the size of each instrument, in terms on how wide a sound is. A grand piano should be wider than a bass guitar or a kick, and an ambient synth should be wider than a grand piano, for example. A wise and cohesive management of the space will create a more immersive experience for the listener, making them feel at the center of the sonic action. On top of all the techniques used to work on the soundscape we have panning, reverb and other time based effects. We can find good examples of space in a song by listening to Christopher Tin -Baba Yetu, wide and spaced and Sex Pistols – Anarchy In The UK, narrow and almost monophonic.
As you can see and imagine, before getting into a single plugin, is important for us to have clear objectives. Personally, even after figuring the idea out, I start by using the plugins that are given in bundles with my DAW, in order to avoid any distraction and go straight to the point. Then later on, once I’ve nailed the idea, I can fine tune with the specific plugin which better satisfies my creativity and the needs of the song.
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