Caught in a "mix rut"? Try a different approach to mixing that places a priority on the song element people relate to the most
By Phil O'Keefe
I'm going to take a guess here - you probably mix your tracks from the bottom up, don't you? Most people start their mixes by working on the drums, bass, and the other foundational instruments. It's usually only after they get all of that done, along with the guitars, keyboards, and all the other instrumental parts that they even consider bringing in the vocals. There's a lot to be said for the "foundation-up" approach to building a mix, but it doesn't always work out as well as we might hope. One complaint I hear fairly often is that "there's no room for the vocal", or a similar lament about difficulties with getting the vocal levels "right" in relation to the rest of the instruments and parts - almost as if the vocal was an afterthought that was added in after everything else. Probably at least in part because it was…
Start With The Most Important Thing
One way to get around this problem is to flip your mixing paradigm. Instead of starting out with the foundation and building "on top" of that, the next time you're struggling with a mix, I challenge you to try a different approach. Save your mix and create a new copy of your song or session file. Using that (so that your old mix is safe and sound should you change your mind and decide to return to it), start a new mix from scratch, except this time, instead of starting with the drums, bass, and other rhythm section instruments, bring The Most Important Thing up first, then build your mix around that. (Fig.1) In most cases, The Most Important Thing will be the lead vocal, but it can change in different sections of the song, and it could just as easily be a lead guitar or other melodic instrument - especially if your song is an instrumental, or has extensive solos or instrumental breaks in it.
Figure 1: If the vocal or lead instrument is the center of attention in your recording, why not build the mix around it from the beginning?
By starting with the lead vocal and primary melodic instruments, and then building the mix around them, you're more likely to retain enough room for the stars of the show within the final mix. Since you've placed your focus on them from the beginning, as you go along, you'll be able to reference how everything else you're adding to the mix interacts with the lead vocal and lead instruments, and how it affects them, instead of trying to fit them into whatever space is left over when the mix is nearly finished, or whatever niche you can carve out for them after fitting everything else in to the mix first.
Even if you find you still prefer to mix the foundational instruments first, consider bringing the lead instrument and vocals in for a few minutes here and there as you're working on those other parts. Occasionally checking how they fit into the sonic landscape you're creating can save you from unpleasant surprises and tons of additional work later.
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Associate Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.