This year I’ve been on the road quite a lot, and whenever I get back to my studio there’s never any question about what I need to work on next. Between starting a new label, doing remixes and writing my third artist album, I’ve needed all the time in there I can get! The Berlin Studio Fortress of Doom sadly suffered from some awkward acoustics, so this year I relocated to what can only be described as an underground bunker, in an industrial complex here in the depths of East Berlin.
Although I am pretty sure I am turning into some kind of gargoyle through lack of exposure to natural light, the good news is the room I am now working in is a super acoustically isolated little bubble which is much more suited to my needs. I’ve improved my mixing space and setup and learned a lot along the way this year, so I thought I’d share a few insights from my sonic experiments in the Berlin Studio Bunker of Love.
Get to know the perspective your monitoring setup is giving you, and what it isn’t giving you.
At the moment I’m rocking some Adam A7X monitors alongside some KRK VXT 6. Also hooked up in the corner is a single Alesis M1 Active Mk2 (my first ever monitor speakers) for mono/bass reference. Three different kinds of speakers with three different characters of sound, and you can discern these characteristics largely just by looking at them. The A7X come in a sleek, black wooden cabinet and have a soft, detailed sound with a stereo image that lets you really listen into the music and hear what you need to hear. They are well suited to modern styles of production. The KRKs, on the other hand, are built more like a child’s toy with a yellow and black plastic exterior, and their sound reflects this. They are more “fun” to use, giving the listener a more similar experience to a home hi-fi or car stereo, with pounding bass and a noisier sound overall. There’s actually a karaoke joint here in Berlin that uses them in their booths.
Here’s the thing about KRK speakers. I know a lot of producers buy these in the hopes that it’ll give them a complete monitoring solution but in reality they’re not really capable of that. They can give you about 60% of what you need, and they do that 60% very well – especially when it comes to clubby punch and warmth in the lower mids and bass). However, mixing a complete record on them is probably going to lead to a kind of “plastic-ey” sound in your music that lacks the pristine clarity people are used to hearing nowadays. So, your best bet is to have a few options, and get into a habit of switching to these different systems to get only what you need from them. I’ll mix for three hours on the A7X and then come back to the KRKs for 30 minutes, to bring some fun back in the mix when it’s sounding quite clinical.
Next great addition to my studio this year is a pair Audio Technica ATH-M50x headphones, which were first demo’ed to me by Boom Jinx in the car as we were driving through the rolling hills of the Czech Republic. These cans are super cheap as far as headphones go and can probably give you more detail in your mixes than your room currently can. They’ve allowed me to get more meaningful work done on the road with results that I can continue in my studio with success. They also have their blind spots – like all headphones, they won’t give you a feel for how the sound waves are going to shoot out of the speaker and travel through the air. You probably can’t create bass with them that will translate well to a club system, however you can use them to help the bass you created in your studio translate better.
It’s good to cover as many bases as you can, so that when you send your music off for demo purposes people will be hearing it as you intended.
The older a project is, the more it will need to be reinvented
This is an important one, especially when it comes to working on album projects that were started a year or more ago. Basically, everything you write has a half life from the moment it’s created. Every synth line, every kick or snare drum you pick, as soon as you bring it into existence it is essentially a ticking time bomb in terms of its relevance to you and the rest of the world. A track is a window into a certain frame of time in your musical story, and the music you give the world should represent the artist that you are now. This rings even truer if you are a full-time producer, as your ability to pick sounds, write riffs and create balanced mixes is continuously improving. My 2011 track “New Vibe” will always bring back great memories of that period of time for me, but if I had let that project gather dust and wanted to to return to it to finish it off now I would have to do things completely differently.
I have a lot of producer friends with some really great ideas in their projects folder that they’ve been sitting on for ages (to be fair, I have a ton of these too). They often have reached a certain point where they couldn’t progress any further and the track becomes frozen in time, often destined to an eternity of project folder limbo. The solution to this is to save the project as a new file and then destroy absolutely everything about it that you don’t love. Sometimes I give the project a fresh mix down first, in case that was the issue with it in the first place, but usually something about it still sucks. At this point, it’s time to mute everything and then, one by one, unmute sounds in order of their importance to the music. Unmute as little as humanly possible, only as much as necessary to form the original idea you liked in the first place, and for everything else: CAN IT. This goes for any non-musical effects you have on the parts you keep too (you will probably be able to re-do EQ and compressor settings better now anyway.)
Doing this streamlines the musical message, and creates a ton of space to turn it into something so much more. Now is the time to come in with the big guns and fill the holes, write a completely new bassline, or maybe introduce a new chord progression that you never would have imagined putting in there originally. Replace the kicks and snares with some of those sexy new ones that you downloaded from Reddit. Re-write, and turn it into something else. The difference will be night and day.
Writing the music can be hard, but preparing it for release can be relatively easy.
Kudos to Nantho at audiofanzine.com for this one, he’s got a great series of articles called “A Guide To Mixing Music” that have been really helpful this year. In his articles, he states that the reason people get overwhelmed in their final mixes is because they are tackling certain things too early, when the best way to finish a track is often by a slower, methodical progress that readies your track for mastering while leaving less room for error. It’s definitely a little more boring, but it works. Drawing on what he writes, a typical mix finalisation process would be split into a number of different “passes,” which basically means working your way through the project track-by-track, processing as necessary and returning to the beginning once you’ve completed that particular pass. Here is a sample run of passes one might make, it’s essentially a re-write of Nantho’s process with a few thoughts of my own. Typically takes a few hours:
1. Removal of all EQ, compression, and non-musical effects from each track (the idea being that you re-do them all together now that the track is a complete piece)
2. Panning each track (as necessary) in context. I do this in headphones.
3. Adjusting each track’s volume level in mono while everything else is playing (to get the mix as correct as possible first before any EQ/compression)
4. EQ Pass #1: doing simple low and high cuts on each track, nothing more, to define the frequency range each sound has. This cleans up a mix a lot without any surgical work.
5. EQ Pass #2: identifying the frequencies that each sound’s important characteristics occupy (the “rumble” or the “thud” of a kick drum, for example) and gently boosting or reducing to bring the sound into balance
6. EQ Pass #3: a more “general” EQ pass, shaping sounds in relation to the rest of the mix (cutting muddying frequencies etc)
7. Compression: firstly identifying whether a track needs to be controlled/compressed, and if so what kind of compression would work for it. At this stage can be good to experiment to see how far a sound can be slammed with compression (sometimes electric guitars and vocals can be pushed super hard), but also identify the point at which it becomes over-compressed.
8. Spatial effects: designing some short reverb, long reverb and echo busses (or any other cool spatial effects you have) and experimenting sending tracks to them to create a sense of depth in the mix. You would be surprised how many things can benefit from have just a little bit of signal to a short reverb.
9. Automation: mainly volume automation, assessing each sound’s level in each section of the track. You might have some guitars that really sing out during the intro of the song and then sit right in the background while the lead vocal is singing, for example. This really helps clear up the mix as only the important stuff sits forward in each section. You can also do some fancy automation on things like effects and pads to make them really intense, or adjust the level of a vocal lead on every word so that each syllable hits just how you want. This is also a time to increase the amount certain tracks are sent to the reverb/echo busses during build-ups to make things sound more whoosh-ey. The overall outcome is a dynamic mix as opposed to a static one.
So, it’s a long list but I feel it really shines a light on many things that people would often overlook. It should be done in context, if you need to hear a sound better then solo it for a few seconds to listen before making the adjustments with everything else playing. Nantho also suggests bouncing out the track after passes #3 and #8, and having it muted in the project, so that you can switch to it every now and then and hear the difference you’re making. I would suggest also taking the time to do a few more volume passes as you go along, and don’t be afraid to pause in the middle of a pass to go fix something that comes to mind, such as a certain track being too loud.
Overall, this year has been a great learning experience for me and the road to world-class audio quality is a long one, so I hope some of my audio experiments in the Studio Bunker of Love will be of some help to you in your projects 🙂