Of all the things that make music production so time-consuming, mixing would definitely rank near the top. However, with a experience and some creativity, it can be both quick and fun.
There are a bunch of ways you can minimize your chair time organizing files, looking through available plugins, and editing files.
This Article Will Teach You:
- It doesn’t take a bazillion and one plugins to make something sound good.
- A great arrangement is a mixer’s best friend.
- The mute and delete buttons can be the most powerful tools at your disposal.
- Mixing in mono is a great way to get your balance just right.
Check out the book “Step By Step Mixing: How to Create Great Mixes Using Only 5 Plug-ins“
We’ll also discuss other aspects of mixing and ways to mix more efficiently. So let’s get started …
When Using Plugins – Sometimes Less Equals More.
Beating A Dead Horse Gets You…Yep, A Dead Horse…With More Nasty Flesh Wounds
Have you ever gotten to the point where, by the time you were done selecting just one more plugin to treat or tame that incredibly noisy guitar riff, you realized that you had maxed out at 20 plugins or more?
If you haven’t gotten any results at this point, it’s time to hit reset and go back to square one.
Being guilty of this habit myself, I can definitely relate to constantly wanting to
use your favorite and seemingly magical plugins to take a really crappy song and — POOF! — turn it into a bangin’ hot Billboard-worthy single!
Unfortunately, in the real world we live in, a steaming turd will nonetheless remain (drum roll begins…) a steaming turd.
It might have a little more distortion added, some compression here and there to tighten things up, and tons of EQ for creative tone-shaping and corrective tweaking, but it’s no better off than what you were given to work with if it doesn’t actually sound better after all that work.
Furthermore, if the song’s terrible and the arrangement is off from the beginning, there’s not much you can do to make it much better unless you have any sort of creative control over the source material yourself.
What you need to do before you select a single plugin is simply listen to the song from start to finish. Get a good idea of what the artist created first before you take a shot at it with your latest celebrity plugin collection.
If it’s your own song, listen to it a few times and get someone you trust to give you some feedback on what you could do to improve the arrangement if that’s where you’re stuck.
However, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t have your favorite plugins set up in advance to simplify your workflow.
Creating Templates Will Save You a Ton of Time
While half of mixing may be making things sound good, the other half is definitely getting it done quickly, which can be especially important when you’re in a time-crunch.
Depending on the kind of client you’re working with or the kind of project you’re working on, you may find that creating a template will make it easier for you to get things rolling much faster.
For others, it may be a matter of creating presets of plugins that they like to use for specific tasks.
For example, if you want to apply compression to a guitar but don’t want the lower frequencies triggering the compressor right away, you can create a preset in which there’s a high-pass plug-in that shaves off the low end of the signal.
In fact, this is a time saver that can be applied to any track whenever there’s a need to create more space for instruments or elements with lots of low-frequency content that needs to be brought out.
Another example would be having certain compression presets for sounds that tend to have a very wide dynamic range.
So when you find a way to slam and squeeze your client’s crazy-loud, mic-destroying, demon-like screamo (bands like Underoath) performances into a dynamic, punchy dose of wailing but evenly controlled audio goodness (if you ended up slapping a limiter on the channel, kudos!), do yourself a huge favor and save those settings NOW!
That said, the idea is to speed up your workflow — not to turn your DAW into an assembly line. You still have to listen to what the plugins are doing to the sounds you apply them to and act accordingly if you find something amiss. Just use your ears and go with your best judgement, and you’ll generally end up in the clear!
Flip That Mix To Mono For Greater Accuracy
As limited as human hearing can be at times, and as grandiose and awesome our brains will allow us to think that something sounds, the more disappointed we’ll likely be at certain details if we forget to check your mix in mono.
Don’t get me wrong; there’s definitely a place for mixing in stereo, and there’s plenty you can accomplish in stereo mode, but mono will definitely clue you into the actual impact that your track might have once you click that “Render” or “Export” button and take your new mix for a spin in the car.
Let’s not forget that human hearing isn’t exactly perfect, and there are all kinds of things that can happen during the course of our lives that can affect that hearing.
Additionally, driving long and hard during a mixdown marathon is definitely going to toss all your objectivity by the wayside. So when in doubt, hit that mono switch and check to see whether all that work is really living up to its rockstar stereo image.
You just might be surprised how “off” all the levels really are in your mix, even if everything sounds pitch-perfect (not the movie) in stereo mode.
When Something Just Won’t Fit — DELETE IT!
Well, just before you button-mash the delete key like a raving fiend with a colorfully kinky porno collection to hide, let’s talk about what I actually mean by “delete”.
When artists catch the “me-too” syndrome, the tendency to ask for things to be turned up and down in a mix can drive you nuts, and what might really be the cause of all that madness and uncertainty is usually a lack of clarity in the mix.
That said, the lack of clarity or definition might not be your fault…entirely, that is. At the end of the day, you’re still the mix engineer, and your clients will hold you accountable regardless of whatever recording mishaps or seemingly odd and indecipherable requests that you’re confronted with.
In spite of knowing this, you can drive yourself nuts trying to figure out how to re-EQ and re-compress every element that just doesn’t seem to fit while actually making things sound worse than they already were before.
In short, the simple solution is to simply cut out or mute any part that’s holding the rest of the mix back.
How do you decide what to cut out?
It All Comes Down to Your Arrangement
1. Define all the essential elements that you know need to be there, such as the basic percussion elements, lead, bass, backing chords, and pretty much everything you know the artist would want to hear from a general perspective.
2. When your mix starts sounding muddy because there are so many layers of chords, riffs, background noises, or whatever is in the session, then you need identify what the elements are that need to come out the most.
This can be easily accomplished by having your clients listen to your mix. They’ll tell you what the most important elements are by telling you to “turn them up”.
3. Create markers throughout the session that identify all the sections where certain elements need to be brought up, and mute all the other elements that aren’t contributing to those sections.
4. Of course, if the client asks you to unmute those elements anyhow, your next step is to insert a low-pass filter into the offending track, identify the frequency range that the lead element is most prominent in, and then gradually sweep the low-pass filter down to that frequency range on the offending track as you listen to both elements in the mix.
Keep in mind that if the client still wants that sound to be audible, you should make sure that the slope of the filter is set to 12 dB per octave or 6 dB per octave so that the cut isn’t as dramatic.
This could easily work on a group of elements too — just make sure all the offending elements are bussed to a single auxiliary track, insert your low-pass filter, perform the cut, and you’re done!
Getting through a tough mix that just isn’t working out for you can be stressful, and oftentimes the best method for relieving that stress is taking a deep breath and walking away from a project for a few minutes to clear your head.
What it comes down to is a matter of perception; your plugins aren’t merely quick-fix gadgets but tools that are used to shape and refine sounds.
Think of this way; you wouldn’t try to make a chair out of driftwood with the most expensive carpentry tools and try to sell it for the price of an electric recliner with leather seats and velvet trim, would you?
Then again, you just might be a carpenter who’s able to take nasty driftwood and do something incredible with it, but my point is that the effort required to take something that doesn’t have lasting potential in the beginning will cost you more in time, tears, blood, and sweat than what it’s really worth.
Trust your instincts, and don’t waste your time tweaking when the problem is much more basic. If your clients are satisfied with the direction you’ve taken, then you’ve already won half the battle. Most of the time, they won’t want you to modify their sounds that heavily to begin with.