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Top 10 Mixing Tips

The devil may be in the details ... but if you do it right, you'll find an angel instead

 

by Craig Anderton

 

 

We all want a good mix where the instruments stick together like glue, with drama and clarity. Toward that end, it would be great to be able to say "add this amount of compression, this type of EQ on these instruments, and you're done!" But if it were that easy, every recording would sound great. Instead, we'll have to be more general.

 

It's also important to remember that tips are not rules. For example, most producers say that mixes should have space, and I agree. But then there's the Stones' Exile on Main Street, whose cluttered, chaotic mixes are a thing of beauty. Which brings us to tip #1:

 

1  Let the music tell you what it wants. This is something engineer Bruce Swedien (Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, too many others to list!) emphasizes in his master classes. The music will tell you what it wants, but you have to listen. Rather than sound like something else, bring out what's unique in what you have. The fewer preconceived notions you bring to music of how it should sound, the better the odds of coming up with something innovative.

 

Pay attention to the details. Listen to every track, in isolation (and preferably on headphones), before you start mixing. With hard disk recording/editing, you can massage each track to eliminate any little pops, clicks, hisses, etc. Cut the spaces between phrases to eliminate any residual hiss or noise, add a fade-in to over-enthusiastic breath inhales on vocals, run the bass through Melodyne if there are tuning problems...all these little improvements will add up to make a big difference in the overall sound.

 

3  Always consider the context. A common mistake among newbie recordists is to solo a track and add EQ and effects to make it sound fantastic. Then they solo the next track and do the same thing. But there's only so much bandwidth and dynamic range: Mixing all these "rich" sounds together can result in a mess. Each track is a piece of the puzzle, and needs to fit with the other tracks.

 

Differentiate instruments with EQ, not just panning. I always start mixing with all tracks panned to center, then use EQ to carve out frequencies so tracks don't "step on" each other (Fig. 1). For example, in a dance mix where the kick should hit hard, I'll shave some low end off the bass while emphasizing its pick or filter attack. But with something that's more old school R&B, I'll keep the bass full, and instead accent the kick drum's mid and beater. Once you can clearly differentiate all the instruments in mono, then bring on the panning.

 

Fig. 1: In this screen shot from PreSonus Studio One 4 , the bass (left fader) has a 2.4 dB shelf to fill out the low end. The drums (right fader) have a 4 dB boost, (with a fairly sharp Q) at 160 Hz to bring out the kick's lower-mid sound. This lets the bass have more low-end prominence, but the kick drum is still very present.

 

5  Be brutal when you edit. I'm ruthless about cutting out whole sections of songs if they don't work. Keep the pace moving, while of course respecting the dynamic flow. Recommended listening: "Shhh/Peaceful" from In a Silent Way, by Miles Davis. It was edited down from far more material to create a beautiful, concise listening experience. And don't fall in love with parts; if a part doesn't support the music as a whole, that's why the "delete" key was invented.

 

6  Automatable EQ is your friend. Drop some of the piano midrange during the vocals so they don't compete with the piano. Increase the upper mids a bit on the acoustic rhythm guitar part so it "cuts" through the mix, then drop it back when the part reverts to rhythm guitar. Even changes of one or two dB affect the overall sound, and most hosts allow EQ automation (Fig. 2).

 

Fig. 2: Here's how to automate EQ in Cakewalk by BandLab. The  acoustic rhythm guitar is about to open an automation lane for the High Mid Frequency EQ from the four-band, QuadCurve parametric EQ. You can then draw an envelope, vary controls with automation write selected, or create automation "moves" using a control surface.

 

7  Remember dynamics - ride the faders. When recording, there's a tendency to use the maximum available headroom. You can restore a sense of dynamics by playing the faders as you mix - subtle changes in dynamics can make a mix "breathe." And while mixing with a mouse is great for editing and touching up, it's lousy for performing. Spring the bucks for a hardware controller (Fig. 3) to add some human feel.

 

Fig. 3: The FaderPort 8 from PreSonus is a cost-effective, ergonomic, Mackie Control-compatible fader box for adding real-time control to a mix.

 

8  Always be in "record automation" mode. As soon as you start mixing, enable automation recording. Sometimes your gut hears music better than your head, and your initial emotional reaction toward a song might be what the music wants.

 

Don't try to master while you mix. A lot of people will slap a multiband compressor across the final output bus and go "okay, it's mastered now!" Wrong. A good mastering engineer can make a good mix sound great, and a great mix sound transcendent. Although I'll switch in some compression on occasion to get a rough idea of how mastering will influence the sound, when it's time for the final rendering to stereo or surround, compression is outta there. Although not everyone agrees - and there can be valid reasons for mastering while you mix - to me, mastering is a different discipline than mixing.

 

10  Optimize your room acoustics. This is the foundation of a good mix: Mixing great music in a room with poor acoustics is like trying to make a great dinner in a cockroach-infested kitchen with a mis-calibrated food thermometer and mislabelled measuring cups. If your mixes sound great in your studio and not-so-great everywhere else, you definitely need an acoustics makeover.  -HC-

 

 

___________________________________________

 

Craig Anderton is a Senior Contributing Editor at Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages. Go to Craig Anderton's official website.

 

 

 

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