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Songcraft: Becoming Your Own Producer, Part 5

With a majority of today’s songwriters having powerful recording tools at their disposal, just a laptop’s click away, and the line between home and studio recordings blurring daily, writers/artists are now finding themselves, more and more, in the role of de facto producer when looking to capture their latest creations.

With that thought in mind, Songcraft’s “Becoming Your Own Producer” looks to dissect, simplify and offer insight into the (sometimes daunting) process and art of DIY music production.

(In case you missed the previous installments of this series, check out parts one through four under RELATED CONTENT to the left.)

Mixing (Cont.)

Picking up where we left off in the last post, we now continue discussing the mix phase of our production process.

Compression. A compressor (or limiter — a compressor on steroids) is a processor the primary function of which is to electronically control spikes in volume (transients) present in an audio signal. It can, for example, automatically tame peaks in level on a vocal track and reduce those peaks by an adjustable amount. Once those spikes in volume have been controlled by a compressor, you are now free to raise the new, more consistent, overall level of said vocal in your mix without the danger of signal overload.

In addition to its main leveling function, compression can be used as an effect. Two hundred blog posts could probably be written on the subject of compression. Educate yourself on the topic; begin by watching this great tutorial on compression basics, and don’t be afraid to experiment. That said, if you’re confused about compression (and if you are, you’re not alone), refrain from using it on that “mission critical” demo until you get a handle on the ins and outs.

De-essing. A de-esser is a processing tool used to remove excess sibilance from an audio signal. If, say, you find your recorded vocal track sounds a little harsh when your vocalist sings a word with an “s,” “t” or “c” sound (or similar) in it, try using a de-esser on the track to electronically lessen those sibilant frequencies. Be sure to educate yourself (Here’s a de-essing tutorial) and experiment before using this tool on an important vocal track. Misuse of a de-esser can give your singer a serious speech impediment.

Effects. Effects processors — reverbs, delays, chorus, distortion, wideners, etc. — are tools used to add sonic depth, color and texture to a mix. There are a myriad of different effects and many applications for each. As such, the topic of effects usage is, unfortunately, too vast to explore in detail within the confines of this space. As always, education and experimentation is key. Jump on the web and look up each effect mentioned above as a start (highlighted effects link to tutorials), then find those effects in your DAW software and begin to investigate.

Panning. Panning refers to the practice of placing instruments/tracks left, center or right (and all points in between) across the stereo field in efforts to create the perception of space within a mix. Note: While panning covers left to right placement, adding the aforementioned effects of reverb or delay to instruments can help place those elements back to front in the soundscape.

Balancing act. With some/all of the above processing and panning in effect, use your DAW’s virtual console faders to balance the volume level of each instrument (relative to the others) in your song to taste. You should already be close to a semi-decent blend if you’ve been “rough mixing” each individual element in as recorded (suggested in our recording rundown) to assess if said parts were working from a production standpoint.

While balancing, realize that one set volume level placement of a track may not always sound right for the entire duration of a song. That track’s instrument may have to move up or down in level several times over the course of a mix. Program you DAW software’s automation function to perform these adjustments for you.

Also, when balancing, monitor your mix at varied volume levels (loud, soft) to get different perspectives on instrument placement and remember to take frequent breaks from all the heavy listening. Ear fatigue can send you down some undesirable mix roads.

Reference. Use a professionally produced, stylistically similar, favorite song as a sonic reference. Compare your mix to the “pro” tune and see how close or far off you are in terms of the overall picture; does your mix have too much or too little bottom-end compared to your reference track? Is the model track brighter than your mix or are the top-ends similar? Adjust your work accordingly. Warning: At first it will be fairly discouraging (to say the least) when comparing your mixes to pro cuts, but the knowledge derived from these exercises will help you grow and shape your work for the better.

Next, check out your mix on different playback systems to get a sense of how it’s translating outside of your workspace. Listening on boom boxes, in cars, on computer speakers and ear buds will lend you some valuable perspective. Obviously, your mix will never sound the same on each of these systems (mastering, the next step in the production process, will help with that) but if you’ve done a good job with your mix, your track should sound fairly balanced in terms of levels and frequencies wherever you play it. If an element of your mix is calling attention to itself when you’re listening on speakers other than the ones you mixed on, you might need to revisit that instrument again and adjust.

Lastly, once you’ve got your mix sounding the way you want it, bounce/render a stereo file of the tune (This will become your 2-track “master”) and save both your mix program file and your newly created stereo master file across numerous hard drives or DVDs for save keeping/future reference.

If you have any questions in regard to mixing, leave a comment below.

Next up, “Becoming Your Own Producer” goes to “11” as we enter the mastering phase of our production process.

Mark Bacino is a singer/songwriter based in New York City. When not crafting his own melodic brand of retro-pop, Mark can be found producing fellow artists or composing for television/advertising via his Queens English Recording Co. Mark also is the founder/curator of intro.verse.chorus, a website dedicated to exploring the art of songwriting. Visit Mark on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.