I AM NOT a professional engineer, but have put out some pretty good home recordings using a variety of equipment and software. This is an article I wrote based on my experiences. Hopefully it might help out some newbies. If any of you pros have feedback and further thoughts, it is welcomed! ----------------------------------------- CLASH OF THE FREQUENCIES With advances in technology and the subsequent lower prices associated with equipment, many of us have moved into the realm of home recording. However, owning the latest and greatest software and equipment does not qualify us as professional engineers by any stretch of the imagination. When I first started doing home recording, I could get great sounds coming in using only a mediocre setup. But when attempting to engineer and produce the songs, I had a hard time getting the instruments to properly separate in the mix, sometimes resulting in one or more tracks becoming virtually inaudible. My first inclination when this happened would be to increase the volume on those inaudible tracks. However, this resulted in tracks that were previously fine now getting buried in the mix. Eventually, everything was inched up more and more until the final result sounded like muddy noise. This is the Clash of the Frequencies. What I eventually learned over time, trial-and-error, and a multitude of curse words was that volume oftentimes has nothing to do with it. Frequencies and positioning of the tracks in the mix are what count (by positioning, I mean the stereo location of the track). There is no set solution for this, but there are ways to ease the mixing process. And knowing what’s causing your grief is the first step. So take your finger off the volume knob for now. For the sake of this article, I’m going to take the approach that we are mixing a five-piece band with two guitars, one bass guitar, drums, and a lead singer. Let’s take this a step further and say that this is a hard rock band that naturally uses a lot of low end in their sound to make the heavy parts “beefier”. Already, you’re going to have problems because the bass guitar is naturally low-end heavy and the kick drum should also (hopefully) be putting out a full, low-end sound. Thus, having guitars that use less gain and/or presence to get a deeper tone are going to clash with the bass guitar and some of the drums: there is no way around it. As the home studio engineer, it is your job to separate everything well enough that nothing gets buried, while at the same time – and this is most important to avoid being brutally throttled about the ears and neck by those you are mixing – maintaining the original sound that each band member has spent time perfecting to their taste over the years. So now that we know what we’re dealing with, let’s figure out how to make it work. Positioning is where you should start. The volume of a track can sound louder or softer depending on where it’s placed in the stereo mix, without ever actually adjusting the volume. For example, if you have everything mixed to good levels with everything at a dead-center position, and you then pan guitar one twenty percent to the left and guitar two thirty percent to the right, those guitars will become brighter and more audible and you’ll find yourself wanting to reduce the volume on those tracks. This is from the separation of sound and really isn’t a volume issue at all, although volume adjustments may eventually need made to help equalize the overall mix. So now the guitars are panned, but what about the drums, vocals, and bass guitar, which are still crammed together at the center position? This is a matter of personal taste, but ideally, you should try to separate everything at least a little bit. Drums will usually stay at dead-center, but many engineers pan the toms, starting with the highest tom at a left position and gradually moving to where the lowest tom is at a relatively opposite right position. The reason to go high to low, left to right is primarily to replicate the natural layout of the drum kit (with the highest tom being on the far left and moving down and to the right from there). This is more for dynamic effect than separation of sound though and can be applied or avoided based on your preference. Below is an example of how I might initially set up the positioning of each track. I would, of course, continue to tweak these settings for an optimal sound, but you have to start somewhere. And starting with everything centered is not the way to go. Guitar One: 30% Left Pan Guitar Two: 35% Right Pan Drums (except for toms and overheads): Center Drums – High Tom: 15% Left Pan Drums – Middle Tom: 5% Left Pan Drums – Low Tom: 12% Right Pan Drums – Overhead One: 10% Left Pan Drums – Overhead Two: 10% Right Pan Bass Guitar – Low: 3% Left Pan Bass Guitar – High: 3% Right Pan Lead Vocal: 1% Left Pan Before I go any further, let me explain why there are two bass tracks listed. Bass can be a difficult instrument to mix, as it will typically have abundant amounts of low end when the low strings are being played and abundant amounts of mids and highs when the higher strings are played. To get an ideal mix on the bass guitar, I prefer to duplicate the original track and EQ each track separately. The first track is tailored more to appeal to the low end aspect, taking out highs to smooth the sound when high strings are played. The second track does the opposite, allowing for more clarity and high end when the low strings are played. It’s still hard to balance and get exactly right. But play around with it and you’ll eventually find a setting that works. Really, you don’t even have to do this at all if you think you have a good sound on the bass with only a single track. However, not being a professional engineer, I find this the easiest way to manage the bass tones evenly and without regard to which strings are being played at any given time. I placed the guitars at the farthest outside points on the positioning spectrum because they can tend to interfere the most with other sounds and they also have the least need to be centered (as the vocals and drums should usually be the center focus of the mix). However, be careful not to place the guitars too far out on the spectrum as you will eventually push them into the rear speakers of a surround sound setup. With most systems and software, this rear push starts happening at fifty-one percent and higher. And when the guitars are more in the rear speakers than the front, they will not be as present in the overall mix using a non-surround playback setup. If you have a guitar solo, keep it on a separate track if possible and bring this track closer to the center, perhaps where the vocals would be. You will note that I did not use an exact opposite with the guitars (thirty percent in the left and thirty-five percent on the right). This again is a matter of personal taste, but I find that doing this adds to a somewhat natural feeling of the sound layout, without everything being an exact science. Let’s face it: when we setup on stage or in our practice space, although we may plan the best arrangement and layout for an optimal overall sound, there’s usually nothing “exact” about it. Next, the drums are centered except for the overheads and the toms. Again, note how the toms pan from high to low, left to right, but not using exact positioning. And if the kit you’re mixing has four toms, you will need to make adjustments to accommodate the extra tom. Hopefully, after reading this article, you’ll have a good handle on how to approach that. The overheads will mainly be catching the cymbals, which – like the guitars – can often be a major clashing factor. So pushing these out slightly helps to spread the sound amongst the mix and keeps them from being either too quiet or too loud. In the event that you only have one overhead mic, I would suggest pushing it slightly out in one direction or another. Just be sure not to have it resting at the exact same position as anything else. We’ve already touched upon the bass guitar in regards to the duplicate track. I placed the bass tracks just slightly outside of center because the tracks are identical and not a physically-recorded double. The idea is to make the listener think they are only hearing one track. And if you do everything right behind the scenes, this is relatively easy to accomplish. However, pushing the tracks too far away from each other starts to eliminate the chance of achieving this goal. Finally, the vocals are almost centered with the drums, but minimally pushed to one side. This, again, is simply to achieve sound separation. In the event that you have a single harmony part during the song, you can either overlap this at the same position, or move it to an exact opposite point. This is another matter of taste. If you have two or more harmony tracks, play around with spreading those out more to create a bigger space with the vocals and to keep them from colliding with each other too much. At this point, you should be hearing a noticeable separation of your tracks and you should find it much easier to get a better balance and volume with each track and the overall mix. You can adjust the EQ for each track as needed, but this should be minimal now that sound separation has occurred. It takes time to get used to hearing everything this way if you’ve never done it before. But I’m confident that you will find the mixing process easier and more enjoyable once you find your comfort zone with track positioning. And remember, everyone has their own tastes and preferences, so play around with the mix, take your time, and have fun with it. Eventually, it will be second nature to you when initially setting up your tracks to avoid the inevitable Clash of the Frequencies.