Over the years I’ve picked up a few tricks and tools for getting a mix sounding just right. Making music is expression for me, and mixing it just right is a good outlet for the perfectionist in me as well. Without good mixing, your music may not have the clarity it needs to translate across different speakers and environments, and without that, it might not resonate with your listeners!
First off, if I’ve recorded the singer outside of the studio like in a hotel or on the street, I like to do some cleaning and flattening first. In fact, I like to do this with almost everything I make, especially content sampled from films. Zynaptiq makes a pricey but excellent plugin called Unfilter which suppresses combs and shrill harmonics, essentially neutralizing and flattening audio that is otherwise muddy, shrill, nasal, boomy, phasey, etc. It can also do a bloody good job of cleaning the bottom end of your final mix with very little effort. I’ve been amazed at how much clearer and more audible my music can be after cleaning them with Unfilter.
The next tool I’ve found useful is the DeReverb unit in iZotope RX3, which as a whole is one of the best noise reduction kits I’ve ever used. Used modestly, it can do a very good job of suppressing the echo/reverb of an untreated recording space. Combined with Unfilter, I’ve managed to make location recordings sound very close to studio material. But always remember, less is more. Don’t go ape with noise reduction. Even the best algorithms out there will still suck the life out of your audio. Keep it modest, and only operate on the regions of your spectrum that actually need work.
The next thing is understanding where things want to sit in your mix, and how they live and breathe together. Your bass, drums, instruments and vocals should ideally occupy separate regions of the frequency spectrum without competing against each other or fighting for amplitude. For example, your bass and kick drum will naturally fight for the same 80 – 200hz space, and your vocals and chords will sometimes clash in the mid’s and highs as well, so generally I’ll EQ them with something like Fabfilter Pro-Q or GlissEQ to separate and clarify them. I like my kick to be punchy but not subby or boomy – usually I leave that very bottom area for the bass. Alternatively, if I want my kick to be right in the sub for modern Hip-Hop or Deep House, I’ll go for a bass that lives more up in the mid range.
A good, clear bass that translates on both small and large speakers can be a real challenge, and needs to have what you call overtones. A straight sine wave for example has little to no overtones so you’ll only hear it on the very bottom end with very large cones, and even then you’d need an amazingly good acoustic room. I often layer a sine wave with other complimentary waves/samples so that my bass covers a wide range of the frequency spectrum. I find fingered Jazz bass guitars with just a little saturation can really hit the spot. In fact, real strings are almost always better than any synth bass. Your bass line is what cements the key and grounds the chords of your song in the brains of your listeners. Back in my early days when I used only headphones, I used only a sine wave bass because I liked the roundness and the proximity of the cones to my ears meant I could hear it just fine. I actually paid very little attention to my bass back then. But when I started mixing on monitors in an acoustic space, I discovered I could barely hear it at all.
Instruments and chords, especially when sampled from less than ideal sources, can come with their own muddy bottom end as well. More often than not I’ll ramp the bottom of my chords off completely because their musical influence is usually further up anyway, ranging from fuzzy to bright and airy. You want to give your bass plenty of room to do its good thing. Where things get challenging is mixing your vocals over all of this. Your vocals need to penetrate the mid’s of your mix to achieve harmonic clarity, the mid highs for definition, and the highs to achieve breath, texture and presence. That means pulling those areas of your chords down, or sometimes running them through a compressor that is side-chained to your vocal track so that your vocals literally suppress your chords as needed. Sometimes I like my vocals to have more body as well, which means mixing in a sharp knee of low-mid without contending with the chords and bass. This is where mixing becomes an art – you need to listen carefully on both speakers and headphones to give your music and hard work the clarity it needs to resonate with people.
Good mixing isn’t just about separating your elements on the spectrum, but on the timeline as well. If you blast a kick and clap at precisely the same millisecond, you’ll probably create a very nasty peak which will hinder you from achieving maximum volume for your mix, fatigue your ears, and possibly causing your master channel to clip. Same thing goes for your kick and bass. By spreading your hits/samples/notes apart ever so slightly, you’re not only avoiding peaks and allowing more volume for your song, but you’re actually creating a more natural sounding arrangement. It’s extremely rare for two sounds in a performance to occur at exactly the same time.
Another form of separation that’s important is your stereo image. A good rule of thumb is that your vocal track and bass line should be the only two things that are absolutely dead center. By having your chords and reverb wide, that is, different on each speaker, you’re giving your mix a terrific clarity because your melody and harmonies are now distinctly separable to the ears of your listeners. Several Beatles tracks even have the panned. Ever turned your favorite stereo song into mono? Doesn’t feel very nice does it? Your brain is literally working harder to separate all the elements and interpret the music. That’s why stereo image is so very important.
Never blast your mix through a limiter or compressor until your very final stages if you really have to. I only really use a limiter like Pro-L to catch the very tips of bad peaks beyond -.3dB for example, and even then, those peaks exist because I probably haven’t mixed things very well. Compression and limiting can be vital components of your mix, but mostly on individual elements. A vocal recording is typically sporadic, going from very quiet to very loud very rapidly, far too much to sit against a mix, so a compressor is used to bring the quiet bits up and the loud bits down. Remember that your brain interprets words via the very first consonants you hear, so it’s important not to set your compression attack too low. A well tweaked limiter on your drum tracks is also helpful because dry drums like kicks and snare hits are generally very peaky. The secret to good compression and limiting is to not suck the punch and dynamics out of your audio. In my early days as an amateur, I’d blast my final mix through a bad limiter which was a quick way to get extra volume but it flattened the shit out of everything and genuinely made my tracks/elements difficult to hear.
Always pay attention to the very bottom end of your tracks. Often I’ve asked myself “Why is my master track clipping already?” and often it’s been due to a bass line blasting out a redundant 20hz, or a bad ground loop on the singer’s mic, or a kick drum booming way too low. Play your song on a set of speakers with a sub and you might be unpleasantly surprised. On almost every track in my mix, I roll everything under 80hz right off, and you’d be amazed how much is actually there a lot of the time taking up valuable amplitude.
There you have it, folks, a few ideas to help you along. I hope these tips help you the next time you craft a good tune. Happy mixing!