Home Mixing Tips
I know that my website is dedicated to online mixing, but I also know there are a lot of people that like to mix smaller projects at home. Additionally, there are so many articles and videos on the web about mixing that it can get overwhelming. Rather than go into specific techniques on how I use specific plugins or processing (something I’ll likely do on an article by article basis in the future), I wanted to touch on a few very specific, holistic things that I do while mixing that can make a world of difference in the final product.
Turn Down Your Monitors
The human ear is not a linear device. Consequently, the level at which you monitor your mix as you work through the process is incredibly important. I typically mix at relatively low volume levels because I feel that I can hear things more clearly. By mixing at a lower monitoring level, I feel that I am able to create more space between instruments and really get incredible depth with time-based effects like delays and reverb. Mixing on the loud side, I find my mixes to be a bit dry and lack that space and depth. Try turning your monitors down and keep a dB meter next to you to check it. Most of my mixes are done somewhere between 60 and 70dB. I’ll turn it up occasionally to check it, but sometimes I’ll keep it way down for a while to hear what’s happening and give my ears a break.
A Little Bit Goes a Long Way
When mixing a song with many tracks, it’s important to keep in mind that small changes and adjustments add up. When a little bit of processing is applied to all of the tracks in a particular session, you will hear the sonic difference. The normal instinct is to make big sweeping changes so that you can hear a sonic difference on one particular track, but, if you do that on every track, that usually ends up hurting your mixes in the long run. For example, I use a tape emulator plugin on every track of a mix. My starter setting is fairly transparent and imparts minimal tape artifacts when I’m soloing one track on the song. However, when that same setting is applied to ALL of the tracks in the mix, the soft compression and warmth that the tape emulator becomes apparent and you can hear the difference. This same rule applies to all of the processing that you’re going to do while mixing. Compression is another great example: I normally apply about 1 to 3dB of gain reduction to most tracks while processing them. Now, there are exceptions to that, like if I’m using parallel compression on a drum bus or a vocal or if I just want a different sound on something, but for the most part, this small amount of gain reduction helps my mixes come together faster. EQ? Same deal, small 1 to 3dB cuts and boosts usually do it.
When I mix a rock track, for example, there are four things that typically always end up panned to the center: the kick, the snare, the bass, and the lead vocal. Everything else is panned somewhere in the stereo field as I see fit. That being said, once you’ve got the items in your mix panned to the spot that feels right, flip the monitors to mono and listen to the levels. Bring elements up or down to establish the right balance while in mono and it will really open up the stereo field of the song.
Gain Staging is Important
Learning how to properly stage gain in a mix is incredibly important. I spend most of my time in automation on turning elements down (and assuring they are panned properly). The reason it’s important is because, as effects and processing are applied throughout the mix process, things will get louder. That being said, trim plugins are a real time saver. I’ll usually start with my kick and snare and find a level that feels right for those items. In Pro Tools, for example, I’ll want the kick and snare levels initially living in the light green color of the meters (somewhere between -16dB and -10dB using the classic meters). That’s the starting point. I’ll then use my ears to balance the rest of the track around those levels, switching in and out of mono as I go. This will allow me to have plenty of headroom to apply plugins and outboard processing without fear of clipping later.
Keep the Signal Chain Simple
We all love new gear, new processors, and new plugins. We’ve got hundreds of plugins available in the studio, but in all honestly, 90% of the time, I only use a handful of them. The other 10% is important as it allows me to experiment and get creative, but for the vast majority of processing that I apply in sessions are the same basic things. Here’s generally what I use on every track:
- Tape Emulation – Applied somewhat transparently on an individual track, but adds nice soft compression that helps tighten up the mix when applied to ALL tracks.
- Console Emulation with Trimmer – Again, adds a bit of soft compression and color and I utilize the trimmer to bring down my volume levels as noted above.
- Cut EQ – This is usually a graphical EQ that I apply to cut frequencies surgically.
- Compression – Usually around 1 to 3dB of compression with attack and release set to where it sounds natural with as little compression artifacts as possible.
- Boost EQ – Boost frequencies to add color after compression as boosting EQ before compression often causes the compressor react harshly.
- Sends for reverb, delay, and other effects
By the time the track goes through the tape and console emulation and trimmer, I’ve got a nice present signal to work with. I then use the cut EQ to remove any unwanted frequencies I don’t like. At this point, that track is 75% of the way there. As you can see, I’m not using a lot of “specialized” plugins to get to this point. Most of the processing is fairly simple, inexpensive, and you can even use what comes with most DAW software.
Making the Cut
As noted above, I use subtractive or cutting EQ to get my tracks most of the way there. If you don’t understand the concept of subtractive EQ, I highly recommend looking up videos about it online. Let’s say, for example, you have an electric guitar and you want it to cut through a bit more. Rather than reaching for a high shelf and boosting the highs, which in turn increases the gain of that track, try using an EQ with Q set around 3 and digging through the low and low mids, carving out specific frequencies that are muddying the signal. This helps preserve gain staging while not increasing the output level of the track. This cleans up the parts very nicely.
At a bare minimum, I automate the volume levels of every track in every song I mix. Most of the adjustments on instruments are minor. For example, whenever the vocal is not in, I bring up the level of other instruments slightly to fill in the space. Other adjustments are fairly major, for example when I automate the volume level of a vocal. Nonetheless, at a minimum, volume levels are being automated on every track, but I don’t stop at just the volume levels. I’ll often fly things around in the stereo spectrum to fill gaps by automating the panning. I automate EQ quite a bit as well so that, for example, if there’s a solo acoustic guitar part in the song, the EQ is fatter and more present. I also automate reverbs and delays, adding a tail to the end of a lead vocal line, for example. The thing is, the faster you can get your static mix done and start automation, the better, but don’t be afraid to automate everything. This is the part of the process in which I spend the majority of my mix time.
Mix into the Master Bus
If you’re going to apply bus compression or limiting or other processing to the master bus, don’t wait to do it after the fact. Assure that it’s applied when you start mixing a track. It saves me a ton of time over doing it after the fact because, typically, when you apply that processing on the master bus at the end of the process, the sound of the song can change drastically and then you’ll have to go rework a lot of things. I typically use the bus compressor in our mixer followed by a master tape emulator and limiter set to a small amount of reduction; usually about 3dB.
These are all tips that I wish I knew when I started mixing audio. I hope you find them helpful as well as they all can improve your mixes!