Studio Slave Delivers A Crash Course In Mixing
All your individual tracks sound great. Your drums are grooving, your vocal is sounding nicely in tune and your synths are working in cohesion to form the melody and harmony. However when you put it all together you end up with one big mess. Or your ending up with a clash of disparate tracks that are failing miserably at sounding like one cohesive song. If this sounds familiar, then read on as we have written some general guidelines that we have found useful over the years.
These are not hard and fast rules and you won’t need to apply all of them to each and every mix you do. But they do serve as a nice checklist to quickly scan through and check if you can make any improvements or if you have missed anything out.
Firstly let’s start with some house keeping and preparation. Before starting the mix-down, make sure your EQs are flat, all your channel faders, auxiliary’s buses and send returns are turned down and that all routing is set to the correct channels and not feeding into other auxiliary’s or busses.
This will ensure that no unexpected audio will bleed its way into our final bounce from any unusual routing.
Finally ensure your tracks are in a logical order and grouped or sub-mixed if necessary. This will give you more control over your entire groups without having to mess up the relationship between instruments within a group. A point to note on this is to ensure that any auxiliary’s or effects routings also pass through the group and are set to post fader. This means that the relationship between the wet/dry and the track signal will stay the same when adjusting the group fader. Ensure they are all correctly labelled and colour coded so you can quickly navigate around your arrangement. We also recommend bouncing your individual tracks to audio to prevent you spending countless hours making various adjustments.
When recording ensure that your gains are set as close to unity or 0dB when using a mixing desk. This ensures that you will have the best signal to noise ratio achievable. Within the digital realm this is less important and we can usually record into a DAW at around -6dBFS to -10dBFS. The main issue is not to clip. This is a recording point but serves a lot of relevance when later coming to mix a track down. Sorting the problem before it occurs at the source is much easier than having to try and solve the issue later on in the mix-down.
Ensure that you give your ears a rest between the creative process and the mix-down. You need time to let your ear fatigue reduce as well as to let your brain try and off load the information so that you don’t come back to the mix with a biased opinion.
Ideally the mix-down should be done by someone with objective ears who has had no connection with the track during the creative process whatsoever. We understand in this day of age where the producer is also the mixer engineer, mastering engineer, promoter and DJ that this is no longer feasible, however you can still take sensible measures such as leaving a good day or two cooling off period before attempting the mix-down.
When EQing try to use sharp cuts to notch out unwanted frequencies and when boosting use gentle shallow curves. Try to high pass filter any unwanted frequencies out of your sounds and also make sure to check how they sound in context of the whole mix and not just in isolation. We can often find that we can cut a lot more low end out of a sound when it is in the full context of a mix without making a difference to the full mix whereas in isolation this may sound unnatural or too thin. Make any final EQ, effect or level adjustments at the end of your mixing stage once you have listened through the whole track a few times.
DEPTH AND SPACE
Learn how to use reverb properly within a mix. Reverb is a very powerful tool to give your track depth and space but it can also ruin a mix if not used correctly. Many producers drown a track in reverb, This will make they’re track lose a lot of its impact and punch as well as muddy up the mix and give it a very washed over feel. Things to bear in mind with reverb is that the wetter the signal, the further away the sound will be perceived and the dryer the signal the more upfront the sound will be perceived. Do not mistake this for the room size and decay time, this will alter the type of space your room is in, but may not help you with effectively placing a sound forward or back within a mix. A final note is the use of pre-delay. This is important to ensure the reverb doesn’t wash into the decay of the original sound itself. Generally the bigger the reverb the higher the pre-delay should be. Many mix engineers will program they’re pre delay times to be in proportion with they’re track tempo.
Always reference your track to professionally mastered recordings in a similar genre or style throughout the mix-down and mastering process. By bringing the reference track into its own channel in the DAW you can use analysers to check the stereo image, loudness and frequency content of a reference track in comparison to your own.
Use compression as a tool for placing vocals in a mix. A vocal with a low knee and and a slow attack will make the vocal sound upfront where as a soft knee and faster attack will sound slightly further back and more natural. Compressing the vocal will also make it flow more naturally throughout the context of the entire track. Also bear in mind that compressors can also be used to warm up a signal and likewise saturators and distortion can also slightly compress a signal.
BALANCE AND PANNING
Keep kick drums and bass instruments in the centre of your track and in mono. Panning the bass instruments will unbalance the mix and most club sound systems are in mono anyway. Bass frequencies up to about 200Hz contain very little directional information and the human ear is not tuned to be able to detect panning at these low frequencies. Further to this, having your main elements of a mix in the centre of your track is the best way to ensure a powerful mix.
FREQUENCY SPECTRUM AWARENESS
Don’t have too many instruments occupying the same frequency range or stereo spectrum. This is especially important in the low-mid section of your mix where there is often a lot of mud and overlapping sounds. Keep instruments containing similar frequency content panned away from each other and try using spectral mixing which is the art of using parametric EQs to notch certain sounds so that they can slot into each other’s space without having clashing frequencies.
try to always cut frequencies rather than boost them to resolve a problem. This will sound more natural as the human ear is less acute to frequency cutting than it is to frequency boosting
For referencing low end and checking your mix try putting a low pass filter on your master out and slowly reducing the frequency. This method can really help you home in on your low end to check that it is well balanced without getting distracted by other sounds. An alternative to this is to check your mix by leaving your studio whilst the mix is playing and closing the door and listening from outside the room.
Watch your monitoring levels. Loud monitoring makes everything sound better (due to Fletcher-Munson or equal loudness curves) however this is not how the user will be listening to your track. It’s fine to have it loud when creating your track to get inspired but during the mix-down you should have a lower reference volume that you always mix at. Raising the volume not only fatigues your ears but can also lead to Tinnitus and permanent hearing damage. A good rule to follow is to monitor quietly for the big decisions and monitor loudly for the small decisions. The loud monitoring on professional studio monitors should only be in the last 10 percent of your mixing for finalising tweaks.
TRANSLATION TO THE LISTENER
Check your mixes on as many different types of speakers as possible including car speakers, studio headphones, iPod speakers and even trashy radio speakers. You need to check that your track translates to as many different speakers and playback options as possible. Also you will notice things on headphones that you wouldn’t have noticed on big speakers and vice versa. Beware of mixing entirely in headphones as this can cause you to have a warped perception of the stereo image as well as damaging your ears due to the sound waves going directly into the ear canal.
REST AND ADJUST
Once your track is at a stage where you feel it is fully mixed Down, step away from the session and get time sleep. Listen to your mix the following day and there’s a very high chance that now that your ears and brain have recovered that there will be some minor adjustments needed that you will notice straight away.