This mixing tips guide explores some common mistakes and offers approaches all music producers and audio engineers should welcome into their workflow.
1. Mixing in Solo
The option to solo tracks while mixing is both a blessing and a curse. This is a hard habit to break. When mixing it’s common to click the solo button to isolate an element of the mix so you can hear it more clearly in order to make better mix decisions. However, this is not the best approach for making ‘big picture’ mix decisions. It’s highly recommended to avoid mixing in solo because many will instinctively try to make every track sound amazing, only to find out it doesn’t sound as awesome when all the music parts are playing at once. The goal is to get all your tracks working as a team while remaining conscious of how these layers contribute to the overall vibe of the song; it’s what your individual tracks sound like in the context of the whole mix that really counts. Try to make mix decisions in context by mixing individual layers while all the other layers are playing together. If it is hard to hear the part you’re working, try raising the level fader temporarily until you get everything sounding good and then re-balance the level.
2. Mixing Hot/Lack of Headroom
Managing your levels at every stage throughout the signal chain is extremely important. It’s often easy to fall into the temptation of mixing everything at maximum levels to make the mix sound loud. However, this approach can create several problems and should be avoided. Proper gain structure is essential to better-sounding mixes. While working, always check the levels leaving every plugin. If a plugin’s output levels are hot, the next plugin in the chain won’t have any headroom to work properly which will result in digital clipping, poor sound quality, and other problems. Next in the signal chain is your individual track levels. Healthy track levels are always green; you should not see any red. Running your levels too hot is destructive and will again cause digital clipping and poor sound quality. Last in the chain is your master channel. The sum of all your individual tracks mix together and go through your master output. If your individual track levels are too loud, then the master output will overload and clip. It’s vital that you balance your track levels to achieve a healthy master output. It’s a good idea to prepare your mix before you start by pulling all of your level faders down to provide efficient headroom. Also keep in mind that whoever is mastering your track will need plenty of headroom to work with as well. It’s recommended that you allow around -6dB of headroom on your master while keeping the fader at ‘unity’ which is 0 dB.
3. EQ Pitfalls
EQing is one of the most fundamental processes in mixing. Having the ability to shape the tone of sounds is essential for both bringing out the best in individual tracks and making sure everything works together optimally in the mix. However, there are several EQ pitfalls that can ruin a mix. It’s often easy to boost frequencies to bring out the sound and make it louder. This approach can lead to several problems. Boosting frequencies takes up headroom and can make your tracks sound unnatural. Often, cutting frequencies sounds more natural, achieves better clarity, and preserves headroom. For example, instead of boosting high frequencies to bring out more high-end, try cutting low frequencies which will accentuate the highs in a pleasing way. In addition, boosting several tracks around the same frequency range will cause a lot of energy to build up at that range causing you mix to either clip, sound muddy or introduce frequency conflicts.
Tip: It’s highly recommended to boost with a wide band and cut with a narrow band to achieve a more natural sound. Also, try using multiple EQs in a chain to make subtle EQ moves instead of a single EQ doing all the work. This approach will sound better and also introduce some nice musical characteristics if you use a combination of digital and analog modeled EQs.
It’s important to give individual tracks their own space in the mix to achieve clarity, balance, presence, and make your song sound more full. One approach is to use EQing to shape your sounds. For example, to achieve a more clear and punchy low-end, try cutting the low frequencies from any tracks producing unnecessary low frequencies that clutter the bottom-end of the mix. You’ll be surprised how well this technique works, and your mixes will sound much better. However, don’t cut everything and certainly don’t cut multiple tracks at the same frequency cutoff. Cutting too much of the low-end out of every track besides your kick and bass can cause your mix to sound thin and brittle. Some sounds need a little low-end. Try to only cut frequencies that linger in the sub-region when your kick and bass sit. Also, avoid cutting the exact same frequencies out of every track, this can cause phasing issues and may sound unnatural. These tips apply to treating the mid and high frequencies as well. The goal is to isolate your sounds in a way where you don’t lose clarity and quality while maintaining a mix where all tracks work together as a whole. A good mix will have slightly different tonal emphases for different tracks while creating a cohesiveness where each element sounds like they belong together, but also occupy their own tonal space.
Tip: If you boost a certain frequency range on one sound, try to cut that same frequency range on other sounds to improve clarity and avoid clashes. Also, reach for the gain fader to make your sounds louder instead of boosting your EQ.
4. No Dynamic Range
Dynamic range is the difference between the loudest and the quietest parts of a signal. When someone says a sound is very dynamic, it means there is a lot of variation between the quiet and loud parts which is good and sounds more pleasing than a signal with little or no dynamic range. Having dynamic range is essential for creating a mix that breathes, is not ear fatiguing, sounds more natural, and allows enough resources for the mastering process. The most common way to control dynamic range is through compression. It is often tempting to compress several elements of the mix to make them sound louder and more powerful. The illusion is that a louder mix sounds better, but this is not true. Songs need to breathe to create a push and pull sensation for the listener. In addition, our ears need to take breaks, or they get fatigued. A song that is over compressed is continuously in your face, can sound distorted, and lack dynamic expression.
The compressor settings you set vary depending on how you plan to use the compressor. Compressors can be used for a wide variety of tasks. In addition, there are several different compressor types each designed for different purposes and also produce their own character sound. Some sound far better in certain situations than others.
Tip: Use multiple stages of subtle compression for best results. Gentler compression at different stages is better than a single compressor doing all the work.
5. Lack of Stereo Width
Another important thing to think about when mixing is spatial perspective. It’s important to give your mix some sense of dimension by balancing different elements within the stereo field. One of the most effective ways to create width is with panning. As simple as panning is, it can often be overlooked. Like EQing, panning can be used to give sounds their own space in the mix and provide separation between various sounds. Keeping everything panned center will create a cluttered-sounding mix that lacks clarity, presence, and definition, as well as introduces frequency conflicts. In addition, your mix will sound extremely boring and dull.
Be careful when panning. Sounds panned too wide may sound weak or inaudible on mono systems. In addition, certain elements should be anchored in the center. The kick and bass should always stay centered, or they will lose punch, clarity, and power. It’s also common to keep the snare, lead vocals, guitar solos, and anything else that is the focus of attention near the center. As a general rule, keep your low-frequency elements panned closer to center. Plus, keeping the middle less cluttered allows your low-end to sound better. The more prominent the low-frequency, the more centered it should be in the mix. In contrast, sounds with more high-frequency energy are often panned out wider across the stereo field. The higher the frequency, the farther it can be panned. You don’t want to have low frequencies taking up your stereo field.
Tip: Always check your mixes in mono to see if any of the elements you panned disappear. If so, adjust the panning amount until its audible again while referencing the mix in mono. Also, listen to commercially mastered songs and analyze how they have panned the tracks in the mix.
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