Monitoring and the Importance of Referencing

We are all very well aware of how time flies when the creative juices are flowing. This is just as prevalent in mixing as any other aspect of the music making world. I am sure many people reading this are having flashbacks of 12 hour mixing days where you may have looked away from the computer only when realizing your bladder is about to burst and your stomach is rumbling louder than the speakers. It is all well and good to spend such time when mixing, but if this is all you are listening too for such lengthy periods of time, you will begin to lose ‘reference’.

What is reference?

Though no two mixes are the same and peoples tastes and styles will heavily influence this, universally speaking a ‘good mix’ is always still a ‘good mix’ and a bad mix is bad. Plain and simple. How many times have you finished up a mix at some ridiculous hour to come back the next day and instantly turn down the vocal 3db or realize that your mix is insanely bright and needs to be pulled back? This is because for such a long uninterrupted period of time this is all you have heard. You have lost touch with what sounds good and the basic standards of a good mix.

Now before I continue I must address, for experienced mixing engineers reading this who have mixed track after track and have been in the game a fair while, this may not apply. After many years in the industry their ears are trained to understand and hear the standard and as a result, the above scenarios may happen far less or not at all.

However, I have witnessed first hand from some of the most experienced engineers in the game, still do exactly what I am about to discuss. So for you who are newer to the mixing world, keep reading on. So how do we combat losing track of what does and doesn’t sound good? It is very simple. Import a particular mix into the session you are mixing so that at any time you can listen to the track and see where yours stands. Does the vocal sit in a similar spot? Is your mix thinner or has more bass? Does the snare and kick sit in a similar position? By listening as you go and asking these questions as you mix, you can be guided to a really good standard mix.

Side note: Do not stress if the volume is significantly different, most likely the track you are referencing is mastered by a professional. I personally like to turn down my reference track a few dB so that the volumes are similar as I like to leave some head room in my mixes.

Now obviously, you will not import a Green Day track into a country song you are mixing, or a Taylor swift song for a thrash metal band. Ask your client what particular sound they are aiming for with their own references and add some of your own that you love the production and mix of. You may not even overly like the song, but you appreciate just how good of a mix it is. As you let this guide your mix into ‘good territory’ you will naturally begin to put your own taste and style into the mix and it will become your sound with reference to ‘X’.

What other advantages does referencing a track have?

Scenario: You are a young up and coming engineer that is used to mixing in your 4x4m bedroom through 5″ KRK monitors with little to no proper sound proofing. But, you have pulled some decent enough mixes as you have become used to the room nodes and standing waves. But did you ever put the mix on in your car and get a severe shock? (reference!).

Now you have worked with a band that want to pay a little more money and get you to mix their track in a professional studio through 8″ Genelecs with a sub and a pair of NS10s to reference. You have never been in this room. You have never heard tracks through these speakers. You may worry that you will walk out of the studio, put your mix on the car on the way home and pray that it translates okay. Bring some reference tracks with you, import them into the session and press play and just sit and listen. You don’t have to sit there and try calculate any annoying frequencies. Simply sit their and get your ears and brain accustomed to this new environment and know what good tracks sound like in this room.

Referencing a track does not always mean with another track however. Another very important form of referencing is when you take your mix and play it back through other speakers, headphones etc. As just discussed, listening in the car is a very popular and great way to hear your mix as it is a place you will have heard many songs and great mixes before. I also love to have headphones close by to listen with as I go.

Now I’d like to move on to one other smaller topic I have found really interesting working around a lot of mixing engineers. It is different ways to monitor as you mix. From working in a studio I have become to see a familiar trend with the more experienced and respected mixing engineers in how they monitor during mixing. As a general guide, you want to mix at a comfortable enough level. Loud enough that the bass can be pushed from the speaker cone, but not too loud that everything immediately sounds great and excited as you may fool yourself into a “pumping” mix. I would say as a rough guide, a level that you could slightly raise your voice over to be heard. It is then fine to have stints of listening louder as you try and ‘sweep and cut’ annoying frequencies or find resonances etc.

Listening louder also has a great advantage. Though I wouldn’t recommend a 5 hour stint listening loud (your ears and brain will tire quicker), as a great engineer and producer has taught me, you need to be able to listen to the mix loud and it doesn’t hurt. Our ears are very sensitive to frequencies around the 1kHz – 4kHz mark and it is usually in this area you may find some problems with things sticking out. Do you immediately want to turn down that female vocal, or those strumming guitars or cymbals? If you do, find what is bothering you and turn it back a touch and make sure you can here the mix at a loud level comfortably.

The opposite to this is also to listen very quietly. When I first started mixing I came across a few engineers discussing that listening very quietly for some passes has its advantages also. Does the vocal still sit ok with the track when quiet? Can you still hear the snare keeping it together? There are a variety of things to listen out for but it is good to do so.

One last way I like to listen is to crank the mix again and leave the room. Again just too hear if anything sounds odd or sticks out. You will be amazed to find what you might discover. When your mix sounds balanced and the way you have intended in all these different listening environments and listening levels, then it is safe to say you have achieved a ‘good mix’. I’d like to stress however, these are guidelines to use.

A ‘good mix’ is a loose term that I have used. Great mixes however, are created through having well engineered and produced sessions for a start, but also through hours of trying different sounds, fx, automation and other ideas. Hope this has helped you somewhat as I know it helped me a lot when I was exposed to it all!

Three Effective Ways to Use Delay in your Mix

In basic terms, delay is an echo or series of echoes. Using delay in your mix is a very powerful tool that can achieve more than just making something sound like it’s in the Grand Canyon. Effective use of delays and understanding what you can achieve by using it is a skill that can very quickly take your mixes to a much more professional level.

Below I have detailed 3 very helpful ways in which delays can be utilized to enhance your mixes and achieve certain sonic goals! Again, as mentioned in my earlier blogs there are no rules. I have given certain guidelines that can be used but it is always best to experiment and hear things for you.

1. Utilizing Slap Delay

What exactly is slap delay? Slap delay can be described as a quick reflective echo if you will. Slap delay can be used for all types of very important and useful purposes and I have found it very helpful.

On a vocal – One of the most common uses for slap delay is on a lead vocal to bring it forward in the mix. Not only does using slap delay on a vocal bring it forward in the mix, but also it can give the effect that the vocal is actually double tracked. This can be handy for a vocal that may need a bit more energy, presence or strength. By bringing your vocal forward in the mix, you are beginning to achieve a greater depth behind it in the mix. By using a stereo slap delay you are now also creating a certain amount of width also. These are two very important aspects of a great mix: width and depth.

On Guitars – One technique I particular love using is slap delays on hard panned guitars. Lets say for example you have a guitar panned hard left in your mix. Using an aux bus send, send your guitar track to a slap delay panned hard in the opposite direction, which in this case would be hard right. You now have the same guitar track being played through the right speaker at a certain time behind the left.

Now a few important points:

  • Do not make the slap delay as loud as the original track
  • Use a Low Pass filter to take out the top end, this helps make the delay sound more realistic
  • KEEP THE SLAP DELAY VERY SHORT! If it’s to long it can become quite confusing to the listener. Unless you are going for something f**k** up, I personally find <80ms ideal.

The result: By doing this you are helping fill out your mix and placing the listener in a space. Short delays are a very important way in which our ears and brain can decipher what type of surrounding we are in. I guarantee if you were blindfolded and placed in a tiled bathroom and shouted, you could pick out the type of space you were in.

Using this on rock guitar tracks can help thicken out your mix and using this on any other type of guitar can help panned guitars not seem to lob sided on the ear and will add width and depth again to your mix!

When a guitar is panned in the centre, for example an acoustic guitar, sending the track to a stereo slap delay also helps fill out and widen the mix. Again, this helps the acoustic guitar feel like its being played in a certain space. Try playing with the timing of the delay on each side and the LPF cutoffs as it doesn’t have to be identical on each side!

2. Send Delays Into Reverbs

This can be a really cool subtle technique to use in your mix. It can be used on virtually anything. Vocals in particular are where I will mainly use it, but it can work with any other instrumentation also. For the purpose of making this easy to understand however, I will use a vocal.

Lets say you have a lead vocal track being sent to a plate reverb, a slap delay and a longer delay via auxiliary bus sends. Send your long delay back into your vocal plate reverb bus via another send.

This can create a great level of depth and can really fill out your mix. It can also allow the vocal to sit better in the mix.

3. Create multiple different sounding delays via parameters.

This technique follows on very well from the last technique in the sense that the effective use of delays can really alter the depth, width and fullness of your mix whilst also helping certain tracks ‘sit right’ in your mix.

There are many parameters that can change the effect and sound of your delay. Mainly I find I am always reaching to play around with the timing of the delay (1/4, 1/8, etc.), feedback (how many echoes) width, the accent of the delay (how aggressive is the accent of the delay) and the filters.

Now I could write a whole article on each of these parameters and cool sounds you can achieve, but there are no set guidelines at all for these parameters as it really depends on the context of the mix. Play around with these parameters and hear it for yourself!

What I want to discuss however is how to use these parameters to create different types of delays and how combining these different types can create some really special sounds and fx in your mix.

**Note not all delay plug ins or units have an accent parameter. However Soundtoys’ ‘Echo Boy’, arguably the leading delay plug in does.

Again a vocal is where I most commonly combine delays on the same track so I will use this for an example.

For my vocal track I will almost always have a send to a slap delay, at least one reverb and then one type of longer delay (and sending this back into the reverb on occasions!) However I will often combine maybe two types of delays and play around with the above-mentioned parameters.

Why combine different delays?

Personally I will use it for two reasons. The first reason is that my vocal is just not really sitting in well with the mix. If I am mixing a big pop track or synth heavy track where everything is quite reverberant and atmospheric (there is that word again), then sometimes it can be quite hard to get the vocal to really sit well with the track. It may sound to dry, or simply like it just does not belong with the rest of the track.

The second reason I will use it is to actually fill out my mix. Like in the second tip where I discussed sending my delays back into a reverb, it can really help fill out your mix and create a great sense of depth and space.

I personally like to combine different timed delays. I then play with the accent, cutoffs and feedback of each to create a certain effect or space. For example on my ¼ delay, I may have a very aggressive accent where the delay is very prominent, with little to no filter cut offs and only a fairly low feedback.

I may then combine this delay with an 1/8th delay with a very soft accent with a lot of the high frequencies cut off and a long feedback. This type of delay will begin to sound more like that of a long reverb than a delay possibly.

The combination of these two delays can do wonders in how your vocal may sit in your mix. Even if it is very subtle it can do amazing things to the overall sound of the mix also. In pop music in particular this is incredibly useful.

**Note** Sometimes using the delay plug ins High Pass Filter just a little bit can ensure your mix does not become ‘muddy’ all of the sudden.

Why stop there? Certain delay plug ins again like Echo Boy have width as an option. If not, simply place a stereo imaging plug in after the delay plug in you have selected and widen it. This can again create a great effect on your overall mix and really widen out the tails of the vocal lines creating some cool fx and ambience.

Delay is a very powerful tool that can completely transform your mix. However it is something that really needs to be experimented and played with and is completely subjective to each mix. There are never rules in audio, however there are always guidelines to help those that are new. With delay however more than a lot of other aspects of mixing, it really takes a lot of experimenting on your own behalf to understand the above techniques and tips.

I hope you have found this useful and insightful!