How I teach mixing to high schoolers

I’ve been teaching Mixing and Mastering as an early project in my advanced Music Tech course for about 6 years, and I’ve found it to be one of the more challenging and rewarding parts of the curriculum.  It’s easy to pick an assignment that is either too hard or too simple, and ignore the practical elements of mixing.

Somewhat controversially, I teach mixing using Ableton Live.  I do this because I like using this software.  Specifically, I feel that track groups are a superior tool for a beginner compared to auxiliary sends.  Since Ableton can do both (and most other programs only use aux sends) I prefer using Live.

The process

For this project, I use a “raw” Recording Club project – that is, one with all the multi tracks recorded but no mixing applied to it.  To keep the project organized, I have pre-organized the set into Drum, Guitar and Vocal groups.

We start with the Guitars.  In our set, the guitars were recorded D.I. style – no amps of any kind were applied.  This frees us to pick the guitar sounds using Ableton’s Amp and Cabinet effects.  We spend a day learning about what different combinations of amp and cabinet sound like and apply them to our tracks.  We also apply high-pass filters to both guitar parts and compress the Guitar track group.

Next, we mix the vocals.  Using only the track group (the sub-tracks represent individual takes) we apply a high-pass filter, compression, simple delay (time-based to about 100ms with about 20% dry/wet), reverb, and possibly overdrive/saturator to get a “live” Rock sound.

Then, we mix the drums.  Because drums are the trickiest to mix I teach drum replacement for the kick and snare tracks.  Using Ableton’s “Convert Drums to new MIDI track” feature we isolate the snare and kick notes and replace those notes with a superior drum sound.  We then turn down the cymbal overheads and compress the Drums track group.

After applying a final mix among the three groups, we apply Full Chain Master to the master track to get the track up to standard volume levels.  To test the master quickly, we simply play our song at the same time a track from iTunes (at full volume) of the same style is playing.  If we can hear both at the same time and with the same basic frequency content, we’re good to go.

Unpacking the process

So, my readers may be in two camps over this project.  One camp is frothing at the mouth over my oversimplification of the mixing process.  To those, I apologize – I have attempted in the past to further explore the nuance and personal choice a true engineer experiences and it complicates the project too much for the average student trying to keep up.

To mention the point of drum replacement specifically – I do demonstrate how proper recording, mic choice, placement, and room can influence a drum sound.  Then I conclude that we do not have the proper environment to achieve this without doing human single-drum overdubs, which are simply not in our league.

Another camp may be wondering how I’m teaching mixing at all, and where I got these multitrack recordings from – simply put, it took a lot of time to collect material that works for this project.  I’ve tried songs from classes I have taken as well as ones I have helped record and mix, and right now the track included in this post is doing the trick.  This is the only project I do where the students all work on the same exact song, and it amazes me how differently the tracks can turn out.

How it turns out

Here’s how the track sounds when they start:

Here’s the example that I mixed along with the students – not perfect, but I don’t think it sounds too shabby.  Loud drums, live vocals, and nice sounding guitars:

And now for a couple students’ versions – first, one with the very common issue of the voice sitting too loudly in the mix:

And another common problem, the voice sitting to soft in the mix:

This one sounded like a fairly good mix, although the voice could use a little bit more effect – compared to the rest of the track it sounds raw.  I love the Dick Dale-style guitar delay.  Overall pretty good though:

And finally, what happens when drum replacement goes wrong.  Basically what you’re hearing is a Drums-to-MIDI track made from an overhead track rather than a spot mic track.  Also, the student used the default 808 drum kit sounds, rather than a suitable replacement:

Moving ahead with mixing

Even though my advanced Music Tech class is not all about mixing and recording, doing this project immediately makes students more sensitive to the ideas of balance, mastering and complex effect chains.  Of course, before doing this project we have to cover dynamic processors (gate, compressor, etc.) pretty extensively – it would be a lot to introduce those concepts along with the mixing issues.

I have noticed that the earlier I put this project and the more thoroughly we produce these mixes, the better subsequent projects sound.  Mixing a typical rock song actually opens students to making more complex and detailed electronic music, and allows them to explore the possibilities of the effect chain and track groups.

Download

Click here to download the Ableton Packs for the unmixed version and my mixed example version.  These use effects that require Ableton Live 9 Suite edition.

Unmixed version
Mixed version

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Interactive Composition: The Book

I have a book coming out in February, co-authored with with illustrious VJ Manzo, called Interactive Composition: Strategies Using Ableton and Max for Live.

VJ and I have been working together for years to try to quantify and transcribe the way that music is being written today.  Our work continues, and our shared passion could be described as defining the methods that modern musicians are using to write popular music.

If you want to learn how to use Ableton Live to make the sorts of music that Ableton Live users make, Interactive Composition is your starting point.  It’s both a book of tutorials as well as a snapshot of electronic dance music and production styles and culture.  Look for mini-versions of lessons from the book in the months leading up to its release on this page.  The book contains 11 amazing projects and many more techniques and sub-projects to explore in your classes or personal work.  Each project is dense with techniques like synth-building, patch programming, sampling methods, and more.

In the meantime, check out the amazing cover design job by Oxford University Press:

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(For those asking: the subway map on the cover recalls both the visual nature of Max for Live patches as well as the vertical & modular nature of the interactive composition process, as well as reminding us of how cool subways are).

The book won’t be released until February, but you can pre-order it on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books-A-Million and direct from Oxford University Press.

Buy a set for your class today!

Chiptune sample set for Disquiet

Hello folks, you might be interested in checking out my latest Disquiet Junto tune: Mighty No 139:

https://soundcloud.com/willkuhn/mighty-no-139-disquiet0139-techtechnique

The technique I’ve developed here is really used for my high school courses on music production. The idea is to write harmonically complex music without having to learn a ton of music theory. To this end, I’ve modified a few existing M4L patches to make an “EZ Scales” and “EZ Chords” patch set that students of all levels can drop onto a track to allow them to play roman numeral chord progressions just by playing the root scale degrees. The result is layered riff-style music writing that can befit many different styles.

Download the Ableton Set and play around with the patches: www.dropbox.com/s/kgizcn6lzjnup57…0Project.zip?dl=0

Also in this patch is the “Chippy” M4L Instrument I wrote. It’s basically a waveform generator that can produce a smooth glide and vibrato with a few basic pulse widths. It’s a monophonic synth, and instead of writing a poly version I simply sample a note from it into Simpler.

I hope you enjoy this Mega Man – inspired chiptune!

DJ Shadow – Ghost Town

This is the kind of music people like me have been waiting for since the early 2000’s. Lucky for Shadow, things have started to swing back toward the chilled out, sample-heavy style lately. Ghost Town is a great companion piece to the stuff coming out of Hyperdub and other people like Kuhn (no relation).

Bonus: DJ Shadow also has his own label now, Liquid Amber

A Rubric for Project-Based Music Classes

As part of my efforts to refine my methods for grading and giving feedback on high school music tech projects, I’ve decided to use the opportunity to make a standardized rubric for my projects.  In many ways, this document is tuned to feed data into my SLO’s for the year as well.

The main features of the rubric:

  • A nominal self-evaluation, simply to provide some context for the finished product
  • An area for actual feedback (notes) at the bottom
  • Scoring “boxes” are tuned to allow most students to fall within the “emerging mastery” category.  Important if the SLO is written to require movement to a new box by semester’s end
  • Max score is possible in Box 3 and 4, giving credit for both accelerated students and those clearly on track
  • Low end of rubric is flexible to not totally kill the grades of lower achieving students
  • Score is out of 30, balanced between technical issues and aesthetic issues

I set aside a day to present projects, during which I use the sheet to mark the grades.  It usually works out to one class period as long as we keep the projects playing.

I haven’t used this yet, but it’s the best representation of how I evaluate my students’ projects.  Let me know what you think of it!

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