Mixing in-Design

A Life in-Design daily blog

So this is the first time that I’ll try to keep a daily blog of comparing my usual life (or things that happened in the past) in a more design perspective. This means I’ll be analyzing the different structures that surround certain events and relating the experiences to different kinds of games.

The Elements of Mixing

Now I don’t mean mixing as in stirring things up (I’m no chef, so I would never talk about those kind of things), but I’m actually talking about mixing in terms of audio. For the past couple of days, I’ve been editing a lot of audio in preparation for this weekend’s digital memorial day concert. My first shot at mixing them were quite terrible; panning was all off, levels were out of balance, and the audio wasn’t lined up. Wanting to start over, I erased all the plugins (reverb, EQ, etc.) that I had for each track, reset the levels and panning for each track, and started fresh.

Game 1: Lining things up

When I “line things up” in the mix, I try to get the instruments to play at the same time, which is done by taking a wavelength and “nudging” it until its beginning matches up with another. Here’s the challenge, however, sure you can visually line up the wavelengths to match, but when you play it back, one instrument may not have full resonance right at the beginning, so it sounds like they come in late.

Okay, so let’s relate this action of lining up instruments to a kind of game. Imagine if you had a puzzle, but the pieces were cut diagonally, so they had to be slid in sideways instead of merely straight up and down. Lining up sounds feels almost like that. Even if you only complete one corner of the puzzle, it feels satisfying to have part of the picture complete. It’s also interesting to note the contrast of the jagged edges of the puzzle when the pieces are loose, and the smoothness of the puzzle surface once the puzzle is complete. The same kind of feeling comes from wiping a clean line on a dirty window (not that I would know such feelings). So yeah, when the audio all lines up, it feels like I’ve solved a kind of puzzle of sorts, and it’s satisfying to go from different notes jumping out at me at random times, to one unison note from everyone playing together.

Game 2: Panning

Panning in terms of audio, means moving the sounds being heard from one side of the stereo space (or you could go surround sound, but I don’t bother with it), to the other side, or balancing left or right. When I record instruments, I typically record in mono, which allows me to choose which side (left or right) that I want it to go. Sometimes I want an instrument to be fully on one side so only the left ear hears it, and sometimes I want it to go through both ears. So you can see in this kind of scenario, it’s a little balancing act.

In this game, imagine you have different widths of cooked spaghetti (it’s what I’m having for dinner tonight, gotta have spaghetti Monday), and you want to try to balance them on a balancing scale because you’re only allowed a half a pound to eat. The problem with this spaghetti is that it’s so long, it hangs off the sides, so even by having one end of the noodle hang off the edge affects the weight on the balance scale. So most of the time you’re spending shifting the noodles back and forth to really see if you have the correct amount. This kind of game relates a lot to panning, where I must shift the different instruments to either the left or right to help balance out the space, and make it sound like a live ensemble. Is the bass too heavy on this side? Are the mid range instruments clashing by both being on the same side? Once everything is balanced, the audio feels solid, meaning that nothing is pulling my ear from one side or another. This is also the same kind of feeling as trying to figure out how tight to pull the straps on your backpack; if one side is too tight, you can loose balance.

Game 3: Levels

Yeah there’s panning, but what about the actual levels? Should the levels of the instruments change throughout the piece, or should they be constant? This kind of depends on the piece and how the instruments and players were recorded at the time. Sometimes a player can get a little too excited and blast a section when they should really be in the background, and sometimes the sound engineer puts the microphone to close to the instrument (not that I would EVER do that). Through these different scenarios, while the panning may stay the same, the levels may change from song to song.

Okay, so you have this giant cooler of lemonade (could be pink), and you’re trying to get it to the pitcher sitting outside in preparation for a party. Your friends offer to help, but all they have are irregular sized cups, and the cooler is too heavy to carry over to the pitcher (this scenario doesn’t make sense, but just roll with it). Your goal is to figure out how much to fill each cup so that it one; doesn’t overflow, and two; fills the pitcher perfectly. So relating this to determining audio levels, imagine the cooler is all the audio you’ve collected from a previous recording, the cups are the instruments, the lemonade is the sound, and the pitcher is the main sound levels (or the capacity at which your computer can process the sound). How much should we give each instrument to fill up the pitcher of sound? What instrument is more important, i.e., which cups are taller? What if you fill up the cup, but some ice falls in it, meaning that it could overflow once it melts, just like an instrument could get louder later into the song? This kind of puzzle is tricky, but once completed, you’re left with a cool, refreshing pitcher of lemonade, or a clean wall of sound. The act of moving the faders (it’s what control the levels) up and down almost look like the different levels of cups, with the knob being where the top of the liquid is.

Analysis in real-time

Of course I’m not writing this while actually mixing audio, but here are just some thoughts I had whilst mixing. The more you work on a piece of audio, the more numb your mind gets to what you’re actually hearing. What I mean is that after listening to the same kind of mistake multiple times through playback, you may actually think it’s fine. Mixing is a lot like designing games; even though we are the ones making the piece of entertainment, we must take ourselves out of the equation of experience. What will people actually hear when they hear it for the first time? How many times will they actually want to listen to it? Why? How people experience media is what we’re striving to learn, but since people experience things in different ways, we must continually look for opportunities to broaden our mind to understand the many faces of society.

Thanks for reading! You can check out my other work at jordandubemedia.com, and if you’re feeling generous, consider contributing a couple dollars to my ko-fi. Have a great day!

Author: Jordan

Hello! I'm a developer, designer, composer, and musician. I also love popcorn and peanut butter M&M's. While I'm always busy working on some kind of project, never hesitate to reach out and say hi! I'll see you on the inter-webs!

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