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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Let me tell what this book is not. It's not a manual for recording. This book assumes that you already have your project recorded (often from the perspective that you're working on someone else's project) and that you're ready to start mixing. It does not discuss proper micing technique, effects during recording, or basically anything to do with the recording process. This book also does not cover mastering in any form. Senior goes to great lengths to explain exactly how to get a commercially viable mix completed that's ready for mastering. Look elsewhere to learn about mastering.
This book was a pleasure to read. While there is no lack of specific technical explanation, Mike Senior keeps it at a minimum for need to know topics only. Actually most of the technical jargon will be during the first 80 pages when he is explaining why it is so important for your monitoring environment to be up to par. But, I wouldn't recommend skipping over the beginning even if you think you know all about having the proper treatment for your mixing room. There is tons of excellent info in this section and Mike even calls it the most important part of his book. Otherwise, he often tries to throw in a few jokes and some witty banter to help keep it light. And, all of his advice is backed up by quotes from some of the top names in the recording industry.
I'd like to mention that Senior also recommends a bunch of free plugins that can help you achieve the results he is. So, don't think that this is going to be a lesson in "you don't have the cash to get the gear necessary to get the job done."
Seriously, if you've read my entire review then you're ready to click add to cart and check out. You can forgo reading any other source about mixing. Everything you need to know is right in this book. From monitoring, to timing and pitch, arrangement editing, and every type of plugin processing. Honestly, I didn't know there were so many different uses for reverb.
FYI: I've been home recording, mixing, and mastering as an enthusiast for over 15 yrs. From techno to hip hop, and now rock with a live 6-piece band. We record 20 tracks simultaneously in our home bedroom studio. Since finishing this book my mixes are already 10x better than before and I've barely scratched the surface on implementing the techniques detailed in this book.
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.
Top international reviews
I'll get the few (minor) niggles out the way first - and these are repeated in my review of Mike Senior's other book, Recording Secrets for the Small Studio. You should read that book as well - in fact, read it first, as it is focused on the capture of material. Get that right and you're in a much better place when it comes to the mix.
Firstly, in the niggle list - the speech bubble call outs are not useful (to me, anyway) as they are no more than verbatim lifts from the text. Fine if the text consists of sprawling passages with no breaks, but this book is usefully broken down into short, titled sections, so the need for those additional highlight bubbles is minimal and they become a distraction. More useful might have been something like another short comment from a respected producer/engineer/artist on the subject being discussed.
Secondly, the larger secondary text boxes are often annoyingly placed, such that they unnecessarily interrupt the flow of reading a section or require you to turn back to a previous page to read them. It might make for an interesting layout, but it gets annoying. To be honest, in most cases I couldn't see a reason for the passages to be treated as supplementary text boxes as the topics often deserved inclusion in the main text.
Finally on the minor niggle front, the quality of the graphics was up to Focal Press's usual standard - variable. I don't get how a thirty quid book can't offer consistently high quality images and illustrations. Screenshots, as always, look the worst.
So, those weeny complaints aside, in pretty much every regard I found the book to be brilliantly structured, clearly written (with enough humour to raise a smile in some of the drier sections) and with an excellent progress from one chapter to the next. It is pretty much laid out like an all-purpose mixing session workflow sequence, starting with prepping the material, moving on through balancing, compression, EQ, and so on. It's crammed with useful tips from Mike and from respected producers and engineers.
The book exposed huge gaps in my knowledge and some terrible practices I had developed over the years. The arguments for and against doing things in a certain way were clear and compelling and made total sense, often backed up with comments from the industry experts. It was interesting to compare this with a lot of other free and commercially available mixing training to see how many seemingly elementary mistakes many other people are making. It made me feel a little better about my naivety! In fairness, the 'rules' are made to be followed, bent, broken or ignored as appropriate for the situation at hand, and the end result - the final mix - is the final proof of the pudding. So, for example, while Mike promotes using EQ in the first instance to CUT rather than BOOST to balance a track in the mix, he also goes on to say that there are times when doing the opposite might work better for your desired result. I doubt that people like Brian Eno or Tony Visconti slavishly followed all the rules in the studio. Of course not. While I am sure these pioneer producers have a solid understanding of the 'correct' way to do things, they took those rules and wrapped their own experimentation and fearlessness around them to come up with something different. As a basis for developing your own techniques, or simply as a standard guide to straightforward, logical mixing, either way this book is a fantastic source.
I have read it once, cover to cover, and now plan to go through it again with a specific mix on my desk, applying Mike's logic and workflow. I'm rarely excited about reading the same book twice - especially back to back - but on this occasion I am raring to go. I don't think I will pick up another book on mixing for a while, but I will buy a few masterclass style video tutorials to supplement this. It will be interesting to watch these given the solid understanding I now have of the mixing process.
Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio gives me all I want to know from a practical point of view and while the importance of creating a good recording and mixing environment is stated in some detail, the majority of the book focuses on getting your hands dirty and actually mixing. The chapters are presented in a logical order, similar to how you would approach a real-life mixing session and for this reason, it is recommended that the book is read through in this order but once read, it's easy to dip in and out of sections for a refresher due to the excellent index and sensible chapter and section numbering. There is a reference section at the back covering producers and mixing engineers (from whom a lot of the specifics have been gathered) and details of books and magazines which have supplied quotes from these people.
For those of us on relatively limited budgets (and who isn't these days!), the author points you in the direction of the many free plug-ins available on the Internet to supplement whatever your chosen DAW has - and he doesn't make the mistake of concentrating on any particular DAW either so the text is quite generic. Also, many parts of the book refer to procedures, tips & tricks that I've not come across in other books or magazine; for example, setting the mixer faders to aroun 0dB and using pre-gain controls (either part of the DAW or 3rd party plug-ins) to adjust the gain of each channel. This way you get to use the mixer fader where it is most sensitive.
Mike Senior writes with a very easy and understandable style and does not beat you about the head with lots of numbers and equations; he also has a nice line in humour which does not get in the way of putting the subject over. The only other book that I can see me refering back to on this subject is Roey Izhaki's "Mixing Audio", which treats the subject in a more technical manner.
Excellent value for money and the usual great service from Amazon!
So, in a nutshell, "Mixing Secrets" is a winner in my opinion and should be the first book on the subject to be read if your just starting out.
The book is broken down into key areas, all as comprehensive as the last. It covers proper monitoring and mix prep in the first hundred pages. Room acoustics, monitors, headphones, mix referencing, proper use of high pass filters, tuning and timing, comping and arranging; all are laid bare here. Seems like a lot of text until you really understand the issues being discussed.
The next section of the book looks at building a mix using the tools most people would think about like faders, compression, EQ. Finally it looks at the “sweeteners”, reverb, delays, automation, etc. In each section you are guided carefully through basic principles into more advanced techniques. Mr Senior provides an excellent strategy and step by step process to help build a solid mix. As the book progresses there is an acknowledgement that this is structured in order to facilitate understanding rather than be a hard and fast process. I feel as though it is something I would stick with for a long time, though, as my mixing skills have increased hugely in the few months I've had this book. Understanding your mix in terms of the song's message and gearing up your mixing decisions to enhance the song seems to be the message. That might sound obvious until you appreciate the extent to which all our mixing decisions can influence the process.
Well written and presented, despite being a huge subject, the content remains accessible. Personally, I think of this as a permanent reference tool rather than a quick read. I would advise everyone to do the end of chapter assignments. I have made quicker progress doing this and can honestly say I understand what and why I'm doing things now. It's one of those books that reveals new layers as you learn more. However, the real beauty of this book is that the Mr Senior clearly understands the home studio and the short cuts we will take when mixing tracks. He tackles these directly and offers great explanations for everything in his book.
To support the book the author has a website that is ridiculously comprehensive. Book assignments are linked directly to the web content. Examples of effects and techniques abound. There is even a library of songs, broken down into individual tracks. These are free to download and practice everything that is in the book.
If you have questions you are encouraged to use the online forums or contact the author directly via e-mail. I have contacted Mr Senior with a really tricky question and he responded with great advice that has given me much more understanding of the detail already laid out in his book. In this brief e-mail exchange I felt like he is really passionate about his books but also about the people using them. He was very supportive and encouraging in his responses.
Seriously, buy this book. While you are filling your Amazon basket, take a look at another book, Recording Secrets For The Small Studio. It's the same high quality, same author, only spotlighting recording techniques as the title suggests.
What I love about Mike's book is that he give you a method to follow. I read the book first cover to cover and his approach really appealed to me because it was saying: here's where you begin, next do this, then do this, etc etc, building on each layer till you get through the whole process and come out the other side with, at the very least, a well balanced mix. He spends the first few chapters giving advice on monitoring and supplementary monitoring so you can really hear what your mix sounds like. He gives you advice on acoustically treating your room etc so once you've passed through the first few chapters and followed his advice at the very least you will be equipped to "hear" your mix properly and therefore make properly informed balancing decisions.
Mike then explains the pro mindset to approaching mixing: editing first and getting everything sounding tight before you move onto balancing and using your various mix tools. He supplements every chapter with quotes from countless interviews with the world's best mix engineers and has really done an excellent job about finding the points of commonality between all these great engineers and how they approach mixes to construct an A, B, C, step by step guide that someone learning the art of mixing can take. Once you're well versed and producing great commercial mixes you can adopt any non-linear method you like if it gets you results. But for someone like me who didn't know where to begin, it was just so great to have a structured method to follow.
The other thing Mike does is augment the book with online resources which I frequently refer back to ask I go through each chapter. He gives you links to freeware plugins to supplement the plugins you might have in your DAW and recommends affordable plugins where he feels necessary. Mike genuinely seems to have a desire to give home studio or small studio producers the right tools to create competitive mixes.
This book has helped me adopt a professional mentality to how I approach recording, editing and then mixing. I can't recommend it highly enough, it's really a fantastic guide for someone keen to learn how to mix to commercial grade in their own studios and this book does a great job of demystifying audio production terminology. It's not an idiot's guide by any stretch of the imagination. You will need to concentrate and get your head around some difficult concepts but if you persevere and work through a mix project with the book, you'll see your skills as a mix engineer improve dramatically.
Not sure how useful it would be to an experienced mix engineer as that's not the perspective I'm writing from. But from discussing some of the ideas I've learnt with friends of mine who are experienced and studied audio production etc, it's been quite rewarding telling them some practices I've adopted that they didn't really do! :-) Good luck!!
This book should work as a primer for beginners or a refresher for experienced hands. I came into the book at "intermediate amateur" level with a good few years of playing around and a bit of other reading around. I found the discussion of the basics a useful and thoughtful refresher, and here and there were advanced bits and pieces I hadn't thought about before. The section on various uses of delay effects was an eye-opener - but for you maybe it will be the section on filters!
He starts off with the massively important subject of getting you're listening environment to be as effective as possible for mixing purposes, and somehow accomplishes that even with a small budget. Personal experience - I though I had done enough research on that subject before reading the book, and I was using some acoustic treatment, sufficient monitors etc. Believe me though, after reading the first section of this book, it brought to mind so many things I was either doing insufficiently or hadn't applied all. When I followed through with the advice given in the book for my listening environment, it had already made a massive difference in the quality of my mixes, simply by the amount of detail I could hear compared to before.
He then continues by talking about the massive importance of referencing you're mixes correctly, fine tuning every track in the production and cleaning up your arrangement. All of which make a substantial difference both in the quality of your final mix, and the easiness of executing your mix.
He then starts with the actual practical process of mixing. As I said, in a linear way, so its so easy to follow. Starting you off with building the raw balance of the mix, explaining the different techniques for balancing stereo mic'd and multi mic instruments, then showing you ways to identify effectively which tracks need compression, EQ'ing, before going onto more specialised processors for colouring and creating purposes such as distortion and other techniques which use a combination of processors such as compression mixed with distortion/eq.
BUT THATS NOT ALL!
There's another 6 or 7 chapters taking you through all the processing you're likely to need in any mix you'll ever do, and on top of that there is an online section for every chapter of the book giving you audio examples and additional reading links for the specific subject in that chapter (Which I highly recommend you go through and read all the additional links as well) (Their great!)
I have read many books on music production and mixing, and have learnt many great things from all of them. What makes this book stand out is the amount of detail Mike goes into the practical side of things. So don't expect to learn what every parameter on every plugin does in this book, but expect to learn how to us it to get the best result for your mix. What this book did for me over everything else is simply, finesse my work, it made my already okay mixes, into great ones.
I wasn't sure what to expect, thinking that it may be a flash in the pan, but this book has been read and re-read a number of times over the past weeks and has spurred me onto want to produce commercially comparable recordings.
Its main strength is that each topic is dealt with in manageable chunks and each section is clear as to it's purpose and where it fits in with the bigger picture. There are plenty of quotes from world-renowned mixing engineers and producers which adds credibility to each point made.
Many of the examples are geared around 'in-the-box' mixing on a DAW, rather than hardware-based, but the concepts are all transferable. But if, like me, you are DAW-based, then it is spot-on.
The writing style is clear and humourous and the content is great, especially for a newbie to the subject like me.
This is the first time I've felt moved to write a review for a book I've bought and I congratulate the author on an excellent book. It has inspired me to want to learn more and master the topics within.
The book starts by addrssing limitations of 'listening' to your mixes in the confines of a small budget conscious studio, it covers what types of monitors to use, positioning, room accoustics, using multiple types of monitors including mono low grade for worst case scenarios.
The book then moves on to mixing - and I found this a revelation! Not only does Mike Senior explain what steps to take in what order, but on top of that you get some brilliant quotes from top producers and all of them brilliant tips. A lot of what this covers makes obvious sense, but it is being told how to approach it & the reasoning behind it that makes perfect sense.
I have since revisted some of my songs and re-mixed them using the tips from this book and the difference to the final production is incredible - thank you Mike!
There is a wealth of extra info, wav files etc on Mike's website: http://www.cambridge-mt.com/MixingSecrets.htm
I would thoroughly recommend this excellent book to anyone interested in recording and mixing.
I have contacted Mike Senior by email with some questions about some topics in the book and he has taken the trouble to reply promptly with advice. An excellent customer service from a dedicated professional!!