Mixing music with few instruments-does your approach change?

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wren
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Mixing music with few instruments-does your approach change?

Post by wren » Sat Aug 14, 2010 1:27 pm

This isn't really a technical question, I don't think, it's more of a philosophical/idealogical question.
I'm in the middle of helping a friend out with a project (it's folky stuff: mostly acoustic guitar and voice with some other instruments thrown in occasionally), and I'm in the middle of mixing a few songs now. I'm finding it sort of interestingly difficult, just because it seems like making just a voice and an acoustic guitar sound "good" as a mix is so much more subjective than making a full-band mix sound "good". I'm curious as to how other people approach this: when you don't have a ton of instruments fighting for frequency space, and you aren't needing to cram a bunch of elements on top of/around each other, how does your approach to a mix change? Does it? And how does your definition of a "good" mix change? Does it?

For me, I still do what I always do: I listen to the song with relatively balanced levels and decide how I want it to sound, make sure that image is clear in my head, and then try to make it happen. From there, though, it seems like it's entirely different, for some reason, even though all I'm doing is the same corrective EQ, dynamics control (for timbre or dynamics or both), etc. that I'd be using on a full-band mix, but for some reason it just doesn't *feel* the same and I'm trying to figure out why.
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Post by lionaudio » Sat Aug 14, 2010 3:30 pm

When there are relatively few instruments I tend to still try to cover alot of the frequency spectrum. Where I would normally high pass acoustic guitar in a dense mix, I will try to focus more on the guitar being big and wide. With fewer instruments it's alot easier to let each instrument be itself rather than trying to shave off parts of it's sound in order to give everything else room. I do alot of heavier music, so to me a lower track count is anywhere between 4 and 16. Even a simple three piece rock band or a country band feels like I have alot more room when compared to a metal band with mics on every piece of the drumset, 3 layers of guitars not counting solos, a redundant bass guitar track and tons of vocals. But with fewer instruments I do tend to throw tons of mics on one source and track them all so I have alot of options when Im mixing. Not going to use all 8 mics on the acoustic guitar, but I want to have alot of choices when doing minimalist music. I also use compression very sparingly when Im doing just a few instruments in a song.

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Post by thethingwiththestuff » Sat Aug 14, 2010 11:05 pm

lionaudio wrote:When there are relatively few instruments I tend to still try to cover alot of the frequency spectrum. Where I would normally high pass acoustic guitar in a dense mix, I will try to focus more on the guitar being big and wide. With fewer instruments it's alot easier to let each instrument be itself rather than trying to shave off parts of it's sound in order to give everything else room. I do alot of heavier music, so to me a lower track count is anywhere between 4 and 16. Even a simple three piece rock band or a country band feels like I have alot more room when compared to a metal band with mics on every piece of the drumset, 3 layers of guitars not counting solos, a redundant bass guitar track and tons of vocals. But with fewer instruments I do tend to throw tons of mics on one source and track them all so I have alot of options when Im mixing. Not going to use all 8 mics on the acoustic guitar, but I want to have alot of choices when doing minimalist music. I also use compression very sparingly when Im doing just a few instruments in a song.
yeah, what he said! the fewer instruments, the more room/reverb, and detail and nuance can be allowed to push to the fore instead of making sacrifices in the name of a large arrangement.

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Post by MoreSpaceEcho » Sat Aug 14, 2010 11:30 pm

yeah, lion pretty much said it perfect.

i used to use complicated arrangements to cover up not-so-great sounds.

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Post by kinger » Sun Aug 15, 2010 3:24 am

What they all said. The more sparse the mix, the more bandwidth I tend to let each instrument, reverb and delay have. I'll often keep the panning narrower as well so things don't sound so disparate.

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Post by bestmixerever » Sun Aug 15, 2010 3:56 pm

Aside from the obvious (getting everything to sound good) the approach I take is to create the most appropriate space for the song, letting the lyrics guide the way. I always ask the artist to whom is the song written and how is the story being told. First person? Third person? If it's a sad , lonely song, I tend towards a bigger/longer reverb. First person? I like to keep the vocals bone dry and depending on the lyrics, sometimes a fairly large/long space on the instruments. I like to crate a space that best represents the song itself.
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Post by vvv » Sun Aug 15, 2010 4:16 pm

Ya could say, inna sparse, mix, there's more space for the individual instruments.

Well, ya could. :twisted:
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Post by cgarges » Sun Aug 15, 2010 6:42 pm

I'll go against the grain and say that sometimes an effective mix with fewer instruments calls for an even smaller sound. Not always, and even not usually so, but sometimes, making a smaller sound via filtering and or less reverb or whatever can make a small collection of instruments even more intimate. I guess the intent of the song and the performance and of course, what the artist wants is what usually dictates that choice for me.

But I definitely find that unless there are problems, fewer instruments in an arrangement leads to an easier mix.

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Post by drumsound » Sat Aug 21, 2010 12:47 am

I do my very best to listen to what the song, performance and recording are telling me, and I do my best to make that happen. Track/instrument number is irrelevant.

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Post by BradG » Sat Aug 21, 2010 5:39 am

Regarding Lion's advice on lots of mics. If you're going to go this route, be sure that you take a LOT of time placing one good mic (like an 87). While I love options too, and have used this approach, I nearly always end up using that one good mic pretty much solo. You've got to watch out for phasing, big time, once you start using a lot of mics on a simple source.

What I'll do now is have my "extra" mics be way different from my main one, so that if I use them, it's for very obvious reasons. A favorite technique is that 87 backed up with a stereo boombox. Those crappy little mics with their built in limiter can give some awesome crunch.

I've also gone to extremes when mixing. I've done the super-clean, expansive, hi-fi, ambient mix but I also did a very effective mix of a vocal/acoustic guitar where I just crushed the crap out of everything with a super-tite ambience. Not lo-fi necessarily, but very, very in-your-face. Regardless, I find that everything panned dead center (at least for guitar/vocal) works best.

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Post by Sean Sullivan » Sat Aug 21, 2010 7:47 am

Working with bluegrass, there's usually only 4 or 5 instrument tracks and 1 to 3 vocal tracks, so we're talking 5 - 8 tracks total (or 11 - 14, if you double-mic'd everything). I find this leaves more room for the instruments in the mix. I've recorded $150,000 mandolins, and you aren't going to want that sound filtered out or change it much.

So, my advise is try to make it sound as "natural" as you can, like he's standing in front of you singing.
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Post by thethingwiththestuff » Sat Aug 21, 2010 9:45 am

Sean Sullivan wrote:$150,000 mandolins
:shock:

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Post by lionaudio » Sat Aug 21, 2010 10:13 am

whoever payed $150k for a mandolin, please tell them that I have a nice timeshare in the Gulf that I would be willing to let go of for say, $150k... for that much money, my mandolin better be in it's early 20's, double jointed and have no gag reflex

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Post by thethingwiththestuff » Sat Aug 21, 2010 10:15 am

lionaudio wrote:for that much money, my mandolin better be in it's early 20's, double jointed and have no gag reflex
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

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Post by Sean Sullivan » Sat Aug 21, 2010 3:18 pm

lionaudio wrote:whoever payed $150k for a mandolin, please tell them that I have a nice timeshare in the Gulf that I would be willing to let go of for say, $150k... for that much money, my mandolin better be in it's early 20's, double jointed and have no gag reflex
Haha. To be honest, $150,000 is pretty low for a Gibson Lloyd Loar mandolin. One in excellent condition could range anywhere form $200,000 - $250,000.

But, think for a minute if you were Ricky Skaggs or Ronnie McCoury and you're entire life you've been playing mandolin and it's how you make a living...there are plenty of individuals who spend more than that on a business. For musicians like that, their mandolin is their business and source of income.
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