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Microphone Month 3

Level-Matched A-B Comparison (Part 1)

Q: “Why don’t my mixes sound like the Pros?”

A: There are numerous books, video tapes, interactive CDs, DVDs, and articles written on the subject, all providing good and valid information, but when all is said and done, somehow our mixes don’t always come up to professional standards. The truth is, basic EQ settings, Pan positions, and general advice on compression will only take you so far. Mixing and recording is a dues-paying field where secrets are partially exposed in print but rarely are they fully disclosed. And while we dig for the more arcane secrets of creating a commercial mix, sometimes the answers are so obvious that we fail to see them. Before we delve into today’s tech tip, which may seem too simple to be effective, keep in mind that many concepts are simple, but execution is not always easy.

This is our greatest asset: the ability to observe and learn from our observations. In music, we observe with our ears. Setting an EQ to boost 5dB at 3.5kHz doesn’t mean anything on paper or on a console, and especially if it’s on two different consoles. Unless you HEAR the effects of the settings on specific sounds, they are just numbers.

So what’s the secret tip to getting a professional sounding mix? There are many, but here is where it starts: It’s called level matched A-B comparison.

Listen to great sounding commercial CDs at an equal volume to your mix – compare your mix to the other CDs and adjust according to what you hear over your monitor system. For every four hours of mixing, spend one hour within that time listening to your “competition.” While this can be intimidating, think of it as having a million dollar reference guide at your disposal.

Many pro engineers listen to commercial CDs – because they know that when they submit their mixes to record companies, the sound has to be competitive with the ‘hit sound’ on the radio. Noted mixers such as Tom Lord Alge use this technique. In his own words, “…it can help to put up records that you like, compare them whilst you’re working and try to copy the sound. I’ve done that.”

In the next installment of this three-part series, we’ll discuss the tools you need for proper level-matched A-B comparisons. In the third and final section, we’ll tell you how to listen and get the most out of level matched A-Bing.

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