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Monitor mix

An explanation of what it takes to become a record producer.

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As more and more tracks are being added to the recording during the overdubbing stage, then the engineer and producer will be working with a mix that may bear a passing resemblance to the finished product - the monitor mix. The monitor mix is what you listen to during the recording process, and is usually thought of as a rough guide to what is already on the tape. Good enough so that the musicians can get a proper feel for the music, and good enough to tell the producer how the recording is shaping up. It depends on the type of mixing console you are using, but some have only very basic monitor facilities - perhaps just level, pan and a couple of auxiliary sends. This means that you can't do anything in the monitor mix apart from set how loud each instrument is, where it appears in the stereo image, and how much reverb it has (the other aux will be used to send foldback to the musicians' headphones). In fact this is not a bad way of working because you will hear exactly what is on the tape as you progress through the recording. Hopefully you will be perfecting each sound as it is created, and you will add new sounds in context with what is already there. If the monitor mix sounds good, then you can be sure the final mix will sound great.

This simple style of monitor mixing has its merits, but large scale consoles offer vastly more sophisticated monitoring facilities. You can create a mix on the monitors using EQ, compression, gating, and everything else that is part of modern studio technique. If you regard the monitor mix as something temporary, but you - and the engineer - then proceed to use all of these facilities, you may find yourself in big trouble by the time you flip the multitrack onto the big faders and start to mix from flat because the sound will be totally different. But you wouldn't do that of course. By the time you graduate to SSL or Neve class studios, you will have learnt the first rule of recording: Nothing less than 100% effort is good enough. You should regard everything you do as being part of the finished product and make it as perfect as possible. Even if it is only something you do as an experiment or as a temporary reference, then the fact that you have done it right will at least tell you something if it didn't work quite as well as you had hoped, and what you have tried and discarded will still influence the mix. This includes the monitor mix. With a console that only has rudimentary monitoring facilities you will tend to want to perfect everything on tape. With a console that has sophisticated monitoring facilities, you will record a good clean sound on tape, and then anything that you do to the monitor mix will become part of the final mix. The console will allow you to do this so you don't have to start from scratch when the overdubs are finished. In fact you can do this with any console that has enough channels. It is very common once a few tracks have been recorded to route the multitrack to the channel faders and start to mix as overdubs progress. This way you never get to a point when you say, "Right that's finished, let's clear the desk and start to mix". You just come to a realisation that everything is done and all that is needed is a little polishing here and there. Self-produced artist George Michael works in this way and his regular appearances at the top of the sales charts confirm the value of this philosophy.

By David Mellor Saturday May 10, 2003
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