Mixing is Hard. And Fun. But Also Hard!
[The Soundcloud embeds on this page are preliminary Toad Session mixes. They are a work in progress, not the finished article, and won’t be left up for long, but the real thing will be published soon enough at toadsessions.com]
Apart from going to the Borders to fetch an ultra-sexy new 16V 2.3 Red Block turbo engine for Bette (which is going to be AWESOME by the way!), the reason you haven’t heard much from me this week is because I have been mixing Toad Sessions. Exciting, exciting Toad Sessions!
This is going to be a difficult post to write, actually, because I doubt regular music fans will give a shit about compression and panning, and I am sufficiently new to mixing songs that anyone who actually knows what they are doing will probably find this laughably ignorant. But hey, it’s what I’ve been doing with my time, I am an inveterate internet chatterer, and so this is what you get.
I only started recording and mixing stuff when we started the Toad Sessions in 2008. At the beginning I was sufficiently insecure that I tended to rely on other people to engineer them for me, but after a couple of times when I couldn’t find anyone to help, I took the plunge and started doing it myself.
At its root, it’s not that hard: point the microphones at things which make a noise, press record, and let the musicians do their thing. You don’t get the very greatest results doing that with no real idea what you’re doing, but honestly, you can get pretty good ones without much expertise.
Mixing is a bit more complicated – or at least professional mixing is. But if you just want something to sound decent, then it’s not too hard either. Panning makes things come out of the left or right speaker, reverb is just a bit of echo to take the edge off things, and compression smooshes the loud bits and the quiet bits of a recording closer together so that the quiet parts don’t get lost and the loud bits don’t hurt your ears. There’s more to it than that, of course – you can’t sum up an entire profession in one flippant sentence – but you can do a lot with just a very basic command of those three things.
But again, we’re talking about a Toad Session here, recorded live in one room with the cats wandering around, Mrs. Toad rattling about in the kitchen, musicians shifting about on our creaky chairs and all sorts of other noises. These aren’t supposed to be perfect recordings, they’re supposed to be decent ones with some, er, ‘local colour’.
Despite assuming that mixing music was some sort of magic which I would never understand, three or four years ago I just started playing around with my mixing software’s standard settings, applying a ‘male lead vocal’ preset to the vocal track, and trying all the ‘acoustic guitar’ presets until one sounded nice. Then just turned the volume of the respective channels up and down until it sounded about right, and I was amazed, honestly. It sounded like real, actual music!
And since then, that’s all I’ve done. I moved away from the standard presets as soon as I felt confident, but they did allow me to ease my way into what I was doing without much initial knowledge. I am sure the results would cause all sorts of eye-rolling from a real pro, but as my little brother says (and he is an actual pro): “Don’t be silly, you’re a music fan, you listen to music all the time, if it sounds right then it is right.”
Since then I’ve mixed all of our Toad Sessions myself, as well as two records we’ve released on the label. I know I’m not great – to be honest I don’t have the patience to become really good at anything, even if I did have the skill, so I tend to aim for ‘perfectly reasonable’ instead – but I do now have the confidence to believe my brother’s advice. Some stuff has been harder to do than others, of course, some for technical reasons and some for personal ones.
Technically, because we record everything live, it’s not at all unusual for there to be a shitload of snare drum and cymbal noise in the vocal mic. Those sounds are loud and piercing and they get everywhere, and there have been a few issues with that – most notably our unpublished session with Joanne Gruesome and the backing vocals for the Kid Canaveral session. In general, though, I am consistently surprised by how clean a recording we can make even with a full band – all the individual channels sound really clean, despite the fact that all you can really hear in the room is the battering of drums and an incoherent flood of noise from guitar amps.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, minimal recordings can be oddly difficult as well. It’s actually quite hard to remind yourself to leave things alone, and that generally if it’s a minimal recording you need pretty minimal mixing. Guitarists tend to spend a lot of time tweaking the actual sound that they generate, so just leaving it alone is often the best thing you can do, although sometimes it can be hard to have the confidence to do so little to something. I remember this from my design career as well, actually, people’s neuroses make it surprisingly hard to persuade them that it’s actually okay to just leave shit alone.
It can work that way with the more complicated recordings too – reminding yourself that if you record them properly, things actually tend to sound pretty good raw. Over-compressing, adding shitloads of effects and all that really can squish the life out of a song, especially something like a Toad Session which is supposed to be live.
Other than that, there are personal issues too. It’s not too bad when you’re recording a tiny band you just happen to have real enthusiasm for, but when you’re recording someone like Eef Barzelay or Josh T. Pearson, someone a bit more established and widely revered, it can be a rather more intimidating. You don’t want to get one of your heroes in for a session and then make a tits of it, do you.
Oddly enough, though, it’s harder with your pals. Not because they intimidate you, but because you can end up intimidating yourself. We recently recorded sessions with Sparrow and the Workshop, Adam Stafford and Broken Records, all of whom are good friends of ours, and consequently I really, really want them to be happy with their sessions. Partly this is for them, because I want to give them something worthwhile in exchange for the effort they have made, and partly it’s for me, in that I really don’t want my friends to think I’m incompetent.
So yes, that’s what I’ve been mostly up to this week: mixing Toad Sessions as well as the tracks for the next Song, by Toad Split 12″ (which are remarkably similar to the Toad Sessions). Having so much to do at once is fun, but it’s also really helpful. Sometimes tricks from one recording can help you mix another, because they were all recorded in the same space. But also, having something else to go onto when you are a bit stuck on something is a really good way of clearing out your ears and making sure you don’t get mix paralysis.
And I haven’t even started Brown Brogues and Eef Barzelay yet!More: Adam Stafford, broken records, old earth, sparrow and the workshop, toad sessions