10 MIXING TIPS THAT RARELY RATE A MENTION
Technical Articles/July 28, 2014
Mixing seems harder than unscrambling an egg at times, but it’s not quite so impossible once you know how. This list is designed, in no particular order, to inform and reaffirm in equal measure…
1: Simplicity cuts through.
Don’t be tricked into thinking your track always needs 100+ channels of audio before it can be taken seriously. Many of the world’s best hit songs are relatively simple. Sure, some go through periods of complexity during tracking and mixing, where their channel counts blow out while lots of sounds are thrown at them, but good editing typically refines this back to the best, most compelling ingredients.
One of the greatest pitfalls of modern DAWs is their seemingly endless capacity to accommodate more, and their gross inability to help you determine what’s crap or gold. Ultimately it’s up to you to do the editing and refining, not a computer. Sometimes the delete key is the hardest key to press, but if you can get into the habit of cutting back the recording dross rather than growing attached to it, your songs will be better for it.
2: Turn the screen off.
It may seem trivial, but to me, one of the most important tricks to be in the habit of when you’re tracking or mixing is turning off the screen regularly, particularly if you’re sitting down for a listen-through. Being pulverised by a luminous rectangle 16 hours a day is enough to do anyone’s head in.
Of course, you may be amongst the rare few still working with an analogue multitrack, and like the good old days, tracking or mixing in the dark! If you are, good for you, meanwhile most of us, even some of the most die-hard two-inch stalwarts of yore, have switched to some form of computer-based recording setup by now.
Staring at the screen undoubtedly draws your attention away from how things sound. It discourages you from listening deeply into the blackness of the mix, and provides endless visual cues that can distort your perception of a sound’s volume, tone, panning position and so on.
Try it! You’ll be amazed how differently a mix sounds when there’s nothing to look at.
It’s great for client perception too. In my experience, most clients stare mesmerised at the screen whenever they’re listening to their own track, invariably pointing at the screen the moment they ‘see’ something untoward rather than hear it. Ditch the screen and they may just point at where the sound’s coming from instead!
Remember, no-one sees a session file later, indeed, virtually no-one outside the studio realm even knows they exist, so get into the habit of listening deeply without it.
3: Ditch the main vocal once in a while.
It’s a common mistake to always leave the main vocal in the mix once it’s established. Because the lead vocal is invariably so pivotal to a mix, it’s brilliant at concealing small editing issues, poorly EQ’d backing tracks, misaligned overdubs, rough gate settings and the like. Listening to a song without the main vocal once in a while gives you a different perspective on things and allows you to fix the faults that seem obvious without it. When you reinstate the vocal things will seem clearer with all those semi-conscious disturbances resolved.
4: Don’t over-compress your mix bus.
For years I didn’t use a mix bus at all, and never felt concerned about it. Then I began to realise how many people were using 1, 2, 3 or sometimes 8dB of mix bus gain reduction across their track! A crisis of confidence ensued and I felt compelled to always work with one.
Now I use them sparingly once again, relying more on channel compression, side-chains and grouped compression to do the bulk of any gain reduction work a track may require.
In my experience, layers of compression beat slamming the mix bus every time. Hitting a two-channel compressor hard every time you put a mix together doesn’t make you tough. Most of the time very little should be required of a mix bus to control the final output – perhaps one or two dB of control at most. A bus compressor can certainly help glue a track together by controlling its peaks but it can also very easily damage your track if left unattended for too long.
5: Don’t feel compelled to use every recorded track.
If you’re mixing in the digital domain you will often be confronted with 40, 80, 100… sometimes even 150+ channels of audio. If this is a regular occurrence in your world and you’re typically diving straight in and trying to make them all co-exist, don’t! Stop and think about editing and/or ditching some of them early on in proceedings, particularly if individual parts are stereo or comprised of multiple mic setups. Chances are the person who recorded it didn’t envisage you using every track anyway… they were probably just covering their arse by recording every amp, drum-kit and vocal every which way… to give you options (ha!), and a massive headache into the bargain.
Making decisive decisions about extraneous audio files helps you cut to the chase, and leaves you more time to work on the channels that matter most. Mute any that you deem non-starters: make them inactive, hide them or delete them altogether. It doesn’t matter how you do it; what matters is that you listen objectively and never think something is going to waste every time a channel is muted. In a massive session file, the mute button is your best friend.
6: Make sure your speakers are in phase and properly positioned!
There’s not much point mixing something through a pair of speakers that are too close together, too far apart or out of phase, yet people do it every day. Too many engineers I know, many of them pros who should know better, have badly positioned and occasionally out-of-phase speakers. This is just amateur hour stuff.
When people ask how far apart should my speakers be they’re really asking the wrong question. Distance between speakers is mostly irrelevant for the simple fact that it’s entirely dependent upon how far away they are from the listening position. Speakers placed six feet apart on a console will only be the right distance from one another if they’re also six feet from the listening position. If they’re six feet apart and 40 feet from the listening position they’ll effectively be mono. The basic rule is to form an equilateral triangle symmetrically between you and the speakers. (If that’s physically impossible due to circumstance, get somewhere close to this configuration.) This means the speakers are the same distance from one another as they are from you. More crucially, if they are different distances from the listening position all bets are off.
7: Don’t clip your mix files.
I don’t know who’s been spreading this rubbish, but if you’re printing digital mix masters – i.e., unmastered mixes destined for the mastering engineer – it’s not okay to clip the output bus. Please don’t print your mixes with ‘overs’ all over them. It’s bad engineering practise. For the mastering engineer it’s like receiving a brand new car with dents in it – unacceptable.
I had a client recently deliver very hi-res (32-bit/48kHz) files to me for mastering with peaks at 0+dBFS scattered throughout them. This is bad engineering practise, indicating a fundamental misunderstanding of how a hi-res file works. Frankly, there is so much detail and dynamic range in a file of this size that printing it at –40dBFS would have been a far better approach than clipping it. ‘Overs’ are bad for the track, bad for the mastering engineer, and bad for the final outcome – as it leaves the mastering engineer with no headroom to play with, no way of repairing the damaged waveforms, and a firm disquiet about how those overs got there in the first place. They could possibly indicate a faulty transfer, or some sort of insidious ‘normalising’ that the mix engineer may have been unaware of.
In the case of my recent client, I eventually quizzed him about the problem, only to be told straight up that, “yeah I printed them like that because I read somewhere that it was okay to clip the output as long as I can’t hear it.”
It’s not okay to clip the output.
8: Listen to other people’s released work regularly.
Whether you’re in Ocean Way, The Mill or Granny Flat Studios, it’s very important to listen to other people’s music to keep your ears calibrated. It a free service available any time, day or night. Have a pile of CDs you’re currently into on hand at all times, or import some of your favourite songs into the session file you’re working from. Either way, listening to the outside world inside your working environment helps you understand how your work will translate back into it. Why more people don’t do this every day is quite beyond me. Consider it fibre for your ears.
9: Take short breaks regularly.
Even when you feel like you’re all over a mix, a short break will always sharpen your perception. Make a cuppa, kick the footy, walk around the block… whatever it takes to get you out of the room and into another environment, even if it’s only for five minutes. A fresh engineer is like a fresh loaf of bread – better than a stale one.
10: The best engineer is the one who thinks independent thoughts.
Given this, I’d like to leave the last tip blank so you can think up one for yourself. What do you think would help your mix that’s not on this list? Better still, email the tip to me… I’d like to know.
Onwards and upwards… but never over, please.