May EP Mixing Challenge
This is very new to me, so I try to write a little daily diary about my progress here. Hopefully, it will be somewhat entertaining, inspiring, and informative to people who are interested in the challenge. So, here we go! 31 days of May Mixing Challenge. (And I’m doing symphonic metal, geeze.)

Day 1 - Kicking Things (*my butt) in Motion

It’s the labor day here in Finland and while I’m not hung-over, I did get out of bed rather late. “How do you even start a massive project like this?” I hear my mind screaming like some sort of mocking cockatiel. It’s easy to not do anything (or start writing a diary or something). You can’t start something at full speed. You start slow, and gradually build up momentum. But how do you get started? Well, you make the thing so easy that you CAN’T NOT do it. I suppose, the first step is to just find the project files and see what’s happening with them. I can do that, right? Right? Easier said than done. The project I chose for this Mixing Challenge is from 2012. I’m pretty sure I used the same DAW as I do now, but that’s where the similarities end. I copy the whole project to a new folder, open it up on Reaper, and cross my shaky fingers. Huh, turns out, only about 10 or so plugins are missing. But it matters none, because I’ll be replacing everything with the plugins that I use now. No Independence Free drums! I’ve got Addictive Drums now. It’s the recorded takes and midi items that really matter. I can make them sound like anything I want. Well… not anything. But I recall the takes being pretty decent. Save for the acoustic guitar that had an excessive amount of hiss. Oh well. We’ll re-record it if I can’t live with it. Next, I want to copy all the four tracks into a single project, which makes processing them easier, because they’ll be using same settings. Again, easier said than done. I had only made orchestral tracks for the ones that I absolutely needed. I remember recording this stuff with a laptop that didn’t have the greatest components in it. That means, I saved performance in any way that I could. Now I don’t need to save performance, which means that I’ll be creating tons and tons of tracks for the orchestral instruments! Ooh! Remember to Save a LOT. And now, the whole thing starts falling apart. I realize that eight years ago, I wrote my drums down with Guitar Pro (which is a notation software of sorts) which worked at the time, but also made the drums sound really lifeless. Maybe I need to re-record these, as well. What a nightmare! Haha. Also, some of the orchestral instruments I was using, were the solo instrument versions. Which means that I need two different versions of some of them. That’s even more tracks. Yikes. I’ll throw everything together and see where that leaves me. Also, that’s quite a bit of text for one day. Hopefully the other entries will be shorter.

Day 2 - Everything Seems to Go to Eleven

I ended up spending five hours yesterday getting all the different instruments on their designated tracks. Turns out, I thought in 2012 that it would be a good idea to record all the strings on the same midi item. Now I’m not loving that idea so much. So, I separated 1st and 2nd violins, violas, and cellos to their own tracks. There was even a section with some double bass. Additionally, I went ahead and found six reference tracks. My own tracks are like 50% power metal and 50% more acoustic stuff. I found three references for each. Today’s agenda is gain staging and setting up the reverb. Well, I did setup an impulse response reverb yesterday, but the file I’m using was just the first one I stumbled upon. I need to fiddle with the sends to bring some elements in front and then test a few different files to see what type of effect I’m getting. I don’t think I’m going to use room reverb, since the orchestral samples don’t really benefit of it. At least, that’s my gut feeling. Maybe if you wanted to have that “played-in-a- small-room” vibe. Probably not for a full orchestra, eh? Also, gotta remember to turn off the reverb from Addictive Drums and my go-to cheapo orchstral library, Garritan. And! I have to EQ the reverb at some point, because otherwise it will clutter the whole song. The way I approach gain staging is that I use some plugin (like my trusty Pre X7). The plan was that I would try to set the gain so that each instruments’ VU meter hits the same spot in around -14dB. I thought this would leave me plenty of headroom and make it possible to balance everything nicely. As it turns out, after I did all that, my master bus was still clipping. What is a boy to do? I opened Blue Cat’s FreqAnalyst to see where all the energy was coming from and it was mostly the drums. As a result, I squished and crunched all the low frequency energy out of the snare, kick, room, and bus tracks. And also turned everything down an additional 5dB. This left me with -4.2 dB headroom. I can live with that. When I’m getting the same amount of energy in on each track, I then use the track’s volume slider to adjust them where ever they need to be at any given time during the track. Once the gain staging part is out of the way, I will be turning the master limiter on. A very divisive move, but I’ve noticed that it makes the whole sound more like the end result, which allows me to make more informed decisions based on what I’m hearing. I’m not going insane with it anyway. Just +6 or so dB on my Barricade Limiter. I also have to think about panning and if I want doubles of the guitars I currently have. It would be nice, but I haven’t touched my guitars in a while, which could spell trouble. And I don’t know if I want to start changing strings. We’ll see.

Day 3 - Limiter to the Max!

I decided to take some time off for myself, but I gotta keep working on the project, even if just tiny steps. If I don’t open up the project every day, I’ll start losing momentum. And that’s the kiss of death. Now that I’m working with the limiter, I can throw the VU Meter to the bin, because it’s constantly just showing -0.1dB. Oh well! Also, a slight miscalculation said that captain of the Titanic. I turned the limiter all the way up to +16dB. It allows me to compare my track more directly with the references. Drums are already sounding a lot weirder than without the limiter. Something to consider for future days. I need to pitch correct the vocals, because if I’m not a great singer right now, the situation definitely wasn’t better 8 years ago. With production, end result matters more than being able to perform the thing flawlessly. Another thing is that I’m noticing a lot of timing issues with the performances. In some cases it’s one midi note off by 1/32th. In some cases I’m playing the acoustic guitar just way off. Needs fiddlin’-und-noodlin’! I need to take one day and map out the pacing of the songs. That means deciding what is the highlighted instrument in each section of each song. I have to write down what I want the energy level to be from one minute to the next. And I need to decide what mood I’m trying to reinforce in each section. When I know that, I can make conscious decisions to achieve the mood more effectively. There are always a few boring things to be taken care of. Like sidechaining the bass and lower orchestral instruments. And compressing the bass for that matter. I can do them today. I also ended up doing some balancing and playing with the distortion for the guitars. Little touches all the way.

Day 4 - Oh Right! I Was Mixing an EP

Barely had time to open up the project. But I did it! That’s what matters. Only thing I did was pitch correct the vocals for the first song. It’s not a ton, but it’s something.

Day 5 - Make Two Guitars Out of One?

This project is starting to feel increasingly like a lost cause. On the bright side, I’m learning a lot! Such as don’t Melodyne your vocals until you’ve made sure that all takes have the appropriate gain level. I noticed after a couple of hours of pitch correcting that applying the compressor to the output proved somewhat challenging since some takes were dancing around -25dB while others raved at -5dB. What a nightmare! Ok, so the fix? It’s a really bad fix. I just threw a limiter on the vocals. I can hear you audibly rolling your eyes. I’m not going to start over. We’re on a clock here, people! I ended up doubling the guitars in a really silly way. I only had one rhythm guitar track recorded. So, if I had a 4-bar riff, I took the first two bars and used them as bars 3-4 on the second track, and used the last two bars as bars 1-2 on the second track. It sort of worked. Where I didn’t have enough repetition, I merely copied the played part and moved it around a few milliseconds. Is it pretty? Nooo! Does it work? Absolutely. I really might have to record the acoustic guitar again. Damn.

Day 6

I caved in and decided to do the acoustic guitars over. The sound of the old ones was so bad that I couldn’t squeeze anything out of them, like a watermelon that’s been on the desert for a month in the scorching sun and then smashed with a shovel. I haven’t played much anything with guitar in years, so it was an interesting experience. But I just want something usable down. It’s already day 6, which means I’d better have all the takes in order very soon. Speaking of takes, a few spots in the vocals have been bothering me. I realized, I pronounce the word ‘iron’ wrong in two places, because in Finnish, the ‘r’ behaves very differently. Additionally, there is one very awkward spot with an acrobatic jump up with the vocals. I don’t like it. I don’t think I ever liked it. I’ll record the spot straight and in the same octave. It’s less exciting, but at least it will sound pleasant. By the way, my office chair is the noisiest thing I’ve ever experienced. Shift slightly and there’s creeking, banging, clunking, and rattling. For recording, give me a sturdy old wooden chair.

Day 7

Almost gotta post the first version of the songs. But before that, I’ll be mapping out things and perhaps trying to balance the volume of things ever so slightly with automation. Why mapping? Well, I need to keep track of how each section of the song is going to be perceived. What is the energy level? How does it impact the pacing? What instrument is highlighted? Is there enough support for the desired feeling? Additionally, I’ll be writing down stuff that needs to be fixed.

Day 8

I sent the first version of the songs for others to listen to. Plenty of the instruments were either too loud or too quiet, and I forgot to unmute the VOX track. Oh well! Next version will be a lot better. Today’s agenda was to filter tracks and create a bunch of room for everything to maneuver. I started cutting all high frequency information from guitars and bass. Everything received a lowpass filter at 12kHz. Some instruments, like the bass and the rhythm guitars, I cut all the way from 8k. And poor piano, that only plays a small part in one of the songs, didn’t change at all, when I dialed the lowpass all the way to 3.5k. I also made similar adjustments with highpass filters. I’ve got a bass guitar and cello that mostly take care of the low frequencies. Everything else can chill in the mids. Finally, I decided to play around with the guitar tone a bit. The takes were hissy, for whatever reason. I don’t know what I had messed up 8 years ago. But whatever, they’re not awful. Just bad. I can live with that. I started to make whatever changes I could to try to minimize the amount of hiss in the tracks. Some worked, some not so much. I ended up throwing a multiband compressor on the lead guitar, so I could crank up the mids in a controlled manner. Initially, I had a compressor pedal in AmpliTube 4 turned all the way up, but it just increased everything in a very unpleasant manner and hypercharged the hiss. The multiband after the amp model was a lot nicer solution.

Day 9

At this point, things are starting to boil down to “fix x, fix y”. I wanted to minimize the breathiness of the vocals a bit and also scratch the whole limiter idea. Instead, I automated an EQ with -30dB output gain to really control the different volume levels, with the option of leaving the actual volume slider empty so I can make some more musical changes with that one. Other than that, comparing my tracks to the references, I’m just hearing a lot less bass and a lot more harsh mid tones. Might have to start listening these through, finally.

Day 10

Today, I had a lot of other things on my plate, which means that I could barely open up the project. But I did it! What did I do? I mapped out the rest of the project on paper and planned some strategies to make the whole thing more dramatic in pacing. Not much, but it’s something. Important!

Day 11

Today was a whirlwind of mixing random things. It started with figuring out a space for all the instruments in the mix. And after that, I worked on pieces of the whole. The guitar tones needed to change. Things needed more balance. This and that was too loud. Sections didn’t have enough right things in the right frequencies. I spent three hours mixing, but the story isn’t very interesting. A lot of minute changes. Oh! I did figure out how to optimize the playback a bit by changing the buffering settings on Reaper to suit my 12-core-processor. Nice!

Day 12

I’m liking how the daily entries now resemble more what I originally intended. Quick, little blurps. Today, I did some changes to the kick, the bass, and the guitars. Balancing the whole package to sound more punchy and closer to the reference tracks. I also panned the orchestra, finally. I don’t know if it’ll be better, but it’s most definitely different. Huge difference in sound! I’m committing to it and crossing my fingers.

Day 13

More balancing things today. Unfortunately, the strings seem to be really tough to throw together. I might have to spend tomorrow just concentrating on them. What a mess!

Day 14

Today’s efforts made everything better overall. Some days are just worse than others. I managed to get a ton of mud, boominess, and boxiness out of the whole mix. The three big ones. There’s still a bunch, but it’s a lot better. Just gotta watch out to not go too thin, but that’s what the references are for. I also made the kick drum a whole bunch boomier. If you gotta have boom, it better be the kick.