"A Different Approach To Music Mixing



I’m sure you’ve combed, searched and crawled all over the internet, talked to all your friends, grabbed every magazine you could, and read every scrap you can find on mixing, yet still, getting that perfect mix is still a dubious task. Believe me, I’ve fought with mixing myself for years, and I still struggle some days to get that ‘sweet’ mix. It can be a never-ending battle, because no two mixes are ever the same.


Alas, dear reader, there is hope, and that small glimmer of light lies in little hints that are sprinkled all over the place, planting seeds into your musical mind, and they lay dormant, just waiting to grow when you nurture them. That’s right, you have to nurture the seeds of mixing inspiration. As much as most people don’t like to hear this, learning to mix, and mix well, takes time and practice. It is not impossible to get a good mix, and you don’t need thousands of dollars of equipment or some ‘perfect’ listening environment to do so.


Do take heart though. I have never read one single article that made the little light go on in my head and all was ‘revealed’, but each new article I read inspired me to learn and try something new, and helped my little garden of knowledge grow.


Maybe you know these tricks already, but give them a fair shot. Who knows? Maybe you’ll finally fix that mix you’ve been fighting for months!


The Rules


Let’s start with the my first 5 rules to mixing -


Rule # 1 – We are NOT here to master. Mixing and mastering are two entirely different processes. Get this out of your mind about mastering.

Rule # 2 – See that master fader? Leave it alone! Set it to 0db, and don’t touch it. There is no reason to touch it and I don’t care how much it taunts you, it’s not a toy. Leave it alone.

Rule # 3 – Effects are your enemy. You heard me right, they are evil, and they screw up your mix. Until you have a firm grasp of the effects on your mix, they are going to fight you tooth and nail to get that perfect mix.

Rule # 4 – Reverb is the King of the Evil Effects Empire. This is probably one of the most overused and abused effects of all time. You will often swamp your mix in mud, and nothing has clarity and sparkle anymore. Leave it alone.

Rule # 5 – Eliminate as much external sound as possible in your room!


Now that we’ve set the rules, let’s go over the why’s of the rules.


Mastering and Why We’re Not Talking About It

I feel that it is very important to draw the line between the differences of mixing and mastering. Mixing and mastering is like a fine evening meal. Mixing requires you, the master chef, to combine the right ingredients, measure out the appropriate amounts for your ingredients, and to have a flair for experimentation.

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Mastering is the waiter that seats you at your table and serves up your meal on an open air balcony overlooking the ocean, with the moon slowly pouring itself out of the watery depths. In short, they go together, but are very separate jobs. Your task is to be the ultimate culinary chef, and to make the perfect meal. The waiter is like the mastering engineer, to make sure that your audience has the most wonderful time and is satisfied with their experience.


While the waiter can fix some problems that come out of the kitchen, he cannot fix food that is burnt, undercooked or just plain tastes bad. He needs to give it back to the kitchen to start over from scratch or fix. The same goes for the mixing engineer and the mastering engineer. Ultimately, your job as the mixer though is to give the mastering engineer absolutely nothing to do.


Make the best mix possible that you can, and hopefully give a db or two of room for him/her to work with and the highest bit depth you can make. So if you can record and mix it at 24 bit/96khz, leave it there and let them do their magic.


I know there’s still quite a few of you out there that want to master. If you want to do so, might I suggest sending it off to a real mastering house if it’s really important to you, give it off to a friend to master from a new perspective, or, if you insist on doing it yourself, wait a few days after your final mix to start fresh. Honestly, mastering deserves its own article, if not a book of its very own. I would highly recommend “Mastering Audio - The Art And The Science” by Bob Katz ISBN: 0240805453 if you really want to go in depth into mastering and for further reference.


The Master Fader, and Why You Should Leave It Alone

I know the instinct in a lot of us is to automatically reach for the master fader when you see that we’re overloading the master level. Fight that urge! The main problem is that when you do adjust its level, you affect the rest of your mix.

Why don’t we want to touch the master fader? Just because the transient of the bass drum is pushing the mix into digital distortion in your sequencer, you really do not want to lower the volume of the hi hats that you’ve just struggled with for the last 2 hours to get it to be loud enough, now do we?


Let’s take a look at another example. If you had a classroom, and every time you turn to write on the chalkboard, someone pegged you in the back of the head with a spitball, do you automatically punish the whole class? No, you don’t.

You figure out that Johnny, who’s been chewing on paper, and has a straw on his desk is the culprit. It’s the same with a mix. You touch the master fader, you punish the rest of your mix because one of the tracks is being rowdy. Instead, what you can do is use compression, a limiter, turn down the volume for the track itself, or simply choose a different sound.


This way, you attack the problem, not destroy the rest of the mix. You will find though that sometimes you need to lower several tracks to get them to sit right. Once you get the mix to a reasonable volume, this is where you can insert a limiter on your master track, and curb those nasty spikes, and tame the savage levels.


Effects Can Be your Mortal Enemy

The choices for effects were massive back 10 years ago, and now, every day it seems some new effect comes out that you just ‘have to try’. The problem is they can skew what you’re hearing and kill your mix. Now let me clarify here. If you are having problems getting your mix to balance out, this is the time you need to turn off ALL of your effects.


Keep in mind that I’m referring to removing all the ‘extra’ effects you’ve added to your chain, not necessarily the effects the patch came with itself, or removing the guitar distortion, for example. But, if you feel it’s going well, then by all means, keep going with it. This is to cover what to do when your whole mix falls flat on its face, and you don’t know which way to turn.


Now that we have your song standing naked in front of the whole world, this is the time to make the critical decisions. Do we have too many bass instruments? Does your ‘sweepy’ pads overlap into the highs, burying your hi hats and cymbals? Is the song too ‘busy’? With all those nasty effects gone, this is the point we can start to make decisive choices about the instruments we picked to join us in our song. If we have a particular sound that’s overwhelming, consider lowering the volume so it’s not too much in front, and not too much in the back.


Set your balance with the volume sliders, and get everything to fit together. Chances are if you can’t get your sounds to mesh here at least on some level, you’re not going to tame them when you bring in your effects. Start to consider to back out some of your sounds until you can get it under control, and then start to bring your effects back in. If you still can’t get a sound to ‘fit’, consider taking it out altogether.


So let’s say we are having problems getting some sounds that are at the same frequency level that won’t play together nicely either. Just like two bassists with an ego are going to battle it own between each other, if you can’t get them to work together, then you’re going to have to separate them or get rid of one of them. The thing to consider is if the sounds you are mixing are in the same frequency space in your mix, there are several ways to play tricks.


For example, you can have the sounds play in between each other, like the bass drum come in on the 1st and 3rd beat, and the bass come in on the 2nd and 4th beat, so they don’t fight each other, but can still live within the same space. Also, you can experiment with high and low cut Eq’ing to allow some freedom. Another example is you could put a 6 db high pass at 3000hz for one sound, and a 6 db low pass at 3000hz to allow some ‘breathing space’.


Sometimes this might work, sometimes not. Where it really can help is if you have a very complex pad, you can pick and choose what part of the pad you want coming through. If your bass end is fairly heavy already, and the pad you like has a lot of high frequency action going on, but you don’t like the lows, simply cut it out with the EQ. EQ’s are great surgical tools in audio to remove the parts you don’t want or need.


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Reverb – The frequency robber of the 21st century and beyond

I’d like to qualify here, when it comes to reverbs, there are actually two types of reverbs, good reverb, and BAD reverb. We’re here to talk about the later.


I know how much people love reverb. I know how it can take a good sound and make it sound great. I know how much BETTER your voice sounds with it on. But often, you’re left to drown in frequencies that should be long gone, but they tend to linger, hogging up precious bandwidth in your mix. One of the best alternatives I’ve found to using reverbs is using a tempo delay with a high and low cut filter, and set it to the rhythm of your song.


What you get is the chance for your sound to ‘relax’ in between each ‘trigger’ but still gives you the ‘perception’ of depth. Especially with doing the delay to BPM, you can greatly enhance the flow and pace of your song by simply setting it to tempo. By using high and low pass filters on the delay, you can also give the original sound a chance to take up the whole frequency range, and the echoes to take up a smaller space, but not hog the whole spectrum. My favorite tool for this is dbT-Tempo Delay from db audioware, and best of all, it’s a freebie. Check it out at db-audioware if you’ve never heard of it before.


Also, another problem is reverbs of low quality tend to add a ringy tone to your mix. If you find your reverb sound to not be so natural, consider hunting down a better reverb. Since picking a reverb for you is akin to picking your own mate to marry, there are a lot of demos out there that you can play with and make your own decision of what sounds best to you. Remember, the best reverb is the one you only notice when you turn it off.


External Noise or Reasons To Move To The Country

So while you don’t need the optimum ‘environment’ do make a great mix, what you do need is to keep as much other ‘sound’ out of your environment as possible. For every frequency that you add into your setting that’s not in the final recorded mix is one thing more you have to fight to hear, and keep balanced. Mixing is not the time to have the television on, a fan running, the air conditioning on, the heater operating, or any other sound you can control.


Even think about how much harder it is to hear the radio in your car when you roll down the window. What you’re doing is fighting the new frequencies that are now invading into your domain. Do away with them as much as possible.


And To Our Closing

Mixing is not, and never will be a perfect science. There is no one ‘right way’ to do a mix. Keep reading, and keep experimenting, and most of all, keep sharing your experiences with everyone around you. You never know what you might learn by just trying.


And never forget – Now that we’ve made the rules, rules are always made to be broken. Go break some yourself, and let me know if this has helped you out and what you have learned yourself.


Read more related articles here:


Arranging and Mixing Tips


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