Digital Music Production-The Basics

After we have recorded the performance and the musicians, the next step in music production is to blend the various sources or tracks into a single mix. Mixing is the process of combining two or more sound sources into a coherent body of sound. In the case of commercial songs, mixing is combining the various elements of the song (the instruments, vocals, and effects) and glue them into a unified work. The purpose of mixing is to create a song that is consistent and engaging in terms of music and sound quality.

The basics of mixing can be broken down into these 3 parts:

1. Level (or Volume). Mixing by level is tying the elements of the song together by manipulating the level of each instrument or track. If an element sounds like it is too up front (or too much in your face), then one of the processes that we can apply is to change the level by changing the track fader on the mixer (or virtual mixer in your DAW). Vice versa, if an element is too far back or too quiet, then we can raise the level to bring it up front a bit. If we are to imagine the sound field as a 3-dimensional area, level manipulation is the same as changing the placement of the elements from front to back (larger level means closer sounding, smaller level means further sounding).

2. Stereo Image (or Panning). When working in a stereo mix (which is the norm in most contemporary music nowadays), we can balance the elements in the mix by changing their pan position. Pan (or panning) is short for panoramic potentiometer: panoramic means that we can place the sound sources or elements in an audio field that spans from left to center to right. During the early recording music era, there was only mono technology – so there was no need to determine which instrument was placed where. But since the advent of stereo technology, the process of panning allows us to recreate a more lifelike sound image by imitating the placements of instruments in a live concert (e.g we place the drums and vocals at center stage, the guitars at slightly to the right, the keyboards slightly to the left, etc.). The appropriate approach to balancing by panning is to listen to your favorite tracks and pay attention to the stereo image and imitate the placement of the instruments. In the 3 dimensional analogy, left panning means to the left and right panning means to the right (pretty straightforward).

3. Frequency (or Equalizing). This is one of the more advanced techniques of mixing, because to understand the appropriate equalizing process a sound engineer needs to understand the harmonic content of the elements and also how the change of frequency will affect the timbre of the instrument (e.g basses and kick drums are rich in low frequency, therefore changing their high frequency may not have much effect on the timbre of the sound). When we are mixing, and there are elements that still sound like they collide with each other, then it is worth trying to carve out specific frequency profiles for the instruments that are colliding (e.g lowering frequency of the electric guitar that is the same as the vocal range). In 3-dimension, altering the frequency content is the same as placement from high to low (the more high frequency content, the higher the place of the sound – that’s why basses tend to sound like they are “below” the other elements).

By combining these 3 basics of mixing, we can start to achieve a song that has more coherence and unity than if we were to simply record it and be done with it. Hopefully this article can get you understanding the finer aspects of music production.

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