Anyone who has ever witnessed a live performance will tell you that a performed musical piece will have a great dynamic range – moments ranging from very low amplitude to very high. Even the most basic song will have a chorus that is slightly louder or a bridge that is a little quieter. That being the case, how do you approach this dynamic change when you are mixing a recorded musical performance? Do you emphasize or flatten different dynamic moments? Do you keep your mix static or do you add automation to reflect the amplitude variation?
There are two big categories of engineers – those who like to add automation at the beginning of the mixing process and those who like to set up a static mix, add signal processing and only then add automation. Neither approach is wrong, it depends on what works best for you.
Nevertheless, I have yet to hear about a professional engineer who doesn’t use automation and relies on static mixing. Static mixing is a great way to get your tracks to a listenable state, so you can play through the session and understand what is happening in the song – but it is definitely not a good technique to create final mixes.
Laying The Foundation For Your Dynamic Mix
A very good way to learn how to create dynamic mixes is starting from a static mix as your foundation – No plug-ins, no automation, just volumes and panning. You will be amazed at how good you can make things sound by just doing volumes and panning. By not using any plug-ins and only focusing on the raw tracks and their dynamics you will get a far better sense of how the song evolves and changes. Practice this with several songs and take your time with it – it is great exercise.
Video: Intro to Mixing: Dynamic Mixing
Riding The Vocals
When you get a good balance going, look for the track with the most dynamic changes – usually the vocal – and think about what kind of changes it needs to better deliver. I suggest you solo the vocals and listen for things like articulation, unevenness in word pronunciation, uncontrolled tremolo and amplitude unevenness across phrases.
Put your vocal track into Touch automation mode and try to even out things – start with phrases and try to get an even amplitude across consecutive lines; after that proceed to the finer details: is there a letter that is pronounced far more discretely than the others in a word? Try to make up for it with volume automation. Remember – if you cannot get it right with fader moves you can always draw it in using the pencil tool or a combination of the selector and the trimmer.
Laying Down The Rhythm
The next natural would be to add some contrast to the vocal melodies by getting some rhythm into the mix. Create a new group with all the drum tracks or route them all to an auxiliary channel. To create a group, select all the drum tracks and find the Groups display right underneath the Track View on the left side of the screen.
Next, click on the little arrow button next to “GROUPS” and select Create New Group. Verify that all your track are included and be sure to check the “Mix/Edit” group type. Name your group something eloquent such as “Drums” or “Percussion” and click “OK”.
Now when you choose an automation mode on one of the drum tracks, Pro Tools will select the same option for all the others in the group and when doing fader moves it will move all the faders in the drum group. Play the song and decide on places where you might want to bring the volume of the drums up a little bit or down – don’t stress it too much as you will probably will be revisiting this choice but try to create a natural dynamic for the song.
Do this with the drum tracks and vocals soloed. A good suggestion for most songs is to try to bring the group volume up for the chorus a little bit and then down on the other parts. After you are happy with the way it feels bring in the bass and try to mimic the dynamics of the drums by writing automation to the bass track.
Creating Space With Automation
Now that you have a basic mix going on with vocals and rhythm it is time to bring all the other instruments in. Do it one track at a time and think about how the instruments all relate to one another. Try to make space for each instrument by ducking the volume of other instruments that occupy the same part of the frequency spectrum.
For example, if you have some guitars going on during the verse you might want to turn them down to make space for the vocals. Another example is if an instrument has a solo – you might want to emphasize that and turn other instruments that occupy the same space down a little. Also try to keep the dynamic shape you have given to the song with the drum automation going with the other instruments as well.
Creating Sub Mixes
After you have brought all these instruments in try to think of those who share the same frequency characteristics or have similar purposes in the song. For example, if you have three arpeggiators going on or a string ensemble or four guitars you might want to create a sub mix of these. Why? Even though you carefully automated the volume of each track you might find that you would like to further refine bigger elements like the relation between vocals and all the guitars or the relation between the rhythm and all the synths.
Sub Mixing is easy – create a new stereo Aux track (from the track menu or by using the keyboard shortcut SHIFT – CMD + N / SHIFT – CTRL + N to invoke the new track menu) and select a bus as input. After that select all the tracks you want to sub mix to that track and while pressing OPTION/ ALT click on the output of one of the tracks and go to the bus menu and select the same bus you assigned as input for the Aux track. And you are done! Now you can automate the volume of all the tracks in the sub mix without changing the individual track automation.
The steps presented above are a great way to practice creating dynamic mixes. Remember, try to keep plug-ins out of the equation for the whole thing, you’re ears will learn a lot. After you feel you have mastered this maybe you want to try experimenting with starting directly from a dynamic mix and continuing work from there or maybe try adding dynamic signal processing before starting automation – sincerely, there is no right way but the tutorial above is a great starting place when you are still learning to mix.