If you’re just starting out mixing, this post will hopefully move you quantum leaps forward in your mixing education. If you’re experienced, this post may solidify some fundamental engineering concepts.
Back in the Summer of 2007, I had no type of conventional training in mixing. I had “acquired” a copy of Adobe Audition 2.0 via the interwebs and was recording myself and a few others using an IBM Thinkpad T42, a Lexicon interface, and an extra cheap condenser mic. My mixing ability was based on experimentation and intuition and the results were incomplete.
The summer came and more importantly, internship money came. One of the first things I did was buy Bobby Owsinski’s Mixing Engineers Handbook and my mixes have gotten better ever since. Here’s the most significant takeaways I’ve gotten from the book thus far.
1. Know the Elements of Mixing
Before the handbook, I had no system for a mix. I had an idea of how I wanted to shape the sound but didn’t know what tools to use to make it happen or what order to use those tools in. Then I read about the elements of mixing (in the order I try to mix in)
- Balance: Set the relative volume of musical elements; controlled by the faders
- Panorama: Place a sound is in stereo space; Is it hard left, centered, hard right, somewhere in between?; controlled by the pan pots
- Equalization (EQ): Control the frequencies instruments occupy; instruments occupying the same frequencies sound muddy; controlled by EQ, instrument selection, and octave selection
- Dimension: make the mix 3d; use reverb, delays, choruses, and other effects to create a soundscape with depth
- Dynamics: Manage the difference between loud and soft of individual elements, groups, and the overall mix; controlled using compressors, gates, expanders, etc.
- Interest: Add (sometimes by subtraction) something extra to keep things interesting. Could be a sweeping effect. Could be based on the arrangement going from dense to sparse. This is where the technical side and creative side must meet.
Going through the elements of mixing gave me a general order to approach a mix and production in general. Oftentimes, getting the balance right will make mixing a lot easier.
2. Learn How Compression Works
The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook gives an effective explanation of compression. Musically, compression makes loud sounds softer. This lets you turn the overall level up. It can also give an element more punch. Compression is kind of like glue. Used strategically, compression can unify performances and entire mixes. Compression in the wrong hands is worse than nails on a chalkboard. (Compressing nails on a chalkboard will get you Van Goghed.)
3. You and Your Monitors Should Make An Equilateral Triangle
Make it easy to understand how to pan things. Set your monitors up right. Your monitors should be the same distance away from you. The distance from one monitor to you should also be the distance from one monitor to the other. You and your monitors should be the corners of an equilateral triangle.
4. Less is More
Before turning an instrument up to make it stand out more, try turning everything else down. You’ll be able to make up the level of the entire mix together at the end. Before boosting in EQ to make an instrument stand out, try cutting out the frequencies you don’t want.
5. High Pass Filter Everything (almost)
The most easy way to clean up your mixes is to cut out those unnecessary low frequencies. A high pass filter does just that. Give your bass and kick room to breath. Let them occupy those low frequencies. Your vocal does not have much useful information below 100Hz. Neither does your hi-hat or snare.
6. NY Compression+
New York Compression takes a signal, processes it and mixes it back in with the original. When applied to drums, it can make them sound fatter without losing the dynamics of the performance. The thought of blending a processed signal with an original signal can be applied to any effect or combination of effects.
7. Use Proper Gain Staging
Individual tracks should not peak. There’s a reason why there’s more room to turn faders down than turn them up. Individual tracks typically should have their faders lower than the buss they are flowing into.
Side Note: A buss is just a track that sums the sounds of tracks that flow into it
8. Use Your DAW or Gates to Eliminate Noise
Having noise on one track is bad. Having noise on multiple tracks is terrible. All that noise adds up to make for a muddy mix. The best way to eliminate noise is to edit it out using your DAW. Simply going through each track and muting or deleting the sections of noise will make your mixes sound immensely better. A lesser alternative is using gates. Gates can help save you from the noise problem. Gates work by shutting of the sound when the signal falls below a certain threshold. If you set your gate right, only the sounds you want heard will be heard.
Of course, there is much more you can learn from the Mixing Engineer’s Handbook. I especially like the SSL Mix Buss Compression technique outlined, but the above takeaways were paradigm shifting concepts for me. They gave me the ability to pinpoint what I was trying to accomplish and a method to make it happen. Hopefully they do the same for you.
Please add any other tips I missed in the comments.