Mixing is the subjective process of taking raw audio and polishing it.
That’s all it is, all it has to be. Sure, there’s plenty of schools of thought that tell you what “polished” sounds like, but it’s all subjective to the ear of the beholder. As my music/mixes demonstrate, I’m still learning how to polish my songs in a way that is more in line with popular music. That’s right, I’m no expert.
But I’ve learned enough to share something useful, and that’s what I offer you today: a foundation to mixing.
Mixing is Finding Balance
Using your subjective listeners on either side of your head, your job as a mixer is simply to balance all of your recorded tracks so that you can hear each one clearly. Be careful not to fatigue your ears though – take many breaks, and mix at low volumes. Your ears are your most important tool as a mixer, so don’t overwhelm them or exhaust them if you can help it.
That being said, the fastest, simplest way to balance sound is by adjusting the volume levels on your tracks, and adjusting your panning.Balance your volumes so that you can hear everything clearly, and create a stereo field by balancing the panning to the Left and Right. A stereo field is just the space in a recording – if you’ve ever been to a symphonic performance you’ve experience something similar to a stereo field.
Violins are set to your far left, cellos and basses to your far right, with 2nd violins and violas in the middle. The different angles that the orchestra is placed at creates space in the sound – you don’t hear percussion from the right, because they’re in the back. Panning artificially creates that sense of each instrument having it’s own space.
You don’t have to pan to balance volume well, but if you use panning you need to consider how it impacts the balance of the volume and vice versa. Listen carefully to determine what sounds best, and most balanced.
Balance Using EQ
Equalization is a delicate thing to balance, and to be honest, I really struggle with it. That being said, here are three principles I use to guide me when I EQ:
- I cut frequencies rather than boost them. If I want to hear more bass, rather than pulling up the curve near the bass frequencies, I’ll pull the curve down in the mids.
- I try to clean up my frequencies. Use a HighPass or a LowPass (or a HighShelf/LowShelf) plugin to cut off frequencies that your instrument doesn’t need to be singing in.
- Each instrument has its own little frequency zone. Bass is in the bottom, rhythm guitars are the low half of the mids, lead guitars are the higher half of the mids, vocals are in the top. Drums are tricky, as they fit into all of those. Equalizing each part of the drum individually is helpful to keep them clear.
Here’s some links to more specific numbers and guides for using EQ:
Balance Using Compression
Compression is all about taming your recording’s dynamics. Most compressors take your loudest sounds, and reduce their volume to the level of your softest sounds. This makes your recording’s volume more consistent, but also squashes your sound.
Compression is very common in pop music, but not in orchestral soundtracks. After all, if you want to go from a soft, tender moment to a huge action scene, the change from soft violins to blaring brass won’t be noticeable if it’s all an equal volume. I have elected to rarely use compression to maintain the dynamics in my songs. When I do use it, I always am careful not to overdo it and play around with ALL the settings.
The trick to successful compression is to tweak until it sounds good and well balanced. Remember, balance is your goal – if compression helps you reach that goal, then use it! But just because you have a dynamic track doesn’t mean that it needs compression.
If you want a more comprehensive discussion of compression, check out this article from The Garageband Guide.
Hope you found this article useful! I’ve found all of my most useful information on mixing came from this guy, so check him out if you want to zoom down the road to great mixing. If you have any questions, let me know in the comments. You can always send thoughts, suggestions, and questions to firstname.lastname@example.org as well 🙂 Thanks for reading!