Every now and then you come across a bit of knowledge which makes a tremendous difference to the way you do certain things. Those little tricks or hacks which make life so much better and you wish you’d discovered sooner.
This definitely applies to mixing.
I’ve experienced a number of these important ‘mixing lessons’ since I started my home studio journey so I’ve decided to share some of the most valuable ones with you here to help you in your own journey towards better mixes.
UPDATE: Once you’ve read these, be sure to check out Ten More Significant Mixing lessons!
1. Rule Number One: “There are No Rules”
I’ll start with a contradiction, why not… The truth is that there are lots of tips, lots of great methodologies out there to help when mixing. But generally there is no 100% correct, single solution to each problem you’ll come across. What you will find is that as time goes on your experience will inform your decisions and you’ll know where a good place to start looking for answers will be.
So apply that rule to the following ideas. Some of them will apply almost 99% of the time, but not always. Try them out, tweak them, experiment and find out what works for you in each situation.
2. It Takes a Long Time to Get Good
Sorry. You may not want to hear this. But if you’ve only just started mixing, the chances are you won’t be very happy with the results. Your first ever mix won’t be great. Nor will the second, third, fourth… etc… But each mix will be a little better than the last one. Or at least you will have a little more knowledge than before, you will have a better idea what not to do as well as what seems to work.
Mixing, like anything, is an acquired skill. Some may learn quicker than others but everybody has to start somewhere. That said, hopefully some of the tips on this page will help you move quicker in the right direction. Otherwise it’s just practise, practise and practise.
The important thing to take away from this is that if you’re not happy with your output now, keep at it and you will improve.
3. Do Everything For a Good Reason
Or, conversely, don’t do anything without a good reason.
By this I mean that you should know why you are making every mixing decision that you make. Something I used to do all the time, and I know I’m not the only one, was to stick a compressor on almost every track, especially vocals, without really knowing what I was trying to achieve. Not only does this risk making things worse but also you’re left with a sense of not really knowing what you’re doing. This isn’t the best feeling and if you make mix moves with purpose you’ll feel a lot more comfortable with your mix. If you’re not sure why you’re doing something, don’t do it.
An important exception to this rule is experimentation. If you’re in the process of learning and figuring out what things do then by all means throw a new plug-in on a track and play around with the settings to see what they do. But you should be taking note of what they do so that you are able to know when that effect is going to be useful in a real mixing situation.
4. Volume and EQ are the Most Important Tools
You can have all the plugins in the world but the most important tools to master when you start mixing are the simplest ones. Levels and EQ. The importance of getting the right levels is pretty obvious but it took me a long time to truly realise the power of EQ.
Properly used, EQ is paramount in cleaning up your mix and ensuring all the parts can be distinguished from each other. If two parts are clashing at a certain frequency then use EQ to cut that frequency in one of the parts and leave more room for the other.
EQ is so important that much of the advice in this article will involve it in some way.
Note: Another important thing to think about regarding volume, apart from getting the relative levels of the parts in your mix right, is the overall volume you mix at. Whether using monitors or headphones I would recommend mixing at low volumes. This is for two important reasons; firstly to avoid damaging or tiring out your ears and secondly because you will actually make better mix decisions at lower volumes by avoiding problems caused by the Fletcher-Munson effect.
5. Lots of Small Changes Add Up to Big Improvements
If you make one big change that completely alters the sound of your mix, chances are that it’s too much. Mixing is more about the combination of lots and lots of subtle moves, which accumulate and result in a huge improvement.
When you’re at the end of a mix you should be able to turn off everything and hear a big difference, but bypassing individual processes like EQ and compression should only sound a little bit different.
Don’t believe that there’s one single plugin that’s going to just turbo-charge your mix in one fell swoop, no matter what the marketing says! It just doesn’t work like that.
6. Subtractive EQ over Additive EQ
When EQing a track in your mix it’s very tempting to find the sweet spot in the frequency range and nudge that up to bring out the sound you like. However, the more natural approach is to remove those frequencies you don’t need, and allow the good stuff to shine through.
Tip: Boost at around 400hz on a part then sweep up and down a little, listening for a certain undesirable, ‘boxy’ tone. When you find it. Make a small cut. So many recordings have something that doesn’t sound good around that area. Do the same for all your parts and you’ll find your mixes sounding clearer.
Another benefit of subtractive EQ is that it increases headroom which allows you to increase the level of your tracks if you need to. This is also very useful when mastering.
7. High Pass Filter on Everything
Well, maybe not everything. Remember rule number one…
One major issue with mixing in ‘muddiness’ which is caused by a build up of lower frequencies. Mostly these are being contributed to by tracks that don’t even need anything in those frequencies, that is, almost everything except your bass and kick. Although you may not be able to hear it on the individual tracks, there may be some quiet low rumble that, when it occurs on a number of tracks, adds up to create that undefined, muddy sound.
One way to quickly clean up a mix is to go through all your non bass tracks and cut some of that low end. I generally put a high-pass filter on very low and gradually pull it up towards the higher end until I can hear it make a difference to the sound. Then I drop it back a couple of notches.
Over a number of tracks you’ll hear the difference this makes to the clarity of the whole mix.
8. Do Not Use ‘Solo’ When Mixing
Every mix decision you make should be taken in the context of the whole mix. It’s tempting, when working on individual parts, to mute everything else and focus on just the sound you’re dealing with. Sculpting the soloed audio into a really pleasing tone is very satisfying but when you mix you absolutely need to be aware of how that part interacts with the other parts, especially in terms of EQ.
For example, a lead guitar part by itself can sound really huge and satisfying with a lot of low end and deep reverb. But when you add in the drums, rhythm guitar and bass parts of the track you are likely to find the whole thing sounding muddy and lacking clarity. You may be surprised to find that in the context of the mix as a whole you can remove the low end and dial back the reverb and achieve a much more coherent overall sound.
Sometimes it may be necessary to solo a track, if you’re trying to pinpoint a problem area, or do some precise editing, for example. But ultimately you should be making mix decisions with all parts playing together.
9. Mix In Mono
This is a big one. If you aren’t already doing this and want to instantly improve the quality of your mixes… Mix in mono. This doesn’t have to be all the way through the process, but I would suggest switching to mono after doing the initial levels and panning at the start, and you should definitely be checking the mix in mono at the end. This forces you to create separation in your mix without using panning and also helps ensure translation onto other systems, many of which may be mono or equivalent by the time the sound reaches your ears.
I have a mixer track preset for my master track which I always use. Among other things, this includes a ‘mono’ plug-in which I can turn off and on whenever I need. One of the best things about mixing in mono is when you switch back to stereo and hear the mix open up… well it’s a beautiful thing.
Try it and see. Then always do it.
10. Reference Tracks, Reference Tracks, REFERENCE TRACKS!
Now here’s an epiphany so important that I’ve written it three times in the heading without even using cut and paste. Yes, it’s that important.
It will be painful but if you want to come anywhere near to commercial quality productions, you need to be referencing your mixes against actual commercial productions. Sounds obvious but it’s advice I ignored for a very long time… It’s a fact that your mixes are unlikely to be as good as your favourite big-time artist and this can really put you off comparing but really, you have to, if you’re going to ever get there yourself.
I would recommend building a library of reference tracks and getting familiar with them on as many systems as possible, not just in your studio but in your headphones, in your car, and so on. This will arm you with a good idea of how to professionals get stuff to sound in those environments and you will then be able to judge your own work more accurately.
So those are my ten most significant mixing lessons. A couple more important things to bear in mind before you even start to mix are…
You Can’t Get Good Mixes From Bad Recordings
Not everything can be fixed in the mix. Some minor issues can be dealt with. Tone can be sculpted, to a degree. But if you’re original recordings are poor quality then you are never going to make them ‘good’. You may even be able to make them completely different, and therefore useful in some way, maybe as an effect. But if we’re talking about something like voice or real instruments then you really need to get it right at the source.
This means that before you get to mixing you should be thinking about things like instruments, performance, quality microphones and mic-placement, leads, interfaces, room acoustics, amps, pre-amps… a lot of stuff that goes into making the sound before it’s even captured onto your computer. The better you can get the source, the easier mixing will become.
Equipment is Important Too
Let’s not forget that you cannot really do your best mixing on rubbish headphones or standard PC speakers. You can try, and you may get pretty far, but to really improve your game I would strongly recommend investing in some good quality headphones (I use Sennheiser HD250 Pros at the moment) for starters and eventually some decent studio monitors (I use Yamaha HS7s) if you don’t already have them.
In addition to decent gear, your room will play a major part in the mixing process. Your room will do all sorts of annoying things to the sound leaving your monitors before it hits your ears so it’s important to carefully consider acoustic treatment. Check out my interview with Ethan Winer for some insight and useful links about room treatment.
Keep an eye on my studio gear articles for reviews and guides to the best equipment for your setup.
What Are Your Best Mixing Tips?
Those are ten good tips that have helped me improve my mixing. If you found these useful, be sure to check out Ten More Significant Mixing lessons.
I’m still very much learning though so please do share any other tips or advice that’s helped you in the comments below, the DIY Music Facebook page or the DIY Music group. Or feel free to get in touch privately if you want to chat about anything at all.
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