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Spencer Wells audio mixing in Audacity. Photo courtesy of Spencer Wells.

RPM Challenge: Mixing Tricks

Written by
Spencer Wells
and
Connor Stinson
February 24, 2021
RPM Challenge: Mixing Tricks
Spencer Wells audio mixing in Audacity. Photo courtesy of Spencer Wells.

So, you have before you some recordings put together throughout the month. Now is the time to assemble them together in an orderly fashion, in a process known as mixing and mastering. Think of it as the fine-tuning stage - raw audio gets processed through software effects to alter the waveforms, where the opportunities to reproduce new sounds from the source are virtually limitless.

While there are hundreds of different effects and modifications you could apply to your recordings in this phase, the best place to start as a beginner (and the ones that do not require too much technical knowledge) is by learning and using equalizers, compressors, and reverb effects. Most modern digital audio workstations (DAWs) have them installed automatically, but if you are looking for some advanced plugins that offer more options, it is certainly not hard to find custom plugins. 

EQ (Equalization)

The sound you capture has a range of frequencies that can be modulated to reflect a balance between treble and bass, which is exactly what an EQ does. Audacity can modify any captured frequency from 20hz (low, bass tones) to 20000hz (high, treble tones). While the program has presets for certain effects - such as bass boost/cut, low-fi telephone and radio sounds, and rolloff cuts - it is always worth experimenting to see how the audio quality changes when you alter the frequencies. 

Compression

Most microphones pick up audio at different ranges, depending on what the source of the recording is. If the audio stem is showing spikes (being that the audio is at the top of the bar), it can cause clipping – which inevitably damages the quality of the recording. This can be fixed in the recording process by lowering the input gain on the microphone/software interface, but it does not fix audio drops – which are points in where the captured audio is too low, or inaudible. A tried-and-true solution to both issues is by adding a compressor. Audacity has a very basic compression plugin that, in effect, amplifies all audio to a set threshold, while limiting any audio above that set range.

Reverb

While acoustic space can make a world of a difference in capturing good audio in the recording process, using a reverb effect can manipulate that audio to increase the “airiness” or “space” of the sound. For example, say you recorded your vocals under a blanket in a closet. The captured audio is going to be condensed by default unless you have an invasive loud object (emitting sound) in the background. If you wanted your vocals to sound like it was recorded in a massive auditorium/chapel - any place with a great deal of natural reverberance - using the effect’s multitude of options (such as room size, pre-delay, and tone defeats) can help you fine tune your audio to whichever acoustic space you want to emulate. 

Connor's Corner

Spencer nailed the explanation of the mechanics of these key effects. It's important to remember that, now and forever, when you're mixing any audio, your sound engineer’s

Holy Trinity will always be equalization, compression, and reverb. The settings you use to control the equalization of a guitar stem are not the same settings used to control a piano, or the drums. Every instrument has needs and profiles that require specific balances to fit into the tracks they belong to, learning to attain this balance will be your job as a sound engineer.

It is important to mix with your gut and experiment to find your sound as an artist, and/or as a projector of someone else's sound. For the sake of learning (especially for novices and beginners), there are some rules that we highly recommend you follow. Number one: WEAR HEADPHONES! Yes! Headphones are your friends and will help you learn to distinguish sounds and learn how to create balance. The 2nd rule is to GOOGLE IT! Whenever you are feeling lost in a mix or in over your head, do what the experts do, google it! There are tons of free cheat sheets online to help you in your quest to achieve sonic excellence. And lastly: TAKE BABY STEPS! The science of learning how to feel sound is a journey, not a destination. Please make mistakes and take your time.

Like I mentioned before, please experiment, do it often, do it always. This is the last thing I say because like any art, there are no wrong answers! Find your sound, perfect it, and never look back! Good luck to all of you! 

Be sure to catch the final episode of Revvin’ Up on Friday, February 26th at 6:30 pm on 92.7fm or www.trentradio.ca


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