In this series of mixing articles, we will present a rudimentary overview of the mixing and balancing process. Mixing is the art of balancing and arranging all pre-recorded instruments into one cohesive piece. As with anything in the recording industry, there is no one way to go about mixing. However, here are some basic techniques you can use as you develop your own style and sound.
First, we will discuss balancing the track levels of your mix. You will need to find an equilibrium between all the tracks so that no one instrument is significantly overpowering the rest, unless that is the desired effect. Take your time to ensure that nothing is buried beneath another instrument and that you can hear everything with ease and clarity. If you are spending more than a few minutes on this initial stage trying to sort out a conflict between two instruments, there may be another issue present than simply their respective loudness. It may be necessary to look at other aspects of the recording to get your desired results, such as one of the processes discussed in the following articles.
The next step of the mixing process is panning. But first, I should define “stereo.” Stereophonic sound refers to the psychoacoustic response from a sound distributed across two sources. Since we have two ears, the only time a sound hits them both at exactly the same time is when something is directly in front of us or directly behind us. If the sound is coming from any other place, there is a tiny delay between when the sound reaches the ear closest to it and when the sound reaches the ear farthest from it. The human brain instantly calculates this delay to triangulate where a sound is coming from. This is referred to as the Head Related Transfer Function.
In stereophonic audio, we use a triangulation of sound to position sounds to come from certain areas, using the left speaker as one corner, the right speaker as another, and the listener as the last. This will cause delays between one ear and the other and trick the brain into thinking there are sounds coming from places there are not. There is no time delay between the two speakers. However, the psychoacoustic effect comes from your position relative to the speakers and the volume difference between the two monitors. It is just an illusion.
Now that we have a firm understanding of the stereo image, we will move along to panning.
Panning is the distribution of a sound within the stereo field and is irrelevant in mono applications. Panning hard left, or all the way left, places the sound in only the left speaker of a stereo pair. Panning hard right places it solely on the right. Normally, the space in between is fully variable, meaning you can place a sound anywhere between those two extremes.
Some Points to Consider:
- Panning an instrument can give it some elbow room in a mix.
- If you leave every instrument up in the center (mono), they will all compete for the same space.
- Panning other instruments away from the center allows you to emphasize a particular aspect of the mix without raising its volume.
There are two schools of thought on panning: one is to enjoy the full variability of the pan pot, and the other is the old-school method of Left-Center-Right panning. Left-Center-Right panning is the practice of ignoring the real estate of the stereo field between these three positions and only placing an instrument hard left, hard right, or center. This simplification is actually very effective and a great approach if you are beginning to mix or wish to try something new.