Friday, January 20, 2012

Eight Tips for Mixing Your Band | Studio Etiquette for the Musician

Mixing Your Band

I'm heading into the studio tonight to mix a live recording from 2010. The venue where our band played was a medium sized theater with high ceilings. What tips for mixing can I bring to this session? I'm not a studio engineer, but I do know a few things that might help you help the person turning the dials. So the following advice is for those of you who want to get involved in mixing, but don't actually know the terms and such. This is not a "how-to-mix" your band post. It's about how to get the most from the engineer, yourself, and the session.
Before starting a mixing session, I suggest that you eat a good meal and try to prepare yourself for something that could easily put you to sleep. During the last session that I sat in on, we looped the same three minute song over and over for three hours. If you shave off 20 minutes off that session for actual down time, it means we heard the same song replayed over 53 times. Bring something that will keep you alert, or just keep in mind that you might be focusing on some of the most minute musical details, for hours. Depending on the situation, you may just be there to represent the band, and have nothing to do with the actual work. It's wise to be ready for anything.

As for studio etiquette, be sure to ask if it's okay to bring liquids in the room. A well equipped studio has tens of thousands of dollars worth of gear in it. Do you want to replace a $10,000 mixing board because you spilled your latte all over it? I don't think so. When I go to a mixing session, I ask if it's okay to bring water, I leave that bottle capped at all times, and I set it as far away from from anything electric as I possibly can.
Pro Tip: If you can, call ahead and ask the engineer if they need anything. They might have spent the previous night running the house PA for a five band gig, and would love you for bringing them a cup of coffee.
Studio Speakers versus Headphones

Bring a few pair of headphones. When we mix, I bring three pairs of headphones. It's one thing to listen to the mix through pro speakers, and quite another to plug your favorite headphones into the board. Relying on the studio for a pair of headphones is not the best advice. They will most likely have them, but I rarely find a pair of studio headphones that haven't been beaten up thoroughly. Besides, you know your own headphones, how they sound, and what highs and lows to expect from them. You might never pull them out, but to have them handy is a plus.

If you can, sit directly behind the engineer. The couch behind the mixing board is there for a reason. Be first to the speakers sweet spot and you will almost hear what the engineer hears. It's more than likely that the speakers are placed in an optimal position for the chair in front of the mixing board, but you can still get a great feel for the music if you are directly behind the person at the dials. Don't hog that seat though. If your band is in the room, give everyone a chance to sit in the sweet spot. If the drummer is worried about the drum parts in a specific song, let that person sit where the sound is best. Pro tip: Never sit in the engineer's chair if they get up to do something. Ask first. Do you like it when someone sits at your office desk when you get up to get a cup of coffee? Respect the throne of the person who is making you sound like a star.

Studio Do's and Dont's During Mixing Session

Don't be a distraction in the studio. If you have a phone, turn it to vibrate. If you must take a call, leave the room. Don't talk about things that have nothing to do with the task at hand. I'm not saying that you shouldn't speak up if you hear something that needs work. If you have to bring something up, wait until the moment is right. The more you distract the engineer the more likely they are to miss something important, or forget to go back and fix something else. Keep in mind that you might know every nuance of the song you wrote, but the engineer might be hearing you for only the second time (the first being when they recorded you.) Try to strike a good balance between being helpful, and staying out of the way.

Give your ears a break. If you have time to get away from the session, take a few minutes to clear your head. I made an album with an engineer that insisted on taking breaks every couple of hours. Sometimes it can be frustrating to break away, but if the engineer is tired, you aren't going to do yourself any favors by pushing him to stay in the chair. Bring earplugs and use them during your break. Clear your mind for a few minutes.
Finally, keep in mind that you will always think that your parts are not loud enough. I have seen it so many times. The singer will think that the vocals are loud enough, the bass player comes to the mixing session late, and the first thing she says is "where's my bass track?" The drummer says "you can't hear my kick" while it's punching everyone else in the chest. If you can, understand that a good engineer knows a bit about levels. If you are in serious doubt, present a neutral party with a copy of the mix, and ask them what they think is the loudest and softest thing in the mix. At the end of the night, clean up after yourself and thank everyone involved.

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