Tips for making your music sparkle
For many home recording enthusiasts, the mixing and post-production stage is often one shrouded with mystery, a dark art which only a few hallowed individuals can practice. In reality, it’s as much a crucial part of the recording process as recording itself, because it is only after you have the parts down that you can begin to assemble them into something resembling a track. And, not only that, it’s actually pretty simple to get started with.
The easiest way to think of mixing is like thinking of the ingredients you put into a massive musical cake. The raw, unprocessed recordings you’ve made are the full packets of food. Of course, you could just throw everything in a bowl and hope for the best but the chances are you’d end up with something pretty awful. Instead, you start thinking a bit more carefully about the different combinations and amounts, and with a bit of practice and good, old-fashioned trial and error you begin to concoct something amazing. Put simply, mixing your recordings is the same as mixing ingredients, only less messy and more rewarding in the long run.
As with many processes, the overall mixing task can be broken down into smaller tasks which feed into each other. It can be done step-by-step almost. Let’s break things down a bit to make it easier to understand.
Levels, in recording parlance, means the volume at which your sound plays back. Louder doesn’t always mean better here. There was an old metal band a few years ago, Charger, who printed a t-shirt with the slogan “more volume = more power”. Nice sentiment, chaps, but that doesn’t apply just yet. In the world of post-production, it’s all about balance.
First, we need to make sure the different instruments, vocals and sounds all sit nicely alongside each other. If everything here is set to full volume, it’ll sound atrocious. You won’t be able to pick out any of the individual parts, and it’ll be pretty dull for the listener.
You’ll have in your mind, before you even start recording, an idea of how the finished track will sound. Perhaps you have a real talent singing for you, and you want the music to provide a base on which they can work their magic. Or maybe you’re playing a heavier rock or metal track and know the low-end and rhythm section is crucial to giving you clarity. Try and decide what sort of sound you want first, so you can work on achieving it afterwards.
Start here by knocking all the faders or volume controls to zero. Then begin to ‘build’ the track. Typically you will raise the drums to a level, then the bass, and try and mesh the two together. These will form the backbone of the track. From there, introduce guitars and other instruments, and finally add in the vocals. This will provide a rough mix which can be amended or tweaked to your liking. But doesn’t everything still sound a bit jumbled…
…which is where panning comes in. Panning is the practice of using the entire stereo field – i.e. left and right extremes of the stereo speakers – to find a ‘place’ for everything and sort of where mixing/post-production is most readily credited for sorting out. A good analogy here is the orchestra. You won’t find a large orchestra all sat in a tiny space in the middle of the stage. Instead, every instrument will be spread out across the entire floor, to give the illusion of space.
The same principle applies with home recording. Drums, and probably bass, will sit dead centre usually. Try experimenting with your guitars and other instruments though; hard panning two guitars left and right not only gives the mix space and allows the guitars to be heard clearly, it also frees up valuable air for the lower end instruments to sit.
Taking this a step further, you can consider the practice of double-tracking certain instruments. Guitars work perfectly for this; try hard panning (100% left and right) two-track of guitar, and then recording another two tracks and panning them to around 70% left and right. This will give a nice layered sound, although harking back to the advice about levels and balancing if you’re doing this as it’s easy to over-power everything if you’re not careful.
Another powerful, and crucial, tool in post-production and the mixologist’s arsenal is the EQ. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else in the process, is where there is a learning curve to overcome. But if you have a logical mind and a decent set of ears, you should be able to pick things up pretty quickly.
The main principle here is that every sound, be that a guitar, a piano or a crying baby, occupies an area on the frequency spectrum. Low pitched sounds sit at the opposite end to high pitched sounds. The trick for the producer is finding the natural area in which a sound sits, and removing or reducing all the non-essential frequencies. Similar to panning, this frees up ‘space’ for the other sounds to reside so you don’t have to many sounds competing for the same space.
You know, for example, that the bass and six-string guitars sound fundamentally different. So you know straight away that you can begin to chip away at certain overlapping frequencies. Most DAWs come with a spectrum analyzer built in. Using this, you can see visually where the bass is dominant, and ensure you cut any unnecessary frequencies from the other instruments.
From there you can begin whittling away at the other instruments until everything begins to ‘sit’ properly together. Important to note here is that EQ is very easy to go overboard with. Gentle, considered tweaks will go a long way here. There are plenty of decent EQ cheat-sheets available online to help with this process.
Finally, we can look at effects. By this we don’t usually mean the kind of effects you’d use to drastically change a sound while you’re recording, instead it means the things we use to add the final layer of sheen to the sounds. Typically here you’ll be using compressors, slight overdrives or distortions and reverb.
Compressors are basically effects that ‘squash’ the recorded sound. They make the quiet bits louder, and generally even out the overall sound. They are usually pretty transparent, in that they don’t add a great deal to the recorded sound other than in terms of volume, but used correctly will help the overall mix of levels and loudness.
Adding in overdrive or distortion at this stage isn’t meant to radically change the sound, but it can bring certain individual things to life. Adding slight overdrive to your cymbals or hi-hats, for example, can give them an extra dash of sparkle to help them stand out in the mix. This kind of application is sometimes called an ‘exciter’.
Finally, reverb gives the sound a bit of air. It makes it sound like it was recorded in a big open space, and can provide a welcome ambience to the finished product.
Hopefully, by now your recordings should have taken on a new dimension. Everything should be nicely balanced in terms of levels, be spread nicely across the stereo field, have instruments co-operating on frequencies, and have a few nice added extras from the effects. The mixing stage is a great place to experiment with sound, so have fun and let us know how you get on with your post-production dabbling.
Journalist, PR and multimedia specialist. Write professionally on subjects ranging from musical instruments to industrial technology.