What Mixing Taught Me About Tone

I’ve spent the last few months working on a recording with our church (which is part of the reason why Articulate’s been inactive). The production process has been a huge learning experience for me in a variety of ways, not least of which is the new perspective I’ve gained on my own tone! Guitar tone, like many other musical concepts, tends to look a bit different through a mix engineer's eyes, and knowing how to make our guitar tone work in a mix is a great way to help our music say what we mean!

Here’s how this idea manifests itself in some common areas:

EQ:

When we’re playing alone at home, or even in some live applications, we tend to create guitar EQ signatures with as much heft and smoothness as possible. This practice totally makes sense, since tones of that variety tend to sound great in isolation. However, the game changes when we’re recording, since we’re usually trying to fit our guitar into a mix that is purposefully dense, in order to remain interesting. In that scenario, the same bass frequencies that make our instrument sound “full” are in danger of swallowing up other guitars, keyboards, and vocals, and our scooped midrange and “smooth” top end usually end up sounding lifeless, if not unintelligible. When dialing in a tone for recording, I’ve found that if I use the as little bass as possible, and dial in enough treble and mids to make my isolated tone sound a bit on the edgy side, I’m way more likely to be able to use the tone right away in the mix, without having to do lots of EQ carving in the DAW.

Dirt:

Restraint is important when dialing in a tone for anything, but is especially vital when recording, since few things ruin the collective energy of a mix more than introducing unnatural or “forced” sounding timbres. All instruments have their own way of encountering this problem, but guitarists seem to be most in danger of using too little (but, usually, too much) distortion for a given scenario. Erring on the side of a cleaner tone is usually wise when recording, since the tonal attributes that we normally associate with distortion (thickness, energy) are usually attained elsewhere in the mix, but in any case, we want to make sure that our sound fits with where the mix is trying to go.

Reverb:

This one hurts, since I find myself in the group of guitarists that can never get enough reverb, but the harsh reality is that reverb makes instruments sound distant, which isn’t always what we want. Creating a sense of depth is awesome for some parts, but if we drench a lead line in reverb, it’s going to be tricky to make it sound “in your face” later. By dialing back the reverb, we can regain a sense of presence and immediacy that’s often what we’re actually looking for in the first place with many parts, letting the reverb do its job on parts that we’re looking to tuck into the back of the mix.

Delay:

With few exceptions, delay plug-ins sound just as nice as any rack or pedal-based delay. We spend countless hours dialing in echo sounds, so it can definitely be a shot to our pride to leave delay out of a particular recorded part, but what we lose in personal gratification is more than made up in versatility. We can always add more delay in the mix (tweaking it indefinitely until we get it right), but taking delay away is next to impossible. By letting the mix engineer do their job, we’re more likely to create a mix where the ambient effects work more intuitively. If you can create a perfect delay sound while tracking, go for it, but if you’re at all unsure, save it for later.

What lessons have mixing and recording taught you about your own tone? Let me know in a comment!

Thanks for reading!

Ian