As a mix engineer, I have seen sessions recorded by amateurs, enthusiasts, small commercial studios and serious studios. Aside from the quality of the recordings and notes on the equipment used, one thing sets them aside – the size of the mix.
When the average band takes the initiative to record their own music (these days it’s as common as illegal downloads), they will generally assign a track to each instrument, record, and then sit down to mix it. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but that’s not how it’s done in the big leagues. This band may think that to get a huge guitar sound, they just need a big rig turned up loud. If this doesn’t sound much like the commercial releases they listen to, they’ll most likely head to the guitar store to look for more pedals. In fact, a commercial release of a rock album may have as many as ten layered guitar tracks playing the same part, 5 bass guitar tracks, 5 kick drum tracks, 1 billion backing vocal tracks, and so on. It may astound some of you to know that the one thing that is double-tracked often in amateur recordings – the lead vocal – isn’t double-tracked in professional recordings as often as people think. In fact, it’s more common to record a single lead vocal track, which may have a copied and effected phrase or backing vocals thrown in here and there to emphasise certain parts or build into a chorus.
To give you a run down on how big professional mixes are, here’s a screenshot of the Pro Tools session for an Arcade Fire song:
Believe me when I tell you that this is a fairly standard project size.
Guitars are often in stereo with a take panned left and a take panned right, or even one take copied and then panned left and right. Your single rhythm guitar track will become six tracks all containing the same part panned at different intervals across the stereo field, and each of those tracks may be made up of two or more tracks depending on how many microphones are used to record the amp! Even a bass guitar may have a couple of mics from a cab, a DI, a copied DI track with overdrive on it, or even split into high frequency and low frequency. All of these tracks are blended together to form the bass sound or guitar sound and all tracks involved are then either grouped, or bussed to a single track to make the mix easier to control.
So, when you start to hit 16 tracks and your song still sounds weak and thin, think back to this kick drum group from a session I worked on recently and remember that this all makes one single kick sound. Thump….Thump, thump….Thump.
Kick – D112 inside
Kick – M88 Batter
Kick – SubKick
Kick – FET
Kick – SD Sample