OK, so you’ve recorded your track, the playing is tight, the vocals are nectar and it has more hooks than Abu Hamza at a Peter Pan convention. All that is needed is a great mixdown and mega stardom with all its pleasures and pains awaits.
Whilst each track will have it’s own unique challenges, bear in mind that your chances of a great mix are vastly improved by choosing or recording great sounds in the first instance. It’s much better to spend a little more time moving a microphone to get a good tone or selecting the best synth sound than attempting to radically EQ them at the mixing stage. A great pair of monitors, a good audio interface, mics and preamps will all help the quality and tone of your mix enormously.
Try to imagine your mix as a photograph with plenty of contrast, balance and a depth of field. From the hazy distant background to clear sharp focus in the foreground. Use EQ, reverb, panning and delay to create depth and width in your mix. Speaking generally, to put something in the background mix it at low volume with a large reverb and roll off the top end. As for the foreground, mix high and bright with just a meagre crumb of short reverb.
2. Bus (sub group) mixing
A technique that can help you glue your mix together is group mixing. This works by sending the output of separate tracks to a dedicated group for a particular set of instruments. For example send kick, snare & all other drums to a drum group and all vocals to a vocal group etc. This is useful if you want to control the level of say the drums as you only have to move the drum group fader. However, this technique has much more going for it than level control. It can also do wonders for your mix as you can treat whole instrument sections to EQ, compression, reverb etc. which helps to sonically bind them together. For example, if you send all your vocals to the same reverb it creates the illusion that they are all being sung in the same acoustic space.
Bus compression is used by many top mixing engineers to give the drums in particular a more coherent sound as well as giving them snap and punch. This technique is often used in genres where big powerful drums are de rigueur and can be both subtle or not too subtle. All tracks are different and require different settings, but a reasonable starting place would be to set the compressor to attack 10 – 30ms, release 50 or auto, ratio 2:1 and adjust the threshold to show -3db gain reduction. Experiment by pushing it further and you will get an idea of how powerful this technique can be. Also try routing your drum reverb to the bus compressor as this can work very well depending on the track.
3. Drum distortion
Speaking of drums, don’t be afraid to add some distortion to them, both acoustic and electronic drums can benefit from a touch of the filth. Most of the classic recordings mixed from tape on analog mixing consoles are full of subtle warming distortion, much of it so slight it’s almost subliminal. Try applying subtle amounts on overheads, hi-hats and snare for a thicker warmer sound, or crank it up a bit more for some serious grit and crunch. Needless to say this can work on any instrument, a subtle touch on vocals can impart warmth and it can also help soft synths lose that digital edge.
4. Red is dead
Always leave plenty of headroom on your tracks, especially on the main L & R stereo output so that you are not overloading your channels into the red. Digital distortion casts a long standing whiff of bat guano over your mix and in time your general spirit. Needless to say it is to be keenly avoided. Digital clipping is very different to the smooth and satisfying analog variety and even in small amounts it can accumulate and have a detrimental effect on the entire mix. Keep all your channels in the green and try to avoid creeping fader syndrome.
5. Take regular breaks
If you are pounding away at a mix for hours, not only will your ears be thoroughly de-sensitised, but your concentration will also be shot. It’s likely you will be adding top end onto everything and generally undoing all of your good work. If you try to mix in short stretches, and take a 20 minute break every hour, I can almost guarantee that you will be more productive and your mixes will sound better for it. A break will help you return to your mix with much renewed objectivity. Also stay conscious of how loud you are monitoring and vary your levels often.
6. Kick and Bass
Getting the kick drum and bassline to sit well together can at times be one of the most challenging aspects of modern mixing as often the two can end up fighting for the same space in a mix. Here are a couple of techniques to get them to play nicely.
EQ: As both instruments occupy a very similar part of the frequency range, we can EQ small holes in the bass and kick. For example if you boost 80Hz and cut 120Hz on the kick then you should EQ the bass so that you are cutting 80Hz and boosting 120Hz. When cutting, aim for a narrow band of EQ.
Side chain compression: Here we set up a compressor so that the kick drum reduces the volume of the bass thereby making more room in the mix for the kick to punch through. OK, here comes the science….. place a compressor on your bassline channel then find and engage the side chain function on the compressor. Select the kick to trigger the side chain. Set a fast attack 1ms and as fast a release time as you can get away with, 50ms is usually OK. Adjust the threshold so that the gain reduction meter is showing anything from -3db to -5db. You will need to use your ears to fine tune this to your needs. It may be a little fiddly and you may have to consult your DAW or plug-in manual if you have never attempted this before, but used tastefully (or distastefully) it can be a powerful mixing technique that you are likely to use many times again.
7. Clean out the mud
The most obvious application of EQ is to clean out the unwanted frequencies, but with careful use it can improve the clarity of the mix and add punch and focus. As a general mixing and EQ strategy it’s better to cut than to boost. Cutting helps you create space for other elements in the mix without adding excessive amounts of boost which can lead to a harsh, unfocused wall of sound that becomes fatiguing to listen to. With the exception of the kick, bass, toms and perhaps piano, try cutting everything below 100Hz on all of your channels as generally there is little useful musical content there. This frees up a lot of space in the mix and allows the actual bass content to sound more open and powerful. The same principle applies with the extreme top end as well, where possible a gentle rolling off of the high frequencies will allow hi-hats and cymbals to sit in the mix without competing for space and making the mix sound shrill. In short if it’s not contributing anything useful to the mix get rid of it.
8. Define the focus of the mix
It sounds almost childlike in its simplicity but your mix should really show off the most engaging parts of your track. Mix fearlessly, your main parts should be as apparent as a pantomime dame with her arse on fire running across the pitch at a World Cup final.
Find what part of the track is carrying the emotional content and focus your mix to support and compliment it.
9. Make it move
Automate to bring out the excitement in a track. For example push the drums up a few db louder in the chorus, EQ the vocal differently in the middle eight, pick out certain parts and add FX to them for a split second, make the reverb longer or shorter, filter-sweep synths etc etc.
A little work on automating your track can make it live and breathe.
10. Compare and contrast
Make sure that you are on the right path tonally by selecting a track of roughly the same genre that you admire the sound of and refer back to that track often as you are mixing. Loading it into your arrangement and flicking between the reference track and your own mix will help guide the balance and focus of your mix. Listen critically, does your mix have a similar amount of midrange content? How do the levels of your vocal, drums, bass etc. compare? Is your stereo width and depth of field comparable?
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