The Benefits of “Test” Mixing
Why making multiple rough mixes of your work-in-progress can lead to a better finished master
Many folks believe that it’s best to focus on the song rather than the song production, and for the most part I agree—which is why I tend to avoid the studio until the material is almost fully formed. For that matter, the less time spent futzing with faders in general, the better your chances of landing something with energy and urgency.
Having said that, devoting a little extra effort to the sometimes tricky process of mixing can ensure that your multitrack is presented in the best way possible. Therefore, rather than waiting until all of your tracking is complete before beginning the all-important mixdown phase, it can be helpful to make a number of preliminary or “test” mixes as the recording progresses.
Pre-mixing the rhythm section. Doing a basic stereo dub of the skeletal rhythm track—drums, bass, keyboards, guitar—allows you to check overall balance, equalization, compression and other effects levels, before moving on to vocals and/or other instrumentation. Try several different versions, making subtle variations for each—a bit more bass on one mix, alternate pan positions on another, and so on. Now is also a good time to address any instruments with overlapping frequencies (such as removing excess low-end from acoustic guitars to prevent bleed into the bass track, for instance).
Trim the fat. Trial mixes can also help you determine if your existing arrangement is suitable. Consider how an attention-challenged listener might respond to the opening seconds of the new track—is there a good strong riff right at the top that makes you want to hear more? Or does the intro meander aimlessly? How long until you get to the hook? If need be, make a few judicious edits here and there in order to tighten up any wasted space.
An unsurpassed master. As we’ve often noted on these pages, sometimes the best studio moments occur when you least expect it. Case in point: because you tend to be more relaxed when not thinking “final mix,” don’t be surprised if one of these “test” efforts ends up sounding good enough to pass for a finished master. Except what about all the other stuff you still need to add on? If you really like what you’re hearing, there’s no reason why you can’t just transfer the reduction mix back on to the recorder and then continue overdubbing vocals and other parts directly to the two-track master, rather than the multitracks. (Hint: re-inserting the stereo mix at the same start point as the pre-mixed tracks will allow you to use either the master or the raw tracks when subsequently making your final mix.)
Bottom line, whenever mixing try to work in small increments, say around 30-45 minutes total, in order to prevent your ears from becoming fatigued (and remember to keep the volume at a reasonable level throughout). Also, be sure to monitor your various mixes using a number of different sources, i.e., car stereo speakers, earbuds, a boombox, in different types of rooms, and so forth.
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