The Magic of the Minimum Dose

I have been taking an online professional mixing class from Audio Master Class out of England, and it has been quite an eye opener for me. I have completed 11 of 12 modules, working on the last one this week of Christmas, 2013. I am getting much better results as I get near the end.  The last module I submitted was rated 5 out of 5 in all categories. It was a rock mix that started out with an acoustic guitar and vocal, and built up to a full slammin’ drum, bass, Hammond B3 and electric guitar screamer, then came back down again. Quick difficult to get right, actually, due to the extreme dynamics.

Why take a class like this?  We project studio recording types tend to work in isolation, and getting feedback from other professionals really helps polish our chops. In my case I thought I was pretty good at mixing, but I found out I really had a lot of room for improvement (don’t we all?).

First of all, if you are not in the field of audio engineering you might ask what is mixing in the first place? A mix engineer takes recorded instrumental and/or vocal tracks from a session and makes adjustments in level or loudness, frequencies or tones, and sometimes adds to or takes away portions of the recording.  If you listen to raw recorded tracks often the sound is awful, with instruments, electric guitars especially, competing for the same sonic space. The role of the mixing engineer is to bring balance and musicality to the overall sound of a song. This can involve raising or lowering the loudness or level of tracks, adding EQ (adjustments to tone), compression (lowering dynamic range in order to raise the overall punchiness of a track), adding reverberation, and sometimes leaving out sections of a recorded track, or an entire track, if it did not fit well into the mix.  The mix engineer can take it further if the producer desires it by applying technical fixes to intonation (bringing an out of tune note back into proper tuning), fixing timing or rhythmic problems by editing sections of audio, removing clicks or pops that may have gone unnoticed, and in general just polishing up the tracks.

In particular I have learned though experience something that is often stated by engineers, but may go unappreciated until you try it.  That is, very small adjustments in EQ and volume can make a huge difference in how a track melds into the overall mix. In the field of Homeopathy (an alternative medical practice that has been around for 150 years or so) there is the principal of the minimum dose of medicine.  When applied correctly, the minimum dose is often more effective than drugs given in larger amounts (think vaccination, for example, where a very small amount of what could ail you can be preventative of the same illness).  I think this principle of the minimum dose can be applied to music as well.

We measure changes in loudness in units called “decibels”, or dB.  These are relative measures of loudness when applied to sound as it reaches your ears. Our ears are incredibly sensitive to changes in both loudness (in dB) and EQ (equalization or adjustment of the relative loudness of certain frequencies or tones).  Sometimes all it takes for a track to “gel” in the mix is as little as 1/2 of a dB, or a slight bump or dip in the center frequency or gain of an EQ knob.  Before I took this course I had a hard time discerning these differences. Now I am amazed at how much better my tonal  comprehension is as I compare my work to the feedback received from my submitted mixes.  Yes, that egg shaker was a bit loud, I can hear that now.  Let me pull that fader down just a smidge!  Ahh!  The magic of the minimum.

The same principle applies to reverb, something which I have always loved to have in my mixes.  I always thought of reverb as an effect, something to bring attention to a track.  I guess that comes from playing and recording a lot of acoustic instruments, such as violin, which often sounds lovely drenched in reverb.  And hey, it can smooth over mistakes and intonation problems (secret, don’t tell anyone!). But a high dose of reverb can also make a mix sound muddy.

I have learned how to add just a touch of reverb to a vocal to get it to gel. If you can hear the reverb, if it stands out, maybe that is not what you really want.  So turn down the reverb send for the track, and then listen. Does the vocal still sound sweet?  Then take it away altogether. The minimum dose is often the amount of reverb that makes the track gel or fit into the musical space of the other instruments, such that when you take it away you notice its absence, but only when you take it away.  This is not to say that you cannot use reverb as an effect, but too much makes for a muddy mix more often than not.  This is another important lesson learned.

If you are a budding recording musician or engineer, you might want to check out this class at  The course is not cheap but I have found it to be extremely beneficial. Now turn up that kick drum  1 dB and you will have it!

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