While casual listening to music has become more of an “on the go” event instead of sitting down and listening to a CD or even a vinyl recording, the nuances that make a great audio mix have turned a corner. Recording, mixing and mastering processes continue to evolve as always, but do the fine points of audio mixing still matter today?
I asked seasoned recording engineer, Bob Bullock what his thoughts are. Bob’s experiences and credits range from Steely Dan to Shania Twain (working with Mutt Lange) to George Strait. In addition to his ongoing recording and mixing work, he also now teaches audio production at Troy University.
Randy Hart – A good mix refines a piece of music. For television audio, do those nuances that are added in this process translate at all when listening on digital devices or only to larger sound delivery systems?
Bob Bullock – I don’t know that what I do necessarily translates to smaller sound. I’m not that concerned with how it may translate, but I check it. I primarily mix for a full range system and then check smaller portable systems to see if something just jumps out (like a percussion part) which may need to come down a bit. I may compromise a bit on some balances. When James Cameron did “Avatar,” that brought 3D to a new level. When I’m mixing a project, I’m thinking it’s up to those of us putting out the product to help set a similar bar and establish what we’re putting out as hi fidelity.
RH – Speaking as a teacher of audio engineering, your students’ experience is only from a digital world. What principles translate from recording and mixing analog to doing that in a DAW environment?
BB – It’s morphing into something different now. The analog background, from what I learned, has been a real asset to me working mostly with live performance music (live strings, live drums, real piano, guitars. etc.). For a young composer doing all electronic music, it may not be as significant to have a lot of background in mic placement, etc. A lot of young composers probably couldn’t record a live drum set, but they don’t need to given what’s commonly available to them. It just depends on what they want to do.
RH – To what would you attribute the current trend of “bricking” that squashes the audio and makes it seem like it’s louder?
BB – I think there’s always been a perception that louder is better, so as we evolve with technology, a lot of people are putting out product with the idea that if their music is louder, it will be more easily noticed. The sacrifice is a total disregard for dynamic range and musical quality. It’s like a double edged sword – you’re making it louder so it will pop out, but you’re sacrificing the integrity of the music. The level of a CD today is about 20 db louder than CD levels of about 1983 when they first came on the market. Originally, CDs were made to emulate the analog record, and those squashed dynamics account for this increase.
RH – Your background goes back to the days of analog tape, mic placement and performance. Do the “plug ins” available now accurately emulate the original outboard equipment?
BB – It’s close, and there are variables, but there are variables with original tube gear as well (age of tubes, etc.). It just becomes more choices; one doesn’t necessarily replace the other. It’s just more choices.
RH – Why does a mixing environment such as your studio that has been “tuned” make a difference to the end product?
BB – I feel for the final mixdown it’s necessary to have a reference of what I consider to be accurate. For my studio, which has been “tuned” or adjusted to accompany the speakers, I’ve established a basis as a true or flat mixing environment. The recording process establishes the content, the ingredients of the music. But the mixing process establishes the fidelity and definition of hi-fi. That’s why it’s important to me that an accurate mixing environment establishes ground zero, the best point of reference from which to work.
I’ll continue to believe that quality has its place and wins. It’s better than not having it. Though it is true that many listeners wouldn’t hear the difference of some of the issues mentioned here, the expertise of a good mix engineer leaves as indelible a mark on a finished piece of music, as does the content itself. So my vote is yes, let’s keep the “Hi” next to the “Fi”.
– Randy Hart, CSD for Aircast Custom Music