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The backstory of mixing is fascinating. Pop culture, music and the production of music over the last century has intertwined into an elegant mobius loop – an endless jungle that you can journey through and explore all the nooks and crannies. Whatever frame of mind you’re in, there is always something to engage you with something new, whether it be songwriting, culture or mixing and production itself. For part two of this post, we decided to go over some broad strokes of the mixing world. We want you to be engaged with this crucial process even though it might seem daunting at surface level. The more you can articulate what you want to hear, the better the result will be for both you, the artist, and us. The following is a transcript from some questions I asked owner and executive producer at S&M Productions, Matt McLaren. If you have any further questions or need help with preparing your song for a mix, send us an email or give us a call, we’d be happy to help out! 


What is the difference between mixing and mastering? 

Mixing is taking a whole bunch of recorded instruments or elements and summing them together with balancing, levelling, EQ, compressing, and other different kinds of processing. You need to  make sure all of those individual parts become cohesive and fit together.  In the simplest form, let’s say, a rock band, you’ve got drums, bass, guitar, and vocals. 

For example, with drums by themselves, you’d have anywhere from eight mics to upwards of 20. Just mixing that drum kit means all those individual parts need to be levelled, EQ, compressed, and/or effected so they all sit together and don’t take up more room than they should. But they also  need to cut through the mix in just the right ways in just the right places. On top of that, you’d have to mix your bass guitar and kick drum with EQ particularity so they’re not colliding sonically. This is the same with high hats and cymbals, you want to make sure they’re not colliding with the distorted guitars. You’ve got to  make sure everything has its own spot in the mix whilst maintaining a feeling of cohesiveness. 

Mastering is the process after you have everything mixed and it’s all down to one file. Now you’re taking the multitrack and you’ve put it down to one stereo file. You’re not able to move the individual parts of the mix anymore, essentially it’s to make sure the music’s loud enough. You might adjust the overall level over time to make sure the song sits against other tracks in regards to depth, brightness etc. It is also the last port of call before the track is uploaded to streaming services or radio or whatever. Loudness is important and such a big topic to encapsulate it into  five minutes, but mastering makes sure you get the most punch out of that audio as you can. If you’re mastering an album, you have to make sure all those tracks sit together sonically. So, they might all be different types of songs with different instruments, but it’s important to make sure they all run smoothly together so they don’t sound completely different. So that’s a whole new process of again, EQ, compression, limiting saturation, all those good things that you’re mixing you use those as a mastering as well. 

What’s a plug-in and how do they work? 

A plug-in is a piece of software that virtually plugs into your digital audio workstation or recording software. Now, plug-ins can be all kinds of different things, you can get plugins that basically are applications that the host application (DAW) encapsulates and you can put those plugins anywhere you like on your project. You can be fixed; they can be virtual instruments, they can be analyzers. Some are based on old analogue gear and  some new far out wacky stuff. But it can be a simple thing like, you know, a plugin could just be a gain plug-in to take two DBs off a track or something more complex like . So, but yeah, they’re generally third party or sometimes first party with usually third party little applications that achieve a very specific task. So you’ll have a plug in for a compressor, that that’s all it does is just a compressor. But you can instantiate that at any point throughout your project or any part of the effects chain. You can round it all different kinds of ways. So it’s basically how they’d use old school, outboard analogue equipment back in the day. And the digital form which gives a lot more flexibility.We like plugins

What do you think a major turning point was in the transition from analogue recording to digital recording?

I think processing power and storage was probably the biggest thing. When analogue to digital converters got good, and the processing power and storage blew up in the 90s, that’s when digital recording started to get good.It became so accessible and the software behind it got better and better. But I think at the end of the day, it all comes down to hardware. And processing power. In the 90s and the amount of hard drive space where we store audio became so vast, like went from a couple of megabytes or megabytes on a floppy disk to you know, gigabyte or a couple of gigabytes on a hard drive. That’s a fair bit of audio. Nowadays, it’s out of control how much space we have just to store things. But I’d say it would be that late early, late 80s, late 80s, early 90s sort of turning point of computers becoming more accessible to people and then software closely followed behind that.
What do you think the advantages of mixing in the box are?

Well, I think its biggest advantage is also the biggest failing and that is flexibility and the ability to keep tweaking forever. We all know I have very strong opinions about this, print the track and get it done. I think we have got so much flexibility in the way we can route and the way we can duplicate – you can have a full SSL console and every single track on your project if you want, then all the processes are under the sun. Does that make it better than mixing on analog gear? Well, that’s where it gets tricky because it’s like that’s where you need to have knowledge and experience to know where you are getting into the weeds. But mixing in the box is hugely powerful and hugely flexible, which allows a lot of creativity. We don’t have to record in a linear form anymore. When I work with acoustic artists, we’ll start the chorus and work backwards. when we’re designing sounds and creating sounds, for a chorus of a bridge of a song, that’s gonna be like the climax of everything. So we work backwards from there.and then we can use all that sounds and build the sort of contour of the song from the verses up. But then, at the end, sometimes does happen. Still, with me, like, you get so you’ve got so many options that you’re like, shit, what? What’s the best? Am I doing the best job here? There’s that paralysis, but I think sending certain limitations on what you do is super important. And as long as you can manage those limitations and keep yourself on track, then it’s all good

So does this make outboard gear redundant?

I don’t think so. Especially on the way in. on the exterior point to get a really good signal in the way and to capture the performance and the best way possible. And if you do that goes through a bit of processing on the way and then that’s good. I think in mastering it’s nice to have a little gear involvement, not necessarily tape machines, but just like, it’s nice multiband compression and stuff like that. Is it essential? No, probably not. I mean, plenty of good engineers master songs in the box in their bedrooms, and they do a great job.  I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do it. If you got access to outboard gear and you want to use it, use it. I don’t think it’s a necessity but I don’t think it makes it redundant either.

What are you trying to create with a mix? Obviously, relative to the song, but like, What are you listening for? What are you visualising?

Clarity is obviously a big one. And that doesn’t necessarily mean everything needs to be clean and crisp. I always feel like everything needs to have its place. This is true for everything from EDM to grunge. Even grunge records, whilst it sounds messy, it still has to be mixed, right. Emotion is also a big one, because no matter what the song is about, it’s not very musical with that emotion. That’s what I look for when we’re designing sounds and stuff in the early stages of the production –  what’s the mood we’re trying to go for here. I try to tell that story through sound choices as well. That leads me to the last thing, which is dynamics. Dynamics, encourage every emotion and you can build emotion through dynamic choices. I think the more movement you can have in a mix, the more dynamic, the more light and shade. In contrast, you can have a mix that will capture and capture the listener, and if it’s a good song, then you will be more than halfway there.