A while ago I wrote a list of my ten most significant mixing lessons. These were definitely the biggest game-changing discoveries I made as I was beginning to learn how to mix and if you haven’t read that article already, I think you should have a look before reading this one.
Of course, there are a lot more than just ten important things you can learn about mixing. In this article I will give you ten more significant mixing lessons to help improve your game.
11. Keep Mixing Separate from Composing/Recording/Mastering
My workflow can usually be broken down into three main stages: The composing/recording stage, the mixing stage and the mastering stage. The first is (theoretically) the most creative. This is where I’m writing the music, working on sound design or recording performances and cutting and pasting everything together into a coherent structure. Then there’s the mixing stage where I’m creating balance between all the parts by adjusting levels, EQ and panning. Finally there’s the mastering stage where the track is brought up to a good perceived volume and processed to sound clean, wide and as good as possible on different systems. I should emphasise that I’m not an expert at any of these stages, but I am learning.
One problem that comes from being able to do all three stages in the same DAW is that I can find myself starting to make mixing decisions before I’d finished writing the song. Or, conversely, I will be mixing but constantly making changes to the separate parts, or adding more parts! This is basically a waste of time and only serves to distract you from the creative or mixing process. My advice is to stick to very basic mix moves when creating, such as general levels and EQ, and put off making major mix decisions until the track is actually finished.
I now force myself to stick to one thing by mixing in an entirely new project with all tracks ‘frozen’ as WAV files. Not only does this prevent me from fiddling but it also helps me actually finish tracks and frees up CPU.
Having said that, I have to concede that everybody will have a different approach that works for them. This is mine, maybe yours is the opposite… I’m interested to hear your opinions on this.
12. Mixing is All About Achieving Balance
When you think about it… the ultimate aim of mixing is to create balance. Balance between the levels or all your different parts, balance between the frequencies across the spectrum and balance between the sections of the project over time.
It seems obvious but it’s worth remembering… if a track has too much bass, it’s not balanced. If a track had a synth which is too loud, it’s not balanced. Too much of anything is tipping the balance in an undesirable way, so balance is what you want to achieve in a good mix.
If you approach your mix with this in mind it will help guide you towards a complete sound, and also help give you an idea of when your mix is actually finished.
13. Keep Low Frequency Stuff Mono and Centred
In most commercial music you will find that the low frequency elements, such as the bassline and kick drum, are mostly kept dead centre in the stereo field. The main reason for this is that low frequencies are more prone to problems like phase cancellation (see number 17 below) when spread across the stereo field. This will sound really bad when collapsed to mono, which is not a good thing.
So… to help avoid these problems you can do a couple of things. Firstly, ensure those bass instruments and kicks are mono and panned dead centre. Secondly, use some MID/SIDE processing on your master to force the lower frequencies into the middle.
One thing to bear in mind though is that you may want to give the impression that your bass is wider by having harmonics in higher frequencies which have more stereo width, or by adding a wide reverb. In that case you should still ensure that those effects are not in frequencies lower than around 100hz.
14. Consider LCR Panning First
When you are panning your instruments you have an entire range of positions available to you from the far left, through the middle, to the far right. You can end up constantly nudging something a bit further left, then in a bit, then over to the other side… Trying to find its perfect place.
What I’ve found is that the concept of LCR panning is usually the best option, and definitely a good starting point. LCR, stands for Left Centre Right and the idea is that every part is either hard left, hard right, or dead centre. This not only cuts out time wasted nudging things from side to side but also generally results in a wider stereo image overall.
15. Use Busses For Groups of Instruments
A simple but effective way to make mixing easier is to group parts together in busses. All your drum mics, or all your guitar parts or all your vocals parts, etc… They can be routed to one single mixer track. This means you can change levels, EQ and add effects as a group, rather than work on each individual part, which is ideal for things that you know you need to do to all parts.
For example, you’re likely to want to high pass your guitars. So you can put that EQ on the guitar buss, rather than each individual track. This saves time as well as CPU.
Of course you can still work on each track separately but overall this will save you time. You will also find that you start looking at the mix in a different way and can even try the top-down approach of working on groups of instruments before honing in on the separate parts.
16. Ride the Faders
Something that definitely makes great mixes stand apart from good ones is a sense of dynamics. Maybe the chorus hits just a bit louder than the verse, or the lead guitar rises up to the front for a searing solo… What makes a difference here is having some automation on your levels for separate parts, busses and the master.
The best mixes have a number of automation passes where the engineer ‘rides the faders’ and pretty much plays them like another instrument, bringing a part up when it’s doing something particularly interesting and tucking it back when it’s just filling space. Even down to a little guitar lick at the end of a verse being brought up for one second, this can add movement and feeling to an otherwise static mix. I try to have some automation on every main part of a track.
To take this idea even further you can automate all kinds of other things… how about the amount of distortion on a vocal send? Or the amount of feedback on a delay? Automation in general is a great way to spice up a track by adding movement and interest.
17. Be Aware of Phase
Phase is a sneaky one. It’s relevant to a couple of the tips I’ve already covered in this and the first article, such as mixing in mono and keeping bass parts in mono. This is because it’s precisely when you collapse a stereo signal to mono that phase issues become apparent.
So what is phase?
Well… I think this video sums it up better than I could.
18. C’mon, Gate the Noise
Just a simple trick when recording anything through microphones. Use a noise gate. This is basically a tool to turn the audio down (or off completely) when it’s below a certain level. Used properly, gating can eliminate background noise that can build up, especially if you have a number of recorded parts.
Be careful, however, not to introduce unnatural sounding cuts. If it’s a part that supposed to ring out, like a tom or a cymbal, then a sudden cut when it gets below a specific volume may sound bad. Most gates will have a ‘release’ setting which allows you to set how fast or slow the volume is cut, so experiment with that to get the most natural sounding result. You may even find some parts of a track benefit from having the gating turned off completely. This is definitely a place where it’s important to use your ears.
19. Use Sidechain Compression
Sometimes, no matter how hard you’ve worked on EQing and levelling your tracks you still have some parts clashing and masking each other. Maybe the kick and the bass, or the vocals and the rhythm guitar… This is where a clever trick called sidechain compression can come in handy. It is essentially an extension of riding the faders, as explained in number 16 above, but doing it automatically.
What sidechain compression does is to use the volume level of one channel to control the volume of another. For example, it can be used to briefly turn down the volume on your bass guitar whenever your kick drum hits. Used to extremes it can create the ‘pumping’ effect which is ubiquitous in EDM music. Used considerately it can really clean up a mix, without being too obvious, and allow you to hear the kicks and the bass without them clashing, or allow the vocals to sit with the guitars without having to damage the tone of either with EQ cuts.
Setting up sidechaining is different for all compressors, and not all have the option, so check the manual if it’s something you want to try. And try it you should.
20. Use Send FX Channels and Parallel Processing
The last tip in this list is to use send/return FX channels. Instead of putting an effect, such as a reverb, directly on the mixer track your audio is running through, you can put it on it’s own mixer track and route the audio to it. There are a couple of major benefits of working this way.
Firstly, it allows you to process the effect separately from the dry signal. You may well want to EQ your reverb so that it doesn’t mask the original signal, cut the lows and highs a bit to sit in the mix better or automate it a bit. If it’s on a separate mixer track you can do all of this without having to change the original, dry signal at all.
Secondly, you can route more than one track to the effect. This allows you to use one reverb for your guitar, vocals and percussion, for example, without having to load up the plugin on every track. Not only does this help with coherency in your mix but it also helps save on CPU.
What do you think?
Those are another ten mixing tips which I feel have really improved my output. Hopefully there’s something new there to help you to. What do you think? Do you have any other significant mixing lessons that I could add to the next list?!
But don’t forget to read the original 10 significant mixing lessons, I may have already covered them.
Feel free to comment below, send me a message or reach out to me on social media. I’d love to hear from you.