"Help! My mix sounds like crap."


A singer/songwriter friend emailed me that message and attached an mp3 of a mix he made with GarageBand. I gave it a listen.


Sure enough, the vocals were harsh and thin, squashed, noisy, and swamped in reverb. The overall mix was mostly mono and distant, rather than present. I asked the singer to bring his laptop over to my studio where we could work on the mix.


What We Did…

First, I soloed the vocal/guitar track to better hear what was happening there. When diagnosing audio problems, soloing tracks can make things simpler by letting you focus on one thing at a time.


As I said before, the vocal/guitar track was drowning in reverb. A common flaw of beginners’ recordings is too much effects. Effects seem exciting at first and are easy to add. But if you listen to good commercial mixes, most use effects sparingly. There are exceptions but even those are done with some taste. You don’t want the effects to take attention away from the song!


When I selected the vocal/guitar track in GarageBand, up popped a window showing the effects that had been applied. I turned off EQ, compression and reverb to see what the raw track sounded like. Right away it sounded more natural, like a human being. Most of the noise went away. That’s because compression can increase background noise by bringing up the gain during quiet passages. By removing the compression we took out a lot of noise, too.


Listening to the raw track, I could hear the acoustics of the room where the vocal was recorded. It sounded like a small, fairly live room, and my friend said that he had recorded in his apartment’s living room. Small-room acoustics often sound bad in a recording, and it’s almost impossible to remove them once they are recorded. Sometimes, though, you can cover them up with reverb. We added a little and that helped.


I suggested that the next time he recorded a song, he sing 6 inches from the mic instead of 12 inches. Cutting the miking distance in half makes the sound 6 dB louder at the mic. So it reduces the relative background noise and room acoustics by 6 dB in the recording. Another way to tame room acoustics is to put some sound absorbent material on the walls, or hang comforters and sleeping bags on mic-stand booms behind the singer (in front of the mic).


Better yet, buy a good large-diaphragm condenser cardioid mic (about $100 and up). Plug it into an audio interface, which has one or more XLR mic inputs with phantom power and a FireWire, USB or PCI connection to the computer. The sound will be much better than you can get with a cheap built-in mic and a sound card. FireWire and USB interfaces are easy to plug into a laptop.


Some interface manufacturers include Digidesign, Metric Halo, MOTU, PreSonus, Apogee, Focusrite, M-Audio, TC Electronic, Mackie, E-MU, Alesis, Edirol, TASCAM, Lexicon, and many others. Typical prices are $200 to $2495. 


Back to the mix. The vocal and guitar sounded thin (bass-shy), so I selected the Bass Boost preset in GarageBand’s EQ section. That warmed up the track and made it sound more like the singer’s voice.


The rest of the tracks were MIDI synths playing bass and orchestral strings. The strings were panned only slightly left and right, giving a mono effect. We panned them more to each side and enjoyed the bigger sense of space that resulted.


GarageBand lets you set up a volume envelope next to each track where you can draw a graph of the track’s volume over time. We fine tuned these envelopes, turning down the volume in each track where nothing was playing at the moment. That reduces noise.


All’s Well That Ends Well

When we were finished, my friend was happy and went home with a better mix. I was surprised how good a recording can be made with a computer mic and free software. Here’s a summary of what we learned:


First, do no harm. Start with no effects and see how little you can get away with.

Start at the source. Use a good mic and audio interface.

Sing or play close enough to the mic to override background noise and room acoustics.

Consider adding some sound treatment to your recording room to suck up excess reverb.

Turn off appliances and air conditioning while recording.

Don’t use two identical tracks to create stereo, or to add more volume. It’s unnecessary.

Use EQ to make recorded tracks sound more like real people and instruments.

Create some stereo with panning.

Use volume envelopes to reduce noise as well as to adjust volume.


Originally posted 2009-01-15 02:49:09.