The 12 Pains of Mix-mas.
On the first day of mixing, it may just make you scream. Where do you start? What is the right way to do this? Why does everything sound so horrible? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. Every mixer goes through different phases during the process. It sounds amazing – it sounds terrible – I want to crawl into a corner and cry – ah, this is gold! Here are 12 tips I’d like to share to with you this holiday season – sorry I forgot to wrap them.
12) Drummers Drumming
When mixing, I generally begin with the drums. I don’t try and do everything all at once. Instead, I concentrate on one particular track/effect at a time. My initial focus is EQ. I’ll solo out the kick track, and adjust the frequencies. Once it sounds smooth, I’ll mute the kick and move onto the snare implementing the same technique. After I’ve achieved my goal of EQing each drum track individually, I’ll repeat the entire process – but this time I’ll be applying compression instead of EQ.
Once that’s finished, I’ll create 3 busses – one for my snares, one for my kicks (if I’ve used some samples), and one for my overall drums. I’ll solo out the snare tracks, and adjust the EQ/Compression on the snare bus. Then I’ll repeat this process with the kick drum bus. Finally, I’ll solo out all of my EQ’d/Compressed drum tracks, balance my levels, and adjust the EQ and Compression on the overall Drum Bus.
Lastly, I’ll create a drum reverb auxiliary track. I’ll add a send to each individual drum track (not the busses) and adjust the reverb so I have a great sounding drum mix. Then I simply mute my drums and move onto guitars.
11) Guitarists Guitarring
I attack my guitars with a similar approach. I’ll solo out each track individually and adjust the EQ. Then I repeat, tweaking the compression until each guitar track sounds perfect. Once that’s all said and done, I’ll send all of my guitars to a Guitar Bus where – you guessed it – I will adjust the overall EQ and compression.
Here’s where I start to effect my guitars. I’ll balance them – panning left and right where appropriate. For leads I’ll add some delay. When it comes to reverb I can add a ton, or just a touch (depending what the song may call for). I don’t go too in depth yet – I save that for the whole mix so I can hear how everything blends together. Once these basic effects are all set up, I’ll create a balanced guitar mix and move on to the bass.
10) Bassists Bassing
When I start mixing bass, I stick to my standard routine. I’ll solo it out and adjust the EQ followed by compression. Once I’m done effecting the bass by itself, I’ll start mixing in relation to another instrument for the first time. I’ll turn up the guitars, and adjust my bass EQ accordingly. If some bass frequencies feel like they’re fighting with the guitars, I’ll tweak them until they sit comfortably together. If the compression feels like it’s slamming the guitars too hard now that we’ve added a bass, then I’ll pull back on that as well. Once I feel like this is all working together nicely, I’ll move to my old faithful technique of muting all my tracks.
9) Singers Singing
I think you’re starting to get the picture here. Since everything is muted, I will go through each vocal track individually tweaking the EQ followed by the compression and creating a vocal bus. Yada yada yada, (the same way we’ve done with every instrument so far). I’ll add a vocal reverb auxiliary track and send each vocal track to the reverb. I’ll adjust slightly – because I know this will change as I start bringing up the faders for each instrument. Once my vocals sound perfect by themselves, I’ll mute them and continue.
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8) Macro Mixing
Here’s where the fun begins. At this point I know that each instrument sounds great by itself, but now I have the joy of ensuring that they will play nice together. I’ll slowly start taking my drum faders up. Followed by the guitars, followed by the bass. Listening to the instrumentals, I can really hone in on where the frequencies are clashing and between which instruments. I can listen for panning issues (making sure they’re balanced), what compression needs to be adjusted, and how things are sitting in the perspective mix. I’ll need to start playing the part of the janitor and cleaning up this mess.
Once I have a fantastic sounding instrumental mix, the battle is only just beginning. I’ll need to slowly bring in my vocal tracks and see how they fit in the mix. Are they on top? Are they getting lost? I’ll start adjusting reverb, EQ, and compression as I’m listening to the song as a whole. Occasionally I’ll solo out 2 instruments together to see how they react, this can help to pinpoint problem areas. Once everything feels comfortable, I’ll have a great basis for my final mix.
7) Track Referencing
After creating my initial mix, I may feel as though it’s lacking something. “You know, I really wanted this thing to sound like the Foo Fighters, but it’s just not there”. Here’s what I can do… Grab The Pretender off of my iTunes, bring it into Pro Tools and A-B my song to theirs. “Wow their guitars are so much beefier than mine, maybe I should boost some mids”, “Their kick drum has a lot more umph to it, maybe I’ll make my sample a bit louder”, “their vocals are more pronounced than mine, I should definitely turn down a bunch of that reverb”. These are some things I’ve often found myself saying after listening to a reference track. Incorporating what I hear from other mixes has helped me immensely throughout my career, and it’ll really help to train and develop your ears.
6) Reverb Using
Reverb makes everything sound better – it’s a scientific fact. Ok, not really, but it’s a scientific opinion. Adding a ton of reverb can be a great effect, but sometimes all you need is the slightest touch. Turning your wetness to 2% may seem insignificant, but it can honestly make a world of difference. Remember – you don’t always need to go heavy – if it sounds right, who cares what the percentage is?
A common thread with effects is that sometimes the smallest adjustment can make the biggest impact. You don’t need to slam each of your tracks with compression, in fact, I tend to use as little as possible when I’m mixing. I’ll barely touch some of my tracks, and this can create a huge dynamic impact throughout each of my songs. Less compression means that more of the natural feel of the song is piercing through the mix and this can be a wonderful thing.
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4) EQ and Sweeps
There is nothing worse than listening to a track and hearing a frequency that literally hurts your ears. Seriously, you’ll want to jump in there and punch it in the face, but instead, take some advice from Uncle Joey and just cut it out. I’m a big fan of negative EQ-ing – that is, taking out frequencies instead of adding them. I’d rather create the space for instruments, but that’s just a personal choice. I know plenty of mixers who add EQ all the time. As we said with all of our effects – don’t go crazy. An inch can go a mile.
Once the 3 essential effects are taken care of (Reverb, Compression, & EQ), I’ll add them one more time on my master track. After this, I usually want to throw other cool effects onto my song. At this point, I’ll start listening for ear candy that will help make the mix sound special. I’ll listen for places to throw delay on vocals, 808s on drums, or flange on guitars. I’ll even throw some overall effects like a filter sweep over the entire track, or a reversed guitar leading into a chorus. By this stage, the mix is pretty clean, so these effects shouldn’t get too in the way.
2) Balance The Mix
The last step of the mix is making sure that it’s balanced both vertically and horizontally. Vertically I’m listening to make sure that the volumes are all aligned with one another. I generally like to ride my vocals a little louder so they stand on top of everything, but it will always depend on the artist, and the actual song. Mixing horizontally means I’m listening for panning balance. If there are 4 guitars playing at the same time and they are all panned right down the middle, this is a serious issue. I’d pan 2 hard left and hard right, and the other two at a softer left and right in order to create some space. Hearing an unbalanced song (everything leaning more towards one speaker – or even worse, not leaning towards any speakers at all) can leave the listener feeling uneasy and make a song feel lifeless and boring.
1) And Importing Your Session Data
This last little tidbit will save you a ton of time. If you’re working on a record, or even an EP, the first mix is ALWAYS the hardest. This is because you’ll need to go through the entire process from scratch. However, once you’ve done all the groundwork for your first mix, the rest of the album becomes much easier. Importing your mix settings will complete 90% of the job. You’ll still need to tweak things here and there, but the settings should be close enough to make your task infinitely easier.
I know it’s not a new iPad or anything, but I hope this will help fulfill at least one item on your Christmas list. And please, get into the holiday spirit by sharing this post with all your friends. Santa will streamline you to the top of his nice list, and I may even bring you more goodies throughout the year! Please like us on Facebook, and subscribe to our YouTube channel. Peace and Rock on.