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….

16 Comments on “On Balance”

  1. Cameren Lee says:

    You’re “not a technical master?”
    Well, I’m definitely not one to engage in absurd praise (it’s too close to hero worship – and we all know what that cost us), but that’s not what it sounds like – what with those engineers at Trident Studios sweeping up their jaws after you finished overdubbing synths on Chameleon.

    Peace, and best regards (and even better regards), pH.

    Oh, and I love your rambling. “Cult artists” usually keep silent about everything or engage in fights (ala much-loved troubadour Roy Harper), so “press” or “blogging” is a nice reminder for fans who don’t live within a 500-mile radius of any venue you or VdGG ever hit up that you’re still out there, and well.

    Thank you again.

  2. Martin Souza says:

    A question If I may please, I’ve noticed on the Live Box set, there are no songs from ‘the Black Box’ why is that? As it seems you have covered all your other albums!

  3. bayernmike says:

    Always look forward to a new Peter Hammill release, and it’s nice to hear the background to recording.

    Peter was recently described as “a national treasure” in the Sunday Times, which is true, what a pity 99% of the nation don’t know it.

  4. daeivevid says:

    Interesting thoughts and you’re summing up well familiar ambiguities, growing (or exploding?) with technical opportunities, leaving behind the constraints of “doing things in one or few process instances”, or simultaneous, which are dissolved in an plethora of asynchronized steps. Fascinated by the sea of options and paralyzed by the pressure to setting the closing point or finish deliberately as opposed to being dictated by the ancient technical process.
    Exemplary for modern life (oh, my…and so on and so forth).

    It’s the gut feeling in the end which indicates at the point of saturation, fair balance (or “un-balance” as you strive for something not evened-out but strong and risky..). As I remember and maintain, at least.

    Looking forward for the audible results :))

    Thx, David

  5. Edu says:

    I really enjoyed reading this article. But it leaves me with the question I always have when visiting PH concerts (and I’ve done a lot) : why is the live guitar sounding so worse when there is such a strong vision on mixing and sounddesign ? I think the studio stuff is sounding really great (eg Clutch is a beautiful job). Why can’t it be transferred to stage? Get rid of plastic guitars and Peavey’s !

  6. Adam Matlock says:

    Again, very glad to see the insights of someone more seasoned than I at the self-recording process. I initially embraced the digital overtracked slopheap approach and found that it failed me in producing the sound I’ve wanted for my songs (although for more abstract material, I find it to be pretty rewarding). So for the most recent self-recorded project I stripped down to two mics and live takes of instrument and voice recorded simultaneously, with a few extra backing vox, clarinets, etc. thrown on after the fact, and was surprised by the ease of mixing, even using second-rate equipment to do so. I look forward to recording the next batch of tunes, considering some of your insights here.


  7. It is the ‘depth’ of your mixes which initially, and still do to this day, enchant, engage and inspire.

  8. Cannot wait to hear it, Peter!!!
    Thanks your all your cool music!

    (die-hard fan since 1976!)

  9. I like your rambling. And your live fluffs and the fact that you’ve only just started selling VdGG T-shirts. And this post gives a really interesting insight into the recording process – it seems whichever way an artist cuts it (even the most rudimentary cassette recorder in the front room), the end result remains invisible and mysterious. Have I drunk too much wine? Can’t wait for the new album.

  10. Avy Abudy says:

    Great post, thanks! I think conductors of the 20th century could be seen as the original balance engineers, in sculpting the sound of an orchestra, even before it was recorded. Some of them were exceptionally good at it too (Furtwangler, Klemperer) Karajan even made a wall of sound before Phil Spector (then again, he didn’t kill a man; only symphonies).

  11. As an amateur producer of my own music too – I relate to everything here – I began on 4 tracks with tape and valve amps – but now work digitally.

    I obviously think music is too overproduced these days – rooted as I am in both style and taste in the 70’s to mid 80’s – but I think the freedom you have today with just plugging a guitar into a laptop and using amp models – is incredibly liberating to those with no budget whatsoever – and indeed it does hinge on the talent of the individual to create the music in a way that mirrors the early days – as the suits / middlemen, and even perhaps as many as two or three spectres are hopefully cut out of the equation!

    @Richard – I remember hearing the Carcass demos for the Heartwork sessions – and the guitars were simply gorgeous – but they couldn’t get the same sound for the album!

  12. Gareth Price says:

    With a PH recording the certainty is that the one thing that will NEVER need applying in the mix is auto-tuning of the voice 😉

  13. Anonymous says:

    I think the modern studio-technique is not everytime the best.
    In the last 15 Years I missed sometimes the sound of real instruments.
    It seems everything comes through a filter. I like the songs everytime, all over the Years.
    But sometimes I think: Take away all what you can do in a studio in 2012.
    Do rough sound, the real sound, the unfiltered instruments.
    I know, I think back to the times of a beat group, I saw in Frankfurt in 1982 for
    the first time. K !!! But that’s what I miss. Think about it and thanks for the Box !


    Martin Frankfurt

  14. Richard Vernon says:

    And have you ever done a ‘rough mix’ that was so good you simply couldn’t recreate it later? I have, and I’ve heard of many others with the same problem…. Some might not think it a problem, but when major parts have been overdubbed later, it is, trust me.

  15. I’ve just ordered the box set, keep rockin’.

  16. Len says:

    No rambling at all Peter, I think it’s quiet interesting to get a look “backstage”.
    I’m looking forward to the result

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