Digging in to Details

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How much detail is in your mixes? I stress the importance of nailing the big wins when I’m training engineers. I think these need to be hit first and foremost. However, I believe it’s the details and attention to detail that ultimately sets a mix apart. And the longer I play this audio game, the more I discover how deep that rabbit hole can actually get.

The concept of detail can seem overwhelming when you realize how deep things can get. So how do you get started and up your game on dealing with the details? First, I think it’s important to be in an environment where you can actually hear details.

Part of why I love mixing in my studio is I hear a TON of detail. Live sound can be a different animal, though. I love the immediacy of working in a live environment and the feel you get from a big PA, but sometimes the way acoustic spaces and loudspeaker systems obscure, distort, smear, and mask detail frustrates me. If you don’t have the potential to hear all the details, you’ll never be able to address them. This is why I find it absolutely vital to get the acoustics of your space taken care of followed by a properly designed loudspeaker system. Sometimes a set of nearfield monitors at FOH can be a helpful band-aid in this for virtual soundcheck sessions, but they’re no substitute for getting the room and PA right.

In this season where streaming mixes are gaining importance, I think it’s even more critical to get the mixing environment right. Details are much more apparent online, but that doesn’t mean you need a dedicated broadcast mixing studio. When you get your room and PA right, you improve the ability to make critical decisions regarding all facets of the audio presentation. Plus, the experience for attenders is improved. This helps feed energy to the talent on stage and improves what they’re doing. In addition, the mixes created in that space will translate better outside the room.

Just to be clear:

Better PA & Acoustics -> Better Room Experience -> Better On-Stage Performance -> Better Streaming Mix & Experience.

Once your space is working for you and not against you, I think it’s important to understand that tuning into details is a process. Some things may become apparent immediately, but there’s usually room to go deeper. For example, there are things I notice when I listen to music now that I didn’t notice even five years ago. That translates into me chasing after things when I’m mixing now and overall better mixes.

It can be hard to accept for some of us, but you don’t have to have everything figured out right from the start. So I think the first place you start is with what’s right in front of you. What is the next thing you can or feel like you need to address to take things a step further? Sometimes figuring this out is as simple as digging in on what jumps out at you. If you’re still not quite sure, here are a couple of things to look at to get the ball rolling:

1. Are you actually hearing everything you’re supposed to?

I’ve been sent a lot of streams to check out over the last few months, and missing elements are a big thing I notice. Look, I know this isn’t always the engineer’s fault. Even I have clients ask me to do things that aren’t always in line with what’s being shown in video. That’s not what I’m talking about here, though. I’m talking things that should be obvious.

For example, I get sent a lot of mixes where there just aren’t any cymbals. Someone is bashing away on the things on camera, but they’re absent from the mix for the duration of the song. I understand turning them down, but not turning them off. Toms are another part of the drum kit that are often missing or buried as well.

Some of this stuff should seem like it’s hard to miss, but things get complicated when it comes to our hearing and predispositions. Our brains are easily tricked into thinking they hear things when, in fact, they don’t. For example, let’s back up to those missing cymbals. If you’re used to mixing in a live venue like me, you’ve probably heard enough cymbals coming from the stage to last your entire lifetime–I hear them in my sleep. Those of us who are used to that have often learned to deal with them by turning them way down or off. The problem is some of us are so used to doing that, we do it reflexively instead of as a reaction to what we’re actually hearing.

I think getting past this kind of thing comes partly from experience, but I also think there are some steps you can take. For starters, take a break before you listen back to a mix. Then turn off your screens and don’t look at faders when you’re listening. Visual cues can trick us so remove the visual. Make some notes while listening and then address your notes. Sometimes it also helps to listen in a different environment like your car.

After you’ve done this, listen back with picture if you can. Having the visual plays a big role in what we hear, but I understand how it doesn’t always work for delivery timelines. The point in this little exercise, though, is to reset our brains a bit. It’s an attempt to clean our listening palette. When we get used to what it sounds like without a visual reference, the missing details are more likely to stick out when we add the picture.

In a live venue, you can do the same exercise. Just listen with your eyes closed for a while. Then open them and scan the stage to make sure you are hearing what you should. For example, if someone is windmilling a guitar and it’s not obvious in the mix, there might be a problem.

Finally, check your console inputs and make sure you don’t have levels on an input that’s supposed to be up. Then you can use those inputs almost like a checklist to make sure everything is in the mix where it needs to be. Just go one fader at a time as a final check.

2. Can you hear every syllable of the lead vocal?

This is another detail that often needs more attention in mixes I’m sent. There are multiple ways to address these from fader rides to compression and other dynamics processing, but before you even get there try this: Turn your speakers down. I think I wrote about this a few months ago. Dynamics often become more apparent at lower volumes so listen as quiet as you can stand.

Personally, I like to use a mix of compression and fader rides on a vocal. Compression does some of the heavy lifting for me, and then the fader rides I do are broader for the song.

One last thing I should mention is be careful if you’re using stereo widening processing on your mix. A lot of widening processors use some form of mid-side processing. I’ll save the technicalities of mid-side for now, but a side effect of it is often a reduction in level of anything panned in the center of your mix.

These are just a couple of details you can look at, but there are plenty more. So what details are you working on in your mixes these days? Leave a comment and let me know.

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David Stagl

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