In this audio tutorial, you will learn how to use your ear training skills in music production and mixing for collaborative projects. Hear how to apply simple tricks in editing, rhythm, and overall feel to improve your music. Finally, check out some helpful tips for your next big project.
Back in my good ole college days, I participated in comedy sports – comedy games similar to the shenanigans on the popular show Whose Line is it Anyway? To be honest, I wasn’t very good and more than once the audience had to throw a rubber chicken my way when I froze on stage!
One of my favorite games was called “Scene 3 Ways” in which the comedy crew must act out a scene in three different ways. For example, we would replay a love scene as a martial arts film, a sports dramedy, and a musical – all with (hopefully) hilarious results.
When you mix down a track for your band, a client, a film director, or whoever might share an opinion that could clash with your own, you might find yourself making multiple audio mixes of the same track. Ideally everyone agrees on a track and moves on, but sometimes you need to continue redoing the track several times until everyone is happy.
I’m going to share a few tips for doing this based on a project I worked on last year for Sean Fleck’s time-lapse film “Americana”. Start by watching the final film mix from Mount Airy Films:
The Americana Project
Americana is an eye-popping time-lapse journey through American landscapes and monuments. Film director Sean Fleck wanted the music to reflect the difference between landscapes and the cityscapes. The footage for the film changed throughout the project, making it a challenge to sync up “city” music and “landscape” music. Originally the film was in one long section. In the end the director chose to split the footage into two sections with contrasting visuals and music.
Americana was an interesting project creatively since it involved no spoken dialog and the director gave me musical freedom to produce a score that I thought worked best with the visuals. When I work in film, I typically ask clients to provide me with musical samples that reflect their ideas. In this case, musical freedom actually presented a creative challenge, as composer and director worked together to find the right sound that worked best with the director’s vision.
Ear Training Exercises
Here are some exercises you can do as you read this article, using the Americana film to help you improve your musical ear:
- Watch the original Americana video above and listen for different musical elements.
- Listen to the audio examples below
- Use your listening skills to hear differences between the tracks and differences between the final Americana track
- Read the music tips and explanation beneath each of the audio samples
Now let’s explore how the soundtrack to Americana changed over the course of the project.
This section originally started at 0:00 and covered the introductory credits and the first landscape portion of the film. Some changes in the video edits between mixes explain the timing discrepancies.
Listen to the two examples above and compare them to the Americana video, starting at 0:00. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What are three main differences between the two audio files?
- How does the second version compare to the final version?
- What subtle differences can you hear between the different audio versions?
When you compare the Americana score and the two audio examples, the most glaring difference is the music for the opening credits. During production, the director sent me a drum session he had recorded. My original score had moving synthesized rhythms punctuating the credits. In the final mix, the director edited in the drum credits and cut the synthesized rhythms until the end of the credits, where my original score fades in. He wanted the subtle natural sound of the drum session. The synthesized rhythms gave the opening credits too much momentum, especially in the bisected version of the film.
Compare the two versions of the Introduction using the clips above. Rhythm once again plays a difference in the tracks.
Version 1 has clear drum loops and percussive elements throughout the introduction.
For Version 2 I simply cut out the drum loop and pulled back the synthesized rhythms until they were barely felt.
I also added a panning tremolo effect to the synthesized rhythms to add to the psychoacoustic effect of the rhythm. This way the listener unconsciously senses a rhythmic pattern but is not made consciously aware of the rhythm. Adding subtle panning to barely audible vocals and rhythms is one of my signature mixing elements. For a horror track I might hide a distorted scream in a lush cinematic score by pulling down the volume, adding tremolo effects, changing the pitch, or automating hard panning effects. For some projects I have added sound effects hidden and distant like a chiming bell, a child’s music box, or subtle ocean waves.
Version 2 creates a clearer visual image and removes the almost annoying drum loops while keeping some semblance of subtle periodic rhythm.
Want to know more about audio effects? Read up on audio effects ear training.
Final Tweaks: Sound and Feel
A final difference between the three versions deals with the overall feel. Intro 1 has distinct momentum and a more sci-fi type sound with electronic drums, distinct synthesized beats, and equal treatment given to the rhythmic elements. While the space-inspired synth pads and samples match the various starry night footage in the final film, the combination of the new credits and the dropped electronic drums sets the viewer up better for the awesome natural landscape footage.
In the final version, the track is more mysterious and lush. This was achieved through a subtle fade-in covered by a filtered synth, added reverb, cutting rhythmic elements, cutting a few synths, and adjusting the volume of instruments to create a cinematic soundscape that works well with the moving landscape. Additional vocal synths in the final create an almost eerie heavenly soundscape. Per the director’s aesthetic requests, the first part of Americana succeeds in providing a slow-moving beautiful musical backdrop.
Lush synth pads, lightly echoing piano, and gentle faraway tones give an ethereal feel natural landscapes change into rolling ocean waves.
1. Get clear on the project’s needs
With collaborative projects you must be ready to make changes, both subtle and drastic. Film directors have very clear musical ideas. Asking a client for a musical sample will sometimes reduce the amount of guesswork required. I once had a client ask me to write an uplifting track for an energizing business presentation. What he really wanted was a cinematic soundtrack suitable for Pirates of the Caribbean!
2. Be ready and willing to cut
As my college professor Paul Reller once told me, “They don’t judge you for what you leave out.” If an instrument, vocal, or audio effect doesn’t work, then cut it out. It is easier to cut than to fix a poorly recorded track or an instrument that rubs everyone the wrong way. Take a break, then pull down that fader and try to listen again objectively.
3. Think like a shrink
Subtly add in elements distinct to the project. These extra sounds will help the mind relate to specific experiences in the listener. For example, a characteristic Theremin will bring up thoughts of retro sci-fi while live hand drums can help a listener envision a natural setting or specific geographic location.
Be sure to use your ears when mixing. There is a fine line between adding in characteristic elements and creating cheesy music, unless that is your goal. In the final Americana sound design, the director embedded various sound effects into the score to give a specific feel.
For the original ending, the drum set hit with the fireworks and the melody played snippets of The Star-Spangled Banner to emphasize the July 4th imagery.
4. Mix It 3 Ways
Too often a mixing newbie will hit a few presets and think they are done. Even with a handful of effects there are multitudes of possibilities! Learn how your audio effects can work together to create the sound you want. Explore all the possibilities.
Create at least 3 mixes of your track and choose the strongest elements from each mix. When I do music consulting, I almost always recommend doing a remix or two, or mash together a few of their best tracks. Why? Because moving beyond the obvious is what makes a track great. But to get past the obvious you must experiment.
Next time you take on a collaborative mixing project keep these tips in mind and take the time to understand the project’s specific needs and explore a range of musical possibilities.
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