Top 10 Tips for Making a Good Mix

Follow these time-tested tips and you’ve got a good shot at making some musical magic

Posted in Songwriter 101 on March 7, 2005 by

Capturing a great performance in multitrack is half the battle when making demos. However, in some respects the most important part of any recording project is blending the various elements together into one well-balanced final mix. Mixing is kind of like cooking - you might have all the right ingredients on hand, but it’s how you put them together that determines whether or not you’ll have a dish worth serving.

The following are a few time-honored, studio-tested mixing tips designed to help you pull a tasty product out of your own home-studio oven. Bottom line: when it comes to mixing, use your instincts and trust your ears. As Duke Ellington once said, if it sounds good, it is good!

1. Keep it simple. When recording, don’t clutter - focus on the main ingredients (rhythm guitar, bass, percussion, etc.), adding additional instrumentation only as needed. It’ll make the job of mixing that much easier.

2. Keep it down. Even though we’re trained to “crank it,” when it comes to mixing, louder is definitely not better. When subjected to higher levels of volume, your ears tire easily, impairing your judgment after just a few tries. Listening at a reduced volume lets you hear the individual instruments clearly, and also gives you a better perspective on stereo placement. Besides, if it rocks when it’s soft, imagine how good it’ll sound once you do crank it.

3. Watch the gloss. Before you start in with the reverb, delay, extra EQ, etc., preview the raw mix first-then gradually apply your effects. Too much processing (particularly echo or reverb) can make the recording sound fuzzy and unfocused. While you’re at it, don’t be afraid to try different effects, tones, stereo placement, etc., in order to avoid a feeling of sameness from song to song.

4. All together. Ever been working with someone who insists on isolating each individual track while bellowing, “Great floor-tom sound, huh?!” What your friend may be forgetting is that the texture of the soloed instrument can change radically once other parts are added in. For that matter, the floor tom could just as easily sound like crap on its own - but if it does the job in the mix, who cares? The point is, when mixing, you’re going for the overall sound, rather than a bunch of separate performances.

5. Give it a rest. If you’ve been recording all evening, consider waiting until the next day to make your mix in order to get a fresh perspective. Or, try a rough mix, listen back the next day, then go for a final mix. Regardless, never attempt more than a handful of mixes without taking a long break.

6. Listen from a distance. Sure, everything sounds great when you’re sitting in the “sweet spot” between a nice set of monitors, but to really be sure, run the mix back again, then go stand around the corner from your mix area. If it still sounds good from a distance, then you know you’ve probably got it down. (Also, be sure to preview the mix through several different sources, such as a conventional stereo system, a boombox, in the car, etc.)

7. Combine tracks. In the old days, engineers would typically combine “common” instruments such as drums, bass and rhythm guitar in order to save on track space. Even if you’ve got oodles of room on your fancy modern machine, sub-mixing (or “reduction” mixing) four or five tracks down to one or two is still a good exercise, since it forces you to commit to a basic combination of instruments ahead of time, thereby making your final mix job that much easier.

8. Get the red out. Unlike good old-fashioned recording tape, digital samples have zero tolerance for volume peaks. To avoid the dreaded crackle of digital “clipping,” keep your master mix volume out of the red (below 0dB).

9. Refresh with compression. To give your work a bit of “edge” (and also keep volume peaks in check), run the finished mix back through a compressor-limiter.

10. Slam to tape. If there are any analog fanatics in your life, by all means consider mastering your mix to a tape machine using �-inch tape or wider - fattens up the sound and adds real warmth.

Some final mix tidbits:

? Be creative - rather than keep everything up in the mix the whole time, randomly move parts in and out, raise individual track levels gradually then alternately back off, increase reverb to accentuate certain passages, etc.

? Always keep the lead vocal well above the rhythm track - never let the singer and guitarist do battle in the mix!

? To prevent unwanted boominess, remove a bit of Hz from the bass track - ditto for the acoustic guitar

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