If you’ve been following this series on level-matched A-B comparison, (as a means of learning to create professional sounding mixes) then by now you’re ready to get started. To recap, we discussed listening to professional mixes; CDs in the genre your music fits into and trying to copy the sound, which is something the pros do throughout their careers. In the second part, we talked about the proper equipment you’ll need, which generally consists of some type of switching system that will enable you to monitor different sources at matched levels. And in case we hadn’t mentioned it, listening to your mix on different sets of monitors while you are mixing is one of the secrets mixing legend Bob Clearmountain uses to make sure his mixes translate well to other medium. Even if you don’t have a device like the Central Station, (we mentioned in part 2), you can still use the techniques described below with a CD player run through your system if you have enough inputs. It’s a little more difficult to set up and not as accurate, but at least you can get started.
How to Proceed: Put on a couple different CDs while you’re mixing – pick one that’s bright and clear, and perhaps one that’s warm and smooth – and after level-matching on the Central Station, go back and forth from your mix to their mix.
Focus is the key: Listen to the frequencies – the impact – the spatiality – the balance of different sounds within each mix. Focus on just the kick on one CD and then the kick on yours. Focus on the kick on another CD, and then yours. How loud do those kicks sound within their tracks – compared with how loud does yours sound within your tracks? Check the focus and punch of the bottom and mid-bottom and compare. Listen to how the bass and kick work together on each recording. Listen to the presence in the mid-range for clarity and articulation. Perhaps consider standing in different places in your control room, (if you have a home studio) to hear different components of the low end (the farther back you go – even to the back wall – the longer the low frequency waves can develop). Now the snare – within the tracks of that commercial CD, how easy is it to hear the snare? How about in your mix? Just as easy to hear it? Is it just as clear? Does your snare sound better than theirs? What is the balance between the snare and the vocal? Remember, if you bring something up (like the snare) something else may appear to get softer (like the guitars). –
Important: A-B short portions of music, perhaps 20 seconds or less. This keeps your memory fresh around the sound that you’re focusing on. For instance if you’re comparing your lead vocal with a hit CD, listen to that CD for 10 to 20 seconds in a verse, or a part of the song that’s even and consistent. Then switch back over to your mix. If you need to change the CD level on the Central Station go back and do it – then go to your mix. Keep using short sections of music, and when you’re ready to listen to something else, shift your awareness – listen to the guitar smoothness and presence – stereo spread of instruments and effects.
Don’t raise your mix signal in order to match the output of a mastered CD. Include in your reference CD collection some older albums that have been well mixed and conservatively mastered. This is so you can hear music with musically based dynamics vs. the sound of some modern-day squashed CDs.
As you’re going along, burn reference CDRs of your mix, observing how your mix progresses. Keep observing how the commercial CDs and your CDRs sound on consumer systems – but remember to lower the commercial CD’s volume! Mix time is not the time to achieve a “mastered” volume level.
This advice may seem daunting, and certainly a lot of work – but nothing worth doing is easy. If you want to take your place amongst the Tom Lord Alge’s and Bob Clearmountain’s, or simply want your music to sound the way you know it should, then get yourself a Presonus Central Station if you don’t have A-B monitoring capabilities and get busy.