What makes a track sound BIG? Plus Mixer Mixer reminder. (Originally sent 2/26/23)

Hey all,

Hope you've had a good month. I was doing fine until I caught the cold that's been going around! LOL. I want to make sure you remember that our next Mixer Mixer is on this Tuesday, February 28th, 730pm at Rec Room Recording in the basement of The Arts Federation, 638 North St in Lafayette. I really look forward to seeing you! The last Mixer Mixer was action packed, as usual. We had a great mix of music from ethereal Indie Folk to some killer beats. Love it!!

I was thinking of some advice that my first mix coach, Ronan Chris Murphy, gave me. Two points, actually, and during the lesson time at the Mixer Mixer I tried to have people listen to an example of what Ronan pointed out to me as his advice REALLY had an influence on me as a mixer.

We all want our mixes to sound full and big and huge unless, of course, for artistic reasons, we don't. If you ever get a chance to listen to Ronan's mixes, they are super punchy, big and full sounding. Now, when I started mixing, common sense told me that for a track or a mix to sound huge it would have to have a ton of reverb. Like a snare drum in the Grand Canyon or something! LOL. The other thing that I thought would make a mix sound huge was turning up the volume of the tracks! More tracks plus bigger volume equals HUGE!! Unfortunately, both tactics that kind of make sense on the surface don't work in reality at ALL! Let me explain.

Unless you've worked mixing tracks for quite a while, your reference for your mixes will be what you have heard in real life. Live concerts in stadiums and concert halls and the like. Jamming with your friends outside or in your basement. Playing at church, whatever. Those experiences leave a real imprint on your sensibility when you start mixing. The thing is though, music traveling across the air outside is relatively unconstrained. Music traveling within a room is constrained by the room size somewhat but still is pretty free. It can bounce around until the energy is dissipated. However, recorded music is constrained by the recording medium. I once heard an elderly mastering engineer comment on how much more bass he could have on masters now versus back in the day when he was mastering for vinyl. He said that if he mastered the bass at our current levels back then the needle would bounce right off the record!! To help me understand this I think of the bandwidth of my internet connection. If I try to download or upload too much at once it craps out. Kinda the same thing for recording. There is only so much bandwidth that we have to work with before things sound bad. We have to work within the limitations of the medium.

Our recording mediums cannot record and reproduce the full transients of a drum kit so we need to use compression. Our recording mediums do not allow sound to dissipate within them so we need to add fake reverb or record in a reverberant space to give the illusion of space. We use multiple microphones to get multiple sources of both direct and reflective sound to get a source to sound more three-dimensional, like our ears hear in a live space. There is quite a bit of sleight of hand involved, to be sure. But enough discussion. Let's listen to the track that I played for the Mixer Mixer, "Tiny Dancer" by Elton John. It is a song all of us have heard and most of us have really enjoyed. But listen now, focusing on the drums.

Elton John: Tiny Dancer

Some of us (old people, Lol) have heard this song hundreds of times. Had you ever noticed how wimpy the drums are? Despite having the awesome Nigel Olsson playing drums? This wasn't Nigel, my friends. I'm sure he crushed it. But the drums were reined in on the track by the mixer. This is what was pointed out to me by Ronan, and it was a revelation as I had NEVER noticed it. Had you ever noticed? The drums were mixed back because other elements needed the bandwidth. The strings, for example, are huge in this song. Elton's vocal was upfront and awesome. The piano is killer and all over the place like he's doing a solo throughout. But, everything can't be huge or NOTHING is huge - just annoying. KIND OF LIKE TYPING A WHOLE DOCUMENT IN ALL CAPS. Lol. It really was beautiful watching people's faces as they were listening to the drums on the song at the Mixer Mixer. They all had the same response I did. Disbelief!

After having my eyes opened by Ronan I decided to listen to a song on my own that I always thought was epic and huge. "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen. It's got epic opera choruses, thumping drums, throbbing bass, killer guitar, beautiful piano, and, of course, Freddy. Huge right? Give it a listen focusing on the various elements and how the reverb of those elements change throughout the song. What changes in panning were made for each instrument throughout the song so that room is made for other elements. Also listen to how many of these elements are actually playing at the same time and what happens to the other elements when new elements are introduced. This mix is a masterpiece.

Queen: Bohemian Rhapsody

So what is an example of a modern record that sounds huge? I think one of my favorite modern mixes in a genre that everyone gets is Imagine Dragon's "Believer." The mix blows me away and makes me want to scrub up my mixing skills!! Give it a listen. Notice that the bottom end on these tracks, as with most modern tracks, is huge compared to the classic rock era. Identify and listen to the different elements in the mix as they are introduced and exited and note how the respective panning and reverb evolves and changes throughout the song. To me, this mix is perfection.

Imagine Dragons: Believer

So, to summarize, reverb softens the edges of a track and pushes it back in the mix. A super dry track will sound in your face and upfront. Panning separates elements and places them throughout the width of the stereo field so that all can be heard clearly. Also, the elements in a mix should be introduced and removed much like actors in a play taking turns with their lines, drawing the audience's attention from one character to another. Hope these brief tips will help you listen differently to your favorite music. Ronan sure got me listening to music differently!!

And speaking of Ronan, I'm really excited to announce that he will be in Lafayette from July 24th through July 29th giving a recording boot camp at Rec Room Recording. Ronan gives these recording workshops all over the world and I'm so happy that we can bring him to Lafayette!! More details to follow but make sure to mark your calendars.

See you at the Mixer Mixer!!

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