How to Cheaply Record an Acoustic Track: Part 2 [MIXING]

The first post in the series talked about the physical end of recording your acoustic track. This article will follow on and discuss the work you do "in computer". For continuity we'll continue using the examples used in the first post, but all the skills are all transferable to your particular song. I'm going to make the technique descriptions generic so they are possible in pretty much any DAW that can load in plugins.

Arrangement - The assumption is that you have all parts recorded and you are as happy as possible with the song. Ideally sections will be double tracked (or more) where needed. This will not only thicken out your sound but provides you with more options in case there is a mistake you hadn't noticed before.

The first step is to get all your sections in the order you want. This may be already achieved if you managed to record the whole song in single takes. If not, you probably recorded individual sections separately. This is the stage where you chop and arrange these sections. 

When sticking two sections together, remember they may sound a bit shaky as there wasn't a naturally recorded flow. This is why in the last post I recommended leading into the section. By leading in you can slowly crossfade or choose the more natural sounding transition.

Group your tracks - This is simple enough, just set up folders for each instrument type. For instance all the guitars and double tracks for guitar go into the guitar folder. All the vocals and harmonies go into a vocal folder. This will make it much simpler to apply effects to the group as a whole.

Remember to name each track appropriately e.g VOX 1, VOX 2, GTR 1.1 GTR 1.2. Figure out a system so you know which double takes are for which instrument and label them consistently. It makes life a lot easier for you and anyone else who may be working on the song.

Plan your effects order - once you have the arrangement set you want to figure out how you'll order your effects. The reason for this is that some effects work best in a particular order. There is no point putting a limiter on first before any other processing. Here is a previous post where I've covered ordering your effects. 

What you want to do is set out three stages: the instrument character, the mixing, and the room. 

Instrument character - we are looking at altering the tone and sound of the instrument. This includes preamps for warmth, EQs, overdrives, etc. Imagine this stage as a way to mimic the best instrument being recorded with the best equipment. 

Always high pass your sounds, even if it is just at 20Hz, but just below the lowest note is preferable. Ideally do this as the first step before any other processing. Then if you want add a pre-amp emulation. You could go for analogue warmth and crank the pre-amp or just use it subtly. In the end it isn't even necessary, and is only worth using if you can hear a difference.

Add an EQ if there are any frequencies you want to cut or accentuate. This stage is just small touch ups to the tone so don't boost anything too high and try to use wide bands. The hard EQing will be done in the next stage. If you want, adding some autotune or pitch correction at this stage (if you want) would be good. Try adding very gentle correction and using multiple instances of the plugin, several small corrections in a row is much more transparent.

Mixing Effects - This is where we bring in the slightly more dramatic effects. The first thing to do is listen to the track as a whole and start setting the volumes as you like them. 

You will notice that some sounds aren't fitting well together. This is ok. This is where we start EQing the clashing frequencies. Let's consider Main Vocals and Main Guitar. These are the two main instruments in an acoustic track. We almost always want the vocals to cut through clearly over the guitar and so we look for the frequencies that they both use. This will be the mid range frequencies (different for each singer). 

You want to slowly start EQing dips in the guitar at the same frequencies as the singer's voice. This will drastically reduce clashing sounds and free up room for the voice to remain clear. The same goes for the other guitar and vocal tracks. The backing tracks don't need to be as in your face so take some of the mid weight out of them and maybe boost the high frequencies a bit for air and presence.

Never be afraid to play with EQ cheat-sheets, people
criticise them but if you need a helping hand, go for it!
As long as you learn from them, they are great.

If you want further room for the vocals over the guitar, you could gently side-chain compress the guitar using the vocals as a trigger. But I emphasise the "very gently" part! Play about and see if it is better putting sidechain compression on just the main guitar or the guitar folder as a whole.

Once we've sorted clashing frequencies we are going to look at a very general round of compression. If you really want the lowest level of compression possible, just add a gentle compressor onto the each of the instrument folders. It will only take off the hardest volume peaks and allow a lot more dynamic range. 

I recommend however, adding gentle compression to each of the main instruments individually. This allows for a much more controlled sound and yes, the dynamic range will be more reduced, but unless you are pro, a good mix is better than wide dynamic range.

The aim is to even out the volume for each sound. I find the guitars sound best with very light compression, and depending on the singer and their mic technique, they can normally afford a harder level of compression. For extra transparency I suggest gently parallel compressing where possible.

ReaComp remains my favourite compressor plugin
it is  Free and easy to use. It also has some good 

Play about compressing the backing instruments at different levels. It may be your preference to have them quite dense in the background, or you might want some range in volume. It's up to your judgement. 

If you are struggling with compression, presets are a great help! At this stage, I suggest you take a break and make some tea/coffee/beer/cocktail (I don't judge). The breaks really are a good help. When you come back, have a listen to what you have so far and see if anything suddenly needs changed.

"Room" Effects - I call these "room effects" because they tend to be focused on how we hear them as opposed to the character of the instrument or mix. These effects include reverbs as well as spatial tweaking.

The main effect is of course reverb. This determines whether you sound like you are playing in a small studio or in a wide space. Normally reverb is desirable, to some degree, on all the instruments. I would say that the vocals should have more reverb than the guitars as the vocals tend to sound better in a spacious environment.

You won't go wrong with Ambience if you're looking for
a free reverb plugin.

There are several ways of adding reverb. Firstly, you could add it to each track and tweak until you like it. Don't. That's what beginners do. It sounds messy as it essentially mimics each individual sound being in a different room and all the reverbs are squashed together.

The way I'd recommend for a simple song, is to have a reverb on the vocal folder and a smaller reverb on the guitar folder. That way there is only two reverbs to mix and the instruments maintain a level of distinctness.

There is another way, using sends, but for the simplicity of the track, using sends can be more hassle. It's definitely worth reading up on if you are interested though.  

In addition to reverb, the other main effect is panning. This creates a spatial location for each sound. Make use of the pan knob and perhaps more importantly, the HAAS effect. If you haven't already, make sure your double tracks are hard panned left and right and that your harmonies are spread out. Try and keep the main parts around the centre area but having a bit of movement or skew to the side is never bad. The only thing to keep in the centre would be bass instruments, never hard pan a bass instrument.

Automation - This is important if you have big changes in your track. Adding automation means you can change the volume and effect parameters at different stages of the track. An example would be boosting the main vocals a bit during the chorus, or dropping the guitar level a bit during the verse.

Of course automation is a lot more powerful than just a volume control. Automate the wet level of the reverb so the it is stronger during the choruses and dial it back in the verses. Automate delays to kick in on choice sections, perhaps only on single words of the song. Add a bit more gain to the guitar preamp during the intro for extra bite.

All these suggestions may or may not work, depending on your song, the opposite may achieve better results. Just remember that any extreme automation changes will affect the mix so keep them subtle as small changes can have a bigger impact than you'd expect. If people can identify what you've done in a mix, sometimes you've made it too obvious.

Making a mix bus - from here all the tracks and folders should be placed in a new folder called the mix bus. This folder will have effects added which apply to the whole mix. Don't confuse this with mastering, we are just adding a few final tweaks to make sure everything is nice.

Consider adding a multiband compressor, these are hard to operate so presets will be your friend. A bit of stereo widening may be nice, just remember to keep it subtle. A very gentle EQ may be applied to good effect. Even the smallest touch of reverb for the whole track may hep it glue together.

Don't work too hard on this stage because everything should be almost in place. If you find there's too much to improve here, you should go further back in the mixing stage and fix it earlier on.