The mixing process of bluegrass music should be straight forward, right? You just push up all the faders at once of that impeccable recording, and it’s done. Real life situations might not always turn out to be that simple.
The ideal recording
Yep, because all acoustic music begins with the recording process. Bluegrass falls into this category as well. If you can get away with putting up a single mic – preferably an omni – and capture the whole band with it efficiently, by any means, go for it. It requires a professional band, with musicians who fully understand the dynamics of each other. And not only understand it, but being able to control it as well. It means that the louder instruments might need to move further back right from the start, to keep a pleasant sounding balance. Banjos, mandolins, fiddles and dobros are the usual suspects when it comes to loudness in such a band. So we end up needing some help with the upright bass and the guitar, if they happen to have solos. If the band has the chops to pull this off, and you are after the traditional kind of sound, it’ll work great. Bear in mind that you can’t really mix it afterwards. More like do a little bit of mastering here and there, making miniscule EQ corrections or adding a gentle touch of compression, or even mastering reverb. But the balance will remain the same way the band has played it. If someone has screwed up, it’ll remain there as well. Unless the whole band can get a couple of very similar takes, in which case you might be able to create a composite track. It might sound pretty awkward without a click track though.
Faking the real thing
This is where it gets interesting mixing wise. Because it’s actually possible to fake the above, ideal recording with carefully set up spot mic recordings, all done in the same room, of course. You may or may not use a full band recording into a single microphone as a guide track. You also have the choice to record right away to a click track. You would be surprised how many bluegrass and acoustic country records were done this way in about the last 30 years. The key to it is to keep everything as natural sounding as it gets. You can go a step further and do the guide track with separate mics right away, but with the band playing together. Use gobos for separation if needed. Give the guitar(s), the mandos and vocals some condensers, and use a dynamic or ribbon on the harsher banjo. You can then overdub the solos, and record the backing vocals separately as well, so you can get a reasonable control over balance. The amount of bleed you end up having this way actually works for the music and not against it.
The great overdub party
But even if it’s just the vocals that you choose to overdub, it gives you the ability to compress them individually, thus having the power to actually make all those word intelligible. And why would you stop there, when this way you might be able to get a great, fully acoustic bass sound as well. And your acoustic guitar tracks won’t be buried as distant rhythm tracks either, like in the case of a single mic.
The downside is the greater amount of time you’ll have to put into the mixing phase, to make it sound believable and professional. But don’t get anxious, it goes pretty much like any pop record, except you watch yourself to not go overboard with the effects. Compress only as much as needed, and only use reverb when the tracks are really lacking some glue. There are plenty of mixes done this way, where it’s only the vocals and the instrumental solos that get additional reverb. It can do wonders to a fiddle break or a guitar solo, especially in slower tunes. Make sure you pan your now virtual band in a natural way. That being said, the bass, the lead vocals and the solos get the center position in most situations, not unlike in pop music. As far as EQ goes, you can now dive in deeper and high-pass some of the guitars and vocals, if needed, to create some clarity and headroom for the bass. Speaking of the bass, you can now compress it harder, to get all the notes equally audible. If it needs anything else like your secret saturation “weapon”, you can add it on a per track basis, too.
As usual, don’t go for a tradition mindlessly, but go for a certain sound you hear in your head. Then, if the results are great, no one will second guess your process. Have fun, and give that banjo player a pass. For now.