There’s nothing more frustrating than finishing a song and then when you compare it with some of your favorite songs you realize that there’s a BIG difference in terms of quality. After spending so many hours on producing the song and maybe you even paid for a studio session that can be annoying. Trust me, I know how it feels.
So, today I’ll share with you 5 simple tips that will help you improve your mixes. Please understand that this is audio engineering, I’m not talking about DJ mixing.
OK, Let’s get our hands dirty.
How To Prepare For A Mixing Session
The problem I see with a lot of producers is that they want to mix while producing the song. The problem with mixing while producing the music is that everything will be all over the place and you’ll be using a lot of CPU unnecessarily. This can really mess up with your workflow, if the computer keeps freezing or lagging.
That is why I always advise people to break the song creation process into different sessions. Have different sessions for recording, production, arrangement, mixing and mastering. Even on your DAW save the sessions in different project names.
Depending on your workflow and how you prefer to work, you can have your sessions each day or week.
During recording, a bit of mixing may be needed to capture the type of sound you want to achieve, but make sure that any processing you do is very subtle. Avoid mixing midi tracks, they’re CPU heavy, so you must always bounce the audio to wav or aiff before mixing.
Another crucial part of preparation is to get the right balance (volume/level) from the source. If you’re recording your sounds the traditional way then make sure you get the right volume during the recording. If you’re using midi then get the right volume using the volume knob on the VST you’re using.
Some may know this process as gain staging, but gain staging can mean a lot of things.
This means when you open your mixing project you’re not going to touch any fader or volume knob, unless necessary. This will add more resolution to your individual channels or tracks. Once you have your project opened add basic things like your buss channels for grouping sounds and Fx channels for parallel processing.
Then you’re good to go. Most producers and artists alike miss the preparation part then end up wondering why their music doesn’t sound good. And it’s simply because they compromised their mix during production while trying to save some CPU. So, avoid shortcuts.
Understanding Frequency Management
Don’t let the term frequency management intimidate you, it just sounds much better than equalizing. Everyone knows that they have to equalize their sounds to get a great sounding mix, but the question is always – HOW?
Which is understandable because these gurus just tell you that you need an EQ (equalizer). But when you know frequency management then understanding the EQ becomes much easier.
Basically all you need to do is to use an EQ to cut certain frequencies you don’t need and boost wherever necessary. To do this you’ll also need to understand frequency overlap. This is easy, don’t boost the snare at 200Hz then boost the kick at 200Hz, these sounds will overlap and create masking.
The sounds will cancel each other and you won’t get the punch that you were trying to achieve. In some cases you might find instruments that sound good when boosted on the same frequencies. For instance if your vocals and guitar sound good when boosted at 2kHz, then try boosting one at 2.5kHz and the other at 1.5kHz to avoid frequency overlap.
This will help you get each sound to be dominant in certain frequencies. The bass and kick will dominate the low-end while the hi-hat, shaker, tambourine and cymbals dominate the high frequencies etc.
You’ll need to keep note of each and every frequency you cut or boost on any sound to make your workflow a lot easier, I use a notepad.
To find problem frequencies you’ll have to sweep around the frequency spectrum using a bell filter with a 10dB boost, using a narrow bandwidth then just go around the spectrum to find problem frequencies and then remove them. Or boost wherever necessary.
How & When To Use An Audio Compressor
The compression process is much easier than the EQ. The problem is understanding how the compressor works, especially the parameters (attack, release, ratio and threshold).
There’s a lot of free tutorials online that can teach you this, but I’ll give you the basics then you can go research it further later.
The threshold determines how loud the signal should be before getting compressed. The ratio determines how much compression must be added to the signal when it reaches a certain threshold. The attack and release are basically an envelope which will determine how fast the compression kicks in and how long the signal should stay compressed.
The knee determines whether the ratio must kick in immediately (hard knee) when the signal reaches the threshold or ratio must go in gradually as the signal progresses. Finally, the make-up gain parameter is used to make up for the gain we’ve lost while compressing the signal.
Now that you understand how the parameters work we can look at how and when to use a compressor.
The basic use of compression is to make things level. For instance, when you record vocals the singer won’t sing in the same volume throughout the whole song some parts will be loud while others are soft. In that case you can do things manually by gain riding, which can take hours.
But a compressor will do this with ease, just as long as there’s no major difference in dynamics. If there’s a big difference in dynamics (loud & soft parts), then do some manual gain riding in some parts. Don’t overwork the compressor (avoid hard compression) because it will squash your sound and bring up unwanted sounds.
Processing tools like the multi-band compressor can be used for a lot of purposes like compressing certain frequencies and leaving other frequencies intact. It can also be used just like a Dynamic EQ as well.
You can use a compressor to add punch, warmth or to change the waveform of a sound. It can also be used to lengthen the sustain of a sound. There’s also parallel compression which is mixing the dry signal with the compressed signal to achieve upward compression.
Upward compression is simply bringing up the soft parts and adding audible detail to a sound without affecting the loud peaks. So a normal compressor does what is called downward compression since it only reduces the loudest peaks and leave the soft part unaffected.
There’s also sidechain compression which is used to avoid masking and sounds cancelling each other, it helps keep sounds punchy. Most producers limit this process to kick, bass and pads, but it can be used with effects as well. Ever heard of sidechain reverb? Sidechain delay?
There’s a lot of ways and reasons why you need to use compression, but we can’t cover them all in this article.
If your mix doesn’t have a compressor then just know that you haven’t done any mixing to your song. I add compression on almost every channel, but I don’t use it on high frequency instruments, I prefer using an envelope tool and some de-esser.
Once you have all the 3 steps done then you can use effects and automation to add some flair to your mix. Use effects such as reverb and delay to add more depth & width to your mixes. Don’t use too much reverb it tends to push instruments toward the back of the mix. Remember, less is more.
Use the chorus effect to double-up sounds and make them thick, but be careful because it can also push sounds to the back of a mix. Phaser and Flanger are a great ear candy and they can add movement in a mix when used in certain parts of an arrangement.
The most important part of mixing that most people don’t know is saturation. You may know this as distortion, this does not only give you the tape or analog feel but it also adds texture, color and warmth to your mixes. Too much can change the tone or timbre so use it wisely, it works well on a drum buss, bass, guitars and during mastering.
The final touch of your mix will be automation. A good trick is to automate your effects in different parts of your arrangement. For instance, the chorus part will have more reverb and delay as compared to the verse part to help the chorus stand out from other parts of the song.
When mixing your music, make sure that you start with the first 3 steps before adding effects and saturation. First get a good balance in terms of frequency and volume then add other effects later once your mix is sounding proper.
That’s it folks, hope you found the tutorial useful. Feel free to post your questions below in the comments section and I’ll get back to you. Even if you just want to say Thank you, leave a comment below.
Happy Mixing 🙂