The Rough Mix: The Art and the Risk
As an audio engineer, the start of a recording/production project is usually one of the best parts of the project; the teamwork is all there, everyone involved is optimistic, and the overall focus of the big picture is challenging, invigorating, and most of all fun.
However, when it comes to the end of the project, it usually is one of the most taxing and least gratifying parts of the project. This is intensified by shifting focus to each individual involved in the project; all the endless detail and waffling of editing; the infinite possibilities of mix tweaks allowed by our computer systems; etc.
Strangely enough, that pivotal moment in the project where things change between collective ideology and individual artistic vision is usually during the time of rough mixing.
THE LOVE AND NEED OF ROUGH MIXES
In an ideal audio engineers world, daily rough mixes would be an essential step in moving a project forward. However, this isn’t always the case due to things like session time constraints, client financial issues, release dates, etc. Therefore, the limited number of rough mixes made during the project become even more important to the overall scope of the project. Each rough mix must represent a significant advancement in the overall vision of the project; inspire future creativity within the project; and help determine how much more time is needed before final mixing begins. Here are a few guidelines to think of when you are at the rough mix stage in your project.
The first rough mix of a project is sometimes referred to as the ‘raw mix’ or ‘organic rough.’ This is because it allows a unique opportunity to hear what the recorded tracks really sound like together with natural dynamics and unused space. When it comes time to begin the first rough mixes, keep in mind these mixes should be nothing but a representation of the initial recorded performance. This means that the first rough mix should only focus on the balance of all the recorded tracks together with very few edits, EQ, and processing. No overdubs either. The rough mix is actually raw and unproduced, but if recorded properly, still hi-fi. Allowing the imagination to open up, the rough mix helps the engineer, producer, and especially the artist contemplate what to do next in the song and how to fill any open space.
As the process of overdubbing begins, the next batch of rough mixes will understandably increase in complexity. It is this second round of rough mixes where you can and really should try things out. Take some f’n chances. You never know when you might discover something new and useful that will help take what you are working on to the next level. Experiment with different outboard combinations, try a new plug-in, create an over the top effect or two. And the good thing is, if it doesn’t work out, you can just get rid of it. Knowledge is power!
After all the experimental foray’s have been successfully/unsuccessfully attempted, it is time to do some rough mixes that one could say are dressed up rehearsals of what the final mix will become. Using the collective knowledge from all the experimentation as well as the overdubs and initial recording, I’d fashion together my most glorified mix of the project all while attempting to locate and resolve any problems from poor recording to bad performances, bad editing, etc. These mixes are then aided by having the artist or band go and listen to them on their own preferred sound system in hopes of providing meaningful feedback.
One thing to keep in mind, the rough mix process doesn’t always work out so well for every client. It’s always best when making that first rough mix to verify if the artist or band would like to hear it raw and organic or if they prefer it polished up a bit. Some current musicians and artists wouldn’t even think of listening to their part or song without at least some kind of tuning, quantizing, Eq-ing, or manipulation. They would likely find the organic rough mix to be faulty to a point of questioning the engineer’s proficiency and qualifications. They would never question their own. If some of your recording methods rely on drum replacement, comping and editing, virtual amplification then you might have to do a fair amount of work before presenting the first rough mix to your client.
In the second stage of rough mixing, where it’s good to experiment and create options, the liabilities can sometimes be quite overwhelming. Remember, even though experimenting and over effecting is fun for us because we’re engineers, to an artist who fears hokey exuberance and manipulation of their sound, it can be an all out declaration of war. Once again, it is always good to check with the artist or band member before experimenting or radically changing their sound, especially a vocalist. For some vocalist’s, having their voice washed in effects can really chap their ass, driving them to question your judgement, which in turn prevents you from making simple recording suggestions like ‘you should double this or stack that.’
By the time the third stage rough mixes are complete, they better be almost as good as what one would hear on the radio. Having a near perfect rough is just the beginning, it is now also all about ‘temp mastering’ (EQ, compression, expansion, limiting) on rough mixes so artists don’t throw a fit over low levels in comparison to final mastered albums.
So what exactly is the flip side to all of this? If the rough mixes are too good, they might get prematurely distributed. This is either because of an anxious artist posting their rough mixes on the web, unintended airplay or unintended leaks via insider moles. If people think a rough mix sounds finished, then it might get overexposed and diminish any chances of success the final mix could have.
As important and fun as rough mixing can be, the modern audio engineer should always make sure his or her approach and overall intentions are acceptable to everyone involved in the project. A rough mix is sometimes going to create disharmony and strong opinions amongst everyone involved in the project, but that dialogue and concession is exactly what is required to bring about the best in our art. As time passes and you begin to build a stronger reputation as an audio engineer through success, people will begin to hold more merit to your opinions and experimentation, which at the end of the day means your job as an engineer is just going to keep getting better, and better, and better, and better………