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Topic: Creative film soundtrack mixing (audio example)

  1. #1

    Creative film soundtrack mixing (audio example)

    While listening to the film soundtrack album of my favorite musical, "West Side Story" the other day, it struck me that in the Overture, there's a perfect example of some creative but "unnatural" mixing that I admire.

    "West Side Story" Overture segment

    Listen to how up-front and dry the woodwinds are for this passage where they have the spotlight in the score. It sounds great! We hear them with crystal clarity, and the rest of the orchestra is in the distance. Then, as the woods finish their bit, they move back in the mix to join the orchestra in a more supporting role. They're still heard a bit above the rest, because throughout the score, the woodwinds are extremely important. But there's still quite a contrast to the level of the woods in the first half of this MP3 compared to the second half.

    That's not at all the way this would sound in a live concert. If we made a MIDI version which emulates the sound of a live concert, that section would probably be done with the woodwinds much more buried in the sound,
    and what was written to be the primary focus for these measures wouldn't have the same punch or impact.

    We work with MIDI, and our work is generally shared and/or demonstrated with recordings of our MIDI work. If we're writing for orchestras or traditional bands, we may very well want to simulate what our scores could sound like in a performance venue with live musicians. That's probably the best thing to do when submitting works to publishers, for instance. When we do that, our mixing choices are fairly simple and straight forward. We just try to arrive at the balance between instruments as it naturally occurs in concert.

    However, other MIDI musicians and composers are more concerned about simply making the best possible sounding recordings, without worrying about what could or couldn't be done in a live performance situation. The "West Side" example I've posted is a good example of the sort of mixing decisions these MIDI musicians might make.

    This is exactly what Craig Anderton is talking about in item #5 of his "Mixing Tips: Ten Nasty Mixing Mistakes" that I posted recently. He titles this particular mistake as "Keeping your faders at the same level throughout the mix." He says that it was a revelation to him years ago when he realized that moments in tracks can be emphasized with a temporary boost of the fader - simple as that. As usual, his point of reference is pop music, but what he's talking about can be heard in movie soundtracks all the time, as in this example I've posted.

    "Anderton's 10 Nasty Mixing Mistakes"

    (click "more" to get beyond item #2)

    There are other things to notice about this "West Side" clip. You need to keep in mind this was done in 1961, a long time ago, so it would undoubtedly be mixed differently today:

    --The woodwinds are probably all together on one single sub-mix fader. They are brought up and down in the exact same proportion, because one fader was controlling the group volume. They also all seemed to be panned to the same place at center. This is definitely something that would be done differently now.

    --The woodwinds sound almost totally dry. The intimate sound is really effective, and it's another thing about the mix which makes it "unnatural," like the sudden volume jump.

    --A fair amount of ambiance can be heard on the rest of the orchestra, with the percussion and brass especially reverberant, but it's all of a natural sounding and not very large space. It's just a film studio sound stage, with no unnatural GIGANTIC reverb being added like is done on a routine basis nowadays in film soundtracks.

    --There's some iffy pitch intonation - You can really hear it starting around 00:15, and I think it sounds great! Whether or not this was a deliberate choice, or just a natural occurrence, there's no way of knowing. But it's a good example of how the pitch of instruments in a real orchestra are never the Absolutely Perfect Pitch we're able to get in our virtual orchestra recordings. And it can make us appreciate all over again that the Garritan programmers added Var 1 and 2 for us to add touches of slightly imperfect intonation to our MIDI tracks.

    The main point is that here we have a great piece of music, recorded with a real orchestra, and the mixing engineers were concerned about an effective Sound more than an Accurate sound - and it sounds fabulous. Those of us not concerned about always being "realistic" in our mixes can be inspired by this clip.


  2. #2

    Re: Creative film soundtrack mixing (audio example)

    That's something to think about. Once I finally get the volume sliders tuned into in a tolerable setting I seem afraid to even accidentally nudge them afterwards as if I will destroy some mystical resonance that can never be regained.

  3. #3

    Re: Creative film soundtrack mixing (audio example)

    Very good post. Thank you, Randy.


  4. #4

    Re: Creative film soundtrack mixing (audio example)

    Quote Originally Posted by Daniel Bendshadler View Post
    That's something to think about. Once I finally get the volume sliders tuned into in a tolerable setting I seem afraid to even accidentally nudge them afterwards as if I will destroy some mystical resonance that can never be regained.
    Great response, Daniel - You express very well something I think a lot of people feel. It can be quite a task to get the balance between instruments in a way we like. Once we do, it can indeed feel like we could be risking destruction of "some mystical resonance that can never be regained" if we touch the faders again--!

    I think you use DAW software for your mixes? If so, here's a tip, describing what I do in Sonar to accomplish both things - maintaining the hard-won mix of levels, but allowing myself to change the balances throughout a recording so I can give focus to various sections, as in the "West Side" example I posted.

    --Once I have levels set for each instrument track, I insert/create volume envelopes on the tracks. I'm talking about volume automation envelopes on audio tracks, since I bounce all my MIDI to Audio before mixing. But volume envelopes can be added to those "empty" audio tracks connected to ARIA and other soft synths, if the project remains in the MIDI realm.

    --Those volume envelopes, which are just straight lines at first, come up at whatever level has been set for each track. If I have a track's fader set to -6 DBs, that will be the level of the inserted automation envelope. Those volume envelopes can be applied to the individual instrument tracks as well as the various Buses used in the project, such as the Bus for Winds, Strings, Brass and Percussion.

    --Automation of those volume envelopes is recorded in real time, playing the project and moving the fader(s) as I want. If I want the woods to all come up in a group, as in the posted example, I'll use the Woodwinds Bus fader, pushing the group up temporarily for a passage. When I bring the fader back down, I just look at the meter and aim for the same DB level I started with.

    --After recording that bit of automation, I'll stop playback shortly after the target section of the project. When I moved the fader back down to its starting level, I may have missed the original mark, but that doesn't matter. I look in the Track View at the last node of the volume envelope which was intended to bring the level back to the starting point. I can easily see if it's at about the same point, but by right clicking to look at the node's properties, I can type in the exact value of the original volume. I can see precisely what the original level was by hovering my cursor over the earlier part of the envelope, and the level will be displayed next to the cursor. The envelope has now definitely returned to that carefully arrived at starting point. See?

    So when I'm mixing, I'm constantly moving sliders, recording the movements, and re-setting to the original volume if I want, by doing what I've outlined. No worries over losing the delicate balance I had in place before recording automation.

    Quote Originally Posted by Raymond62 View Post
    Very good post. Thank you, Randy.

    Glad you enjoyed it, Raymond - Thanks for letting me know!


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