Hey everybody, these tips are personal lessons that I’ve learned over the years and I’m sharing them here with you. You don’t have to follow all of the tips but if you implement only a few of them your mixes will already get so much better. In general, mixing is a skill that takes a lot of time to develop but with patience and perseverance, you can get to a very high level in a relatively short time. Mixing is a long and complicated process, it’s good to have a plan that’ll help you to get the mix down in just a few hours. It’s never too late to be a better mixing engineer.
Prepare your mix before you start working on it.
If you have a visually nice and clean project, it’ll make it a lot easier to make it sound good. In most DAW’s you have the option to arrange your project in track folders. For example, all the drums channels in one folder. Guitars, vocals and synths, each group of channels get a folder of its own.
This way every time you work on a certain group you keep the others closed.
If you can keep yourself and your project organized you’ve already done better then most people.
Make sure to send similar content channels to groups and busses on the mixer. It helps you to control their level, automation, and plugins much more easily and it helps you save CPU power.
Most songs, especially pop songs are divided into parts. I call them “Scenes”. Verse, Chorus, B part, Bridge are all different scenes in one song. It’s a lot easier to work on each scene separately. This is how you get stuff done faster and you don’t get lost or overwhelmed by the project.
Divide the song into different scenes with colors and markers. When you treat every part of your song as if it is its own little project it’ll be more organized and you will get to the finish line much faster.
If you can get this part to sound the way you want it, it’s much easier to get the other parts to sound good. Do This and your mix is at least 60% done.
If you make sure to mix in the right levels, you’ve already done a big percentage of the work. Gain staging starts at the recording stage. Make sure your levels are right.
That means you have to look for unity gain in every device or outboard equipment you have in your recording chain.
Every device, hardware or software, has its unity gain which is a sweet spot in which the device sounds best. It’ll not change the source that much and will sound clean and detailed. Sometimes like with preamps, you would want to stress the device and get it out of its comfort zone. This will give you different sound characters to work with. My recommendation is to only do it if you know exactly what you’re doing and looking for.
“Sweet spot” is a thing you can also find in software. With plugins, never go beyond the digital 0db point. Some plugins, usually those which are emulation based will give you interesting sound character if you get them to work in higher levels above their sweet spot. You should try everything, but at this stage, I would recommend going for the cleanest sound you can possibly get.
Sometimes you look for coloration in every channel in your mix and you end up losing the focal point of the mix because everything is “colored”, so start clean and simple and go on from there.
Filters are like club bouncers, If you’re problematic, look like trouble, too ugly, too unnecessary, you’re out! Yeah, I know it’s a bad analogy but it makes me laugh and it actually works here.
In fact, think about your song as a small club for VIP members only. The more we let in, the more quality we lose. This tip is more for the production stage but it’s definitely true for the mixing stage too.
Most sources will come with a lot more details than you actually need.
For example, if we have a full range stereo piano channel, it won’t leave a lot of room for vocals, guitars, strings and practically anything that sits on the same frequency range. The more information you filter out, the more space you’d have for other elements in the mix.
6. Make Room For “Air”
“Air” is a very important factor. Sometimes the more we add to the production, the more quality we lose. Examples for “Air hogging elements”: Piano, strings, pads, long Reverb tails and such.
The thing I love the most about “Airy productions” is that in the mastering stage the air becomes a critical factor. “Airy productions” usually sound more punchy, more detailed, higher in levels and more impressive in general.
If your piano is playing on the higher octaves, you can peacefully take out its lower end frequencies. I will suggest not to completely cut frequencies out but only lower the level. In general, cutting out information from the source will feel like the wrong thing to do but once you click out of solo mode, you hear how clear things become.
If your channels are not too “hot” or too high in level it’ll automatically help to keep your sound clean. Sometimes you don’t have to do so much, a little filter, a little EQ and that’s it. Make sure your whole mix peaks at around -10db on the master bus. Leave some room for the mastering process.
Yeah, this is a little too out there I know, but keep going. I usually start the mix on my headphones, looking for a place for the different elements in the production. After a quick fiddling with the song and about half an hour of coffee and crazy cats on Youtube my subconscious starts to point me in the right direction.
If you’re using a good pair of mixing headphones and you like what you hear, you won’t be too far from liking it on your speakers, try it. These are some of my favorite headphones for mixing.
There are two ways to correct or at least try to balance a room with an EQ. There is the new way, using systems like the IK Multimedia Arc System with a special microphone or the Sonarworks Refrence 4 with dedicated plugins to put on the master bus.
The second way is the old school way, this is how I used to do it back in the day.
You need two things: A transparent EQ plugin on the master and your ears.
Room Correction With EQ – No Special Tools, Only Your Ears
This method is not for everybody, you have to really trust your ears and have some experience with these things but it worked PERFECT for me so just try it yourself, it’s ok, no one is going to die.
You start with finding a few reference songs that are professionally mixed and mastered, preferably in the same key. Put them on your DAW, throw an EQ on the master channel, hit play and listen to the songs while trying to understand what’s missing from all of them.
For example, if you hear any overload in the low midrange in all of the songs, it means that you have an acoustic problem in your room. Now you can just fix it with the EQ. So basically you play with the EQ until you get a balanced result.
What you did is you adjusted the listening sweet spot to sound like it should. It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. Do the same thing with the other songs. I have to say, this is not the most accurate method out there, but it’ll provide a quick little solution for now.
This tip originally comes from professional mastering engineers. Look for a plugin that will let you hear your mix in different listening modes. The one FREE plugin that comes to mind is Braiworx bx_solo. This is a sweet little plugin you put on the master bus and it lets you hear your mix in the following modes:
Listening to the mix in different modes might help finding little problems in the mix. It’s like looking at a picture thru different filters. It makes it a lot easier to “see” the problems.
This is common sense, yeah, but you’d be surprised to know how easy it to overlook it. You can work for hours and hours on a mix only to find out you’ve made a lot of progress in the wrong direction. Happened too many times…
Every professional mastering engineer will listen to reference songs before and during the process of mastering. A good mix engineer will do the same. This is because our memory is very short when it comes to audio and we can’t really trust it to point us in the right direction.
So as I said earlier, you should pick the right reference track for your current project. One of the most important factors for a good reference track is for it to be on the same key as the song you’re working on. Sometimes this is the only reason why you can’t get your mix to sound as good as your reference track.
The right reference tracks are on the same key, the same genre and with the same production or at least the same general artistic direction.
Every song has what I like to call a “focal point”. There are a few elements in every song that define the whole production. The human brain can’t concentrate on too many musical elements simultaneously.
A “focal point” is usually two or three elements in the song that are making the most impact.
Most of the time it’ll be vocals, drums and harmony. The beat is the groove element of the song and harmony can be anything that plays the chords around the main melody, which is usually the vocal.
Every good mixing engineer will know how to recognize the song’s focal point and make sure it’ll stay in its safe place. Sometimes a producer will give you a rough mix of the song. This is his take on the mix. This rough mix is very important because it gives you a critical glance into his mind. You should take that rough mix very seriously if you want to keep him happy.
Of course, you can take it farther and make it even better, and that’s your job. But if you already have a rough mix and the producer loves it, this is your guide.
My personal suggestion is to take a break every 25 minutes even if you don’t feel like it. Just set up an alarm clock on your phone and make yourself take a break. Go out, breathe, restart and come back in. This will keep you mentally sharp and prevent ear fatigue which will allow you to work and stay fresh for literally hours.
If you don’t do it, you lose focus, you become tired and your mix will suffer. The tricky thing about is that you don’t really feel tired, it sneaks up on you and you suddenly find yourself with a bad mix.
This is one of the best tips that will help you reveal little flaws in your mix. I don’t know how it happens but for some reason we are able to hear new things to fix in our mix after we create a mixdown.
So you take the file and you listen to it over and over again and you make a list. After that, you go back to your project and fix everything. Do this a couple of times during the finishing process. This will save you literally hours.
This one is a personal preference. In my opinion, when you mix into a Limiter, you get a sense of how your mix will sound after the mastering process. It changes the whole dynamic behavior of your mix and pushes you to make different and better decisions during the session.
Just put a simple limiter on your master bus, L1 style, compress about 3 to 8db and try it. Be careful not to overdo it because you might lose your sense of what’s right for the mix. Every once in awhile bypass the limiter and work without it, then come back to working with it. Learn more about compression and multiband compressors.
Don’t trust yourself with the mastering, it takes years to get good results. Mastering is not that expensive, most people can afford it, especially if the song is important to you.
If not, you can skip this one. If you’re new to mastering you can start learning about it here.
Send your mix to other people and ask them for their opinion. Even if it’s not a professional opinion it still has a lot of value. When I was younger, I used to let my mom listen to my mixes and most of the times she was giving me incredible ideas that didn’t even cross my mind! Just out of pure intuition. It’s cool, try it.
Last but not least… actually, this is a very important tip. Usually, when you finish working on a mix, you’re so tired, way too deep in the process and had lost almost all of your objectivity.
If you leave it today and open it tomorrow with fresh ears, you’d find a lot of small and even big things you’d want to change and improve. Let’s be honest, a mix is never finished, especially if you’re a crazy perfectionist like me. But you can definitely make it a lot better if you use the “Come back tomorrow” tip.
Good luck and happy mixing!
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