Great mixes eluding you? These mixing tips should put you on the right track…
It all seems so simple on paper. Take the musical performances that you’ve recorded, adjust the levels and effects, and combine, with some magical alchemy, to create an amazing finished track. In reality, it’s a bit trickier that – there are reasons they’re called ‘engineers’ and not ‘mixers’. However, with the tools available, there’s no reason that you shouldn’t be able to get great results with perseverance. Here are some mixing tips to point you in the right direction…
1. Get it right at the source
Before you’ve even touched a fader (a virtual fader within a DAW or otherwise), make sure you’ve have recorded each to the best quality possible. Mixing is a whole different experience when everything already sounds great- a rough mix with just levels approximately adjusted and no effects will already sound some way towards being mixed.
Don’t ever think ‘I’ll fix it in the mix’, because you’ll end up with something that is ultimately a compromise. For those recording through microphones, you can change the sound of recording more by moving a microphone 6-inches than by hours of processing and tweaking (honestly!).
2. Start with a neutral desk
Often, particularly when recording in a home studio, you will tend to roughly mix as you go. Though you may want to bounce this rough version for reference, when you begin the final mix, ideally you should reset the desk.
This means setting all faders to zero, switching off all effects, and switching off all EQ. This means you can focus on every part in detail, from the start of the process.
3. Keep levels reasonable…
Ears get tired when subjected to high levels of noise. When they do, they’re pretty much useless when it comes to making critical judgements on your mix. Ever finished working on a track one day thinking it was great, then listened to it the next day and been horrified at how bad it was? That’s because your ears were tired.
At it’s worst, you can find yourself turning, say, a vocal up all the way, and hear no difference.
For this reason, you should mix at a reasonably low level. This way, it will take longer for your ears to tire. Only turn it up every so often to check the energy at high volume. You should also try to take a break every few hours at least.
If you’re mixing for clubs and big sound systems, you’re likely to want to listen at higher volumes. In these situations, you’ll need to break more regularly.
4. Pull faders down
When something is too quiet, the temptation is to turn it up. When mixing, this is a mistake. Very quickly, channel levels and master outputs will be dancing into the red area of the meter- not good.
Instead, pull channel faders down. This we, you will preserve headroom and avoid clipping.
5. Cut! (Don’t boost)
Similarly, when using EQ, it is far better to cut frequencies than to boost. Every boost raises gain, and so erodes some headroom. Cutting frequencies around the band you wish to emphasise is a far better strategy, and makes for a more manageable mix, with less ‘clutter’.
6. Less is more
The strength of computer based recording systems is that it’s very easy to go back and add new parts. The problem with computer based recording systems is that it’s very easy to go back and add new parts.
When you can potentially do anything with your home rig, there’s always a temptation to keep adding and adding. DON’T!!
Think of it like cooking- a little bit of salt and pepper and some fresh basil can unlock the flavour of a simple pasta sauce. Start though herbs, spices, more salt, and more pepper, and you’ll end up with an unpleasant, confusing mess.
When mixing, fewer, well-engineered components will nearly always be better than a huge stack of parts. Keep asking yourself ‘does this add to the effect I’m looking for, or take away from it?’
7. Use reverb with care
Of the most common mistakes that inexperienced engineers make is to drown everything in reverb. It’s easy to see why- reverb sounds great.
However. Too much reverb can make things sound very cluttered very quickly.
Think of if like this- if you were sat beside someone in your front room as they spoke to you, their voice would have very little natural reverb, and so it would be clear and intelligible. If they were speaking to you from the other side of a huge underground cave, the reverb would ‘blur the edges’ of their speech, making it very difficult to hear anything clearly.
Another easy way to think about it is that the more reverb something has, the further back in the mix it will appear to be. Drier sounds will seem to be closer to the listener.
Unless you’re looking you use reverb as a very obvious effect, a good rule of thumb is to adjust reverb so that you don’t notice that it’s there until you press bypass- and then it’s obvious. Try it, and you’ll hear what I mean….
One of the most problematic areas of a mix can occur between the bass and the kick drum. The issue arises because these two sounds will often sit in the same frequency range. You don’t wont to filter out any of the lower frequencies of either, as they suddenly sound thin- so what do you do?
This is where side chain ducking is most frequently used. Normally, a compressor works by using the input signal level crossing a pre-set threshold as a trigger to reduce the level of the same signal. Compressors with side chain inputs allow the user to trigger compression of the input signal via another source.
This can temporarily reduce the signal level at a chosen moment. With bass and kick drum, the most common method is to use a compressor on the bass part, with an aux signal from the kick drum routed to the side chain.
Some tweaking of threshold, ratio, attack and decay, and you’ll be able to hear both parts clearly, with no noticeable compression.
9. Keep checking within the group and within the mix
It’s easy to solo a part and spend an age EQing, and getting that individual recording sounding amazing, only to un-solo, and finding that it doesn’t fit.
For this reason, you should keep checking how something sounds in the whole mix, or if it’s part of a group (like a drum sound, or part of a brass section, for example), within the group, too.
10. Listen to your mix. Everywhere.
Ever noticed that in big studios they have many different sets of speakers in the control room? That’s so that the mix can be checked on the widest range of playback speakers possible.
Whilst most people won’t have a set of main monitors, nearfields, and Auratones, they will have plenty of playback devices. Check your mix through everything you can- TV speakers, hi-fi, computer speakers, car stereo, iPod, headphones… Your first reference should ideally be a good set of studio monitors.
Listening to a mix through different speakers is a very revealing experience.
Before you start to disassemble your mix so that it sounds right on a pair of PC speakers, remember- the idea is that it sounds as good as it possibly can across all speakers, so there’s always going to be an element of compromise. Think about where you envisage the track being played most, and place greatest priority on getting it to sound right on those speakers.
Mixing tips for the ages…
There are endless ways to create great mixes, and as with all music, there really is no correct way of doing things. However, these tips should provide some useful guidance. They have been learned the hard way but thankfully nowadays you don’t have to. There are plenty of online resources, music production courses and colleges that can help you out. Never stop studying if you want to be the best. There’s an additional tip for nowt!
Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.