Sunday, November 9, 2008

7 Questions from Amateur Mix Engineers

Over time, I've noted several questions that arise repeatedly on the web's home recording forums. Each question reads as though it should have a simple answer, but none of them do. And indeed, the questions themselves betray their askers' lack of experience with the subject.

In effect, posing one of these questions tells the world you're an amateur. But I hope that by explaining why the questions don't have the simple answers a rookie expects, you'll appreciate how an experienced engineer thinks about each problem, and be better equipped to identify gaps in your own knowledge.

1. What are the best EQ settings for guitar?
Or its many variants: "What are the best compressor settings for vocals," "what reverb settings should I use for mastering," and so on.

This question has a straightforward answer: The best settings are the ones that sound right. But for most beginners, who haven't yet learned critical listening skills, this advice seems trite.

Unfortunately, any other answer is meaningless. Every track, in every song, has its own unique requirements. And the best settings, for EQ or compression or any effect, are dictated solely by the requirements of the song. (See the Rule of Mixing for more.)

2. Which is the best microphone?
We'd all love to own a U87 or a C12. But engineers covet those mics because they're reliable and versatile, not because either is inherently superior. In fact, there are as many ways to define "best" (and for that matter "worst") as there are sounds to record. As with the question above, what's best ultimately depends on what fits the song.

3. How do I record my song to sound like The Foo Fighters?
This question stems from the misconception that The Foo Fighters, or any band, sound the way they do because of their equipment. Acquire the same instruments and mics, the thinking goes, and you can duplicate their recordings.

Most professional recordings have deceptive clarity. They sound, at least to listeners unfamiliar with the process, as though they should be easy to reproduce. But the question above has only one honest answer. To sound like The Foo Fighters:

* Buy quality instruments, and learn how to play them well.
* Write songs suitable for the genre.
* Arrange those songs to support Foo Fighters-style production.
* Practice. Lots.
* Record in a great live room.
* Spend time on microphone selection and placement.
* Play every part till you get it right.

In other words, there are no shortcuts, and it's not easy. Great recordings take time and talent.

4. What vocal chain does Paul Simon use?
Also commonly worded as "I want to sound like John Mayer. Which microphones and settings should I use?"

Beginners ask this question assuming that we can recreate a track by knowing how it was recorded. Unfortunately, even if you bought Paul Simon's complete signal chain, you'd have little success matching his recordings. His voice, and John Mayer's voice, and of course the voice of any famous musician, is unique, as are his performances.

To sound like Paul Simon, in short, you need to have him sing your vocal

5. How do I remove the room's ambiance from a recording?
Conceptually, it makes sense that since we use reverb to add depth, there must be some way to reverse the process.

There isn't. If you don't notice until you're mixing that a guitar track has too much room sound, you have 2 options: Live with the sound, or re-record.

6. Is this mix finished?
Rookie engineers like to think there's a golden standard sound to which they aspire, and once they've attained that sound, their mixes will thereafter be perfect.

We should be so lucky! In truth, our learning never stops. We continue (hopefully) to improve, but none of us is ever done acquiring knowledge, as true of recording and mixing as it is of life. But this is OK. Learning, after all, is the fun part!

To the question: As a general guideline, a mix is finished when it best represents the song. Of course, "best" is open to interpretation here as it is everywhere in recording. You need to use your ears and your gut, and make the call when it feels right. In other words, only you know when the mix is finished.

Unless someone has paid you, in which case the mix is done when the deadline arrives.

Finally, a surefire question to signal your newbie status to the world:
7. How do I use this $1,200 plugin that I just happen to have installed on my machine?
Answer: You read the manual, which comes with the software when you buy it legally.
In Closing

You'll out yourself as a novice by asking these questions of an experienced engineer. But really, there's nothing wrong with that. In some senses, we're all amateurs.

Take the colleague of my friend Paul, who once asked him, “what does a compressor do?” The question seems innocent enough until you learn that this colleague has been a film industry sound engineer for over 20 years, and has worked on dozens of major motion pictures. Of course, Paul now has difficulty taking his colleague seriously as an audio professional. But the guy still works on movies as a sound engineer, so the anecdote should be comforting for the rest of us amateurs!

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