Mixing Procedures, Recording Chains, & Acoustic Treatment

Of the many questions we've received lately, three of them featured a similar theme, The Order of Operations, either in the question or in our answer.  Here they are in full for the benefit of the entire community:

mixing recording acoustics

A special thanks goes out to those listed here, as well as Martin for finding an error in a post about acoustic treatment, Eric for correcting us on some details about the LA-2A compressor, and Artur for taking the time to say:

Dear LN, Thank you very, very much for sharing your knowledge. You have beautiful mindset. Please keep up what you're doing and never stop.

We appreciate all of you, and the business owners and publishers reaching out to keep us in the loop.  Now, let's get on with the show!

Is There a Go-To Procedure For Mixing Songs?

Question:

Dear Mixing and Mastering Guys (if you're ladies, don't hate me!),

Read your mixing article on Reverb and loved it. Now, I'm a wannabe mixer of my own pieces - I cheerfully screw up just about everything I do in mixing it, hence these incredibly dumb questions.

Firstly - Workflow: If you were given a bunch of tracks to mix into a song, would you have a go-to series of steps you'd perform in order? I know effects depend on the song but when you're given the raw tracks, what do you usually or always do and in which order do you do them?

Secondly - Synth Sounds: Random Professional has a synth sound on his track. You've got a sound that's very similar, but on your track it sounds like it's just been exhumed while on his it's hopping about full of life.  Assuming it's the same sound, what's he doing you're not?

Thirdly - Bad Results: If I was following all your instructions to the letter but the mix still stunk worse than a skunk on beans (after many tries!) - where do you start looking for reasons why?

Yours hopefully,
Chris

Answer:

Hi, Chris.

This is Jared, resident Mix Master Plus.

I do typically have an order of operations.  First, I take a look at each track individually and clean up noise in silent regions, etc.  If it's really bad in terms of volume variation I might apply some automation to the volume fader to level it out and then bounce it.  I get everything closer to how it should be volume-wise first, in relation to itself.

recording volume automation

Next, I will bring everything up in the mix so that it's close enough volume-wise to see what's going on in relation to the song as a whole.  I don't get too detailed here because it will all change.  This is just so I can make preliminary panning choices.  After this, you have something resembling the final song in the stereo field.

Then I go to equalization.  This is where the most drastic changes come in, in regard to letting everything dominate its own area of the frequency spectrum.  Just because a guitar is panned hard left doesn't mean it doesn't need to dodge the vocals though.  A great trick is to drop the entire mix to mono during the EQ phase here and there to see if you TRULY have clarity or if you let panning fool you.  Rarely is any listener in front of monitors.  They are in the car, at the club dancing off to the side, etc.  So you've got to do the mono trick!

Then it's compression.  Don't be scared to compress the ever-living crap out of certain things like vocals.  You'll know if you went too far if you start getting a "pumping & breathing" sensation.

And finally I add effects like reverb, delay, etc.  Each of these needs their own EQ as well.  You can accomplish this by applying the effects to busses instead of the specific track.

Regarding synths, first determine if it's playing the role of a lead or a bass synth so you know where to EQ.  The trick with synths is that they dominate so much of the frequency spectrum that you have to get aggressive with the EQ.  But as you start chopping out fundamentals in the lower frequencies, it begins to feel "dead," as you've mentioned.

synthesizer frequency spectrum

Try to use a high-pass filter and boost everything above, say... 1 kHz as a starting point (sweeping that up and down to find the sweet spot).  What you'll do is bring out the harmonics and higher frequencies, which is what allows the synth to cut through the mix without too much power in the low-end.  It'll still feel alive while maintaining its characteristic sound.

Also, try adding varying levels of distortion to the synth and watch that pop out even more harmonics.

This is the general workflow though.  It's the most logical order of dealing with a mix.  As far as anyone saying "do this with this number then that with these other parameters"... there's no such thing.  It's definitely not a science but an art.

Usually, if something is off by quite a bit after I've worked it over, I'd listen and try to determine if it's an EQ and/or Compression issue.  If it's too loosey goosey in volume then try more compression and volume automation.  If it's muddy or blurry then it's EQ, either in the source or the effects.

professional reverb mixing

Feel free to hit us back if you need.  We're more than happy to continue discussing.

Thanks for reaching out,
Jared

How Do I Link & Monitor the Signal Chain While Recording?

Question:

Hi - great articles.

You're convincing me to buy most of your recommendations (no pressure)!  The FMR RNP seems to be a good choice with my budget - I want to insert the FMR RNC as well. My question is - do I need two RNC's if I want to compress both the A and B preamp channels simultaneously?

In addition, it looks like there are no visuals for gain levelling - the end of my chain is a Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 interface, which just has a green / red glow for clipping.  Is it ok for me to perform gain leveling in my DAW at -18db? Or should I get a new interface?

Thanks in advance,
Jared

Answer:

Hi, Jared,

I'm Jared too, actually!  I'm glad you're considering the RNP/RNC combo.  I use it in my main vocal chain with a Rode NTK mic and a Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 interface.

FMR RNC Really Nice Compressor

Yes, you can insert the RNC, which is a stereo compressor with two channels. The only thing is they aren't independent channels.  That means that the knobs on the front will apply the same settings to both channels.  So in your case, this will suit you fine.

This is great for stereo recordings like Piano or Guitar but not for two separate vocalists singing at the same time.  It's fine for that though if you want to use it for light compression to make sure you don't clip.  Otherwise you can use it all out on mono vocals, which I do.

Yes, I would recommend setting your gain in the DAW, regardless, for the precision of the measurement.  But you're right, the RNC doesn't have an output gain meter.  Still, there's no need for a new interface.  If you set your gain on the RNP first (monitoring your levels on the RNP or in the DAW), you can watch your gain reduction meter on the RNC then add that amount (or a little less) back to the signal, then double check in the DAW to make sure you're hanging around -18dB on average as per proper gain staging.

recording gain staging

You've got it!  It'll work just as you suspect.

Thanks, Jared.  I hope you do score this combo.  It's the bomb dot com.

Happy recording,
Jared #2

How Should I Use This Alternative Acoustic Treatment Insulation?

Question:

Dear Ledger Team!

After reading your column "Acoustic Treatment Guide" I now want my room treated as soon as possible. I am living in Europe and found an alternative product to the Owens-Corning fiberglass you mention.

It is called Isover AP and is available in different thicknesses. May you have a look at the data sheet (it is unfortunately in German but I think you can read the different specs concerning the absorption at the frequencies mentioned) to help me with the following questions:

Which one of the panel thicknesses would you recommend for the wall panels. Should I take the AP 100 Panels for wall panels and bass traps? Furthermore would you take two of the AP 100 panels for bass traps if enough space is available or just one of the panels.

Of course I will mount every panel with the recommended air gaps. In the data sheet there are details for mounting with air gaps as well. What do you think of the AP 100 Panel, mounted about 2 inches from the wall for wall panels? Would you use one panel-thickness for ceiling clouds as well or should I use two panels of the AP 100 panels?

Thank you very much!

Kind Regards,
Michael

Answer:

Michael, nice find!

Yeah, interpreting the German is rough.  It looks like each sheet is 100mm thick on the AP100, just under 4 inches.  Which is "thick."  Most reflection panels are 2 inches thick.  These could be considered bass panels.  Which is good.  You're going to get great results regardless with this based on the absorption spec's listed.

isover acoustic treatment insulation

I'm assuming you have a typically sized room.  So if you mounted 4 inch panels with 4 inch gaps on both sides of a wall, you'll be losing 16 inches of workable room space.  The air gap just makes sure sound waves with longer wave lengths (and high enough amplitudes) can bounce back and be attacked twice by the panel.  Which is why the absorption on the low end increases with a larger air gap.

You have three variables for the most part and you can compensate for a loss in any of them by an increase in another.  Think about it in terms of:

  1. Wall Surface Area Covered
  2. Density & Thickness of the Insulation
  3. Width of the Air Gap

I'd make my life easy here.  What I'd do is buy a ton of the same AP 100 panels at 100mm (4 inches) and build my wooden frames, wrap them in fabric, and mount them with 50mm (2 inch) air gap.  This is for your reflection panels.  Yes, you'll absorb less bass but it won't matter in these positions so much.  I'd mount as many as I could along my side walls while keeping it as attractive as possible (that matters!).  Leave space between them too, you don't want to kill ALL reflections, just tame them.

For clouds, I'd do the same in terms of build but use a 100mm (4 inch) gap.  I'd mount 2 or 3 of these.  Same reason, we're just taming reflections, not killing them all.  And most of the sound will be bouncing around horizontally, not vertically.  No need to overkill on the clouds.  Just make sure you position one in the 1st Reflection zone.

To maximize your bass absorption, I'd two things.  I'd mount two of these 100mm panels next to each other on the back wall and two more on the front wall, with 4 inch gaps.  If you can't afford that configuration, I'd put one on the back wall centered and one on the front.  But the important part is the corners.  You can orient panels over the four corners of the wall caddy-cornered, but what I would do is create "Super Chunks".

super-chunk-bass-traps

What you'd do here is cut each of the 1200mm x 600mm panels in half so you have two panels at 600mm x 600mm.  Then I'd cut each of those into diagonals so you're left with 4 identical triangles.  It will take a lot of panels to do this but the goal is to stack all 4 corners from floor to ceiling with these triangles with the corner opposite of the long hypotenuse pushed all the way into the corner with no air gap.  This is where the bass "accumulates" and this density and thickness will help zap out the unruly bass.

acoustic treatment diagram in mixing room

You have a great plan here.  If I had to prioritize positions based on cost at first before I could add more absorption, I'd hit the 1st Reflection positions, the front corners, and then the back wall.  After that I'd add more side wall absorption, and then the front wall.  Finally, I'd finish the back corner Super Chunks, then add in the clouds.

Great question.  Good luck with it.  Let us know how it goes!

Thanks, Everyone!

If you, the reader, have any questions about anything related to music, please don't hesitate to email us.  We'll be happy to help you out, and if we can't answer the question we can put you in touch with someone who can!

Over and out.