Ask anyone who has ever laid their hands on a console in a studio or clicked their life away in their choice of recording software and they will all agree on one thing – mixing, or rather anyone’s definition of what a good mix is and the right way of doing things, is a very large mixed bag of opinions. As you navigate the world of mixing, you will not only hone your skills, but you will get an ever-clearer idea of what works for you and what doesn’t. Now this doesn’t mean we are going to toss you out into the world of audio to fend for yourself. While “what sounds good” is ultimately subjective, there are endless techniques and tools at your disposal to get you closer to achieving your idea of the perfect mix. In this blog, we are going to toss some great tips, guidelines, and starting points your way to get you pointed in the right direction on your audio mixing journey.
7 Elements of a Great Mix
Balance: The mix should offer a good balance of the levels of each instrument, vocal, etc. while preserving the musicality and emotion of the song.
Clarity: Properly representing the entire frequency range is huge when perfecting your overall mix. From the powerful lows to the sparkling highs, they all need to be present and balanced.
Separation: Each instrument and part should be easily discernable. A great mix will well-defined enough for the listener to pick out individual sounds.
Panning: Every element in the song is placed in a way that makes sense to the artist and listener.
Space: Various elements in a song as well as the overall mix should have a sense of ambience. You want to feel like everything is existing in 3-dimensional space.
Dynamics: Each element in the song should feel natural and not overly compressed or too loud. A great mix will allow for each part of the song to breathe and develop.
Creativity: A great mix not only delivers a clear representation of all the elements of the song; it helps focus the listener on what the artist is intending to get across. Out-of-the-box thinking can result in wonderful creative sounds that makes a song stand out.
Garbage in, Garbage out
Achieving the best mix starts with a good recording. Strive to achieve the cleanest tracks possible, with no excess noise or distortion, and save adding EQ or effects for later. Your mix is only as good as the source. Most importantly, don’t forget to listen closely while recording as it’s far more difficult to go back than it is to get it right the first time.
Get the Arrangement Down
It’s a good idea to think in terms of the arrangement from the very beginning. Only add what’s needed rather than cluttering it with overdubs. Also, keep the number of “takes” of any given part to a minimum; it is mentally and physically exhausting to listen to dozens of takes to compile a single track.
Plan it Out
Planning for the mix while tracking is one of the most overlooked issues in recording. Particularly with the near limitless tracks offered by today’s DAWs, it’s all too easy to just record another take and adopt a “fix it in the mix” attitude. The hours added to the mixdown time will absolutely come back to haunt you.
Trust Your Ears
First, it’s always about the song. The addition of multiple gadgets, tricks and effects can ruin an otherwise good song. Listen to the song, and only add what it needs – nothing more. Second, your ears are your most important tool. Learning to listen is truly the most important lesson in music, whether playing, recording, mixing, or mastering. Don’t be afraid to get in there, try new things and let your ears be the guide.
While a perfectly calibrated and positioned set of professional monitors in a studio are the ultimate way to hear your mix, not everyone will have the same listening experience as you. Throughout the mixing process, listen to it via other setups that you are familiar with list headphones, car stereo, etc. It’s also immensely helpful to have another finished mix (either your own or a favorite song you want to emulate) on hand to compare to.
As stated at the top of this blog, there are countless ways to get the sound that you want in your mix and some might not work for some people. Here are some tried and true techniques to help give you a bit of a head start and hopefully give you some ideas on your own techniques.
The Joys of Mono
It’s important to periodically check the mix in mono. The main idea behind this is to avoid phase issues with stereo sources. Checking the mix in mono makes sense for other reasons, too. It tends to “flatten out” the mix, resulting in a different perspective on how much natural separation there is between the tracks. Essentially, if it sounds clean and well-defined in mono, it will sound good in stereo, as well (while the inverse is not necessarily true).
Drums and Bass – Starting with the Foundation
Most low frequency sounds lack directionality; they also contain the majority of the energy. Therefore, they tend to work best when panned dead center.
These low-frequency mixes generally begin by setting up the stereo image of the drums from an audience perspective. So, with a right-handed drummer, the kick and snare will be in the center, the hi-hat will be panned slightly right of that, and the overheads will be panned hard left and right.
Depending on how many toms and other toys the drummer has, it’s usually best to create a natural placement within the stereo spread. For example, with three toms, the middle one would be panned dead center and the other two at around 9:00-10:00 and 2:00-3:00, depending on how wide a spread is desired.
Stereo Guitars – Don’t Fret, Here Are A Few Tips
Mixing guitars in stereo is a great way to add depth. Spreading out the guitar(s) in busy mixes opens up space for bass and other center-panned parts. Drop lower midrange frequencies to remove muddiness in the middle. Adding high end also works, but often accentuates finger noise.
Here’s an easy way to record acoustic guitar. Using a pair of directional mics, aim one at the body just below the sound hole and the other at the top of the neck. Panning them at 9:00 and 3:00 results in a nice, wide stereo image.
Double-tracking – recording the same part twice – delivers a nice full guitar sound. Using two different guitars and/or amplifiers is ideal, but if that’s not possible, try alternate tunings, a capo or even down-tuning.
Vocals – The Last Thing to Mix
Lead vocals are typically mixed front and center, but there are some tips and tricks for mixing backing vocals. The most common is spreading them across the stereo field to widen the track; 9:00 and 3:00 is enough for most mixes. Adding a bit of delay and chorus to the backing vocals can do wonders for blending parts with each other and within the mix. Something else to try is slipping the lead vocal just a hair to one side and the backing vocals to the other side.
Diving into the world of mixing can be daunting, but in the end, it is incredibly satisfying to have a mix that you are proud of. The more you learn and the more time you spend experimenting, the better your mixes will get. So, get out there and start mixing!