Hello Composers, Mike here! =)
Today we will talk about how to mix orchestral music with Joël Dollié (in the picture), who is a mixing engineer specializing in orchestral music in particular.
In this interview, Joël shares his background, experience and story of how he got started, as well as tips & insights on mixing orchestral music.
You can also check out his amazing course on how to mix orchestral music here.
First: Listen to this composition he mixed.
1. Please tell us your background and story of how you became a mixing engineer for orchestral music.
My first contact with the world of music creation was around 7 years old, I started learning the piano, but stopped after a year or two because I hated the repetitiveness of learning piano pieces, and I had a strict piano teacher at some point.
However, that wasn’t enough to make me hate the instrument. A few months later, I came back to my keyboard and started playing a few chords. I thought it was fun and I just kept improvising, which I am still doing to this day.
Like many engineers, I started out as a composer. I had been listening to Two Steps From Hell for many years, and around my 16th birthday, I finally discovered the world of DAW’s and music production. I had no idea that creating orchestral music on a computer was possible so when I found out, I was so excited and started composing many short “epic music” tracks.
My first tracks sounded terrible but I didn’t really know what mixing was. Anyway, most of the issues were because my dreadful compositions and arrangements, as it is always the case for beginners.
After a few months, I started studying mixing by watching tutorials on youtube, and I have to say that even though I didn’t understand much, I still found all of it really interesting.
A big challenge I faced was that there were not many proper tutorials on mixing orchestral music and more specifically epic music. I still learnt a lot from watching pop or rock mixing tutorials, but pieces of the puzzle were still missing.
I realized that watching tutorials all day was good, but not enough. I then started experimenting with various things on my own tracks, and found my own techniques. My mixes were still pretty bad, but slowly started improving.
The year 2016 is really when it all seriously got started. I thought my mixes were becoming pretty decent, so I made an orchestral mixing tutorial to share what I had learnt during the past few years. That tutorial almost has 40k views now. Before that video, I was already mixing tracks for friends, but didn’t have many clients.
Thanks to that video, networking and word of mouth, I started getting more clients and nicer projects to work on. I also wrote an E-book named “Mixing Modern Orchestral Music” which further helped with that.
Today, I feel blessed to be able to say that mixing has been my full time job for the past 2 years or so. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
2. In what ways is orchestral music different from other genres when creating a professional mix?
Orchestral music is different from other genres when it comes to mixing it because there are just so many EQ & multiband compressor decisions to take. Other genres usually require more creative effects, especially if you will be mixing vocals, but orchestral music is probably the biggest EQ puzzle.
Achieving clarity will come from all the small EQ (and dynamic eq) tweaks you will have to do in the plethora of instruments you have to mix. It can be quite intimidating compared to genres that kind of “blend” composition and mixing, like EDM.
Well produced EDM will be layered in such a way that it basically mixes itself with complementary layers and – very often – convenient sidechaining.
With modern orchestral music, especially music that was written with samples, you might get libraries that don’t blend well together by default, tons of synth layers that don’t work and need to be heavily filtered, etc.
To create a “perfect” orchestral mix, you will have to cut every instrument at the right spot, even if it’s just 1db or 2, and the combination of all your EQ moves should result in a balanced frequency response which makes the ensemble coherent and represents the tone of each instrument nicely. It’s not easy.
Now, other genres have other challenges. Mixing metal drums isn’t particularly easy for example.
3. What tools (plugins etc.) do you consider the most essential for mixing orchestral music, and how do you use them?
- Any Digital parametric EQ
- Any Multiband compressor or dynamic EQ
- A high quality reverb (with a smooth tail that doesn’t have a “metallic ring”)
- Ozone Tonal Balance control
It is difficult to give any precise directions on how to use EQ’s as the way you would EQ a sound will completely depend on the source signal, the arrangement, and many other factors.
For mixing orchestral music, EQ’s are often used to add high frequencies to orchestral sounds and also control the mid range, which is often too much by default.
The goal is achieve a balanced frequency response from the bass to the highs, With that said, the balance will never, and should never be the same from track to track. Achieving the right spectral balance for each track will the result of cutting and boosting instruments in the right spots, and that comes with experience.
Multiband compressors aren’t generally talked about a whole lot for mixing, yet I believe they are a key tool in modern orchestral mixes. Many acoustic instruments are too tonally inconsistent by default and sometimes the room also doesn’t help with their resonances.
Some cellos might have sudden loud resonances in the low mids when the player moves to a certain note, or piccolos and flutes can suddenly get extremely loud when their fundamental harmonic reaches the 1k area.
These problems could be solved with EQ, but it would require making huge cuts which could completely destroy the sound even when these resonances don’t happen.
For that reason, multiband compression or dynamic EQ are the best tools to fight these problems. They allow control over specific resonant frequency areas without messing with anything else. A single flute note can ruin the entire mid range of your mix.
When it comes to reverbs, most DAWs come with one, and it’s usually pretty good. With that said, reverb is such an important part of orchestral mixes that you might want to invest in a better one. Valhalla room is pretty solid if you are on a budget.
A good way to approach reverb on orchestral mixes is to create an aux, put the reverb on it 100% wet and just send your sections different amounts, depending on how wet (far away) you want them to sound. That’s the standard way.
There are also many reverb tricks you can do to create more interesting spaces or blend instruments better. For example, if you want to blend a dry close mic’d bedroom recording of a violin with a lush string library, sending that violin straight to the same hall reverb as the string library just won’t work. If that violin recording is mono or doesn’t have any feeling of space around it, will never blend right.
First sending that violin to a room reverb to give it early reflections to simulate a room mic capture and then sending the whole thing to the hall will make it blend a hundred times better.
I generally like to avoid mentioning plugin names because it’s not about the tools, it’s about the mixer, but Ozone TBC does something that no other spectrum analyzers do (as far as I know).
It gives you a great representation of the spectral balance of your track, and you can directly compare your track’s curve to reference curves which are actually very good guides, especially for the relationship of the bass and the mids.
No matter how good you think you are, you can always get lost in a mix and lose track of how much bass you have for example. Checking TBC from time to time can tell you if there is something wrong. It shouldn’t replace your ears, but it sure assists them really well.
The risk with that plugin is overly trusting it. Not every mix should exactly follow the curve, especially in the highs (dark tracks exist). I would recommend being careful and making sure that you don’t actually like that peak you see before you EQ it out.
4. Let’s say you get a new gig right now to mix an orchestral track. What is your process and workflow from the very start?
I would load up my mixing template, which is basically just empty color coded mixer tracks for me to route stems by category (brass/strings/synths/perc,etc).
That template also has a few reverb sends pre loaded, but that’s it. Once I assign every instrument to the right mixer track, I typically first start by creating my groups and sending them to my reverbs.
After that, panning, then EQ. I sometimes forget to do that and just start EQing right away, but first sending the instrument groups to the reverbs before doing anything else is a good idea as reverb will change how you perceive panning (reverb centers everything) and it will also change the frequency spectrum of the instruments.
Doing the EQ and panning while listening to the reverb’d signal instead of adding reverb afterwards just makes more sense.
In the end, I will spend hours going back and forth tweaking things, so I don’t really have an organized step by step workflow from beginning to end.
Mixing X elements of the track will change how Y is perceived, so that situation is unavoidable. Once the mix is done, I will master the track (unless the client wants to use a separate mastering engineer) and export stems if needed.
6. I know you also have a course on mixing orchestral music, can you tell us a bit about that?
That’s right! I released an orchestral and trailer music mixing course earlier this year. My goal with this course is to teach everything I know about mixing this genre of music step by step.
Nowadays, genres are often blended. For example, it is very common to have orchestras with synths and sound design or big drum libraries in video game music. Composers and mixers have to be polyvalent.
95% of the same mixing concepts and techniques are used to mix orchestral instruments for film, game and trailer music, but what might vary are the elements that get added on top of the orchestra.
I wanted to make sure to cover all that. Mixing a live orchestra is also not the same thing as mixing samples so that is covered as well.
The course starts with a series of videos which are designed to teach you the basics, and after that, you should watch the mix deconstruction videos in which I show and explain all the processing on various tracks in context. These kinds of videos are the best way to learn in my opinion.
I actually have a new mix deconstruction coming up in March which is going to focus almost exclusively on synths and sound design. It is going to be the deconstruction of the track used in the “Dark Zone Trailer” for The Division 2. Really excited about this one !
Enrolling in the course also gives you access to a facebook group where I and other students can give you feedback about your mixes or tracks in general. Knowing the theory is great, but mixing is also a lot of practice, so I think that it is quite important to get feedback to know what you’re doing wrong, or right.
7. What are your goals and dreams for your music career?
My goal is definitely to keep working on bigger and better projects. The cooler the project, the more excited I am to work on it.
Who wouldn’t want to mix a big Hollywood movie? Scoring one is probably the dream of every film composer, so in a way, my dream isn’t so different.
It would also be nice if I got to mix other genres more often, like Pop for example. I actually love pretty much every genre and it is really fun to work on different stuff.
I really love orchestral music though, so I definitely wouldn’t mind working on that for the rest of my life.