On Balance

So another period of recording, another album is finished for me. As always, during the last stretch I’ve found myself navigating that strange territory known as The Mix. Before my memory of this fades – and well before I write anything about the actual content of the recordings – I thought I’d take the opportunity to note down a few thoughts about mixing, ancient and modern.

In the early days of recording, when it was a one-stop process in which the whole performance was captured in one take, engineers were known as Balance Engineers. With wonderful skill they did, indeed, balance the levels and positions of individual instruments, usually by microphone selection and placement. There wasn’t anything else to it and the work stood or fell on the talents of those engineers and of course on the abilities of arrangers, musicians and singers to deliver the goods. Ancient history, of course, but it’s important to remember that even back then the sound stage picture being presented was not necessarily a naturalistic one – often, for instance, singers would be pushed way forward in (what was already) the Mix.

By the time multitrack came along things had shifted significantly. First – particularly in the days of 4 track and the groundbreaking work of George Martin and the Beatles- elements of mixing were undertaken at very early stages of the process and the decisions taken regarding balance had to be sure and steady – sub-mixed bounces were going to be lived with right through to the finished article.

As track numbers climbed and multitrack tapes grew in width so the function of mixing changed. Decisions could now be postponed to the final mixing stage. (Not necessarily a good thing!) Equally, the mix itself became something of a performance. Before the days of automation a complex mix would often involve producer, engineer and band members having assigned roles of nudge, pan, shift, send to revere or repeat.

In fact, for some time after automation *did* come in, I was reluctant to embrace it as I felt that the performance element of a mix – “we’ll do it in one take” (even though, obviously, parts of different takes could still potentially be edited together – was an important part of the signing-off on a project. Soon enough I came round to the idea that recall, precision and repeatability were desirable in the grand scheme of things.

But that’s not to say that mixing itself has become or could ever be an exact science. Over months of recording every element of a track, from lead vocal to the tiniest shaker, will have been the main aural focus at some point, carefully supported by most, if not all, of the other parts. So each element will never, in a way, sound as good as it did then. It must, in fact, diminish in importance in order to serve the overall good. And here’s the rub: unless one’s dealing with a live performance, with  no overdubs at all (though even here there are still a number of different perspectives which can be taken, naturally), then there is no definitive map for what the mix should be. It’s a matter of personal interpretation (and, one hopes, skill) and if it’s to have character will certainly not necessarily be a thing of bland balance. Sometimes the spiky and surprising is as good a final statement as the smooth.

As I’ve said, recording takes place over months and is incremental. Sometimes one ends up with arrangements and parts which while individually correct fail to work together. Quickly, quickly, at mix they have to be sorted.

It’s really exciting at this late stage to start applying the creative scalpel. Whole track edits and inserts (of whole musical passages or simply of breath-pauses) can produce a suddenly altered light on a form which has apparently been stone-certain to that point. The mute button’s a wonderful tool to completely rearrange a part or group of parts on the fly. And of course the many possibilities of reverbs and delays colour and deepen the picture emphatically.

In the final days of work on the latest recordings I’ve even dived in to rework vocals, mostly backing but in once case lead, on realising that what had seemed fine right up to this point simply wouldn’t do in the setting of the mix.

In other words, it’s a final, exciting rush to reach this stage. Because all the tracks are being mixed one after the other, it’s also allowing the tone of the whole work to come together for the first time. That often means that one has to go back and remix the first efforts, which haven’t quite hit the ground running – here’s where the joy of automation and recall comes in.

It’s important to remember, when it’s done, that the final mixes are, as I’ve said, the one chosen result of many other alternatives. But in order to close a project off it’s important to reach that stage and walk away.

In short – forgive me for rambling on here – I mean to say that I still find this recording lark really exciting, really surprising. I’m not and never have been a technical master – effectively I speak the language of Studio in a street-learned rather than academic way. Though I’ve seen a lot over the years – the first recordings were, indeed, on 4 track – it’s still great to know that there are sound combinations, music pictures, word-trails, songs out there to be found, to be pinned down. All there in the Mix….