Following my previous article, where I gave you 5 tips for a better recording, here are my 6 tips for a better mix.
Balance, balance, BALANCE !
Mixing is all about balance: any change you make on any given track will change the overall song/cue balance. With EQ you can change the volume of certain frequencies while with compression you can change the dynamic range of a track. Both processes have an impact on the balance. Also adding effects, such as reverb, you can change the perceived distance or depth of a track, hence the balance!
If you’ve followed my advice on always having a good mix during your production, you should have a relatively balanced track as soon as you start mixing. I’d suggest to spend your first moments of the mixing process only tweaking faders. If your arrangement works well you should find a good balance fairly quickly. If you struggle to find your initial balance, focus on the arrangement or performance issues before reaching for EQ. Dense tracks are inherently trickier to mix, but if the arrangement works, the balance will fall into place naturally.
After you have this initial mix, you can start to add in EQ, compression and effects.
Pan with intention
One of the most underrated tool for mixing is the pan knob. I see lots of people being afraid of hard-panning tracks. Hard panning is the process of panning something all the way to the left or to the right.
If you hard pan most of the tracks you’ll get more space in the middle of the stereo field, which is very useful for placing your soloists (or vocals if you’re mixing a song) prominently but balanced with the track. Leaving space in the middle is also very useful for dialogues when the music is combined with the rest of the soundtrack. Furthermore, thanks to hard panning, you’re also going to increase the perceived width of the track.
Use few and simple plugins
Nowadays the plug-in market is saturated with countless of very good, yet mostly useless plugins. Yes, at the risk of being too bold I’ll say that most of the plugins out there are useless. Surely many of them have their place in particular situations, but the truth is you probably already have more than enough for your needs. While mixing you don’t want to endlessly fiddle with that new plugin you just bought on Black Friday. Chances are, you don’t have a clue on how to use it properly anyway.
Just like with any tool, you need to become second nature with your plugins in order to operate them quickly and effectively. Stick to use few of them and learn them well.
I’d suggest to use just one type of plugin for each category (EQ, compressor, reverb, delay etc..) at least until you get to know them very well. This way you’re going to build a very effective toolbox, wasting less time fiddling and concentrating more on the music.
Just because you recorded/programmed a track doesn’t mean it should automatically make it to the mix (unless your director or producer is so attached to it 🙂 ). Almost 90% of the time, once you have established a good balance, you’ll end up with one or more tracks that won’t fit. Don’t be shy, just mute them! You don’t necessarily need to mute a track from the beginning to the end of your piece: you can also mute parts of that track to create a more dynamic and interesting mix. For example try muting some percussions in the verse of a song, only to let them play during the chorus.
Or try to mute some of the accompaniment sections during soft orchestral passages, to make the big moments more explosive.
Finally I’d suggest to use the solo button less. It can be useful to isolate a track to investigate specific sonic problems and/or to fine tune EQ and compression, but most of the time you should try to make adjustments listening to specific tracks in context. It really doesn’t matter how a track sounds on its own, as long as it fits together with everything else. If you tweak sounds in isolation, there’s no guarantee that they will work with the rest of the track.
Use your stereo bus!
The stereo bus (sometimes referred as the two bus) is basically your main output. If you put a plugin on it you’ll affect your whole mix. This may sound intimidating, but if you follow the next simple steps it can actually simplify your mixing process.
Think of the stereo bus as a “big picture” processor: every tweak you make here will have a big impact on your mix as a whole. The main uses for a stereo bus is to place EQ and compression. Nothing revolutionary here. What’s interesting is enabling your stereo bus plugins as soon as possible in the mixing process.
Have an EQ ready, and as soon as your initial balance and tweaking is in place, start to use it. I can’t give you and exact recipe on how to EQ your stereo bus, it really depends on the music you’re trying to mix. Ask yourself the following questions:
What does your track needs? Is it little top-end ? Did everything get a little too muddy and/or midrangy ?
Instead of tweaking every track, just dial in a little bit of 10KHz and/or take out a smidge of 250-400 Hz. Be careful: use small amounts of processing (like 1-2 dBs) as you’re always affecting the whole mix.
If you are proficient with compressors, you can insert one after the EQ. Keep it at low ratios (1/2 to 1/4) and don’t compress much (2-4 dBs of gain reduction) with fairly slow attack and release times (this will help to keep the compressor transparent). The compressor will have a “glue” effect on your mix, also helping the translation when played on smaller speakers.
The last use of the stereo bus is volume rides: you can help the dynamics of your song by riding the volume of the stereo bus. Typically you’ll raise 1-2 dBs in choruses or orchestral explosions to enhance the dynamic perception. Of course this works in the opposite direction too: you can raise soft passages for the sake of legibility.
Can I mix with headphones?
The biggest problem you face when you attempt to mix in your home studio is the acoustic response of your room. You probably already have decent speakers, but without a properly treated room, there’s no guarantee of a flat response. For example you may hear lots of bass frequencies, but they may be coming from bad room reflections, not from your actual mix.
Usually it’s not recommended to mix with headphones, for a number of reasons. The main one is that 90% of the listeners will listen through speakers.
However headphones are great for checking the frequency response of your mix if you can’t trust your speakers fully. The way I personally do this is to use a good pair of studio headphones that I really know very well. This way I immediately spot any anomalies and fix them quickly.
Let your mixes sit at least one day before you do your last tweaks. Listen to something else, try to forget what you’ve done technically during mixing. This is the best way to recharge your ears and have a fresh perspective on your work.
By now, you should have a better idea of how to record and mix your own music. I really hope this helps!