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In The Mix

If you are a beginner, intermediate or professional saxophone player, it is always a good idea to hear yourself via a recording. Whether a home recording with an adequate microphone, or in a professional studio, doing this regularly will improve your playing no end. After analysing your Tone, Articulation and Execution you will begin to make adjustments to your playing style to sit better in studio and band environments.

– Recording the saxophone

It goes without saying; before you can start to manipulate the recorded saxophone signal you will need, recording software, an interface and microphone. As there are so many variables of mic-ing up a saxophone, I’m going to keep it simple.

Sound escapes from all tone holes on the saxophone, but predominantly just above the bell. Whether using a dynamic microphone or condenser microphone a good starting point is to have the mic sitting around 15cm-30cm above the bell. This is a close mic technique and will be well suited for a saxophone solo.

On to the fun stuff..

Lets say the software we have been using is Logic X, and we have an R&B backing track made up of drums, bass, keys and vocal samples. We now want to add a 32 bar Tenor saxophone solo and make it sit pleasantly amongst these other parts. Firstly lets take into consideration the frequency range of the tenor. The tenor saxophone doesn’t go below 100hz, and depending on which mouthpiece and reed set up you have, the higher harmonics of the tone will vary. But for arguments sake we are using a Dave Guardala MBII which has a good amount of edge to it, with the dominant frequencies being from around 300hz- 2500hz. Bearing this in mind, it will be safe to say that frequencies are going to be shared between the keys part, vocal samples and the sax. So we now have the task of organising these frequencies and distributing each part evenly into the stereo field leaving us with a clear mix.

There are many ways to go about doing this but as this blog is about the sax, it would be a good idea to clean up the sound of that first.

Equalization (EQ)

Consider your mouthpiece as the start of the EQ process. It is the source of the sound, and is responsible for giving you the tone. As you would have worked hard for years to perfect your tone, it would be a waste to start messing with the frequencies and undo all of your hard work. Generally, mixing engineers don’t make any drastic changes to the sound, but there are a few small adjustments you should make if you have been recording at home.

If you are lucky enough to have your room sound treated, you will not have the problems I am about to mention, but the average set up is usually a spare room in a house or a basement full of exciting unexpected sounds like the rumble of a washing machine or the neighbours Jack Russell kicking up a fuss. The close mic technique will help eliminate some higher frequencies but lower frequencies like the washing machine will need some serious attention. Say we got the perfect take but there is a strange humming noise in the bass frequency of the channel. As we mentioned before, the tenor sax doesn’t go much below 100hz so it will be great to use a low cut filter up to 100hz to get rid of unnecessary room noise on this channel. Sweeping an EQ node up and down the whole range of the sound, will help you identify any frequencies that could be cut or boosted. This is the sax solo, so we can give this channel some more responsibility when it comes to filling the high mids of the mix. So naturally we will want to put subtle low pass filters on the keys and vocal samples leaving more headroom for the sax.

* E.G of a basic tidy up of an EQ on a tenor sax. Low cut filter up to 100hz to remove unwanted booms from the bass frequencies. 3db trough at 300hz to take some boxyness out of the tone. A very subtle high cut filter to help eliminate some key noise.


As a guideline, these are the frequencies that will affect the sound the most.
More heat: +4dB at 2kHz
More body: +1dB at 700Hz
Less quack: -2dB at 1.5kHz
More quack: +1dB at 900Hz

Compression

Compression in its simplest form is used to reduce the dynamic range of a signal. As the saxophone is a very expressive instrument, it would be a shame to lose the dynamic range by going overkill on the compression. The best tip for saxophone mixing is to be subtle and trust your own tone. 

Here we have a basic compression setting. We wouldn’t want any more gain reduction than 6db because then the solo will start to sound flat and lose intensity where you intentionally played it. Keep the ratio between 3.1 – 5.1 otherwise you will start to experience too much noise from the pads and you breathing. Attack and release times shouldn’t be too fast as this makes the compressor far too prominent and starts to cloud your tone. Its all about experimentation to find the right balance, generally speaking if the recorded signal is a healthy one, and mic placement is spot on, you shouldn’t have to be too harsh with the compression.

*Simple compression technique as mentioned above

FX (Reverb)

This is where things start to get really interesting. After we have Eq’d and compressed the saxophone signal, it is now to time give it a little bit more life in our R&B track. We cant just have a dry signal as you will find that it will cut through the mix too much and sound out of place. The best place to start with this is reverb. Reverb is a very powerful tool and people under estimate the versatility of it. To put it simply, it is an emulation of a space, either of a room, cathedral or chamber. There are a few ways of going about applying reverb to your saxophone. The best route to go down is to have a reverb return track, this will mean everything that is in the song will be sent to the same room in affect, meaning they will be heard from the same space keeping things sounding natural. Please remember every song that you record will require different amounts of reverb varying in colour so it would be nice to play with the EQ incorporated into the majority of reverb plugins.

The idea with reverb is to blend the sounds of the song and amalgamate all of the parts, so experiment with the amount of reverb you send from each track. Reverb doesn’t end just there, there are many more advanced techniques and parameters to play with, but lets talk about 3D mixing. 3D mixing is very important to understand because it will most certainly take your mixing to the next level. The basic way of doing so, is by using reverbs. Lets put this into context with a real life example. We are stood outside and I’m stood 2 meters in front of you and play a staccato altissimo A. It’s a very piercing sound, bright and full of energy. I now do the same thing back another 4 meters, you still catch the length of the note, but it is less powerful and overwhelming. I head back another 4 meters and the sound now starts to change. What is happening here is the surrounding sounds of the outdoors are now more of a focal point to your ear.

Lets get back to the R&B track.. Hopefully you’re beginning to realise how many more options this will give you when mixing a piece of music. Rather than looking at mixing as panning left or right, you can now have things up close or far away. This gives you endless options when you have ran out of sideways space.

How do you achieve this?

So, the 32 bar solo is happening, its sounding good but everything still seems a bit messy even after a good EQ and compression of the Sax, keys and vocal samples. The obvious thing to do here would be to balance the levels of the vocal samples and the keys, and have the saxophone sitting very slightly above them in terms of volume. This is good, but a basic technique, because when the saxophone solo stops, the track will seem likes its missing something. What you will want to do, is make the keys part and vocal samples appear further away, not quieter. You will simply do this by sending more reverb from these two tracks, leaving the saxophone with less reverb allowing it to be upfront and be the focal point of the mix in these 32 bars.

So bearing all this in mind, experiment with microphone positions and take your time with EQ and compression. It’s going to be a big learning curve but if you employ the techniques mentioned in this blog, you’ll be on the right track to making your saxophone sit nicely in the mix.