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Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio (Sound On Sound Presents...) 1st Edition
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Whenever I read anything about mixing, my first question is this: why the hell should I believe what this person's saying?
It would therefore be daft of me to expect any better treatment. So why should you believe me when I say that you can create commercial-grade mixes in a typical small home/college studio?
My first answer to this question is that you can judge for yourself, with your own ears, because dozens of my mixes for Sound On Sound magazine's popular "Mix Rescue" column are available free online--there's a taster of some of them on this very page, and lots more available on my own webpage. In all these cases I've started with real-world small-studio recordings and used widely available mass-market technology to remix it to a commercial level, all without ever setting foot inside a "real" studio. Go on, take a listen. If you want that kind of transformation for your music, then you can find a detailed explanation of my method in Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio.
The second reason you might want to take notice of these mixing techniques, though, is that they've been drawn not only from my own professional experience, but also from more than four million words of first-hand interviews with the highest-profile engineers and producers on the planet. Whatever you think of my personal advice, it's a bit trickier to dismiss the opinions of 100 of the studio industry's biggest names.
But at the end of the day it's your call: does Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio pass your own "why the hell" test? You might just find that it's the only mixing book on the market that actually does . . .
Amazon Exclusive: Top Ten Small-Studio Myths--Busted
Amongst many other things in Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio, I try to deliver a stout kicking to the following questionable (but surprisingly pervasive) pieces of received wisdom:
You need high-end gear to create commercial-grade mixes.
While great gear makes mixing quicker and easier, it's not a deal-breaker. To demonstrate this, I deliberately do all my "Mix Rescue" remixes for Sound On Sound magazine on budget gear in small home/college studios. In some cases, I've even restricted myself to the DAW's built-in plug-ins too--as Greg Kurstin did when mixing Lily Allen's hit record The Fear. If you won’t take my word for it, though, here's top producer Frank Filipetti: "Your ears, your mind, your musical abilities are what it’s all about. Put a George Massenburg, a Hugh Padgham, a Kevin Killen together with any kind of gear, and you’ll get a great-sounding record.” Tony Visconti is one of many others who back him up: “I’ve heard people make very bad records on expensive gear. The gear does not dictate the quality. It’s how you use it.” So I’m afraid that if your mix sucks, your mixing technique sucks. No two ways about it.
Use the speakers with the flattest frequency response.
This isn't actually the most important thing when working under budget constraints, because your ear can adapt to a speaker's frequency balance quite readily. When you've not got much money to buy monitors for mixing, a flat frequency response is much less critical than good time-domain response. Indeed, the two most celebrated mixing speakers of all time, the Yamaha NS10 and the Auratone 5C Super Sound Cube, both have extremely uneven frequency-response plots, but excellent time-domain performance.
Trust your ears.
They may be all you've got to hear with, but if you're going to achieve pro-standard mixes then you should trust your ears about as far as you can stretch them! They will lie to you at every opportunity if you give them half a chance, and you need to stay vigilant to avoid being caught out. Ever had that "morning after" horror of realizing that last night’s great-sounding mix actually sounds like a wasp in a tin? Or have you ever carefully adjusted a mix effect for five minutes before realizing the stupid thing isn't actually plugged in? Those common experiences are just the tip of the iceberg, and it's only by learning to work around the fickleness of your own hearing that you can begin to get decent mix results reliably.
Timing/tuning-correction kills the music!
Corrective processing can certainly produce unmusical results, but it's important to realize that it doesn't have to, even if you're just using the editing facilities built into your software DAW. Furthermore, almost every small-studio production I've worked on sounded more musical (and became a lot easier to mix) once careful timing and tuning correction had been applied. And I've yet to have a single client complain about it either!
Start your mix with the drums.
That might work with some mixes, but it's often not the best decision. For example, in a lot of styles you actually want to give the lead vocals the biggest "wow" factor, sonically speaking. In that case, it's much better to start with those while your ears are fresh, and while you've still got lots of mix real estate and computer CPU power to play with.
Try to make every instrument sound its best.
This can be a recipe for disaster at mixdown. The moment you put two instruments together, each will inevitably compromise the quality of the other, and mixing is not just about deciding which instruments need to sound best--it's also about deciding which can afford to sound less good. You may need to make some parts of your mix sound worse in order to make your all-important lead vocal sound better, for instance. As producer John Leckie puts it: "You can’t have spectacular everything--then you wonder why the mix doesn’t sound any good, because everything’s crowding everything else. When you solo the instruments, everything sounds good, but when it’s all put together it’s a jumbled-up mess, so something’s got to give way.”
Reverb has to sound natural.
Wrong. Although realistic-sounding room simulation has its place in many mixes, there's a whole lot more to using reverb effects than that. Even the dodgiest-sounding reverb unit can prove extremely handy when enhancing an instrument's tone/decay characteristics, or stereo image. In fact, a lot of the established classic reverb units sound pretty unnatural (the AMS RMX16, say, or the EMT 140 plate), but that doesn't stop them from appearing all over the current charts.
Perhaps it just needs professional mastering? (If only I had the Celestial Systems Mix Perfectizer plug-in!)
I call this the "silver bullet" myth--that comforting delusion that the only thing separating your mix from the ones you hear on the radio is some single esoteric process. Well, here's some news: I've heard thousands of real small-studio mixes, as well as remixing dozens of them for "Mix Rescue," and whenever I hear someone utter the silver bullet myth, it’s never, ever a single "magic ingredient" that their mix actually needs! The malaise can almost always be traced to a whole selection of minor misjudgments that have been made at various points in the arrangement, editing, and mixing process. In other words, if you improve your basic mixing technique, the "fairy dust" will look after itself.
But you just can't do that!
In mixing the end justifies the means. Whatever you're given to work from, the bottom line is that you're expected to turn it into something that sounds like a finished record. It doesn't matter if you have to replace the drums with samples, stuff synth pads between the guitar layers, add new backing vocals, or remove certain instruments entirely--just as long as your final product sounds great enough to make the client a happy bunny.
Professionals don't make mistakes.
Rubbish. Professionals make mistakes like everyone else, but they turn them to their advantage. “You’re going to make mistakes,” says Humberto Gatica. “The important thing is to learn from them.” Mixing in particular is one long experiment, in which mistakes play a vital role by identifying any mixing tactics that are unsuitable for the job at hand. For this reason professional engineers at the highest level will cheerfully scrap a mix completely and redo it. “I will often restart mixes three or four times,” reveals Fabian Marasciullo. “Put everything back to zero and try again, re-blend and EQ everything.” Justin Niebank doesn't think twice about heading back to the drawing board either: "I’m not afraid to pull all the faders back down again if it doesn’t work. That’s too great a hurdle for many engineers: but if necessary, don’t get precious, and start over."
In the good old days, new engineers learned to mix by interning or assisting; that's less and less the case these days. Think of this book as a textbook alternative to a year of assisting. If you've been figuring out everything yourself or piecing together your workflow based on internet forum posts, this book may bump your work forward by months or years. –Scott Evans, Tape Op Magazine
The advice and guidance contained are relevant to everyone involved in music engineering and production, at all levels and regardless of the size of the studio or its facilities. Novices and grandmasters alike will find plenty of interest here. The emphasis is very much on mastering the correct approaches and techniques, rather than how to use any specific equipment or software, and everything is described in such as way as to make it easily transferable across any DAW platform or even to a traditional console-based mix environment.. The book is structured in a progressive fashion, following a logical mixing workflow, and developing and building on ideas and techniques throughout. The book is very readable, in Mike's familiar, approachable and often humorous style, and with plenty of illustrations, all of which maintain the interest from cover to cover. The text also expands on Mike's own wealth of experience and knowledge with numerous relevant quotes and opinions from over 100 of the world's best-known engineers and producers. Many books have been published about mixing, but in all honesty I'd say Mixing Secrets is easily the most practical, complete and ultimately satisfying that I've read so far. It is eminently readable (even if the spellings have been 'Americanised'!), with the emphasis always on helping the reader to understand when and why to use a particular technique, before explaining how in great practical detail. Although the content is wonderfully disciplined and technically rigorous, the explanations are never intimidating to a beginner, yet remain stimulating to the more experienced reader. The icing on the cake, and liberally covered in cherries, is the dedicated web site, which provides a phenomenal resource of useful material and information. This is a definite must-read for everyone involved in music production at any level - and at a bargain price. --Sound on Sound magazine
The most useful, up-to-date and comprehensive book I've read on the labyrinthine subject of mixing music.. Author Mike Senior is well equipped with his experience as engineer, producer and journalist for Sound-on-Sound magazine to guide any reader, with an intermediate to advanced understanding of the studio recording and mixing process, through four main sections.. Many good examples of current and popular CDs are given through this book to 'reference' each step in the mixing process. Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio is a 'must have' for me that I wil re-read from time to time and I cannot recommend it more. --Music Connection magazine
Mike shares many of his own mixing tips, supplemented by tips and advice from some of the industry's top engineers that range from Chris and Tom Lord Alge to Andy Wallace. At more than 300 pages, it's quite a read, but a highly recommended one. In fact the book is filled with so much great stuff, it's a book that one can read again and again and that can be used as a handy manual during any mixing project. And though there's plenty of information to soak up, Mike has made it very easy to navigate your way through the book and to find the relevant information you need quickly and easily. --GuitarWorld.com
Mixing Secrets by Mike Senior is a great book for studio production, no doubt about it. It's also a great book for extracting concepts that can be used for live audio production. And for the church audio sound tech who might get an email next week saying "we need you to record and produce our first praise music CD," well, you aren't going to find a better book on perfecting a mix. It starts as a book but you will use it as a resource. That's a win-win in my book. --BehindTheMixer.com
I FOUND AN EXCELLENT "MUST HAVE" for anyone pursuing music recording and mixing as a career and life-long hobby...[Senior's] book does not disappoint. He's a great writer and I thoroughly recommend it for newbies and oldbies! --Mavens of Media
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I feel like this one book could replace all that.
Every page is packed with amazing tips and tricks. Which makes sense considering this the man behind Mix Rescue in SOS. He gets so many problems thrown at them and he solves them in very elegant, practical ways. He is a professional audio problem-solver! Quite often I'll listen to the before and after mixes at Mix Rescue and think the 'before' sounds perfectly acceptable. Then I'll hear Mike Senior's mix and he's elevated it to a love of professionalism that just sounds classy.
I'm used to reading pretty dry manuals and reference books. This one is written in a very down-to-earth, readable style with a sense of humor as well.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who mixes professionally or casually.
Senior's book has a very logical flow and seems to consider absolutely every challenge mixers face. You will get the most from this book starting at the beginning and working your way through it, cover to cover. It's a very concise book and will require time to read because it never let's up giving you valuable information.
I am a little at a loss for words in trying to explain how great the book is. All I can say is I've been writing music for over 15 years and have gotten better mixes through a lot of painful, time-consuming trial and error. I know what doesn't work because of MANY failures. But then I start reading this book and see Senior knows those same failures and offers the same logical solutions that worked for me. Even simple things like color coding tracks to quickly get around your mix can shoot the inexperienced in the foot, but here it is called out for you. The tips are endless and, again, the value of this book is somewhat immeasurable. Senior could make a fortune giving endless seminars just touching single chapters.
My take from the book, and this will not sit well with some newbies, is that mixing is still a very hands-on, labor intensive art in its' own right. We live in a world where programmers offer us a bewildering array of affordable equipment past engineers would have sold their house for and could only dream of. Many new to mixing assume the software is the solution in and of itself and blame the programmers when things don't go as dreamed. Some keep buying plugins and add-ons looking for the golden sound solution and when those don't work they believe that if they only could afford what the pros work on their mixes could compete with commercial studios, but the fact is, again, human skill still has the edge. It's painful to know you can't just turn on auto tune and let it run unminded to correct a pitch. It's painful to know your expensive monitors leave you with nothing exciting if you don't know what you're listening for. It might also be painful to realize some songs, no matter who the mixer, can't be fixed because the arrangement is boring, confusing, not musical or too busy. But that's where this book is a Godsend. Rather than tinker at a problem until you lose your hair you can read this book which clearly spells out what you can do, what you probably can't and what you'd be a fool to undertake. Even better, the advice can be applied to a wide variety of set-ups and budgets.
I've read the handful of low ratings and I see the same pattern- readers with unrealistic expectations and not enough patience to mix. That said, I'm not sure how anyone could rate the book so low and expect commercial (or even slightly good) mixing results. The book won't move the faders for you. To them I'd say they might be better off hiring a professional mixer.
A million 'thank you's' to Mike Senior for this comprehensive and immensely helpful book. Seriously, if you're reading this I want you to know you've set the (very high) standard for this topic and I owe you a drink.
Another million thanks to the editor (very succinct, great flow) and to the publisher for bringing this work to us.