I’m just old enough to remember the days before music was recorded with computers. Those were the days when you really had to make sure you got your mix right before even considering mastering.
I got into recording as a teenager in the late 80’s and experienced the joy (and misery) of recording on to tape. Anyone old enough to remember cassette based 4-tracks knows what I’m talking about.
On occasion I was lucky enough to make it into a ‘pro’ studio that had a 24 track 2″ tape multitrack recorder. It was in this type of environment that I began to learn the art of mixing tracks without the luxury of instant recall and the safety net of always being able to fix it later. There was no such thing as ‘Undo’.
The Expensive Days of Analog Recording
You see, the days of analog recording were expensive. If you got the mix wrong, you had to book more time in the studio, bounce the mix onto DAT (digital audio tape) and then take that to a mastering engineer who would master that recording through banks of expensive hardware that have now been replaced by affordable plugins.
Today is a magical time for producers and artists, but what seems to have been lost in this amazing digital age are the essential techniques and procedures followed by even the most basic mixing engineer. The lost art of mixing.
What’s Wrong with My Mix?
It’s tempting to ignore this question when your music already sounds amazing playing at extremely high quality through your DAW on speakers that would put any 80’s studio to shame. But, think again.
You really need to ask yourself, ”how can I improve on this mix?”. This is especially relevant for electronic music producers who tend to stick with sounds that are produced purely from within the computer.
There is a tendency to assume that because every virtual instrument has extremely high quality sounds, you shouldn’t need to tweak them right? Wrong.
Clean Up Your Sonic Space
Start with the rhythm section. Drums and Bass. Let’s say you’re producing some electro house track and you want a massive kick drum and a deep subby bass, you wouldn’t expect to cut the bass frequencies would you? Well actually you might.
If your kick drum is super subby, you might not have left enough ‘sonic space’ in your mix for the bass synth to resonate as well as it should.
Have you ever been in a club and noticed how loud and punchy the kick drum was on a certain song only to discover that when you play that song at home the kick wasn’t that impressive?
Aside from any intoxicants you might have consumed that evening, chances are that the kick drum in that track was mixed specifically to allow space for other parts of the song (usually bass) to occupy their own place in the mix while still retaining it’s own clarity.
Mix with a Sub Woofer
If you’re creating dance music of any kind, this is an essential tool for your mixing process. How can you possibly know how much bass to cut or boost if your mixing setup has no representation of sub bass?
When mixing, I’m constantly switching my sub on and off for A/B comparisons. I can tell instantly if my kick drum and bass sound are going to clash. More often than not, it’s the kick drum that has too much sub but occasionally the bass sound might be a touch too woolly and will need some bass attenuation.
Clean up that bottom end first and the rest of your mix should slot into place. Get it right before moving on to the fun parts of mixing such as vocal FX, verbs and delays. If your rhythm section is sucking all the oxygen out of the room, everything else in your mix will suffer.
Use High Volume Sparingly
Another essential tip is that you should mostly mix at low volumes but when it comes to sub bass there is often a sweet spot at high volumes which you need to hear. For example, you’ve rolled off some of the bottom end from your kick drum but it’s sounding a little thin. Chances are that it’s actually fine and when you crank up the volume you’ll hear plenty of the lower end creeping back in.
Pump up the volume for a short while and listen to that bottom end, if it still sounds thin bring back a little of the bass frequencies that you’d previously cut. Once you’re happy, be sure to drop the volume back down to something less than floor shaking so that your ears don’t implode.
Use Sub Mixes
This is nothing to do with your sub woofer. It’s just a term that means you split your overall mix into sub mixes.
Traditionally this would be done with drums, strings, orchestration, guitars, vocals etc.
For example, you’ve got 12 tracks of drums and 4 tracks of percussion. Lets just say you decide that the drums and percussion are all too loud, the last thing you want to do is bring each track down 3db. If you group all of those tracks together into a sub mix you can quickly pull down the volume of just two faders that control that sub mix.
You can also add eq, compression and effects to that sub mix without effecting other tracks. This keeps things neat and tidy and really helps you to mentally and visually keep control of your mix as well as sonically separate all aspects of your mix.
Never, Ever add a mastering plugin to your main output
This is a seriously bad habit that has crept in with lots of young, inexperienced producers and it drives me crazy. Ask yourself two questions:
1 – Am I a mastering Engineer?
2 – Would it really hurt if I added mastering AFTER I finished my mix?
If the answer to both questions is NO you should remove that mastering plugin from your main output bus immediately.
Why do I say this? Well, if your mix is playing through a mastering plugin that adds a scooping EQ and hard limiter there is no chance of you being able to hear a clear, transparent and accurate representation of your mix.
By all means, feel free to play with the mastering plugin to get an idea of how your mix would sound on broadcast radio, but for gods sake remember to switch it off when your done playing.
What you need is clarity and transparency when mixing, anything else is not helping you in any way.
Panning and Mono
Mono is good. Don’t be afraid of it. When you hear a fat, solid bass guitar in a song, chances are it’s a totally mono sound. The fact that it lives in your stereo mix has no bearing on the fact that it’s a mono instrument with a mono sound.
The same thing goes for kick drums. Unless your going for a spacey, ambient effect, kicks should always be panned right down the centre for maximum punch.
Synthetic bass sounds are slightly different, if your mix has the space for it, you might find it sounds really cool to add a subtle stereo chorus to your bass.
Traditionally though, you’ll really appreciate the solid power of a mono bass sound that is panned squarely in the center of your mix.
Mid range instruments like guitars or backing vocals can often sound way cooler when panned hard left and right. This gives you a wider sound and allows breathing space for your kick, bass and maybe lead vocals which work best panned in the centre. These are not RULES, just suggestions.
Mid Range Instruments
Guitars, synths, brass and other instruments that occupy the mid range of your mix need to be handled with care. These are often really important elements of your song but it’s vital to remember that they often cover a wide range of frequencies. For example, acoustic guitars are a mid range instrument but if well recorded they capture a lot of high and low end which might interfere with your bass and hi-hats.
If I was mixing an acoustic guitar song that had no drums or percussion I might allow the guitars to keep more of their wide range of frequencies. If however, the song had drums and bass I would almost certainly cut some of the bottom end and maybe attenuate the higher frequencies too.
Adjust your thinking to suite the song, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ formula other than giving each instrument its own space. Listen to the mixes of latter day Beatles songs and you’ll hear the art of mixing in it’s early glory. What George Martin did with limited equipment still sounds better than most modern day mixes.
How did he do it? Practice and lots of experience. Approach your mix from the perspective of the old order of mixing engineers. Get it right now or the mix is ruined. Sometimes a bit of pressure brings out the best in us, if you always have the safety net of total recall and unlimited undos, where’s the challenge?