10 Tips for Better Mixes
Problems Getting Your Mixes to Sound Right? - Following are 10 Tips for Creating Better Mixes
With the widespread availability of affordable computers and powerful software for music mixing, the average musician is now able to set up a reasonably decent home studio on a relatively small budget. Even though the software is extremely powerful and versatile, what seem to be missing are tips on how to get a great mix.
So, without any more fanfare, let us get right down to the 10 mixing tips you can try IMMEDIATELY to improve the quality of your mixes:
1. While mixing, keep a close eye (and ear) on all those plug-ins. Each one of them will distort if the input or output signal exceeds the acceptable threshold level. Because some of the meters may be out of sight when the plug-ins are closed, it is fairly easy to be unaware of the distortion, which can be difficult to pinpoint and absolutely ruin your mixes.
2. Make use of the high-pass filter found on many equalizers to cut off the low frequencies on tracks that do not need the presence of low frequencies (e.g. frequencies below 100Hz) in order to sound right in the mix. These include vocals, hi-hats, keyboards, etc. Of course, all this depends on the song itself. For example, if you are mixing a song that is just piano or guitar and voice you might run a high-pass filter much lower down, around 40Hz or so, in order to maintain some of the bottom end in the mix. However, even the bass and kick drum can be improved by rolling off frequencies below 20Hz. Most project studio mixes sound terrible because there are too many sounds competing for space in the lower frequencies. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you can use a low-pass filter on instruments like bass and kick drum that do not need the presence of high frequencies.
3. Try using compression to even out volume variations and control the attack of a sound. Using a FAST attack will accentuate the body of a sound, while using a SLOW attack will increase the definition. Bass, kick drums and vocals tend to benefit most from compression, although you should listen to all your tracks with and without compression to see what works best. Keep an eye on the other settings on the compressor (Input, Release, Threshold, Ratio, Output Gain) since these can dramatically affect the results you are trying to achieve. It's also important to remember that compression can raise the level of background noise in the tracks as well as accentuate sibilance (esssssss's) in the vocals. It may help to place a de-esser after the compressor to take care of excessive sibilance.
4. Listen for tracks that can be cleaned up by scooping out (reducing) the frequencies between 150 - 300 Hz. This is generally where the "mud" tends to be in most tracks. Be careful when you do this however, since this can also be where the meat or warmth resides on some tracks. Listen for the track(s) that can benefit most from this action, and do not scoop out too much of the track or else your mixes will start to sound thin.
5. Always listen to your sounds IN CONTEXT! It doesnt matter how great that kick drum sounds by itself if it sounds terrible once you add all the other instruments and vocals to the mix. Its okay to solo a track briefly to get a sense of what is happening to the sound as you apply processing, but only do that for a few bars and then listen to it with everything else in context.
6. A parametric equalizer is an extremely powerful signal processing tool used to sculpt sound. It is generally better to cut (reduce) than it is to boost (add) frequencies, although you should always do what is right for a particular track. Begin by making the track sound terrible (by boosting a specific frequency dramatically and sweeping slowly across the spectrum at a fairly narrow bandwidth as you listen), and than cutting the frequency that sounds bad in order to reduce the presence of the "bad" sound. Do that several times using each band, listening for when a cut or a boost is necessary, until you either run out of "bands" or don't need to make any more cut/boost corrections. Don't feel the need to use every band available, though. When using EQ and other signal processors, less processing tends to be more beneficial to the overall sound of the mix (i.e. less is more).
7. Don't mix entirely in headphones, or at extremely loud volumes through your monitors. Spend most of your time mixing at moderate and even low volumes, occasionally cranking it up to see how things move at those high energy levels. Try listening to your mixes through several different headphones (which can pick up clicks and pops not heard in the monitors) and at different volume levels through the monitors, as well as on different monitors if possible. The mix will surely sound different on the different systems, but the objective is to get things to sound good on all systems, not great on some and terrible on others. Occasionally walk away from the monitors and listen to your mix from another room. This gives you another perspective on level imbalances not apparent inside your normal mixing environment.
8. Concentrate on the busiest parts of your mixes first. This may be the hook (chorus), or bridge section, and this is where your mixes tend to get away from you the most. As you listen, make a determination as to whether or not EVERY SINGLE TRACK and EVERY SINGLE LAYER absolutely NEEDS to be in the mix ALL THE TIME. Mute / un-mute and add / remove tracks one at a time to evaluate their contribution to the impact of the song. It may be necessary to strip away some of those layers in order for your mix to sound more punchy and energetic.
9. Make good use of automation. If that is too complicated (based on your understanding of your music mixing software) you can try breaking up your tracks into song sections (e.g. VOCAL intro, VOCAL verse 1, VOCAL B-section, VOCAL hook, VOCAL verse 2, VOCAL bridge, etc). The reason for this is that the signal processing and volume / pan settings that work for a track in one section of the song (e.g. VOCAL verse 1) may not necessarily be right for another section (e.g. VOCAL hook). In this instance, you may need to set your EQ, chorus, compression, reverb, pan, and volume settings differently for the different song sections. The same may apply to other instruments as well.
10. Tune your instruments often during your recording session, or at least CHECK the tuning often. Even though this is a no-brainer for bass and guitars, don't forget that even drums (kick, toms, and snare) need to be tuned in order to sound their best. No matter how well you process the tracks for your mix, out-of-tune instruments will distract the listener and contribute to the impression that the mix sucks! It is sometimes possible to tune your instruments after the fact, but that time could be better spent on other crucial areas of your mix.
And there you have it! Try out some of these mixing tips and you will find yourself on the way to better mixes in no time. If you need help getting your song to sound "professional", visit our partner site STUDIO 302 for a free mastering sample and affordable mastering.