In my previous post we looked at the 3 primary categories that make up most songs. Those are the rhythm section, the lead, and the fill section. Today we are going to take a deeper look at the basics of mixing a rhythm section. To keep it simple I will give only 2 tips and how they relate to the home music studio.
I've said this before but it's true. If you get the rhythm section mixed just right, everything else will fall into place. That's not to say that nothing else will require an effort. It simply means that building upon a great mixed rhythm section is much easier than not. So let's get started.
Learn to be a producer
There is more to home music studio recording than simply learning to use recording software and pointing a few mics. You really need to learn the skills of a producer. The basics of mixing a rhythm section begin with learning to produce it, whether you're recording your own songs or projects for someone else. It is important to think through how much and how little instrumentation is truly needed. If there is a lot going on in your rhythm section, no amount of EQing, mixing or effects will create a professional sound.
One helpful method I like to use to process this tip is called the "100%" rule. The dynamic capacity (loud or soft spots) of any song is 100%. If you had 3 instruments and 1 vocal, each part would be a portion of this dynamic percentage capacity. Lets say each occupies 25% for sake of this illustration. If one track increases above that dynamic range, then something else must decrease to make room.
The total capacity dynamically should never be more than 100% (this is not about compression here but musical flow by the way). This applies to more than just pure volume. It also has to do with what is being played, and where each track is "or isn't" in the mix. Every instrument cannot play at 100% and expect the final product to be a great mix.
This means your instrumentation in the rhythm section must leave room for the entire mix (lead, and fill sections). Don't let your musicians overplay when you're recording your tracks. The same is true if you are building your rhythm section with MIDI. Creating a "wall of sound" with constant drum fills and bass licks throughout, all playing full on, will never sound professional in the end.
Pay attention to the stereo field
In the basics of mixing a rhythm section, this is perhaps one of the least understood areas of the home music studio. I've read blog posts where others talked about recording only in mono. I personally disagree and here's why. Most of us have 2 ears (if you only have one, my apologies). That means we hear in stereo. Our perception of life is typically in stereo. My personal preference is to use this fact to my advantage when mixing a project.
Knowing where each track should sit in the stereo field is critical to creating a "big" sound. On a side note, know that this is also an aspect of mastering in the final mix. I'm mostly addressing the stereo field on individual tracks and how they relate to the rhythm section here.
The basics of mixing a rhythm section also include learning where to pan each track. Some tracks or channels need to be in the center of the stereo mix while others need to be off to one side or another. Some tracks need to occupy an outside (9 o'clock/3 o'clock) position in the mix but on both sides. Learning how far to one side and how to properly fill the main mix is key here.
With the rhythm section the drums or percussion are the most critical in getting this right. Typically the kick and snare drum are mixed to sit right in the center along with the bass guitar. Some styles use a clap or processed snare. Even if you're using a programmed drum/percussion sound, the idea is still the same.
The bass guitar/synth, the kick, and the snare drum are the pillars of most rhythm sections. For this reason they are often panned to the center of the stereo field. Instruments like cymbals, hi hats, shakers, etc., are usually off to one side of the mix. Reverbs and delays do play a role here but that is another topic all together. Listen to a professionally mixed and mastered audio track through headphones, to get more ideas here.
Well there are 2 more tips in the basics of mixing. Now it's time for you to listen to your own projects and process how you've done. I'd love to hear your thoughts so please add them to the section below.