Tips & Tricks, In The Mix.
I seem to have had quite a few people approach me recently, asking me how they can improve their mixdown. Of course, there’s no such thing as perfect, but there are definitely some things that are technically good and bad. The funny thing is, quite a few of the mixes people ask me to critique are actually really good, but what they are hearing might be different at their end. It might be that they’re producing in a small box room, or it might be that they’re too involved creatively, or it might even be that they’re not listening properly.
Here are my top ten tips and tricks to getting a good mixdown. Some of them might [nay, SHOULD] be obvious, but some of them might also be a little odd but certainly worth a shot.
1. Treat your room
How do you even know its your mix that isn’t right? It could be your room! One of the most important and often most overlooked aspects of home/project studio is the acoustic properties of the room. You might have some super expensive monitor speakers and DAC, but without a great sounding room then all of the above is futile. If your room is the wrong shape or size, or even material, then you could be getting standing waves in a particular frequency range that will be completely masking the music. Have you ever been working on a track and then stood up and walked over to the corner of the room (or more usually the doorway/corridor) and noticed the bass is suddenly booming? Well this is a standing wave, caused by the wavelength of a frequency being a relative distance from the wall, meaning that when it bounces back and hits itself it creates a wave of almost twice the amplitude. And it can happen in all sorts of places at different frequencies, so it’s always worth experimenting with. Try moving your monitors away from the walls, or put them against a different wall, or spread them further apart, or bring them in closer… Does it sound different? I won’t go into any more detail on this, as there are plenty of diagrams and tutorials online, but you get the picture. In fact… Check this one out from our friends at GIK Acoustics: Basic Room Setup
2. Room EQ Wizard
I guess this is probably part of the same tip really, but for those of you who have already treated your room, it’s always worth testing that. If you have a microphone – preferably a test-microphone for a flat response, but really anything “OK” will at least get you “OK” results – then you should download REW (Room EQ Wizard) where you can calibrate your audio interface and mic, and then place the microphone at your listening position, and then test your room acoustics to check which frequencies have the longest decay times etc.
This can be incredibly helpful when done properly, and it can be particularly helpful if you’ve got several different options of speaker placements in your room, and you’re not sure which layout to go with.
3. Take Everything Off
Assuming you’ve got your room and equipment giving out the best results they can, my next tip is to take everything off your master channel. You wouldn’t believe the amount of people I speak to who for some reason or another, create all of their productions with a compressor/limiter or worse in the master channel as default. This is simply bad practice, and there’s no other way of putting it. I can only assume that it’s those same people that think a mastering engineer can somehow fix a terrible mix. Truth is, a great mix should sound at least nearly great without any kind of compression or limiters in the master channel. Does the London Symphony Orchestra have a compressor between them and your ears in the Albert Hall? No. Get your mix sounding great without anything in the master channel, and only then should you even think about adding something subtle, and even then I urge you to really listen and ask yourself if it’s needed.
4. Set all channels -10dB
As part of taking any compressor/limiter off your master channel, you’ll probably notice that if all your channels are set to 0dB, then your master channel is going to be clipping hard. Depending on your ears/equipment, you might not hear this. Sometimes a bit of digital clipping sounds great. But now is not the time to be thinking about that, so I highly recommend highlighting all your channels and bringing them down by 10dB. In fact, this is one of the many amazing features that I had implemented in Bitwig Studio; the ability to set a default new channel gain, which totally saves your ears when adding a new channel and forgetting to knock it down by 10dB. As a general rule of thumb, most mastering engineers require the files they receive to be peaking no higher than -3db (I personally don’t want it peaking any higher than -6dB), and unless you’re using an almost completely analogue chain, and recording to tape, then there shouldn’t be any issues with noise floor etc when bouncing out 24 bit audio.
5. Let Your Sounds Breathe
Check out this chart (right) that Future Music Magazine printed in one of their issues. You can click the image to enlarge it, and what you’ll see is a chart explaining the basics of where each instrument in a typical dance music track will sit in the frequency spectrum. This has been sat on my desktop for years, and I’ve had printed copies in the studio too. Sometimes you can sit listening to a mix and wonder what it is that’s not working. It’s in those times that I tend to look at this image and compare each instrument.
You need to let each instrument in your mix have enough room to breathe. Sometimes I find I need to high-pass filter a hi-hat or cymbal, even though it’s already only high frequencies being created there, but it could be a poorly recorded hi-hat, or it could be overlapping with something like the harmonics of a synth line. Load up a track now and stick a high-pass filter on your hi-hats, then slowly start sweeping up the frequency cutoff point. At some stage or another, you’ll often find that there becomes this clarity from nowhere, and this could well be because it was fighting for energy resources from another instrument in the mix. Although far less often, then same can also happen at the opposite end of the spectrum. Try a low-pass filter on your bassline? Or perhaps your Low Toms are sapping your bass?
6. Hide Some Sounds
This is something I find myself repeating time and again to new/upcoming producers. I often get sent a mix, and the producer has created some big EDM track (or whatever) and they’ve used big sweeping white-noise effects, risers/drops/etc, crash cymbals, the whole works to create a big crescendo. But the biggest mistake here is usually that they’re so damn loud! Sound effects should be there for subtle impact and misdirection. They sure as hell don’t need to be anywhere near as loud as the rest of your track. Load up a project, find the sound effects, and drop them down to -20dB or more. Sometimes, some of the most exciting tracks you can listen to are the ones that just tease different sound underneath the mix, making the listener listen even harder and leaving them wanting more. Not everything has to be slammed in your face to be enjoyed.
7. Close your eyes!
Seriously, close your eyes! This was discussed in the first episode of The Kane Audio Podcast with Will Rankin (High Rankin / Rain City Riot) and myself, and we talked about how sometimes your eyes can completely deceive you when you’re listening to a mixdown. Especially when you can see all those beautiful automation lines around the screen. Switch off your screen, close your eyes, turn around, do whatever it takes for you to actually listen with your ears. In fact, I personally like to bounce my finished track out as stems, and then import those stems using a different DAW so that I can only treat the audio. This, for me, totally separates the two different tasks of producing and mixing, so I have to be completely happy with the production before I can even consider the mixdown, and once I’ve reached the point of mixing a track, I can’t even see any automation or plugins which would otherwise distract me and make me want to go back and change a sound. Give it a go!
8. Go For A Test Drive
Quite literally, take your tracks out for a drive. Listen to them in the car, head over to your friends house and play it on their crappy stereo. It’s times like these where you’ll really feel the pain and embarrassment of a bad mix, but that can only make you stronger! This is especially true if you know your room acoustics are far from ideal, and there’s nothing you can do about that. Play your music on a whole range of systems, the more the merrier. Why not even head to your local HiFi store and pretend you’re interested in buying a bunch of their systems but you want to hear your CD on them first. Yeah I’ve been there myself, thanks Richer Sounds 😉
9. Bedroom DJ
Got some decks or a laptop DJ setup? Find a few tracks that are similar to yours that you think might sit well either side of your track in a club set, and go for a mix! Sure, it won’t be as loud as the others so prepare to push the gains up on the mixer, but listen out for the frequencies; is there anything sticking out? When you mix from a commercial release to yours, do you find the kicks work perfect but when that synth kicks in it makes you cringe? You show that naughty synth who’s boss.
10. Make A Cuppa!
Finally, why not have a 5 minute break and make yourself a cup of coffee… But let your track play in the room next door and have a listen to it through the walls/corridor. Sometimes when you’re not really listening to every frequency with your analytical hat on, something will jump out at you that was so glaringly obvious that it was right under your nose. This is almost as good as testing your track out on multiple systems, because you’re being played your track from a completely different and noisy perspective, but you’d be surprised what you might notice.
So that’s my Top Ten Tips in the mix for now. Hopefully some of them will come in handy for you as they have with me in the past.