GUEST POST by BOBBY OWSINSKI
Bobby Owsinski is a producer/engineer and author of 18 books on music, recording and the music business including “The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook” and “Music 3.0: A Survival Guide For Making Music In The Internet Age.” He posts every day on THE BIG PICTURE production blog and the MUSIC 3.0 industry blog.
Most songwriters want their demo to sound as good as a master, which is truly important because that’s what most people expect to hear these days. Assuming that you’ve written a great song already, created an arrangement that works, and recorded good performances during tracking and overdubs (or have great sounding loops or samples), the biggest thing that gets in the way of a professional sounding recording is the mix.
Mixing baffles so many musicians, and well it should because it’s far more than balancing some tracks together. It’s as much of an art as writing a song or figuring out an arrangement, and takes both time and experience to get the hang of. That said, here are some very general tips to bring your mixes up a notch or two.
1. Prep your mix. That means to first eliminate any count-offs, noises, guitar clicks, rumbles and generally unwanted sounds by going through each track editing them out. Next, make sure that the timing of all instruments and vocals is solid. That doesn’t mean to quantize anything, just make sure that all tracks hit exactly on any downbeats or accents. It’s OK for the tracks to breathe in tempo as long as the main hits in the song feel solid, otherwise you might as well use loops.
2. Compression is important. Properly added compression can instantly change the sound of your recording, since the level of each instrument is solid and doesn’t waver, even though it might change in playing intensity. While we can spend an entire article on setting up a compressor, you can go to this link on my blog that details how it’s done. Compression is added to either make things punchy (like the drums) or to keep the volume steady and even (like on vocals, bass, and guitars). A little compression on the final mix buss can be used to glue the mix together. The key here is to use just a little, since adding too much will make the mix sound flat and rob it of any excitement. You can learn more about adding compression in this movie.
3. EQ for clashes. One of the mistakes that inexperienced mixers make is to add too much EQ in an effort to make things sound “better.” That’s usually a fool-proof way to throw your mixes so far out of balance frequency-wise that they’ll never work. Until you’re really sure of what you’re doing, the best thing is to use only subtractive EQ, which means that you’re only cutting, not boosting. In this case, you’ll find two instruments that are clashing sonically because they both cover the same register (like two guitars, a guitar and keyboard, or vocal and guitar), and you’ll dip the frequencies (usually in the midrange) of one until you can hear them both clearly.
4. Keep the effects minimal. Another trap that many songwriter/mixers fall into is using far too much reverb, which makes their mix seem like everything is in a huge cave. Most mixes have at least some effects (even the ones that sound dry), but there’s a lot involved in how you tailor it to make it sound right. If at all possible, time your effects (reverb and delay) to the pulse of the track so they breathe with it, then add enough that you just begin to hear it, then stop. This will provide some ambience around the instrument while not overwhelming it in the process. Another tip that most mixers never think of is EQing their effects so they fit better in the mix, something that’s been done in hit recordings since the 1950s.
5. Balance, balance, balance. A great mix has a great balance between all instruments. That means that you can feel the pulse of the song from the bass and drums, and you can distinctly hear every instrument, every word of every vocal is clear, as is every note of every solo, hook or line.
6. Compare it. All through your mix you should compare it with another song you really like the sound of. You probably won’t get your mix to sound just like that one (even a great mixer usually can’t), but at least you have a reference point to shoot for. You’re finished when you feel your mix can hang in there with that other mix when played back-to-back.
Remember that a good mix can take many full days to perfect, so if you feel like you’re finished after only an hour, you probably haven’t refined it enough. That’s not to say that you can’t get lucky in three or four hours, but mixing is mostly about experimenting to see what works and what doesn’t. Take your time, and see how it compares to other songs you love before you declare it finished. If you want more details on mixing, take a look at The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook (the all new third edition has just been released), The Audio Mixing Bootcamp, or my Audio Mixing Bootcamp video course at Lynda.com.
Written by Bobby Owsinski