So, you’ve finally moved on from your old 4-track cassette recorder, and invested some time and money in a nice home studio, complete with a computer, soundcard, MIDI sequencer, mics, and speakers. You’ve even finished recording some individual instrument tracks that you’re really proud of, and you’re ready to craft and polish these gems into a full-fledged song. In order to get that “professional sound” you’re looking for, you’ll need to combine these tracks together in a process called mixing.
Mixing balances, blends, and adds elements to your individual tracks to create a finished song. Volume, panning, equalization, and effects like reverb and chorus are typical things used in the mixing process to control levels, placement, and the character of the sound of each track. And while mixing is a very personal and subjective process that changes greatly depending on the style of music you’re working with, there are a number of fundamental techniques you should be aware of in the early stages that will help you get the sound you’re looking for, and avoid any possible frustration later on.
Know Your Environment
Every home studio is different. Maybe you’ve got a big couch in the back that eats up bass frequencies, or a tall ceiling that adds some unintended echo. The first step to a successful mix is to know your own environment. The goal of a finished mix is to have it sound good in every possible listening environment, not just in your own home studio. Once you can identify the parameters of your own listening environment, you can more easily understand how your mix relates to rest of world.
Mix For The Real World
Another key to a successful mix is to use more than one set of speakers. While your mix may sound great on your high-end monitors or your noise canceling headphones, the rest of the world will likely be listening to your music on a lower-end system (like their car stereo). In order to mix with others in mind, you need to listen to your mix through two other sets of speakers. “Along with your big speakers, you really should have some inexpensive Roland M8 monitors or a pair of Radio Shack speakers to listen with,” says Erik Hawkins, Professor of Berkleemusic’s extension school courses Remixing and Producing Music with Reason. “Not everyone has high end speakers, and while your mix may sound great on the big speakers, when you switch to smaller speakers, they may accentuate the midrange, and you’ll realize you need to turn down the vocal a bit. You need to create a blend that works well in the real world.”
Listen to Your Favorites
The way you mix is also going to change depending on the style of music you’re making. For example, if you’re working on a singer/songwriter arrangement, you’re going to want voice and guitar higher up in the mix. But if you’re working on more electronic-based music, your mix will be heavier on the bass and kick drum. One way to get the sound you’re looking for in your own mix is see how the professionals have mixed similar styles in the past. Pick one of your favorite CDs in the style of music you’re working on, and choose a mix that sounds good everywhere: in your car, on your iPod, on your home stereo system. “A trick I commonly use is to take my favorite mixes and load them into a session,” says Hawkins. “I listen to them uncompressed at 44.1 kHz, and I get to know how that mix sounds in my own home studio. Then I compare the professional mix with the mix I’m working on. If I really like the sound of the hi-hats on one of my favorite mixes, I can EQ the hi-hats in my own mix to match it. It’s a great technique.”
Less Is More
Mixing is just like making tomato sauce: add too many ingredients and you’ll ruin it. While adding effects like flanger, delay, reverb, and distortion may give your mix some more character, it’s important that you give the arrangement some breathing room and let the instruments speak for themselves. Use effects sparingly, only where they’re necessary. The last thing you want is a cluttered mix.
You’re The Master
Once you’re comfortable with your mix, the next (and last) stage in the production process is mastering, where you make the final adjustments to the overall sound of the recording and prepare the finished stereo mix for distribution as either an audio CD or MP3 file. Mixing is a true art form that takes practice and patience, but once you get the hang of it, it can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of the production process. And keep in mind some of the best mixes are developed out of experimentation. Don’t be afraid to take some chances, and remember, have fun!
It's All In The Mix
written by Mike King | Artists House Music