Hello everyone! In this blog, I would like to cover five things you can do to improve your mixes. Either in the recording studio or classroom, one of the questions I am asked most often is, “How can I make my mixes sound better?!” Well, I am here to help you with just that!
KNOW YOUR AUDIO ENVIRONMENT
Many times I see engineers buy tons of really expensive gear, plug-ins, and monitors in an attempt to make their mixes sound like the pros. While better gear and high quality speakers can improve the sonic of your mixes, there is one critical aspect that is often overlooked, and that is the space you are mixing in. Clients will often ask me to come by their home studios or commercial spaces they have set their gear up in, and see what may be preventing them from achieving the quality mixes they want. Nine out of ten times I walk in and they have all of their expensive gear set up, monitoring through a great pair of “flavor of the year” speakers, rocking their ultra powerful computer with 32 gigs of RAM humming away in the corner, and if we are lucky, a few pieces of foam slapped up randomly on the wall.
ACOUSTICS REALLY DO MATTER!
Okay, well what is happening here is that we bought a ton of great gear and placed it in an environment that is making it about 50% effective because of acoustic problems in the room. This is a very common issue that really prevents a lot of engineers from achieving their mix potential. Gear is visible and promoted in retail music stores; all the audio magazines advertise the “new boutique” piece coming out.
When big dog audio engineers are interviewed, usually what they talk about is the vintage compressor they use or the esoteric microphone in their collection because these things seem more exciting to the readers, and the interviewer will always ask those questions. In reality, you will get much better results and “hear” your balances, frequencies, and effects without the room “lying” to your ears if you invest in professional acoustic treatments. There are many companies who sell very effective room treatment packages such as Primacoustics , GIK , Realtraps and many others.
YOU CAN MAKE YOUR OWN TREATMENTS
If you don’t have the money or are good with building, you can make your own acoustic panels that are as good as the pre-manufactured panels. Here is a blog and a good video on how to make your own acoustic treatments. Now go and get that space acoustically treated and your mixes will improve exponentially!
USE REFERENCE MATERIAL
One of the main things that I find is overlooked by engineers having problems with their mixes is using reference material. If you want to be successful as a mixing engineer, you must be able to replicate and compete with the tracks professionally released. The best way to do this is to use an already released professional track that is representative of the genre and sound you are working towards. If I am going to mix a hip-hop song, then I want to find a commercially released and high quality song to use as a reference, or a guide, to make sure I am on the right track. One clue here is that the track you are using has most likely been professionally mastered (we will talk about this in another blog) so you will need to make sure the volume of the reference is the same, or close, to your mix. Using a professionally released track as a reference will ensure that you are on point and mixing for the genre at hand. Without having something to compare your levels, panning, effects, and overall sound with, you are just guessing.
GET OUT OF THAT CHAIR!
Another step you can do to get better mixes is get out of the chair and move around inside and outside of the control room. I can remember the first time I was assisting a “name” engineer and he got up and walked out of the control room and listened to the mix through the door. This was new to me and I had never thought about it, but different areas act as filters and equalizers and give us a different perspective on the mix.
For example, by listening through the door, the engineer could hear the mix with a lot of the highs and kids filtered out by the studio door. It allowed the engineer to judge his balances of the low-end instruments and see if the vocal could still be heard if the song was heard from outside of the club. The great producer/engineer, Sylvia Massey, has small speakers placed in the back of the studio, off to the side, just to play mixes through on breaks in the session. That way, she can hear the mix in an environment where people are talking and the speakers are not placed properly (kind of like a lot of people’s apartments or bedrooms) to get a different perspective.
Many times, I see beginning engineers (and some that aren’t and should know better) just start mixing without even listening to the track from beginning to end. In fact, you should do this several times before even moving an EQ knob. Pull up all the faders, set a decent level so nothing is clipping, and just listen to the material from beginning to end. The most passionate and creative mixing doesn’t come from compression, EQ, or special effects. The best mixes come from the heart and soul of the mix engineer. Just close your eyes, sit back, and listen to the track and experience what the song is about, what seems to be the focus, where does the energy or emotion lie within the track. Make mental and physical notes about the structure, arrangement, instrumentation, feeling, and overall vision of the song and artist(s). Once you understand and feel all of that, mix!
DON’T OVER DO IT
The last helpful hint I am going to write about is a common rule of the entertainment industry, and if used properly and creatively, the key to a successful production of any kind. It is the K.I.S.S rule (no, not the band, sorry Gene), Keep It Simple Stupid! Here is a great article on this principle and how effective it really is: https://www.princeton.edu/~achaney/tmve/wiki100k/docs/KISS_principle.html
This is one of the main issues with many mixes, or even song arrangements. There is too much going on at one time. As humans, we can really only process a few sounds, or elements in a track, at one time. A good rule of thumb is that your audience will really only hear three parts of the mix at one time. With that being said, common sense will tell us that we need to clean up our arrangements and not have too many sounds going on that will confuse or frustrate the listener. If you think about it, the most popular tracks are very simple and have the focus on one or two elements. In popular music, this is typically the vocals, a simple melody, and some type of rhythmic pattern (drums). The cleanest and most memorable mixes follow the same rules.
If it doesn’t propel the song, create more emotion, or help deliver the message, then most likely it is not needed. Don’t be afraid to boil a mix down to its most important three elements and then bring everything else in and out of the mix to create impact. If the song is at full blast with every track playing at once and 20 instruments trying to compete for the listener’s attention, then you have not done your job.
TIME TO PRINT
Hopefully these tips will help you improve your audio mixes. As it is with any art (and mixing is an art form, or at the very least, a craft), it takes time to develop your ear and skills. Remember, it takes 10,000 hours to become proficient at a skill and countless more hours to master that skill. Most of the top mix engineers are 40-60 years old. It takes years and countless mixes to reach their level. And guess what, they still learn all the time, practice new techniques, and use references when they mix. Just put in the effort, be passionate, educate yourself in audio engineering school, and keep mixing in that new acoustically treated room. In time, you will be pumping out mixes that can stand on their own!