Mixing music is as important as recording it, as it can destroy what would otherwise be a brilliant composition. I have heard many great songs that have been ruined by either a bad recording or a bad mix. I have even seen people release CD’s with very obvious sonic flaws.
My point is that if you want to succeed in making music, you need to have a good mix. Otherwise, you’ll be hurting your chances of selling it. I can only imagine how the average listener might feel when he or she pays $15 for a CD only to discover that it sounds like it was recorded on an iPhone.
Before you can start mixing music, you need to know what you want to accomplish. This will give you a “plan of attack” that will help you get the sound you’re looking for, and much of it will depend on its musical style.
I came up with a list of five things that I feel should go into every good mix.
1. Having a Good Premix
I tend to mix as I go along, and I would encourage you to do the same. In fact, a good premix will save you a great deal of time during post-production, because it is during this stage that you will do most of the heavy lifting.
You will have many different tracks working together in a mix, so it’s important to keep them organized. The last thing you want is to spend hours looking for that one obscure track that you need to finish processing.
Managing your levels is also important, and I’m surprised by how many musicians haven’t taken it to heart. Louder isn’t necessarily better, and you want to make sure you record every part at the right volume. This is especially true if you’re using recording software, because they’re not very forgiving if you go in too hot. Instead, you should try to stay in the green as much as possible. But most importantly, trust your ears. If something doesn’t sound right, find out what’s wrong and do it again.
2. Keeping Everything Balanced
Balancing is the process of making sure that the levels of each track are in accordance with the song as a whole, and contrary to what you may believe, it’s not a one-time thing. It’s an ongoing process that is a part of mixing music.
As you start to process your tracks (such as adding compressors, EQ’s, and other effects), it will affect the volume of the track. So, you will need to rebalance them to make sure they work with the rest of the track. The reason why this is important is because processors will add or subtract gain.
Rebalancing is an important part of keeping the integrity of your mix, and it’s a necessary part of the mixing process. But again, you want to trust your ears. If something doesn’t sound right, then you need to do something different.
3. Panning Your Tracks Properly
The beauty of stereo recording is that it can give your music more depth, and knowing how to pan your tracks along a stereo field is essential to any good mix. The last thing you want is to have your instruments fight with each other. They need to work in cooperation with each other, which is why every part needs to have its own place in the mix.
Ideally, you want every track to be recorded in mono, but you don’t always have that option. If you’re recording a stereo instrument (such as electronic drums or keyboards), you can record them in stereo. You can simply pan each channel at the same position.
4. Using the Right Amount of Compression
Compression is very useful, as it can give you more breathing room, but it can choke your mix if you do it too much. That’s why you need to use the right amount of compression, but as you might have expected, it will vary with every style of music and with every instrument.
Compression is all about timing the release. You want it to kick in at the right time, and you want it to turn off at the right moment. Compression ratios and thresholds are also important, as they play a role on how much you want to add when it kicks in, but there are no hard rules on how much you should use. So, feel free to experiment to see what works best for each mix.
I’ve never liked to use a lot of compression in my mixes, as it tends to distort the quality of the original recording, but I’ve found it to be useful in managing low frequencies. I tend to use more compression on kick drums and bass lines than anywhere else. If it’s done the right way, it can bring out the bottom end without it being too loud or causing distortion.
5. Using the Right Amount of Reverb and Delay
Reverb and delay are two of the most important effects that you will ever use in the process of mixing music, which shouldn’t be much of a surprise for people who have been doing this for a while. As fundamental as they are, they can be tricky – at least, if you want to use them properly. Not adding enough reverb can make your mixes sound dry and flat, but adding too much can make it sound cluttered. So, what’s the proper balance to make them sound just right?
The truth is that there’s no single correct answer. In fact, it depends on the music style. Still, it’s important to add the right amount of reverb, because it sets the stage for your music. Different reverb setting will work for different types of instruments, so you can group them accordingly. This is where the auxiliary tracks in you recording software will come in handy. The reason why reverb is so important is because it will keep you mixes together, largely because it will give you more space in which to build your arrangement.
Delay can serve the same purpose as well, but it can be trickier than reverb because timing it is critical. I have found this effect to be useful on lead synths and guitars, as it can give them more of a presence in the mix. Delay can also be useful on lead vocals, but it should be used sparingly. Otherwise it will clutter your mix.
Oddly enough, I have used delay on strings and pianos to create some interesting effects to my productions, but it doesn’t always work. The key is to know when and when not to use it, but feel free to experiment to see what works best for your music.
A few years ago, I heard someone say that mixing music is a lot like cooking. You want to add the right ingredients at the right amounts to add that flavor you’re looking for. This is a perfect explanation of the purpose of a good mix. The idea is to create a quality piece of music, and adding the right combinations will take it to the level that it deserves to be.