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What is a Mixing Engineer? – Balancing Audio!

Have you ever wondered what makes your favourite music so appealing? Well yes, on one hand, the artists themselves make the music sound great. But there is actually more than meets the eye (or ears, for that matter). If you are keen on educating yourself about music production, then ask yourself this – What is a Mixing Engineer?

In my opinion, this is one of the most mentally taxing jobs in the audio industry. It is one thing being able to compose and write great music, but to balance all the audio elements in the music itself, requires another form of skill. Hence, in today’s article, we will learn more about the various aspects of this vital job. Let us begin learning!

Balancing Audio? Is There Such a Thing?

The person responsible for combining (mixing) the various sound elements found in any audio content (music, speech, effects etc.), is called a mixing engineer. The finished product of the mix is often called “final mix”. Mixing engineers aim to achieve a good balance of volume for all audio elements, and also considers other factors such as pan positioning and effects.

Roger Nichols

Audio engineer Roger Nichols working in the recording studio

Typically, professional engineers have been in the industry for many years, which allowed them to master their craft. They can be considered to be like scientists, who are skilled at evaluating the harmonic structure of sound in order to shape the timbre of various musical elements. Do take note that many artists now mix and produce their own music with a digital audio workstation (DAW).

Technically speaking, a mixing engineer is an audio engineer involved in sound recording, audio editing and sound systems, who has the task of balancing the relative volume and frequency content of multiple sound sources. Typically, these sound sources are the different musical instruments or vocalists in a band, the sections of an orchestra and so on.

Here are the topics that we’ll be discussing further:

  • Job qualifications
  • Working principles
  • Mixing process
  • Equipment

Job Qualifications

Some mixing engineers have formal music education or a degree in audio engineering. A degree in music may help to strengthen an engineer’s credentials, however, audio engineers are generally valued based on their practical experience in handling audio equipment. They need to have a pair of “seasoned ears”, which comes from years of acutely observing various sounds, frequencies, and variations of effects and filters, via “trial and error”.

Blink 182

Audio engineer Jeff Forrest, well known for engineering Blink 182’s first album / Photo by Kerry Key / CC BY-SA 2.0

Working Principles

Most of the time, mixing engineers use their intuition (which comes from years of experience) when mixing any audio content. However, in general, there are still various fundamental procedures that are adhered to:

  • Considering and assessing the client’s (artist) “style” or musical preference.
  • Identifying the more important audio elements (may be a combination of tracks) to emphasize
  • Choosing the right techniques to emphasize the tracks, or to de-emphasize other tracks
  • Fine-tuning the final mix

Mixing Process

Mixing engineers often come in after the artists or session musicians are done recording. They work with the recorded tracks in order to balance the relative impact of each audio element, processing them with various effects and filters. In this section, we will touch on the basic processes in audio mixing.

Equalization

An audio equalizer is often used to alter the intensity of each audio frequency (equalization). It functions by “boosting” or “cutting” specific frequency ranges within the track. This will give the sound elements “space” within the human audible frequency range of 20-20,000 Hz, especially between 400–8000 Hz, which is the most sensitive range of human hearing.

Graphic Equalizer

A typical graphic equalizer used by mixing engineers / Photo by Touho_T / CC BY 2.0

Working with frequencies from 250–800 Hz is often vital, as this is where interference and construction between voices usually happens and may create an unwanted effect, called “mud”. Cutting frequencies in this range can help make vocal recordings sound brighter. On the other hand, boosting frequencies below this range, can give voices more fullness, or depth to them.

It is also important to take note that by boosting any frequencies above this range, you can give voices more presence or “shine”, but only if they do not interfere with another voice’s more prominent higher harmonics.

Dynamic Range Compression

An audio compressor is used to reduce the range between a signal’s lowest low and highest high (compression). The “threshold” parameter controls how much of the top is cut off. By attenuating the “attack” and “release” settings, and choosing the right “ratio”, you can give a track more presence, but compressing it too much may destroy an otherwise pleasing track.

Dynamic Range Compressor

A typical audio compressor used by audio engineers / Photo by Andyzweb / CC BY-SA 3.0

You can also set the compression “trigger” to another audio source (called “side-chaining”), which can produce higher levels of compression, and even hard clipping to a very small degree. However, this technique is often used in more progressive music, as the effect is very artificial sounding and is really only good for one kind of pumping, syncopated sound.

Panning 

This is often done to create the space for any voices or instruments within the stereo sound field. You can often find the “PAN” parameter on any mixing console or audio editing software. Adjusting this parameter will change the relative gain of each audio track in the stereo mix, which helps to create sonic space in a mix. This also produces a more “realistic” listening experience.

Equipment

Here are some of the equipment that mixing engineers typically use:

This is all I have for you folks for now. I hope that this article has given you a good overview on the work of a mixing engineer. So, do you now aspire to become one yourself?

Do leave comments or questions below, and share this article with your friends!

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Farhan

When I'm not rocking out to great music, I'd prefer to be sleeping on a field on a windy day =)

6 Comments

  1. It is obvious you are passionate about music (and sound for that matter). I spent many years working in motion pictures and the audio is just as important as the video – actually, that opinion is debatable depending on who you are speaking with. Mixing Engineers are very skilled, and you touched on everything very nicely. When it comes to working on musical pieces, I would think it is important for the artists to be directly involved with the Mixing Engineer(s)…is that the case typically? If so, what freedom do the artists usually give…and, what are they more reserved about?

    Thank you for the great article…it is very informative.

    • Hi Paul!

      Mixing engineers are given a certain level of freedom depending on the situation. I’ve seen very experienced engineers given full authority of the mix, with the artist or producer only giving their input every now and then. Sometimes, the producer of the album will be there directing the mixing engineer, and carefully guiding the engineer throughout the whole process.

      Generally, engineers who are highly acclaimed with excellent credentials, will be given much more freedom and control over the mix. Producers may also be mix engineers themselves, if they have the relevant qualifications. Nowadays, even small-time artists are learning to record and mix their own compositions.

      Hope that helps. Thanks for your thoughts!

  2. I make music using Propellerhead Reason, and that has a pretty comprehensive mixing console built right into it, although it is virtual. I think I have become better at mixing over the years, but I am probably still not quite as good as a professional. Never mind, I do it for fun anyway. But EQ is something I have started to make more use of, as well as compression. Another thing I have learned to do is to start with the levels low first and then increase them if necessary, rather than starting with them all high and then ending up pushing some even higher. It’s also worth remembering that not all parts of the mix need to be consciously identifiable. Some sounds are just there to pad things out and become part of the overall sound.

    • Hey Marcus!

      Its great that you have shared your experiences on mixing. I always love to hear about the practices of other producers when it comes to music production. Yes, achieving balance in a mix often means that not all sound elements will have to be at the forefront. This is where the mixing engineer has to seriously consider the opinions of the artist and try to understand their musical direction.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. Hi Farhan, Great info on the recording scene. was on the road with our band a few years past. Love music. Can’t imagine a world without it. Had to get off road to raise my family. All of my kids are in music some way. My daughter has a band. Her and her sister did a lot of studio work in Nashville. My husband and I are mostly into song writing now. We sing when we can.He picks up the guitar daily. Love your site. Great info on equipment and acoustics.

    • Hello Judy!

      Its always awesome to read comments from music lovers such as yourself. Its cool that you have been on the road with a band and all. I hope that you could get back to doing it again very soon. You mentioned Nashville, so I assume you folks must be deeply into country music? Well, whatever it is, I wish you all the best!

      Keep in touch!

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