An Introduction to Compression: Basic Compression - A Free Guide from Audio Masterclass

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Equipping Your Home Recording Studio - A Free Guide from Audio Masterclass

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Hands On - Portastudios and Multitrackers (part 7)

This is where you can reap the rewards of your forward planning, or curse your impetuousness as appropriate. The vital factor about planning is to avoid bouncing instruments together unless you can make a good guess at the relative levels they will need in the final mix...


FREE EBOOK - Equipping Your Home Recording Studio

Equipping Your Home Recording Studio
The Mix

This is where you can reap the rewards of your forward planning, or curse your impetuousness as appropriate. The vital factor about planning is to avoid bouncing instruments together unless you can make a good guess at the relative levels they will need in the final mix. You could, with the combination of instruments and vocals in my example have ended up this:

  • Track 1: Lead vocal
  • Track 2: Keyboard and harmony vocal 2
  • Track 3: Bass and harmony vocal 1
  • Track 4: Drums and guitar

This is obviously a worst case scenario, but it does illustrate my point. How could you assess the relative levels of the drums and guitar without the bass? How could you balance the bass and harmony vocal? And so on. You will never end up with anything as unlikely as this, but what you need is for everything to be as good as possible. Each collection of bounced parts must be perfectly balanced within itself, and capable of being balanced against the other tracks without individual instruments becoming too prominent or too quiet. Guitar, bass and drums are straightforward to balance, harmony vocals usually are too. Whatever you intend recording, start planning your final mix before you lay down a note.

Supposing you have finished up with a sensible grouping of tracks, all you need do is balance them and add a little bit of reverb as you see fit. The reverb is supplied by sending signal from the Auxiliary Output (called the Effect Out on the Tascam 464), controlled from each channel by the Auxiliary Send (Effect Send) knob, and the reverb signals are brought back to the Auxiliary Inputs (called the Stereo Inputs on the 464). On simpler cassette multitracks you will use the foldback outputs (sometimes called Cue or Monitor outputs) which otherwise have no function during mixdown. The Fostex X18 has two Auxiliary Return inputs to receive the reverb signal.

When you’re mixing you are going to have to take some important decisions about how you want the track to sound. If you have recorded everything cleanly then you might be able to get away without using equalisation to alter the frequency balance of the sounds. (The Fostex X18 doesn’t have EQ so you’ll have to pay more attention to getting sounds correct in the first place, which isn’t a bad thing). If you are new to multitrack recording, use EQ to correct problems. Ask yourself, “Is there anything wrong with the sound that I could correct with EQ?”. Often there will be too much bass in instruments other than the bass line and drums. Cutting the bass in these can enhance the clarity of the mix. If the vocal isn’t cutting through enough then try adding some presence at around 3kHz, but not too much or you’ll make it sound ‘thin’. Moving on from EQ, I don’t have to say that it’s the easiest thing in the world to cover everything in a thick layer of reverb. It covers problems as well as wood chip wallpaper covers cracks in the walls. But covering up your problems isn’t going to make you a better recording engineer or musician, nor is it going to allow the song to come through to its best advantage. I like to listen to each track individually and add the smallest amount of reverb to make the tracks sound good by themselves, and I don’t often find it necessary to alter the amount of reverb once I start balancing the levels.

When you have experimented with the mix to your heart’s content and you are certain you have a good balance, and you know exactly when to boost the vocal to correct any unevenness in level, you are ready to transfer the mix to stereo tape (Mark the fader positions with chinagraph pencil so you can reset them easily if the mix goes wrong). Since you have the count in on tape you can stop the multitrack just before your song starts. Start your stereo machine in record and press the play button. At the end of the song bring down the channel faders as each track finishes and then the master fader (if your machine has one) after the reverb dies away. It may take a few tries to get right, but in the end you’ll have something which, if you have put in enough toil and trouble, will be the best recording you have made yet. It won’t be the best recording you’ll ever make, but that’s the beauty of the cassette multitrack, you can spend as much time with it as you like in the privacy of your own room, learning your trade as a multitrack recording musician.

Listening to your mix

If your mix is a good one, it should sound good anywhere in any situation. Here are a few places and situations you could try it out. In every case you should compare it with how your favourite CD recording would sound.

  • Loud
  • Quiet
  • Late at night
  • With people talking in the room
  • In the car
  • On the motorway
  • From the next room
  • On your portable stereo
  • On your Walkman
  • At a party
  • Through your television’s AV input
  • Through your band’s PA system
  • Copied onto another cassette
  • With the person you like the most
  • With people who will laugh at you if they don’t like it

I’m not kidding - you really will learn a lot about mixing by submitting your work to this harsh series of tests. Each situation will expose weakness in your mix - and any mix for that matter. The last one is the killer. Even if your friends don’t utter a word you’ll know by sharing the listening experience, forcing you to apply new standards of self criticism, whether your recording is good.

By David Mellor Thursday January 1, 2004