by Rick Allen
Working in New York over the past ten years has given me plenty of chances to weasel my way past security guards and into late night mixing sessions with some of the music industry's top recording engineers. While sitting in those state of the art control rooms, two things become very clear. First, posing as a pizza delivery guy gets you in the door and past security every time; and second, there is no right or wrong way to mixdown a multitrack project. This elite group of engineers each mixes with a different and unique production style. However, many of their approaches to mixing music could also have interesting applications in radio production too. Some techniques I had never used before in my radio production work, while other techniques might put a totally new spin on a few ways I had been mixing spots and promos for years. If you're interested, I'd love to share a few of these mixing philosophies, tips, and techniques with you.
SOMETIMES "LESS MEANS MORE:" When many people begin to tweak with the EQ of a mix, the first instinct is go for the "boost." First they add a little high end. Next, push up the middle frequencies. Then it seems to need a little more EQ on the bass. Sometimes it's better to look at EQ from the other direction. Listen for frequencies in a track that are covering up the audio you want to make stand out. Try carving out the right "frequency niche" in the music track, and you won't believe how the voice track suddenly pops out of your speakers. The same philosophy works for fader levels. Instead of pushing one fader up, then another and another until they're all maxed out, try listening for the tracks that are covering up the audio you want to make sure is heard. Pull these offending faders down. It gives you a lot more room to work.
TRICKS TO FIND THE RIGHT FREQUENCY TO EQUALIZE: If your board has parametric or "sweepable" EQ, not only do you need to decide whether to cut or boost the EQ, but you also need to "tune" your EQ to the frequencies you want to alter. This is one time that it is okay to go overboard. Set your cut or boost at max. Then sweep the EQ frequency setting all around. Ultimately finding the frequency you want to equalize becomes obvious. (Be careful if you are "boosting." Keep your monitor levels at a reasonable volume because sweeping through the wrong frequency at the wrong time could blow your speakers.) Once you've found the frequency you want to work with, move back to the EQ level control, pull it back from the maximum setting, and establish the amount of EQ that sounds best to you.
SIZE REALLY DOES MATTER: Many people don't realize how much just a few small adjustments to the reverb "factory" settings can affect the overall sound of the mix. Try playing with the "size" of the reverb (also called the decay time). If you have a lot of things going on in your mix, chances are that a "large hall" reverb setting will tend to wash it out. Your production will get blurry and the sounds and effects will run together. Try using a shorter reverb decay time or a "smaller" hall setting.
KEEP YOUR PERSPECTIVE: Last, but not least--we've all done it. You spent almost an hour searching for a certain sound effect or music cue. Now you've got so much of an emotional stake in that piece of sound that you're gonna make sure everybody hears it in the final mix whether it really fits or not. Don't let it happen to you. When you get to that point, take a step back from the whole project and ask yourself if every sound you hear adds something important to the mix. If not, go back and work on it a little more.
These are just a few things I've picked up from the recording industry that also apply to radio production. Now if we could only figure out how to get a month of studio time and a nice hefty budget every time we mixdown a promo similar to what the music industry sets aside for an album project. I'm working on that. I've been trying to get in to see a few station managers to talk about it, but as yet I haven't been able to get the pizza delivery scam to work with radio station receptionists.