Confused, misunderstood or need a little guidance? Here are my 10 tips to help you out.
Mixing music is the process we go through to combine all the different elements together in a track, using certain tools and techniques to achieve a complete and polished mix. For the beginner, and even an experienced producer, this can be a daunting task and can be quite confusing. Many of you will want to throw in the towel and give up at the first hurdle but don’t get frustrated. Keep plugging away, and you will soon pick things up.
1. Keep the production, the mixing, and the mastering process separate
When your producing a track, you should be getting ideas down as quickly as possible. Your creativeness should be kept separate from the technical side of things. Not to say mixing isn’t creative, because there is a fair amount of creativity involved in mixing. It is better to get your ideas down while they’re fresh in your mind and your feeling inspired. Don’t sit there tweaking your parameters or designing a kick drum for too long. It’s ok to do simple eq adjustments, but don’t be spending too much time on this. Your creativity will go straight out of the window, you will want to give up, move onto another project, going back and forth, and not really getting anything done. Remember, your focus is on getting your ideas down as quickly as possible. The next tip will help you be more creative.
2. Design your own sounds and have them ready at your disposal
Instead of going through presets and sample packs, searching for kick drums etc. why not create your own and have them sitting in a folder, ready to use. Create your own bass sounds, lead sounds, kick drums and snares. Create a bunch of different styles and textures so you still have options. Play around with sample’s and make them your own. Don’t just use one synth, experiment with others and you might come up with something unique. Organise your sounds into their own folders so you can locate them quick and easy. Limit yourself to your own sounds that you’ve made, and the process of production will be way quicker. Your creative side will thank you for it. If your not happy with a sound, make a note of it and go back to it later and tweak it. Another benefit of creating your own sounds is that your track is more likely to sound unique, and different to someone elses. Do this before you sit down and begin making a track!
3. Create a template
It’s a good idea to create a template to work from. You can either set this as a default template, or have a bunch of different ones that you can load into your DAW. All the sounds you created can now be set up into groups, or dedicated channels, so you can go straight in and use them. If you limit yourself to certain tools and sounds within your template, then your workflow will be more efficient. Have the synths you use most, set up and ready to go (have them turned off until you want to use them, saves CPU). If you use audio tracks, have them set up. Put an eq and maybe a frequency analyser on each channel. Set up reverbs and delays on send channels so you can just dial them in as you go. The effects don’t have to be set exactly how you want them while your producing. Use them to keep you inspired, and to keep your productions from feeling too static and dry. Have your drum elements (using ableton) set up in a drum rack, so you can use your midi keyboard, to play them while the track is playing. That way you can get a better feel of what will work, and what won’t. Colour code and label everything. The quicker you speed up the workflow, the quicker your ideas can be put down.
4. Easy one but needs to be mentioned, Gain Staging
Make sure your not clipping (going in the red) your plugins in the process chain. Digital distortion is not good. You want to get the clanest sounds possible. The general rule is that, the level of the faders in the channels, should be below the subgroup and master. Although rules can be broken, this does help in keeping headroom in your mix. You will have more flexability with the movement of your sub group faders this way.
5. Faders are the most important thing in a mix aside from eq
Once your happy with your production and you feel its time to mix the track, the first thing you should be doing before anything else, is bringing the faders down. Bring them all the way down. Now, you should always bring in the elements from most important, to least important. I always tend to start with either the kick or the bass. Either one will work. We will start with the kick for this example. Bring your kick up first. Usually to around -10bdfs, as this will set yourself up nice, in order to leave some headroom when everything else is brought up. Now bring in the bass. Set the levels to where you feel sounds right. Get them working well together. Use a reference from another track if your unsure. Next will either be the rest of your drums to get the groove happening, or lead/vocal. In pop tracks the vocal is the most important part as is the lead in your typical dance track. Follow the process until you are happy with how its sounding. It’s important you spend a lot of time getting this right.
Decide where you want your elements to sit in the stereo field. The kick and sub bass should be mono (straight down the middle) aswell as the snare and lead vocal. Be careful not to pan everything hard left and right. You have to have a good reason for panning things there, and if your not careful, you will end up making a huge mess of things. Some engineers refer to a wide sounding stereo mix, where few things can be localized as “BIG MONO”. Meaning that it technically qualifies as stereo, but would be more compelling if listeners could actually locate things better. Switching to mono when panning is a great technique i learnt from a mixing engineer. When you move something around in mono and all of a sudden it pops out, that’s where you should leave it. You have to be careful with important elements when panning, especially on dance tracks destined for the club. Keep in mind that people will be on opposite sides of the dance floor so may not hear everything thats going on. It’s best to keep the important things in the middle.
7. Compression when used as a mixing tool
Compression is probably the hardest concept to get your head around, especially when your first starting out. You can either use it to shape your sounds, colour your sounds, add warmth and use it for sidechain amongst other things. When it comes to mixing with it, you need to understand why your reaching for a compressor in the first place. Not everything needs compressing, and when used too much, it can destroy a mix. The first thing that will tell you, if something needs compression, is your faders. Say for example, you have a vocal that has loud parts and quiet parts in it. It isn’t consistent and the quieter parts of the vocal disappear in the mix. No matter what you do with your faders, the problem won’t be resolved, because if you push them up, the peaks of the vocal will become too loud and may even start clipping. So, we use our trusty compressor. A compressor allows us to reduce the dynamic range (highest and lowest signal levels) of the vocal so that the louder and quieter parts can be heard clearly throughout. This makes the average level of the track, more consistent. Now we can move that fader up or down to its correct place in the mix.
8. Eq is your best friend
Eq’ing is something you will do throughout the whole of your track in different stages. Sound design being one of them, and cleaning up frequencies here and there being another (low cut, high cut). However, the mixing stage is a little different. We use it to make sounds clearer in the mix, to have everything fit together, and occupying its own predominate frequency range. Sometimes you have sounds that mask each other (get in the way) so to fix this we use an eq. Cutting a certain frequency range on one sound to make room for another. Eq’ing the kick and bass, you would dip the bass where the fundamental frequency (lowest peak) of the kick lies, to let this poke through in the mix. Make sure you listen to the sounds together while using eq, because it’s not how something sounds on its own that matters, its what they sound like together. It might sound awful on its own, but if it works in the mix, then thats all you need to worry about. General rule for boosting is using a wide Q, and a narrow Q for cutting. The more sounds you have going on in the mix, the smaller each one needs to be. Last but not least, do the same thing as you did with the faders. Start with kick and bass, then bring in the most important element one by one, equ’ing as you go. It will help you be more decisive in what you do.
9. Reverb and Delays
Adding reverbs and delays add to the dimension of your track. Putting things back in the mix, forward in the mix and making things sound bigger. They also help place elements into there own space. The best way to start is to create a picture of where you want things to sit in the mix. Use pre-delay to separate the sound from the effect. Good for lead synths, vocals. Without pre-delay, things can start to sound a bit washed over and unclear. Smaller reverbs and delays will make things sound bigger. Longer ones will generally push sounds further away. Timing a delay to the tempo of a track will add depth, without it being noticable. If you take it away, you will know something is missing. Timing effects to the track make things sound smooth. If you want the effect to stick out, move it slightly out of time. You will have to play around to get the desired effect your after. Make sure you treat your effects the same as you would a sound. Eq and pan them so they sit in there own space and don’t clash with each other. This will add clarity to the mix and keep it clean.
10. Conclusion and mastering.
What i would say about mastering is this. If you’re not confident enough and don’t really know what your doing, then don’t worry about it. Don’t throw on presets and think, that will solve it. It won’t, and you will learn nothing. Leave it up to a professional mastering engineer. Make sure your mix is as good as you can get it, and leave plenty of headroom. Once sent to the mastering engineer, he may get in touch with you and tell you to tidy things up a little. This is go
od because you will learn something, and then you can take that advice and apply it to your next track. They’re there to help you, and give you the best possible service you need. Once you find a good one, stick with them and form a good relationship. If you want to learn about mastering i recommen a book called ‘Bob Katz, Mastering Audio, the Art and the Science’. It’s the best book on audio out there and has helped me a lot.
Following these steps, i hope will clear a few things up, and help you understand things a little more. There are certain rules, and for them to be broken, you must understand how they work. Watching tutorials, reading blogs, books, and searching on google will help you out immensely but at the end of the day, practice makes perfect so keep practicing. Take your time, believe in what your doing is right and work hard.
PINNA – Producer
Lee Pinner is a producer hailing from Manchester, England, but now lives in Cairns, Australia. He’s an admin in the Heavyweight Bass Producer Forum and loves furry pussy!