Ask the Engineer: Should I Mix as I Go or All at Once?

Masterdisk Ask the Engineer graphic

Today’s “Ask the Engineer” question goes to mastering engineer Randy Merrill.

Randy Merrill joined Scott Hull Mastering in early 2006 as Scott’s production engineer. Shortly thereafter he started building his own mastering clientele, and today he’s a staff engineer at Masterdisk. Randy’s approach is to be as attuned to his clients’ aesthetic and practical goals as possible. He goes the extra mile to make sure the finished product reflects how you want your music to sound. Randy’s credits include Bruce Hornsby, Bill McHenry, Tom Wopat, 3 Cohens, Perez Hilton, Darcy James Argue, Paul Jacobs (Naxos) and Chantal Claret.

Q: I’m recording my album over a span of about a year. Should I mix tracks as I go along or have them all mixed at the end?

Photo of Duduka Da Fonseca and Randy MerrillA: It’s best when a project is mixed in a somewhat short time span. Things like relative level between instruments tends to suffer when songs are mixed apart from each other. Sometimes the vocal can be set “in” the mix on one song, and “on top” in another song, depending on what the engineer feels that day. Other considerations include how the drums sit in the mix, and how the bass sits. If there’s a lot of variation from track to track it can cause an album to feel disjointed.

Q: How much can mastering do to “tie” the different mixes together?

A: It can do a fair amount, but not as much as can be done in the mixing. Relative vocal levels can be approximated somewhat; same for bass. If one vocal is really “in” the track and another is upfront, it’s tough to get the two to sit similarly. Likewise with the drums: if they’re in a different place from song to song, it’s hard to get them to match.

If your project can’t be mixed in a short span for whatever reason, the previous mixes should be reviewed while the new ones are being done. This will help with the overall consistency of the album.

Photo: Randy Merrill (right) with Duduka Da Fonseca.