Step One: Seeing Sound
From early on in my musical career, I have visualized mixes as sonic paintings. Arguably, “seeing the sound” is as instantaneous as listening: right away, our imagination translates what is heard into some sort of visual representation. As a critical listener, I notice my brain perceives some instruments very literally. For example, when I analyze percussion within a mix, such as high hats, my visual imagination automatically responds by “painting” an actual high hat, or a snare – or tom. For other sounds such as vocals, what I visualize while listening can be very abstract, and sometimes impossible to describe beyond “energetic shapes of frequencies.” Ultimately, any critical listener’s imagined sonic painting will be different; however, as a mix engineer, getting lost within a sonic painting is not an option. There is a right way to build, deconstruct, and holistically analyze a sonic painting. In the act of mixing, the engineer, more accurately, is sculpting a mix rather than painting one. I believe the shape of this imaginary sculpture of sound is best described by a pyramid. In light of “seeing the sound” technically and professionally, sculpting the “sonic pyramid” is one of the best philosophies I have ever put into practice – for making mix decisions on individual instruments (the pyramid steps leading to the top), and the mix as a whole (the pyramid altogether).
The Pyramid Position and the Studio Monitors
Picture an equilateral triangle of sound in front of both the left and right studio monitors (and possibly a subwoofer underneath, if you have one). The left and right studio monitors are half way between the top and bottom of the imaginary triangle, and below this triangle is your subwoofer. In turn, the triangle is widest toward its base, where the subwoofer is. Above the left and right monitors, the triangle reaches finally comes to its peak. So now we have a triangle positioned with respect to the speakers – stay with me here!
Frequencies within the Pyramid: Where they Go and How Loud they Should Be
Audible frequencies range from 20 Hertz to 20,000 Hertz. Essentially, the golden rule of the sound pyramid is that low frequencies make up the bottom and are loudest, while high frequencies belong at the top and are lowest in volume. Theoretically, the peak of the pyramid is 20,000 Hertz, and the pyramid base is 20 Hertz. In turn, as the sonic pyramid ascends from bottom to top, frequencies become higher, while volume must decrease. As a result, 500Hz should be slightly louder than 1000 Hz in a mix, and 1000 Hz should be louder than 4000 Hz, and so on. In another example, a high hat made up of high frequencies should not be louder than the snare drum, made up of mid range frequency!
Above: The PAZ Analyzer from Waves applied to the master channel of a good mix reflects a downward frequency spectrum: volume gradually decreases as frequency increases.
Sculpting the Pyramid:
I hear lots of poorly mixed music from the internet where, frankly, the sonic pyramid is nowhere near existent: beats have piercing high hats as loud as the bass drums, or the vocal is extremely loud and stepping over the mix. In reality, once the pyramid is visualized, it becomes an easy mental strategy to use with tools such as EQ. The great thing about constructing the mix with the pyramid is the way in which relationships between instruments become conceptualized, since each frequency range is occupying an exact position within the pyramid. With this in mind, you begin to EQ, and compress soloed instruments, but still make decisions with the mix as a whole in mind. See the sound – and the precise geometry of each frequency’s pocket in the mix: the kick is louder and near the bottom of the sonic pyramid you see; the snare is less intense, near the middle, going up the pyramid. Moving further up the frequency spectrum, the same goes for snares and hi hats: snares should be louder than high hats containing higher frequencies, and below them in the pyramid as a result. If two sounds share a similar frequency range, or pocket in the pyramid, as snares and vocals sometimes do, adjust your faders so they are equally intense, but never fighting for frequency content. Overall, for each instrument, consider its most musical frequency and pocket it into your pyramid. Adjust the instrument(s) of the pyramid pockets with an equalizer, and compress instruments interfering with adjacent pockets higher up in the pyramid. For example, if your mix contains a bass guitar and piano, your piano should not contain lower frequencies interfering with the bass’ space in the pyramid. The piano belongs in the mids and its low end content may need be be removed with EQ, or controlled with compression.
All in all, next time you hear a mix from a great engineer, where all instruments are present, rich, and not fighting for space, observe the pyramid scheme at work. Once you understand the pyramid scheme, it should be impossible to see the sound of a mix any other way in front of studio monitors, or any speaker for that matter. As abstract as your sonic vision may be, never will you ever “see” a kick drum on top of a high hat.
After years as a performing musician, producer, studio client, intern, assistant engineer, and engineer, I’d like to share my two cents on the purpose of engineer, and what constitutes a great engineer.
I can distinctly recall a shocking moment during my very first internship in a recording studio. I was cleaning up a session from the previous night where a client spilled all sorts of drinks on a hardwood floor. The surface was so sticky that my shoes were difficult to lift. I began to mop up the mess, and before I knew it, the senior engineer was yelling at me in an uproar: “You’re doing it wrong, mop with the grain of the wood!” At the time, I legitimately thought the guy was psycho for becoming so angry over how I was mopping. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was mopping against the grain of the wood, and therefore, inefficiently. The lesson I learned is if something can be done better, do it. As an engineer, the right way is always the most efficient way, and that is why I deserved a tongue lashing, even for what seemed to be minor error. Even the most experienced engineers strive to improve their methods, and this goes beyond the technicalities of recording, mixing, and mastering – or mopping a studio floor. Maintaining a mindset of improvement is a way of life – extending to any circumstances an engineer may experience on a daily basis.
At face value, the studio’s engineer operates all machines of the production process. The engineer is an expert on how they work and putting them to work, individually and collectively. The engineer ensures the final product, the record, possesses optimal sound quality for applications in the industry of consumers. While all of this is true, I find the formal description of the studio engineer as incomplete. The formal description is missing the philosophical pixie finance of an engineer’s purpose. In particular, the role of the studio aside from completing a project, and the timeless quality a great engineer can instill in a record.
One truth to working in a recording studio is you never know who or what is going to attend a session. Clients come from all walks of life, and consequently, with all varieties of music. Working at Studio 11, I have serviced clients speaking foreign languages, clients dressed in sparkling costumes, celebrities, gangbangers, clients who are engineers like me, clients who have made me pray with them before the session starts, professional musicians, the musically inexperienced, and even a blind client – just to name a few examples. Being a recording engineer is a task demanding social skills, plain and simple. Any given person must find comfort in the studio – with the engineer as the host.
At the end of the day, the engineer must host a meaningful, musical experience for all clients on the schedule. I believe an ideal studio session entails the client leaving with a quality record, and also as a better creator than when he first walked in the studio. The recording studio is a musical instrument. While the engineer is the expert at playing this musical instrument, involving the client must be encouraged. The mood, vibe, and communication of a studio session leave an imprint on any client’s satisfaction with a record. Ultimately, I believe a comfortable, creative atmosphere is necessary for studio sessions, and a good engineer will respect the creative styles of all clients. Input and opinion matters, and it matters how these viewpoints are communicated. In a nutshell, the creative direction of a studio session is decided by the client, not the engineer.
Nevertheless, the engineer directly manipulates the studio, operating its machines, and making it happen. Surely, there are creative elements of a record where influence from the client is usually absent, or trusted in the engineer’s decisions. Overall, the engineer is the most trusted creator of proper sound quality and using the studio efficiently. Moreover, I believe another duty is equally expected: engineers must also do all they can to bless a record with timelessness.
Timelessness in music is a quality possessed by Beethoven to Pink Floyd to Snoop Dogg. The timeless characteristic may be a combination of originality, authenticity, and uniqueness. What I can confidently state is the studio session plays a major role in timelessness happening or not happening. My most effective approach toward giving clients a timeless record is treating the recording as an artifact. It’s not just an mp3 or wav. file upon leaving the studio doors, but also the most accurate document of a performance that will ever exist.
Identifying the grassroots of musical ideas is also important to a mental note on. Such knowledge translates into decisions made by the engineer, consciously or subconsciously. I am hesitant to claim any piece of music is completely original, which is why acknowledging music from the past is crucial for realizing the artistic medium of recording. Knowing what came before is instrumental in building the foundation of a record; from then on, the sky’s the limit regarding creativity. Surely, the sonic foundation for the creative music must be there, though.
Lastly, I must touch back on reality, in that, at times, the engineering process steers away from my utopian description of the effective studio session. Speedbumps and challenges inevitably surface. The job may be hard, but it’s a job we are lucky to have. When things do steer away, the right decision is finding a solution, never resorting to an excuse. It’s what great engineers do.