Audio Recording Issues – It Sounds GREAT On Its Own, but... Part FiveMaybe it is a difference of room dimensions making it difficult to adjust a track properly within the context of a mix. Maybe it is a timing issue related to similar Frequencies. But, maybe it is about dynamics and distance. Along with the wonderful things that our brain does with sound interpretation, it pays close attention to where sound is coming from. The human ear, as limited as it is compared to what some animals can hear, is designed to send an incredible amount of information to our brain for approval. Complex timing elements are combined with location to tell us not only what we are hearing, but whether it is close to us or far away, to our left or right, and whether it is an obvious sound that we recognize or if it is very subtle and hard to identify.
In a mix, the context of these things work together for our approval or distaste. We may have a music track that is a little washy and distant, with a lead vocal that is extremely loud and dry. Some people like this; others don't. Usually, a good mix brings it all together in one form or another, but sometimes we intentionally bounce one character off of another to get a new response. What happens if a track is exactly what we want, but in the context of the mix, it sounds weak? We turn it up but now it is too loud. We turn it down where we think it belongs regarding volume, but it sounds weak. We solo the track, and it sounds perfect! Is it possible that we are dealing with a symptom of conflicting dynamics? What I mean is that we may have consistent performance levels from everything else in the song, or we may have already compressed other elements in a song individually, but the natural dynamics in our new track sink down too low in some parts of the arrangement and maybe sit just loud enough at other times.
If this is the case, we may be able to resolve the issue with a simple limiter. By raising the average volume up by a few decibels or reducing the peaks, we may get a consistent performance that sounds more full all of the time. What if we try that and now it is way too loud or sounds different than we want? Or, it just doesn't fix things? Sometimes, the reason comes back around to Frequency adjustment. Let's say that we have the example of another mix on the same album. Using the same approach, everything is great. So, why is it not working here?
You listen to tracks and suddenly you realize that one song is more up-beat than the other. Why should that matter so much if the process worked so well? Shouldn't that always be the case? It is possible that the performance is different from the working mix to the troublesome mix? This might mean that the drummer is tapping at the bell of the hi hat in the working mix, but is sizzling at the edge of the hi hat in this one. The change in performance can change the length of time it is resonating those powerful high Frequencies. You may have a beautiful EQ boosting the pristine recording of that hi hat in the same amount on both mixes, but this time around, the fact that it sustains for a long time instead of gentle taps, means that the Frequency just isn't available to your other track now. Having both tracks contribute to the same sound range makes for a busy neighborhood! You can try to select different Frequency options to get this under control, but the chances are that one change will lead to another and so forth, you find yourself changing elements that you used to be happy with. You might try lowering the hi hat volume, but it may make the rest of the drums sound unbalanced. What can you do?
Maybe you can try very small changes in the stereo field, making a little room for the hi hat just a tiny bit to the left or right. Or, you can try narrowing or widening the stereo field of just the track or the offending part of the mix so it gives a different location for the Frequencies to sit in the mix. Or, you can see if trading one high Frequency for another just on the track in question helps. All of these things are good ideas, but what if none of them work? You may consider a very small amount of several options. Try things I have mentioned that deal with timing, balance, dynamics, ambient rooms, Frequencies, and location. Try them in combination with each other and with different, small increments. Are any of these helping a little bit?
Most likely, some very small changes to multiple pieces of the equation will resolve the issue and help you to be pleased with that track once again. If that is not the case, you might actually be dealing with a case of “if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.” By this, I mean that you may need to incorporate that new track more into the room environment that the rest of the mix resides in, or vice versa. Is it possible that your new track is simply too dry and needs a tiny bit of reverb to get it to sit closer to the context of the song? Is it possible that the song sounds great dry but might work well with a tiny bit of the same kind of reverb that worked well for the new track?
Add these different elements together and see if some combination leads to a better result. I have a feeling that it will. There are plenty of other scenarios that affect the outcome of mixes, but this should give you an idea of some ways that tracks interact with each other and hopefully it can inspire you to spend that extra time listening and tweaking mixes that leave you less than inspired. I don't encourage you do overdo anything that is already mixed the way you like, but if you are left unimpressed with a mix, there are things you can do to potentially bring things to life that are not drastic, and leave very little changed from track to track.