Forums » GarageBand Tips and Tricks » Making audio "sit"


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I'm curious to what all of you have to say about how to get all recorded tracks to "sit" with each other.

I'm using GarageBand '09 as my recording software and have recorded and mixed several songs and instrumentals quite well, but am open to any suggestions for mixdown during post-recording. I don't use any outboard (though I could) and do all mixing and effects within GB.

Artist Page Send Message Feb 12, 2010 | 9:01 pm

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Great question. I'll bring it up with the guys on the next iCWeekly show. I'm sure that between Tommy and Fatty, they will have an answer that makes sense to someone. Wink
Artist Page Send Message Feb 12, 2010 | 9:11 pm

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You're asking a pretty deep question: basically, how to mix audio. That isn't really something that can be answered conclusively in a forum post, not least because it's subjective. (If you don't believe me, Google your five favourite records in the context of audio production and see how many people love the mix and how many loathe it. I used to think that the fact that some people liked my mixes and some people didn't was purely a feature of their amateur quality, but apparently not.)

Still, you asked, so I'll take a swing, even though I'm neither Tommy nor Fatty. All of what follows is my opinion, and I'm sure you can find any number of people who'll tell you I'm completely wrong about all of it.

First, a lot of mix problems aren't really mix problems; they're arrangement, performance or engineering problems. Breaking those down:

Arrangement: Sometimes the song arrangement is simply cluttered. Perhaps you're struggling to get a background part to be heard, but it's being buried under walls of synths or crushed by the lead guitar. Consider whether you really need the part at all, or whether you could cut another part (either from the whole song or just from the section where you want your buried part to be heard). Consider whether the buried part could be played by a different instrument, or in a different octave. I've spent more hours than I care to recall micro-managing EQ to get a piano melody to cut through my wall of horrible noise, only to discover that shifting it eight white keys to the right solved the problem instantaneously.

Performance: Perhaps the most important part of the whole process is a solid performance. An awful lot of amateur music sucks horribly not because it's badly mixed but because the performances are lifeless. This too can create an apparent mixing problem; I saw a very long-running thread on another audio forum once where a guy was asking for EQ and compression tips to make his rhythm guitars sound more aggressive -- he didn't seem to want to hear what everyone told him, which was that the original part wasn't played aggressively, and that was the source of his problem. Whatever you do, if you can possibly avoid it, don't think 'Oh, I can edit that later' -- get a good performance from the start. Editing is a hateful, depressing, unmusical experience that can kill the joy of making music faster than a sneeze.

Engineering: Essentially, engineering is the science and art of capturing the sounds you want in the finished product as accurately as possible. If something doesn't sound great at the source, it will most likely never sound good in your final mix. If something sounds great in the room but terrible when played back from GarageBand, you need to change the way you're recording it so that you can capture the greatness you're hearing. Watching the recording level is very important here too; if you're recording digitally, you probably don't want to be hitting the reds, because you'll most likely be clipping your input signal, which will introduce unwanted, unmusical noise into your recordings. If you're recording in 16 bit, it's worth trying to get the loudest parts of your recording to be quite loud (hitting the yellows, maybe occasionally starting to edge into red, but never clipping). If you're recording in 24 bit you can be more relaxed about it and never leave the yellow.

(A quick aside about effects: Suppose you want a recorded guitar sound with chorus and reverb. You can either record the guitar dry and add the effects in your software after the fact, or you can get the sound you want from your amp and record that. The former approach means you can fix it more easily if you subsequently decide the effects don't work; the latter approach forces you to commit to a sound, which can help you to make bolder decisions with your mixing and avoid getting stuck in parameter tweaking for hours. Do whatever you prefer.)

Once you can accurately capture a great-sounding recording of a well-performed, well-arranged song, you're 90% of the way to a great mix without having touched an EQ plugin. However, I won't pretend that the last 10% is without its problems; all I'm saying is that if any of the preceding steps could be improved, you'll gain more from fixing those than you will from playing around with the mix.

Once all the recording is done, I generally look at levels and panning next, before touching any plugins.

Levels: Typically I'll start a mix by taking all the faders (volumes) all the way down, then bring tracks up one at a time. I tend to start with the drums, then the bass, the guitars, then 'other', and do the vocals last; other people prefer to start with the vocals and shape the song around them. Whatever works for you. As I'm doing this, I'll keep an eye on the master bus, and as soon as it gets close to clipping I'll bring all the faders down a few dB. (Decibels are logarithmic, so if you reduce every fader in the project by 3 dB the relative balance between the tracks will stay the same; you don't need to change different tracks by different amounts.) Generally I'll loop a loud, energetic section of the song (e.g. a chorus) to set the initial levels; see automation below.

Panning: Different people have different approaches to panning. For classical music it makes sense to ensure that each instrument appears to be coming from roughly the right place in the orchestra. For most popular music, I tend to use the 'LCR' approach: I pan almost every track 100% left, 100% right or dead centre, unless there's an excellent reason not to (e.g I want some movement, so I want a part to shift from side to side). This not only simplifies your mixing process hugely (no more time wasted worrying about whether that part would be better 67% left or 55% left, when studies show that almost all listeners can't tell the difference anyway) but also ensures that your mix will translate better to other playback systems where the physical distance between the left and right speaker may be different to your reference system. But hey, whatever floats your boat. (I used to be a huge LCR sceptic; then I tried it, and haven't gone back. But I won't tell you you're wrong if you disagree.)

At this point, if your engineering, performance and arrangement were good, you probably have something that sounds pretty close to a finished mix already. If you can hear major problems, try to identify whether they should have been corrected in one of those earlier stages; if so, either go back and fix it or chalk it up to experience and do it better next time, depending on whether you like to finish things and move on or make each piece as perfect as you can. (Personally I have to move on, otherwise I get stuck for months on one song.)

If things are sounding good, then now it's time to break out those plugins and start the business of mixing in earnest.

Compression: Compression is a great tool for making sounds more consistent and helping them to stand out in the mix. If used too heavily, it can beat all the life out of a signal or even distort it. If you're finding that a particular instrument's presence in your mix is inconsistent, you can either automate its volume (see below) or apply compression.

EQ: Even with a good arrangement you'll sometimes find that instruments are trampling on one another sonically, or that a particular frequency is causing you ear pain. This is where EQ comes in. Some people argue that it's better to cut rather than to boost (if two instruments are fighting for a particular frequency, cut the one you don't want to be dominant rather than boosting the one that you do); others argue that it doesn't really matter. Experiment with both approaches.

Automation: Dynamics make music exciting. Think of every boring lecture or presentation you've ever attended where the speaker droned in a flat, unrelenting monotone for the whole miserable experience. Now try to ensure your music isn't like that! A completely static mix can make even an interesting song rather uninteresting to listen to. In addition, if you keep all the levels constant throughout the whole song but vary the arrangement, you might find that in some places an instrument becomes buried by a new part, whereas you'd have preferred it to be more audible. Consequently, it makes sense to go through the song and automate the volume levels. Perhaps you want rhythm guitars to be more prominent in the chorus but focus on the bass in the verse; perhaps you'd like a piano part to take the fore in the second verse but then sit back in the third verse when the Hammond organ comes in. Automate.

Effects: While you're mixing, you might get ideas for additional effects you'd like to add to parts. Go for it. Try crazy ideas -- sometimes they're amazing and make the whole thing work. Just save your work before you do. Smile You might also find it interesting to automate your effects, if you can; for example, maybe you have a reverb plugin adding some flavour to a drum part, and you have one particularly prominent snare drum hit at a dramatic point in the song: automating the reverb so that it sounds cavernous for just that one hit and tasteful the rest of the time can create an interesting, memorable effect in the song.

(A side note on reverbs: Try not to use too many different types. A common problem with modern recordings, especially home studio ones, is that each instrument sounds like it was recorded in a different space to all the others, with no cohesion. Applying a gentle room reverb to some or all of your tracks can go some way to bringing everything into the same 'space'.)

Master bus processing: These days I like to run a little compression and a little saturation on my master bus, because I tend to feel that it 'glues' the result together better and makes the mix sound more cohesive. In general, this is the wrong place to fix overall mix problems -- if you find yourself putting a crazy EQ on the master bus, you almost certainly want to go back to the individual tracks in your arrangement and fix the problem there instead.

The final rule: If it sounds good, you've done it right, even if you've done absolutely everything differently to all of my suggestions above. The point of music is to sound good, not to be engineered according to a pedantic tax-return process.

Um, does that help at all?

Artist Page Send Message Feb 13, 2010 | 3:30 am

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there you go thanks -eido,

you can be sure the only way is to listen to the song over and over and over and over,, and be honest....

mixing takes ages you have to rest at some stage,, and when you come back you may lose the plot .... or think differently.

in the end do you trust your own judgement...

of course some one else will do it differently and sound different... horses for courses
Latest Song: While The Clouds Pass
Artist Page Send Message Feb 13, 2010 | 4:15 am

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Where do the horses come into it?
Latest Song: Verity
Artist Page Send Message Feb 13, 2010 | 10:42 am

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thenownows wrote:
Where do the horses come into it?

a rhetorical question I believe
Latest Song: While The Clouds Pass
Artist Page Send Message Feb 13, 2010 | 10:47 am

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nope. i wanna know too!!
Artist Page Send Message Feb 13, 2010 | 11:33 am

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Horses come in from the Left. I cant imagine any other way!
Latest Song: The Pentecost Appeal
Artist Page Send Message Feb 13, 2010 | 11:56 am

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I can expect nothing less from you Eido. Your posts are brilliant and thought-provoking. I've only recently (past year) began to realize what a help it is to record at no higher than 0. It helps tremendously after all is said and done and the mics are put away. I will try all if not only a few of your points on my projects when I get the time. Too bad we're not in the same vicinity, as I would relish in working alongside you picking up your musical prowess.
Artist Page Send Message Feb 13, 2010 | 4:03 pm

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Awesome post, Eido! It should be put in a sticky thread so it doesn't get buried...! Smile

There are also a number of great books available if you want something that gets fairly in-depth. I like a couple of books by Bobby Owsinski, who I find is able to explain things quite well:

- The Mixing Engineer's Handbook - this one helps in mixing: levels, panning, EQ, effects, compression, etc. It also includes a section on surround if you're interested. At the back is a great section of interviews with several famous mixing engineers.

- The Recording Engineer's Handbook - This begins with some information on vintage mics that I'll never be able to afford Smile, but then it moves into providing tips on recording a whole variety of instruments. This makes the book a very handy reference when I'm tracking. It also includes a section of interviews in the last section of the book.

Best of luck!

Artist Page Send Message Feb 13, 2010 | 4:21 pm

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Some great advice Eido. I tried the LCR panning thing and it does seem to work.
Latest Song: Wonderwall
Artist Page Send Message Feb 13, 2010 | 4:35 pm

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awesome advice Eido! Thanks for sharing!
Latest Song: Midnight Blue Collab
Artist Page Send Message Feb 15, 2010 | 9:39 am