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Welcome to the Pro Tools Generation

Mixing for the Masses?

By Charles Dye

In the last two years, the number of musicians and artists that I’ve worked with who’ve never recorded on tape, or in some cases even know that such a device ever existed (I’m not kidding) continues to amaze me. Without a doubt, we are now working among the first Pro Tools generation. (Ladies and Gentlemen, tape has left the building.) Kidding. But seriously, never has the professional audio industry seen such an abrupt and radical change in the way records are made. At the same time, never has a recording technology been so aggressively embraced by musicians, making them feel so comfortable that they’ve begun to record themselves. With its bar|beat editing and intuitive waveforms, Pro Tools has compelled them to become more involved. I now find myself in sessions where a musician will grab my trackball and edit their own tracks, and this same attraction has led many of them to buy their own systems. Like the drum machine that allowed keyboard players to be drummers, and the sequencer that allowed guitarists to play keyboards, Pro Tools is the latest technological equalizer that is allowing everyone to be a record producer.

Charles Dye mixing with Pro Tools
and Pro Control

This has lead to another change in our industry. Engineering itself is becoming somewhat of a collaborative process. Instead of it being in the hands of a single central figure—the recording engineer—it is now in the hands of a wider network of individuals, many of them the same musicians playing on the project. This democratization of the recording process has put a lot of new tools into the hands of people who now have the desire to learn how to get the most out of them. It has also changed the way professionals approach record making. As engineers and mixers begin to discover the unique sounds that some plug-ins have, more and more tweaking is being done before the sound ever hits the console. Some rebels are even venturing to mix without a console at all.

So, it is with all of these users in mind—artists, musicians, engineers, mixers and producers—that I write this. I would like to share with you some of the things that I have learned about Pro Tools that have made my time on the system more productive.

“Do You Really Know What All Those Knobs Do?”
I have never believed in the mystery of grand knowledge that seems to surround engineering. It has always been seen as more intimidating than it should. Getting great sounds in the studio can be very simple, though at first it may not seem that way. There can be a lot of information to keep in mind, but complex it is not. It is basically one idea built upon another, that when added together give you the knowledge you need to get great results.

I don’t want to mislead people into believing engineering is easy either. My basic intention is to demystify the process. For anyone who is relatively new to recording, if I can communicate one thing to you, it is that if you wish to learn more about engineering—for the sake of improving your own recordings or becoming a better engineer—then the ability is within you. Desire breaks down more barriers than anything else. If you can learn to listen to and trust that sound you hear in your head, and if you have the patience to learn how to connect it with the sound coming from the speakers, then you’ll get the results you’re searching for.

Unlocking The Mysteries of Mixing
There is one area of engineering that does truly seem shrouded in mystery—almost to the level of black magic—and that is mixing. As a younger engineer, I devoured every book I could find on the subject, and scoured magazine interviews with mixing engineers to learn how to get mixes that sounded like a record. After a lot of reading it eventually became apparent to me that the miracle book or interview I was searching for just did not exist.

I also did a lot of mixing. As a tracking engineer for a number of talented artists, the quality of their music was never the issue. I pushed the faders plenty of times on songs that when mixed by better engineers, became monster hits. And being on the backside of that equation was beginning to cause a lot of self-doubt. I started to believe that mixing was an elusive skill that I might never attain. Some people were just born with this uncanny ability, and others like myself—well—weren’t.

But, I was determined to be able to do this. I was not going to give up on this dream. And one day, as if the final piece of the puzzle simply fell into place and “click”—it happened.

I can actually identify the specific mix in my mind that was the turning point, the first time I heard back a record quality mix that I had done. I don’t mean it was just good. This mix was head and shoulders above anything I had ever done before. This was it. This was what a record sounded like.

Hearing it back was a very strange sensation, because just the day before I thought this would never happen to me. What was so special about this mix? Why couldn’t I do this before? Had the heavens just broken open and this miraculous ability had been bestowed upon me, or was this something I always had inside just waiting to be uncovered? Most importantly, will I be able to do this tomorrow?

I began to examine what brought me to this point. If I wanted to get these same results again, I had to understand what made this possible. One of my first thoughts was, that if being able to mix had required such hard work and dedication on my part, then mixing may not be an inherent ability. Looking at it from that point of view I compared this mix to my other work, and started to hear what set them apart. There were clear and specific elements that this mix had that my previous mixes did not. Where did they come from and how did I learn them? As I worked backwards I was actually able to identify each one, and when and how I learned them.

It slowly became apparent that mixing was not a singular skill at all, but a culmination of a number of individual techniques. Techniques that each on their own didn’t make for great mixes, but when added together created huge, dynamic, and powerful ones. Techniques that breathed life into the mix, gave it emotion, and made the artist sound like a star.

Is Mixing Only Technique, Or Is There More To It?
As I’ve said, there are many elements to good mixes that I can identify. There is clearly an intangible element to them as well, but that doesn’t make it impossible to articulate. That element is the interpretive ability that each mixer brings to the party. Their perspective, their tastes, and their flavors. Mixing is an interpretive art after all.

“So, are you born
with this ability to
mix, or not?
My logic says no.”

When I mix a song, my interpretation of it comes from how I imagine hearing it in my head when I listen back to the unmixed tracks. These sounds that I hear are based on the emotional reaction that I have to the music—a reaction governed by my personality. But even though it’s my personality that causes me to interpret mixes the way I do, what finally empowered me with the ability to actually create what I had been hearing in my head for so long was that I finally had all of the techniques I needed to interpret the sound the way I’d been hearing it. That was my break through.

So, are you born with this ability to mix, or not? My logic says no. The ability basically comes from two places. From within—the way you hear the music. And the learned skills—essentially the tools that allow you to create what you hear. So, focus on those sounds in your head. Pick one. Learn how to create that sound. Then move on to the next one. Keep going on down the list until things start matching up with that soundscape in your minds ear. And don’t give up.

What Are We Really Talking About Here?
I am sure that many of you have tried mixing in Pro Tools, whether it has been rough mixes, final mixes, full on Pro Tools, or hybrid Pro Tools/console mixes. In the coming months this is what we’ll be discussing. Pro Tools Mixing. I’d like to share with you many of the techniques that have enabled me to make the sounds in my head a reality, and hopefully they will be helpful with your mixing.

Of course, having Pro Tools, or any other piece of equipment for that matter, will never guarantee great results. You can rent a $2k a day studio, but what you’ll get back will totally depend on the person running the controls. What has changed in this equation is that on your Pro Tools system, you can devote as much time as you’d like until you finally hear the results you’re looking for. The point clearly being that it won’t cost you $2k a day to educate yourself.

In future columns we’ll go over some basic concepts about engineering, Pro Tools, and mixing; we’ll discuss the various instruments of the mix with some recommended plug-ins and settings; and then we’ll talk about automation, with suggestions on how to support a song’s emotion and energy.

BIG Drums and Bass
To give you an idea of what’s to come, I’d like to show you a few of my favorite plug-ins for drums and bass. The small three-track Pro Tools session (linked below) I’ve created for this column consists of one or two bars of BD, SN, and bass that are looped. On each of the tracks I have the plug-ins inserted and they’re tweaked with my favorite settings. These drum and bass tracks are perfect examples of why I like this combination of plug-ins. The tracks were recorded directly to Pro Tools, but in a studio that did not have any tube gear to add saturation and punch. Though they were recorded well, they lack character and edge. A little too clean and sterile for my tastes.

The idea is to beef up the tracks, give them the punch they would’ve gotten had they been recorded through a more vintage signal chain. My approach is to emulate an analog tracking session: tube or solid-state mic pre – compressor – eq – tape. I do this by using the following plug-ins:

Tube Mic Pre: DUY DaD Valve

Solid State Mic Pre: McDSP Analog Channel AC1

Comp: Waves Ren Comp,
McDSP CompressorBank

EQ: Waves Ren EQ, McDSP FilterBank

Tape: DUY DaD Tape, McDSP Analog Channel AC2

The end result of this chain can take a snare that goes “doink…doink…doink” and get it to go “THWAACKK!!… THWAACKK!!… THWAACKK!!” This gives it a real tube-console-tape-crunch feeling. In the coming months, I’ll definitely be going into more depth about each of these plug-ins. For now, try this experiment: solo up a track, bypass its plug-ins and mute its FX sends. Then add each plug-in one at a time, starting at the top of the channel. Do the same with the FX sends.

Try this with all the tracks. Change the settings, and see how they interact. All of the original settings are saved as presets, so you can make any changes and easily get back to the originals if you want to. Now, try these plug-ins on your tracks. Have fun, and I hope this helps you get fatter sounds.

Charles Dye (www.charlesdye.com) is an engineer, mixer, and producer who really just wants the Pro Tools World to be a better place. Questions + comments: [email protected]

©2002 Charles Dye