What is music mixing?
When you take certain elements and ‘mix’ them together, in a proportion decided by your own aesthetic sensibility that is what mixing is all about.
“In musical parlance if individual musical instruments, treating the voice as an instrument too, are recorded, then they need to be mixed too, in certain proportion. Some elements need to be louder or softer than others. For e.g., a singer needs to be heard over and above the instruments for clarity,” explained veteran sound engineer K. J. Singh.
Each sound mixing engineer will have his or her own aesthetic sensibility about what that proportion should be, depending upon their exposure to the kind of music they listened to in their growing up years, the lessons they learned either from an audio institute/school or from their mentors, their own confidence about themselves and their emotional state of mind just before they start the process.
“Music mixing is a creative process where a mix engineer uses both creative design and audio engineer skills to blend in all of the different sound elements, including vocals and various instruments, to create a complete listening experience for consumers to enjoy,” added P.A.Deepak, Grammy Award Winning Mixing Engineer.
In the early days of audio recording, all instruments were recorded together and the decision to place them in a mix was taken right there, as the technology to blend them later did not exist. Hence you will see a lot of old video footage of a large band or even a duo singing together with all the musicians and instruments, either in front of a single mic or at best a couple of them. You will notice that loud instruments are always placed back, away from the microphone/s, while the softer ones were nearer to the microphone. This made for a natural balance of the mix, as the song was played.
The ‘Sound-On-Sound’ Evolution
Later, as technology evolved and what we call ‘Sound-On-Sound’ came about, dubbing became possible. Which meant that all musicians did not have to be together, in the same room or a place, to perform the song. They could be called into ‘dub’ their part later or at another place and it would end up being in perfect sync with the music. This opened up many possibilities but it also meant that the ‘mix’ of that track or song could only happen once all the music was recorded. The mixing engineer, then, had to blend all the various musical elements or tracks and make it sound as if they were all playing together in one environment or place.
“Basically trying to simulate the early days of everyone playing together and getting recorded at the same time. The development of artificial spaces made it possible to do this ‘bringing together’ in one space. So even though each element might have been played in a different environment,”said Singh
“I can put the entire recording in any of the famous halls/theaters of the world, as if to make a listener feel that the entire music was played and performed in say the Opera House of Sydney, Australia or a famous Cathedral. Or even a stadium or a garage.”
Sound-On-Sound or Dubbing, as it’s normally called now, has made it possible to collaborate with artists spread over thousands of miles apart, which was an expensive and in most cases an impossible task to undertake. And last year, during the lockdown in the pandemic, technology has made it possible that now musicians can play, over the Internet and make it sound like they are all playing together in one place!
The earlier drawback of being out of sync is now a thing of the past.
Explaining further, Deepak said
“A good mixing engineer will use multiple instruments layered together to make sure they come up with an excellent final product. A great song mix will lend to a most pleasant listening experience – with the right tonal balance between vocals and other instruments, highlighting the right notes where needed and bringing out the soul of the music in a symphonic manner. Every genre of music requires a different approach to music mix and a great music mix engineer will understand this, pay attention to the minute details and do justice to it all.”
“But for a mix to sound good it’s not just putting musical elements together and defining them by just volume. As a mix engineer you have to be able to tell an emotional story.”
What drives that particular song or a track? How can the engineer make that emotional connection stronger?
“There are tools available that can enhance a phrase or an instrument or push-back, brighten, dull or even make it sound tight. Through volume, panning, equalization, compression, distortion, time-based effects, all this is possible and a good mix engineer knows how to use that to full advantage,” asserted Singh.
Various modes of listening to a mix were available since audio began, starting with mono, one channel of audio, to stereo, two channels of audio identified as Left and Right, to multi-channel formats like Quad, four channels, and then traditional film listening formats like 5.1, 7.1 to now 11.1, here the first number refers to the number of physical speakers, in a fixed array and the .1 refers to a sub-woofer or lo bass.
Modern-day immersive technologies have made mixing into fine art. With Dolby Atmos being available, mix engineers can now mix for a 360-degree space that immerses a listener is not just left, right, side, back but also from the top. Mixing for each of these formats requires a special skill set of knowing the plus and minus of each format and what the delivery entails and how the music is going to translate in that environment for the listener.
“Music mixing is that magical process which fine tunes the sense and sound of each instrument in your tracks. Dolby Atmos opens up an entirely new palette for creative exploration beyond conventional, two-channel audio limitations, with more clarity, space, and depth. It adds the ability for the mixing engineers to create an immersive experience for the listeners,” Deepak said.
Dolby Atmos Music is an immersive music experience that adds more space, clarity, and depth to your music. It empowers creators to place discrete audio elements as objects in a three-dimensional sound field, which is not possible in stereo.
“Dolby Atmos is new way to connect with music at its fullest creative potential and capacity – not the way most people hear music today, but instead it pulls you into a song to reveal what was lost with traditional recordings. Whether it’s a complex harmony of instruments placed around a listener, a legendary guitar solo that fills a room, a drum roll that washes over you, the piano notes in the background or the subtle breath a singer takes, Dolby Atmos gives music more space and the freedom to unleash every detail and emotion as the artist intended,” explained Mr.Pankaj Kedia, Managing Director, Emerging Markets, Dolby Laboratories.
To recognise the work of music mix engineers and their contribution to the industry, encouraging them to create more music in Dolby Atmos for an immersive experience for fans, Dolby Laboratories, Inc recently announced the launch of one of a kind recognition and rewards program for Music Mix Engineers in India – ‘Dolby Atmos Music Mix Engineers Honour Club’. The Music Mix Engineers from India who have mixed music in Dolby Atmos are eligible to apply for the recognition program and can register here.
Depending on the number of songs mixed in Dolby Atmos, eligible entries will be reviewed by Dolby and rewarded under five milestones – Platinum (500 tracks), Gold (250 tracks), Century (100 tracks), Silver (50 tracks), and Certificate (10 tracks).
To know more about the art of music mixing, aspiring and professional sound engineers can attend the Sound Right- adding punch to your songs (Punjab Edition), a webinar presented by IPRS and Music Plus, supported by Dolby India, scheduled on the 4th of March, at 5 PM by registering here.