Mixing is something of a dark art with many of the best mixing engineers and producers keeping their secrets under lock and key. It’s not surprising really as who would willingly give away their acquired knowledge, built through years of trial and error. In recent times the secrets of mixing have been getting revealed to us mortals much more through relatively new channels like YouTube, Online courses (with some legendary mix engineers I might add) and the internet in general (blogs etc.). I remember when I first started producing, yes a long time ago now, resources were few and far between and they usually cost quite a bit to get your hands on, hence why back in the day I and probably most other young producers botched our way through the whole mixing process.
In a nutshell mixing is the process of making the track you have written sound good. This can be done through the use of tools such as volume control, panning and things like reverb, delay and any number of effects that are now available. Mixing in my opinion is an art and if you look at a lot of the hit records out there, they are often mixed by names that pop up over and over again. Many of these mix engineers are stars in their own right now. I’m talking about people like Dave Pensado, Greg Wells, Manny Marroquin and they even have their own plugins in some cases. I myself love the Manny Marroquin range available by Waves, check them out!
I’ll delve more into actual mixing engineers and their tricks in a future blog, but today I wanted to highlight a general checklist of steps you should consider when mixing any music you make. It’s taken from the Mixing Engineer’s Handbook, which is a super resource by Bobby Owsinski, I would suggest getting your hands on a copy.
- Does your mix have dynamic contrast? Does it build as the song goes along? Are different instruments, sounds, or lines added or muted in different sections?
- Does your mix have a focal point? Is the mix centered around the instrument or vocal that’s the most important?
- Does your mix sound noisy? Have you eliminated any count-offs, guitar amp noises, bad edits, and breaths that stand out? Each one may not seem like much, but their effect is cumulative.
- Does your mix lack clarity or punch? Can you distinguish every instrument? Does the rhythm section sound great by itself? Is the balance between bass, kick, and snare correct?
- Does your mix sound distant? Try decreasing the level of the reverb and effects, starting with the wettest and then working your way to the least wet.
- Can your hear every lyric? Every word must be heard. Tweak the automation if you’re using it; automate the track if you’re not.
- Can you hear every note being played? If solos or signature lines are being masked, automate the track to hear every note, or tweak the automation until you can.
- Are the sounds dull or uninteresting? Are generic synth patches or predictable guitar or keyboard sounds being used? Try modifying them with an effect.
- Does the song groove? Does it feel as good as your favourite song? Is the instrument or instruments that supply the groove loud enough?
- What’s the direction of the song? Should it be close and intimate or big and loud? If your current direction isn’t working, try the opposite.
- Are you compressing too much? Does the mix feel squashed? Is it fatiguing to listen to? Is all the life gone? Decrease the mix buss compression first. Decrease the main instrument or vocal compression next. Decrease the rhythm-section compression next. Decrease the compression on everything else lastly.
- Are you EQing too much? Is it too bright or too big? Decrease the upper mid range EQ on the vocals, guitars, loops, and snare. Decrease the low-frequency EQ on the bass and kick.
- Are your fades too tight? Does the beginning or ending of the song sound clipped? Adjust the fades until the attack transients of the notes are distinct.
- Did you do alternate mixes? Did you do at least an instrumental-only mix?
- Did you document the keeper mixes? Are all files properly named? Are you sure which file is the master? Have you made a backup?
Getting good at mixing takes time and practice and like most things, the more you do it the better you get. All the steps you take and processing you do should be done with the big picture in mind and that is to have a great sounding song at the end of the mixing stage. It’s easy to focus on certain elements of a song like the kick and bass or vocal and lose focus on the song as a whole. Try and listen to your song as a whole entity.
I’ve also taken great songs I’ve written and ruined them with awful mixes, sucking the life and soul from them through over processing and getting tired of listening to them. To combat this my advice would be to take regular breaks, A/B reference your song against songs you love and lastly don’t spend too long mixing as you get tired of songs this way. For this last point I would recommend really focusing on mixing when you do it, best done by turning off your internet and not having distractions when you actually sit down to mix. Basically – FOCUS!
Personally for me there are 3 stages to making music. 1. Writing the song. 2. Mixing the song. 3. Mastering the song. All stages are important in their own right and all take time to master, so have fun in the process. On that note, happy mixing and music making! 🙂