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Should you optimize tracks individually or in the context of the whole mix?

Should you optimize tracks individually or in the context of the whole mix?

You can make each individual track of your recording sound as great as you like. But will they all mix together successfully?

by David Mellor, Course Director of Audio Masterclass

If you read the comments of pro mix engineers whenever you can (and you should) you will often find that they like to optimize individual tracks in the context of the whole mix. So, for example, you would EQ a guitar track while the whole mix is playing. You wouldn't solo the track because whatever you did to it, you wouldn't know whether it would work for the benefit of the whole mix.

But you sometimes have to take what mix engineers say a little less than literally. They might be expert at mixing, but can you also expect them to be expert in explaining what they do? Try explaining to an octo-tentacled space alien how you walk on just two legs. Explaining what you do by instinct is often difficult, sometimes impossible.

Let's suppose however that today you have a song to mix and you decide not to use the solo buttons at all. You throw up the faders and, with levels, EQ, compression and reverb, you refine and hone, hone and refine, refine and hone, until the mix is perfect.

Well done! You have created a mix where each individual track was processed in the correct context.

But...

I would have to ask the question, "In the correct context of what?"

If you adjust everything in the context of the whole mix, then you have started with the context of an amorphous blob of audio. And then you EQed the guitar (for instance) in the context of that amorphous blob. Then you EQed something else, then something else. Basically you're going round in circles chasing a moving target. Gradually you are hoping that things will pull together and you will have a passably correct context in which to judge and adjust individual tracks. Don't worry - you'll get there in the end.

There are many ways to mix, and if the process I have described gets you to a good result, then that's fine. At the end of the day, if your mix sounds good, then it is good.

I would contend however that there is a better approach to mixing, and I suspect that the really great mix engineers do this by instinct, even if they don't realize it.

In any song, there will be certain components that are the most important. It may be the vocal, or in a more dance-orientated track it might be the combination of kick drum and bass instrument.

Whatever you choose as the most important element of your song, you should solo it and do whatever you need to to make it the most fantastic-est, exciting-est, wow-wow-wow-est it can possibly be. Make it so great that anyone hearing it for the first time will buy your record in an instant, without even hearing the rest of the instruments. OK, that's an impossible thing to happen, but it should be your aim.

When you have done that, you have your context and you can blend in the other instruments to suit the one you have selected as most important. From this point in the mix, no soloing should be necessary.

In summary, I will definitely say that there is no one correct way to mix. However it is always correct to have a plan of action. Different plans for different tracks, perhaps different plans for different days. The plan I have just outlined is a good one.

By David Mellor, Course Director of Audio Masterclass
Saturday June 23, 2012

Readers' comments on this article...

Joseph, Lakewood Nj, USA
Friday July 06, 2012

This is what I start with. It the grove of the song and what's being said that makes people buy the song. So I start with the drums, bass and one other sound that will stand out in a song. Make that the best is can be. Next making the main vocals and the background vocals the best it can be and this it why... If I can not understand what your saying why have vocals.

Now make the drums, bass and that one other sound hit you in your face, then I bring up the main vocals just above the drums, bass and that one other sound to tell the story and next add the background vocals to inforce what being said in the story.

Then add all the other insterments to flow with of the grove and the story. After the mix is done for that song I walk away from it for a 2 - 3 days and when I come back I put it on a CD and take a nice drive with fresh ears to listen to everything and what every dose not set well with me I change it till it’s right.

I will never over do the effects that I add to each part in the song so that when mastering is done they can put that sweet touch to the song to make everything pop…

All that to say, learn to understand what the song is saying in every part, how everything flows and most of all don’t over do anything and be yourself as you learn from others who have been mixing for years. Not every song will ever be like another song… so no mix will be like another mix… so learn and enjoy your mix as you keep it simple with wisdom and do your best. I’m just saying…
Mr B, Joburg, South Africa
Tuesday June 26, 2012

I think it all makes sense and has the same meaning even though it's explained differrently, the important thing is to understand and to get the whole point. I've learnt something and i'll definately try it out on my next mix and i'll give you guys feedback..
Thanx
Gerard Abraham, Port Of Spain, Trinidad And Tobago
Monday June 25, 2012

I just get a good balance without clipping then optimize the whole mix, wondering if normalizing after optimizing is recommended
Arnaud, Challonges, France
Monday June 25, 2012

That's a cool paper. But I think there is no receipe - it depends so much on what you call the "context". I'm used to mix very crowded material, mainly metal music, and the first thing you have to keep in mind when starting a mix is : "clean that shit up !" I spend a long time listening to the solo tracks and EQing just to cut the stuff that may be painful for the ears - if you want to reach something intense, it doesn't have to be tiring. Then, when it is done, I build the tone of the mix around the most proeminent part of it (often the drums, starting with the room and ambience mics). I don't know if a lot of people do the same, nevermind. It works and when people are satisfied with the final result, I know I was right right.
Kevin Doyle, Toronto, Canada
Sunday June 24, 2012

Well I start with the vocal and build from there. The I process each instrument to enhance the role they play in the song. There rare basically 3 roles; harmonic, melodic and/or rhythmic. Mixing as stated above is not rocket science just musical common sense!
Araam, Stockport, UK
Saturday June 23, 2012

You could solo each track, listen carefully first then throw your faders up and start balancing.
Neil Porter, Wollongong, Australia
Friday June 22, 2012

I confess I have become weary of attending sessions, as a co-producer or similar, in which the mix starts with a 'wonderful', exciting, humungous, earthquake kick. Then bass, then snare and so on. And, yes, I've seen the lead vocal left until last and no real attention given to it at all. It's much worse when that's live and not studio.
Martin Zuther, Germany
Friday June 22, 2012

Some (very experienced) recording engineers record their tracks with EQ and sometimes even compressor, so the mixing engineers start with much more than the basic tracks.

If you've ever seen a video of George Martin who by simply adjusting the volume faders gets a perfect mix, you know what I mean.
Al Pratt, Niterói,, Brazil
Friday June 22, 2012

Believe it or not, I start with the vocal and the "soundstage" creating the ambience that I think fits the lyrics and the spirit of the song, then I add the drums and bass and build from there.
Antonio Carlos Coimbra, Santo Andre, Portugal
Thursday June 21, 2012

I like to start with the drums, bass and main vocal. The rest will be easy if the back bone of the song is well mixed. Sometimes I use the solo or the mute buttons. I agree that it makes sense to start with the main instrument of the song and build the rest of the mix around it. It makes sense to use whatever you have available to optimize things further. If the final mix sounds great that's what matters. The solo and mute buttons exist for a reazon...
Jim B, Derry, Ireland
Thursday June 21, 2012

makes good sense to me doing it like that
Rasmus
Thursday June 21, 2012

Not using the solo buttons? That's fine, I'll just use the mutes. :D
Bernie, St. John\'s, Canada
Thursday June 21, 2012

I am by no means an expert at mixing or evening recording. However, what you have said makes sense to me..The most important elements of the song should be optimized for the best possible sound and then everything else should be mixed in around that...