Published January 25th, 2014 at 10:00 am EST/EDT

I typically like the main vocal parts in the songs I mix to be a bit more pronounced than the other instruments. There is definitely a balance I work toward—I don’t want the vocal to overpower the accompaniment, but it’s very important for me that every word be audible. The music I work on tends to be more lyric-driven than instrument-driven.

It’s also very important to me for all of the vocal parts to be in balance with each other. Given my issues with singing harmonies, I figure that if the vocal harmonies are so loud that I can sing with them, then the mix isn’t right.

I also like my percussion to be audible without being obtrusive. This can be especially tricky when dealing with things like tambourines and sleigh bells, which are very loud and very treble. They cut through the mix like a hot knife through butter, and I prefer them to be seasoning rather than the main course.

So when mixing any given track, I have numerous balls to juggle. This is exacerbated by the fact that I am a first soprano who likes to write songs that are in the second soprano or even alto range. I can hit the notes—just not loudly. My best volume comes out on the higher notes because that’s where my natural range is. So for the main vocal parts that have some lower notes, I work to make those lower notes stand out better without sounding weird. This is where one of my favorite tools comes in handy.

Write automation is a function in my recording software that plays with the dynamics of the tracks I’m working with. It’s actually possible to automate all sorts of things, but mostly I use it to automate volume. Maybe a vocal needs to be a bit louder on this phrase, or an instrument needs to be a bit quieter for two beats or so because it’s overpowering everything else in just one spot, but sounds great in the mix throughout the rest of the song. The idea is not to remove all the natural dynamics of the various instruments involved, but rather to get them to play nice together so that they are pleasing to listen to, and mix well with one another.

While in the midst of mixing, I will also run other processes over various parts of a song. The guitar recording gets cloned—meaning that there are now two instances in my file of the same guitar track—and one panned mostly to the left, and one panned mostly to the right. The main vocal stays at dead center unless I have reason to do otherwise, and everything else is panned to varying degrees of left, right, and center as necessary. For this part I mostly just do what I think sounds best.

I will also put a compression effect on some parts of the song. Compression helps things cut up through the mix and become more audible. This is especially useful for the main vocal recordings.

I may also EQ things if I want to bring out the higher or lower end of something. And for at least the main vocal, I’ll add some reverb to give it that polished studio sound. (I have no idea why this is the standard, but it does indeed seem to sound better that way. But a little reverb goes a long way.)

The trick with all of this, of course—all the cut-ins, all the write automation, and all the effects—is to make it sound natural. These tools and gizmos don’t do me any good if they make the finished product sound like anything other than a cohesive whole. And I try very hard to stay away from things like…*shudder*…pitch correction. I absolutely never use it on a main vocal recording, but I will use it on back-up harmonies if it’s necessary and not too extreme. Otherwise, if it takes a hundred takes to get something right, then it takes a hundred takes.

Once the song is mixed and sounds the way I want it to, I will play through the whole thing just to make sure that the Master bus isn’t clipping anywhere. Sound is additive, so the more parts you have playing simultaneously in a song, the louder it will be coming through the main output (or Master bus). If the Master is clipping anywhere, I’ll decrease the overall volume of the song by decreasing the volume of the Master. It might make things a bit quieter, but I’m about to fix that in a minute anyway.

Now it’s time to export the final mix, and switch software.

The second piece of software I use is handy as a mastering program. “Mastering” means different things from engineer to engineer, but for mean it means the following:

The first thing I do is shorten the amount of silence at the beginning of the track to be one second in length. Aside from helping to keep songs on an album from being spaced too close together, this gives CD players time to buffer the track. Then I will go to the end of the track and fade out the tail end as necessary, and possibly add a bit more silence if necessary.

Next it’s time to run a noise reduction filter on the track. This gets rid of aural detritus that is not necessarily noticeable until it’s removed. Removing it increases the overall quality of the track.

Next I will EQ the entire mix together, as opposed to the individual tracks that make up the mix. This is just sort of a final touch sort of tweak, and is not something I do unless I can produce a better quality recording with it. (In other words, if it ain’t necessary, it ain’t happenin’.)

And finally, I’ll run it through another filter that, in the program I use, is known as Wave Hammer. This is where I increase the overall volume of the song, which I mentioned a bit ago as “fixing” the decreasing of the overall volume of the song in the other piece of software. The way this works is that the Wave Hammer process first compresses the peaks in the song to create a more average volume level, and then maximizes and raises the overall volume of the track. So I end up with a fuller-sounding track.

Once every track on an album has gone through this process, I listen through all of them to check for a couple of things. First, I want to see if their volume is consistent from track to track. It’s annoying to have to keep changing the volume of a finished product because the tracks aren’t consistent. And second, I will listen to the silences between the tracks to see if they’re too long or too short. If they’re not right, I’ll alter them until they are, which is simply a matter of adding or subtracting silence in my mastering software.

And that’s the amount of work that goes into each and every song I record. It takes no small amount of time, and sometimes the process makes me want to tear my hair out, but overall I’m very happy that I know how to do this—to a standard that is entirely my own. I’m sure there are things I do that would drive a mainstream professional batty. But I know what works for me, and I know what sound I’m after, so that’s what counts.

Hopefully this was interesting to someone! Tomorrow I will post the long-time-coming end to the “How I Learned to Bard” series of posts, and then next week I’ll go back to posting only once a week, introducing each track on “[untitled]” in turn.

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