When I was putting together my article on mixing clarity, Chris Carter was one of the talented engineers that I reached out to, for some thoughts on the subject.
Chris was gracious enough to offer his input to the article but what I wasn’t expecting was such a detailed account of what he thought.
Seeing as I only had limited space for my article I asked Chris if I could use the document he sent me to put together a completely new article. There was just so much information that I felt others could benefit greatly, so I had to post it and share it.
Below are Chris’ thoughts, word for word. Enjoy!
Written by: Chris Carter (producer/mix engineer)
Website – vonpimpenstein.com
Studio Website – feistychicken.com
“Mix clarity.” Wow, what a freakin’ broad topic. I think for me, it comes down to two different categories: the technical and the emotional.
On the technical side we have obvious things like being able to hear every instrument in the mix. To be fully honest, this kind of clarity really starts before I ever get the record to mix. Most of the clarity comes from the arrangement and the sound selection.
In a well done arrangement you can take any two instruments and one of two things will apply. Either a) the two instruments are doing highly related and supplemental things (for musicality), yet are different enough so as not to step on the toes of one another, or b) the two instruments are doing the same thing and can be considered one sound (even if octaves apart). It’s one of those ‘all or nothing’ kind of games. What you want to avoid is two instruments doing sort of the same thing, but not quite. When this happens you get what people typically refer to as “clutter.”
You can think of it like a movie script: every line of dialog and every scene shot should advance the story. If it doesn’t advance the story, they don’t include it during editing. The same goes for a record. Every musical part should advance the song. If it doesn’t advance the song, it’s just junk getting in the way and will do nothing more than distract the listener. Usually when there are “clutter” parts, one (or all) of them don’t advance the song. This is where good judgment and discretion on the part of the producer becomes critical. There is a fine line between adding a part that advances the song and adding a part that adds to clutter. The more a part adheres to (a) and (b) in the above paragraph, the better off you generally are.
When it comes to sound selection, it’s not enough that an instrument sounds good on its own. It must sound good in context. For example, that bangin’ 808 kick might sound wonderful on its own. But then when you also have a sine wave type bass line, all of a sudden that kick isn’t going to cut through very well. Or that electric guitar with godlike massive distortion might sound wonderful when you are shredding solo, but when it’s competing with the drums and a screaming vocalist all of a sudden you can’t really tell what notes are even being played because all you can make out is white noise. Or perhaps that mellow sounding Wurlitzer piano sounds wonderful, but when it’s playing through a string section and a wall of synths, there’s just not enough attack and it turns to mush. You want all of your sounds to not just be good sounds on their own, but they need to sound good in context or they will start fighting each other and you lose clarity in your mix. If you find yourself saying, “it sounds horrible now, but once Chris mixes it, it will sound great!” Geeee thaaaaanks. The reality is that it should at least sound “decent” before the sound is tweaked in mixing (although I would prefer it sound “awesome” before I start tweaking it).
When I mix records that have solid arrangements and great sound selection, it takes almost no effort to achieve clarity in the mix and I can focus on maximizing every aspect of the sound of the record in order to elicit a response from the consumer (this is the music business, so start thinking of listeners are consumers!). When I get records with sloppy arrangements or sound selection, then I have to go into damage control mode trying to pull magic out of my butt. It always shows in the end product. This is why, song and performance talent aside, one record I mix might sound like a #1 record and the other sounds only ‘decent’ despite putting in the same effort and using the same gear on both.
The techniques to salvage a sloppy arrangement run the gamut from intuitive to downright bizarre. One thing I’m not a fan of is running around EQing the snot out of everything trying to make it all fit. There are certainly situations where I will need to do that, but rather than simple EQ, I’m more apt to use brute force HPFs or LPFs and it’s anything but subtle – I use high pass filters and low pass filters primarily to change the sound rather than to “make stuff fit” because I believe making things fit with subtle EQ works only marginally at best. We aren’t talking about HPFing a synth at 150Hz to make room for the bass line. If that were the case, I could probably get things to fit another way. We’re talking a HPF at 800Hz or something radical. More often I will try and ‘shape’ the sound with compressors, either reducing attack or creating more attack, and adjusting the sustain or release of a sound in a manner that allows the important auditory cues of the sound to cut through more while relying on the perceptive qualities of the human brain to ‘fill in the blanks’ for the portion that is being masked. Pushing an EQ into a compressor can often work wonders in these situations. On the other hand, I might use distortion to create harmonics that shift a sound into a domain that isn’t dominated by other instruments. The techniques are limitless and I come up with new ones for every screwed up situation I run into!
By far and away though, my primary method for dealing with arrangement issues is to simply pan the sound somewhere else. When I say “somewhere else” I don’t mean to imply that I have a lot of options. 99% of the time I only pan dead center, hard left, or hard right (or hard left and right). So if a competing instrument is on the left, I might pan its adversary hard right, provided it sounds good (panning the kick hard right generally doesn’t work in most modern contemporary records, unless you are trying to be artsy). While this might seem like a disadvantage, “LCR” panning actually tends to allow for more clarity by avoiding the inherent phase issues associated with phantom imaging as well as forcing adversarial parts as far apart as possible.
One thing I try and avoid at all costs is muting parts that don’t work. I personally think that’s a cop out and I don’t think it flies very well in the professional world. I’m paid to deal with the difficult stuff; I’m not paid to throw in the towel and give up. If you have solid mixing skills, you shouldn’t need to resort to muting except in the most extreme situations that (hopefully) rarely happen. After all, the producer put a part in there because they want it in there. The artist, label and whoever, signed off on it before the record came to me because they wanted those parts there. Running around and muting entire tracks is kind of like giving all those people the middle finger. So I use muting as an absolute last resort – and it’s one I VERY rarely have to employ.
When it comes to poor sound selection, many of the techniques are similar to those for a sloppy arrangement. Same tools just an entirely different goal. One thing I try and avoid is sample replacement. That’s kind of like the aforementioned middle finger to the producer who chose that sound for a reason. So I only replace sounds if it’s absolutely necessary. Even then, I will usually try and blend a new sound with the old one so as to keep most of the original sonics. This can work for kicks and snares, but generally doesn’t work so well for other instruments like guitar, piano, etc. When it comes to those more troublesome instruments, I do my best to find a way to make the less than ideal sound work in my favor. Sometimes this means putting the sound in a different context by using a more unorthodox effects approach. For example, if I have a singer-songwriter type record with a cheap sounding piano, rather than try and make it sound gorgeous in a way that will fit clearly in the mix (at which I will never succeed), I might slam it with heavy compression and send it to a spring reverb panned dead center and then build the rest of the mix around that. So I take the piano out of this obvious beautiful context and put it in a gritty attitude type of context where the sound will work. This gets dangerous of course if you start pushing a record down a path that the client doesn’t want it to go. This is why it’s so important that a client understand who they are hiring to mix their record. Most records require a certain amount of manhandling; it’s just a matter of how much manhandling is required. Some mix engineers are better at matching their approach to the story of the song than others. Some mix engineers tend to go to certain techniques over and over. So listening to a mix engineer’s work (even in a different genre) can clue the prospective client in to general trends in that mix engineer’s methodology.
Now on to the emotional part, the part I really care about! The harsh reality is that for all the critical listening we do in the studio, much of it is not realized by the end consumer. It is absolutely true that a great technical record will sound better to the consumer, even if they can’t put their finger on ‘why’ it sounds better. But even more important is that the feel and emotion of the record is communicated with clarity to the listener. Often times when someone asks me why I did a certain effect, or why I panned something somewhere, or why I EQd something the way I did, they are frustrated with my response which goes a little something like this, “the record told me to do it.” Yes, it’s hippy-dippy, but it’s true. If you listen to a record it will tell you what to do. Buried beneath all those sounds and waveforms are real people who put their heart, soul, blood, sweat, etc. into the record. Just like the rings or a tree stump can clue you into what the weather was like in 1842, those waveforms can tell you what the singer, songwriter, and producer were feeling.
Some of this is obvious, like with lyrics. But much of it becomes more subtle. With every mix I really make a concerted effort to get rid of all my preconceived notions and just listen to the thing and let it tell me what it feels. I want to be in the mind of the singer or the character of the storyline and feel their desperation, angst, love, intimacy, whatever emotion they are trying to convey in that record. And more than anything else, I let that guide all of my mix decisions, even at the expense of technical factors – because at the end of the day, it’s the emotion of the record that moves the consumer. A record must, at the end of the day, make someone want to dance, make love, break up, hate their parents, laugh, cry, or elicit some kind of emotional response. If the emotion of the record is not communicated with clarity, then there really is no reason for someone to want to buy the record. It is my job as a mixer to try and understand the emotion of the record and not just preserve it, but enhance it with maximum clarity for the consumer.
Again, who you chose as a mix engineer can have a profound affect on the ability of the record to communicate its emotion clearly to the listener. Often times a mix engineer will try and push a record in a direction that the record doesn’t want to go for no other reason than that they think it sounds cool. But this creates an almost bi-polar record and there becomes a distinct lack of clarity in its emotion. What can be frustrating for all parties involved in making the record is that during the revision process, it might not be obvious why the record doesn’t work well. It might sound technically great, it might sound interesting, it might sound otherwise perfect. But underneath it all, the emotional message isn’t presented clearly so it doesn’t have the impact it should. Identifying this flaw can often be difficult for the artist, label, etc. so it is in the best interests of the mix engineer to pay extra attention to mixing for emotional clarity.
This emotional aspect to mixing is by far and away the hardest thing to learn to do well. There are no rules, no instructions, no classes you can take. There are no analysis plugins you can load to measure the emotional impact. Ultimately, you just have to not only have an arsenal of techniques at your disposal and know when and how to use them, but you must have the ability to feel the emotion of the record yourself with confidence to believe that other people will feel the emotion of the record in a similar way. This is clarity.
It might seem odd to break down the issue of clarity into these two seemingly unrelated issues. One seems to have little to do with the other. However, in mixing, unrelated things nearly always affect each other. Turning up the snare a dB might make the lead vocal suddenly sound dark; increasing the width on a lead synth in the chorus might make the bass suddenly feel a little too trebly. Understanding the inherent relations in seemingly unrelated things is part of what makes mix engineers (hopefully) good at mixing records.