Back in the day, a song was recorded all at once. All the parts were played, and all the vocals were sung, at the same time. If the engineer had to mix, it was done during the performance. After the last note ended, the record was finished. The master disc came off the lathe and went to the plating and pressing plant. If somebody made a mistake, you threw out the record and put another blank on the lathe: One blank, One chance. Either it was good or it wasn’t. Once the performers went home, there were no choices left to make.
Shortly after World War II, professional quality tape recorders became available, giving engineers another capability: editing. Now it was possible to take the best parts of two or more “takes” of a performance, and put them together. For the first time, some problems could be fixed after the performers went home. Ever afterward, a recording wasn’t necessarily “finished” at the end of a performance.
Some years later, multitrack recording made it possible for different performers to do their parts on a song at different times. A song would first be recorded, and then it would be mixed. As more tracks became available, more decisions could be left for the mix. I don’t think anyone knows who first said, “Fix it in the mix”, but that phrase has become a part of studio lore that everyone knows.
There have been several other major advances since then, like automated mixing, MIDI sequencing, etc., but most of them have one thing in common: they make it possible to put off more decisions. If we keep going on this way, maybe someday we won’t have to make any decisions at all... or maybe not.
Of course, at some point you have to get everything right. The question is, when? The story is told of someone bringing a tape to a Famous Engineer and asking for his opinion. After listening, the FE said that the mix didn’t sound very good, and maybe they should bring him the tracks so that he could do a better mix. They agreed, but when the FE heard the original tracks, they were really bad. The FE then told the client that, considering the tracks, the original mix was remarkably good, and he was really impressed with what the original mix engineer had accomplished.
A while ago I was asked to do some mixes for a gospel project. The client wanted a certain kind of choir sound, and asked if I could get it for him. After applying some fairly aggressive EQ and compression, I got the choir to sound somewhat better. They then went and cut some more tracks, but at a different studio than before. The second place had a higher hourly rate, but with better rooms, better microphones and a more experienced engineer. Without any processing at all, the choir tracks from the second session sounded better than the best I was able to get from the earlier tracks with all that mixing work. Naturally the rest of the project was recorded at the second studio.
We all want the best sound we can get from our recordings, and we try to improve our studios and equipment so that we can get a better sound. The pursuit of better sound has sold a lot of mixers, effects, microphones, and lots of other goodies. Most of us, of course, have only so much money to spend, so we can’t afford all of the goodies we want. We have to decide which thing is more important to our sound. The question often becomes “What should I buy first?”, which is soon followed by “Which kind of thing will help my sound the most?” The answer for each case may be different, but I can give you some general ideas to help you decide.
There are several links in the chain that leads to a good recording. We often focus on the equipment: the microphone, the preamp, the compressor, the EQ, the mixer, and so on. We want to get it right at every step along the way, but there is one general rule: The earlier you are in the chain, the more important that link is to the final sound. In other words, get it right early.
Nothing you do with the mix will bring up the sound that isn’t there. The sound that you didn’t record in the first place won’t be played back. You can use distortion to create more sounds, but it won’t fix a track that is out of tune, for example. As far as the recording equipment goes, your sound begins with the right choice of microphone and preamp.
Engineer Mike Iacopelli once told me about recording David Ruffin’s vocals for a solo project. He decided to put up two different mics and compare them. Out of the closet came a Neumann U87 (for decades probably the most widely used vocal mic) and a Sennheiser 421 (popular at many radio stations as an announce mic) and each was connected to its own mixer input. The U87 was the first mic we would grab for vocal sessions, especially if we didn’t have time for a “shootout” between mics. It would give you a decent usable vocal track almost every time. Well, when Mike put up the fader for the U87, he got a nice, smooth sound, the sort of thing we normally expect. On the 421 channel, though, he got this gritty sound with all sorts of little spits and clicks and stuff in it. No way! Something had to be wrong here. Funny thing, though: When Mike stepped into the room to hear the singing directly, what did he hear? All sorts of grit, spits and clicks! It turned out that the U87 sort of rounded off all the harsh edges, and the 421 sounded closer to the real thing. As “bad” as the 421 sounded by itself, that rough sound actually sat better with the track, holding its own against all the instruments. The 421 won that shootout.
Even more important, though, the sound you want has to be there for your microphone to capture. You need to pay attention to microphone placement, which means putting the mic where the sound is. If you aren’t sure, just cover one ear and put the other where you think the mic should go. The sound you hear there is what the mic will hear. Sometimes different parts of the sound you want are in different directions, so you might put a mic in each place.
The important point here is that there are sounds you can get by proper microphone choice and placement that you can’t get any other way. Paying proper attention at this stage of the process can save you a lot of trouble later on.
No microphone, no matter how well you place it, can capture a sound that the instrument or voice doesn’t make.
I have seen an engineer spend a whole day selecting a guitar and amplifier before cutting rhythm guitar tracks for an album. As crazy as that may seem at first, even the difference between two different Marshall amp heads of the same model was quite noticeable. A fresh set of strings is also important to getting a good guitar (or bass) sound. Make sure that the instrument is correctly set up. This includes tuning! A good electronic tuner can really help here, and can stop arguments in a hurry. I sometimes just leave the tuner connected while tracking. More than once I have stopped a guitar player in the middle of a take and asked him to re-tune. When he sees the reading on the tuner, the reaction is usually “Oh”.
You can find similar things with drum sounds. If the drum kit doesn’t sound good on its own when you are in the room with it, you aren’t likely to record a good drum sound. At the beginning of a project, put on a new set of heads, and get the kit tuned properly. The more professional drummers know how to set up and tune their kits to get the best possible tone.
Recording vocals looks easy, but it’s also easy to screw up. If you are putting the microphone directly in front of the singer’s mouth, use a pop screen. Not only will it stop annoying “p-pops”, it will also keep your expensive vocal mic from becoming a spit collector. Another trick (fairly common in voice-over sessions) is to put the mic off to one side, up at about forehead level or so, and aimed at the singer’s mouth. You may be able to do without the pop screen this way. If the singer still wants to turn toward the mic, you can put up another “dummy” mic for them to sing to. Some singers really know how to “work” the mic, backing off when they get loud, etc. If you get one of those, give them some latitude, because if the singer has good mic technique it really helps.
Singing is probably the most intensely personal part of musical performance. Try to make the singer comfortable, because they will not sing as well, usually, if they are nervous. If that means dimming the lights or something, make them happy.
There are all sorts of tips and techniques for getting a good sound, many more than I could list here (and lots that I don’t know yet, I’m sure). The main point that I want you to get here is that “fix it in the mix” is not wisdom, but more often foolishness. Every detail, every step of the process, deserves proper attention. The mistakes made nearer the beginning will usually be the harder ones to correct. If you care, you will want to get it right. If you want to get it right, get it right early.