Dance Like No-one Is Watching
Sunday, January 1, 2006, 3:13pm
I've just spent several hours working on the song, Baby, I.
I recorded this song a year or so ago, and for all intents and purposes it has been pretty much finished, except for the final mixing and mastering - or so I thought.
But now that I know so much more about the recording and mixing process than I did a year ago, I also know there is much more I can do to enhance my original recordings without having to go back and re-record entire tracks. So I have fattened up the drums to give them a fuller sound (just add compression); and readjusted the timing on the lead guitar and some of the brass tracks.
If there is one thing I have learnt, it is that the human ear is an incredibly precise instrument. It can tell if the timing on a track is out to within hundredths of a second. And once they detect that timing problem, your ears will tune into it every time.
If you can hear it - so can others. With modern computer based recording, you can zoom into a specific location on a track to within fractions of a second to make a cut, and adjust the timing. There is no excuse for not doing this if you detect a problem. Fix it and move on to the next one - your ears will thank you for it.
I've also added a bit of zing to the cymbals (using a Harmonic Exciter plugin), which also helped bring the cymbals out towards the front of the mix, rather than being buried away in the background. The whole song now has a lot more presence than before, and the changes to the percussion overall, help drive the song forward, which is exactly the effect I want for the song - especially since this will probably be the album's opening number, and I want something strong to draw listeners into the whole collection of 'party' songs which will comprise the album.
I'm still trying to get a handle on mixing. It doesn't seem to matter how good I get my mix to sound through my Alesis monitors, the final recording always sounds different depending on the system it is played back on.
This difference can be put down to a number of things, starting with the type of CD player someone is using. These range from el cheapo boom boxes, to state of the art sound systems costing hundreds if not thousands of dollars. Then there are the various stereo settings some people have their systems adjusted to. Very few modern systems have graphic equalizers which allow you to change the settings yourself across various frequencies. Modern systems have preset frequencies such as: Pop; Jazz; Rock; Acoustic; etc. which are easily accessible via the push of a button. In addition to these preset frequencies, some systems will let you add extra bass and treble, but that's about it.
It can be quite a shock to hear your carefully mixed masterpiece on someone else's stereo or boom box. Which is why you should try to mix using the best quality monitors you can afford.
Do not, I repeat, do NOT mix your music using any type of generic speakers your computer may have come with. These are designed so you can hear your computers standard warning beeps and sounds, and the occasional music CD. They are NOT suitable for mixing and mastering in the home studio environment.
While I'm at it, do NOT mix your music with a set of headphones, either. Even a good pair of headphones will not reproduce all the frequencies you need to be able to hear to create a good mixdown. If you are serious about home recording the best quality music you can possibly produce, you must invest in a pair of monitors that will enable you to hear all the tracks in your mix clearly.
Ok, so now you've invested a thousand dollars or two in a pair of near field monitors. You've mixed and mastered your latest song to perfection, and burnt it to a CDR and taken it around to your mate's house so he can listen to it and tell you how great it is. You put it in his boom box, and press play - and shrink back in horror when you hear the booming bass guitar, all but destroy your beautiful song.
What do you do? What you DON'T do is remix the bass guitar so that it all but disappears in the mix. If it sounds right through your monitors, it almost certainly is right. Put the 'problem' down to your friend's player, not your mixing. Play the song on as many devices as you can. You will almost certainly find that it sounds different on all of them. Some will sound perfect. Some will accentuate the treble, while others will sound flat and lifeless. Of course, you must go back to your original recording and take another close listen, but only make changes if you are sure they are necessary.
Have a Hearing Test
If you are going to be doing a lot of home recording and mixing, do yourself a favour and have a hearing test! The hearing test will alert you to potential problems before they arise. For example, you may have problems hearing low frequencies. If this is the case, you will almost certainly over compensate by mixing your bass parts higher than necessary, which in turn will make your mixes sound boomy. If you can't hear high frequencies properly, you may over compensate by adding too much treble to your mix.
If you do have hearing problems, talk to your specialist about getting hearing aids to help you overcome your hearing loss. Alternatively, find another pair of ears - in the form of a collaborator and co-producer you can trust to mix your music for you.
I'm sure the Art of Mixing is a subject I am going to return to, over and over again.
I've just spent another hour or so mixing parts of, Baby, I. Why, when I thought I had finally finished mixing the track a couple of days ago? Because, coming back to a song after just such a break, gives you a chance to reevaluate your work with 'fresh ears', so to speak.
Your ears and brain can become fatigued by the constant focus on the same one song, or track, or mix, to the point where they begin to tune out any potential problems. When you leave a song alone for a day or two, your brain forgets what it previously heard, and is once again able to hear any inconsistencies in the recordings you have been working on as if for the first time.
It is important to give your ears, eyes, and brain (in fact your whole body), a break from time to time so that you can return to the task at hand refreshed and revitalised.
One of the problem's with home recording an album, as opposed to booking time in a studio, is that life gets in the way of all your best laid plans.
When you book time in a studio, time is money, and you plan your sessions to get the most effective value you can from the limited amount of time (and money), you have available to you. When you are recording at home, on the other hand, time becomes almost meaningless, and you are constantly faced with a hundred and one distractions, that eat away at any free time you have.
I am reflecting on this as I come to the end of three weeks annual leave. I had intended to get stuck into recording my new album, but it just hasn't happened. What with Christmas and New Year celebrations, my brothers wedding, and the impending wedding of his son in a couple of days. Then there are movies to go and see, DVDs to watch, favourite TV shows (the second season of Carnevale is a must), and let's not forget the pile of unread books and magazines waiting for my attention. Oh, and did I mention I've been working on a couple of new songs, updating web sites, catching up on emails, etc, etc, etc...
Sure, I've fiddled here and there with some ideas for several songs, but using time efficiently is crucial if you are going to get anything done - whether you are at home, in the studio, or at work.
Then again, maybe I need to relax and not worry so much. From past experience I know that I have the ability to work in creative bursts that can last for days at a time. Once I spent 15 hours straight in front of my equipment working on a song for my last album. Creativity can't be turned on like a tap. It has to be nurtured and fed. I do this by reading, watching movies, listening to music, visiting family and friends, and getting out an about in the real world where I can be open to new ideas and influences.
Still, the road to ruin is paved with good intentions - and writing this entry has once again distracted me from getting on with the task at hand - getting a couple of loads of washing done, cleaning last nights (and today's dirty dishes), and... well you get the idea...
I was thinking about all this over the past weekend as South Australia was sweltering through a heat wave that saw the temperature climb to 42 degrees Celsius in Adelaide (that's 107.6 degrees Fahrenheit), and bush fires break out across three states. In some parts of the state, the temperature soared to 47C -- or an incredible 116.6F!
As we enter the hottest part of summer, I realised I was not going to get much work done on my album over the next month or so, especially since February is traditionally the month when temperatures peak across southern Australia.
Since my lounge room is the only room in the house with an air conditioner, I retreated into it late Friday afternoon, and didn't emerge again until late Sunday, when a cool change swept across the state and dropped the temperature down to a pleasant 30C. I even dragged a spare mattress into the lounge and slept there Friday and Saturday night.
If your work environment is uncomfortable, chaotic, or unorganised, you will not be able to relax and concentrate on producing your best music. Unless you are facing a pressing deadline that must be met -- my advice is to 'get your house in order', so that when the time comes for you to focus on your music, you will be able to do so with as little stress as possible.
And if the temperature in your home studio is unbearably hot (or cold), do as I did, retreat into the coolest (hottest) part of the house, and conserve your energy by finishing that half read book; watching your favourite DVDs; or catching up on weeks of lost sleep. Hopefully, when you emerge, you will be ready to get stuck into your next recording session feeling much more refreshed and recharged.
Roll on, winter...
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