1. HOW TO BALANCE A MIX WITH VOLUME
You can’t have your tracks all over the place.
You can’t have all your instruments at the same volume either.
Balancing the volume of your tracks is the fundamental starting point for every mix. A clear balance is almost half the work, especially if you’ve got great sounding tracks.
You need to keep the elements in the mix at a steady and balanced level, without abnormal level changes popping out all over the place. Pushing up the faders and getting a balanced mix is the first order of business after you’ve recorded and edited your tracks.
EQ and Compression, although extremely important, don’t help at all if your balance is out of whack.
That’s why I usually spend more time getting the exact levels of each track right before I even touch any processing.
Just moving the faders around should get you very close to a rough mix.
Sure, you’ll obviously have to do some additional mixing, but if you get the balance right from the start, it makes the rest of your mix easier and more fun to do.
Rebalancing is an Integral Part of Music Mixing
Of course, balancing the faders isn’t a one-and-done thing you do at the start of the mix.
Rebalancing is essential as you add compression, EQ, aux sends, and effects if you want to keep the balance you had before.
All the processors add or subtract gain to your signals so you should take that into consideration as you’re adding your plug-ins to the mix.
As long as you spend an extra 20 minutes on balancing at the start, you might save yourself some time down the line.
Stereo is important. You don’t want all of your tracks fighting for the center. For instance, panning out the drum-kit is an important way to expand and establish the stereo spectrum.
If you have all sorts of different elements and instruments, you need to find a place for them in the stereo spectrum. Pan everything around until you’ve found a good balance.
Keep in mind that you don’t want to tip the balance of instruments too much to the right or left either.
Instead, try to find a good equilibrium and balance between the left and right speaker.
A good way to do this is actually to keep things in mono and pan that way. You’ll find it easier to create separation in your instruments if you don’t have to listen to your pans in stereo. Counter-intuitive? Maybe. But it works.
Panning in mono gives you a different way of placing the instruments in your mix. You’re not panning in the stereo field anymore since you’ve flipped your mix to mono, but you can still hear a difference in the separation of instruments by doing it this way.
3. EQ’ING YOUR MIX
Equalization is an incredibly useful tool for enhancing the sonic colors of your instruments and making a better mix where you can hear all the instruments and tracks clearly.
Cutting out unwanted frequencies and boosting the fundamental characteristics of instruments is what EQ is all about.
Repair by cutting, and enhance by boosting. EQ is such a tremendous tool that it’s hard to do it justice as a part of a post like this, but if you’re looking for something new to try out here are six things to do differently the next time you need to EQ your instruments.
- Use filters and shelving together – Sometimes you don’t want to filter too drastically, but you need to get rid of more lows or highs. Filters and shelving cuts work wonders together.
- Use low-pass filters and add a resonant boost – Try it on guitars. Filter the highs all the way down to the high-mids, then add a boost right on the cut-off frequency to make them poke through the mix.
- Try to keep your boosts minimal – Subtractive EQ and all that jazz. If you cut more and just raise the volume, you’re essentially boosting the frequencies that are left intact.
- Try to use buss EQ first – I love grouping instruments together into busses and EQ’ing them that way. It can mean a lot less work on the individual tracks if all your groups are sitting together in the mix.
- Also EQ your effects – If you don’t filter out the low-end of your reverb returns, chances are you’ll end up with a very muddy mix. Always slap an EQ on the reverb or effects channels, or use the built-in EQ if your effects come with them.
- Think before you EQ – Think about how many instruments the mix has, then try to divide them into the frequency spectrum before you start EQ’ing. If the bass is the thickness and you’ve DECIDED that, try to keep to it. Some instruments should be bright; some should not. If you analytically think of it before EQ’ing, you might save yourself some time.
Knowing how to EQ is a crucial thing to get great sounding mixes. One of the biggest problem engineers face is too much low-mid buildup and “muddiness” in their mixes.
Compression is what makes your mix breathe. It can also squash your mix and choke out the naturalness of it. Depending on the genre, instrument and other considerations, the approach to compression varies.
We could decide to completely squash down a room microphone for a punchier drum sound, but we would never compress a beautiful vocal to such an extreme.
For a simple vocal compression trick that tightens up the vocal without really pushing it too hard try using just a low 2:1 ratio with a low threshold, so it’s always compressing a tiny bit.
That compresses the vocal at all times while still allowing it to breathe and be dynamic.
In general, not just for vocals but any of the tracks, if you want to use compression in a subtle way that doesn’t squash your song, here’s a good way to do it:
Step 1 – Mix the LOUDEST part of the song
You’ve probably read about the importance of getting a great static mix before. Find the loudest part of the song, loop it and go to town on it.
Mix that part until it makes you cry it’s so good. Use all your compressors and limiters to get that part really rocking.
Once that part of the song sounds great you can go back to the beginning and mix the rest of the song.
Step 2 – Leave your compressors and limiters ALONE
Mix the rest of the song without touching your compressors or limiters. If all your hard-hitting compression is pumping along nicely during the loudest parts of the song, then don’t add more compression in the quieter parts.
This method gives your soft parts an excellent dynamic range while giving your big parts the punch they need. If you add more compression to the vocal during the calm verse, then it’ll sound squashed and overly compressed in the choruses.
Step 3 – Automate, DON’T compress
Don’t think that your instruments need more compression in the verses just because they’re quieter. Just automate the phrases that need a little more volume.
Of course, there are multiple ways to approach compression; this is just the conservative way of doing it. Your particular approach to compression is a significant factor in how your mix will end up.
Just like we put instruments from left to right with panning, we need to position elements from front to back to get a better mix. By using effects, like reverb, delay and chorus we create depth in a mix. You can’t distinguish any space in your mix if all the elements are dry and in your face.
You won’t enjoy listening to a two-dimensional sound picture as much as a three-dimensional mix filled with interesting effects creating depth and diversity in your mix.
Just like some elements deserve to be in the middle of the stereo spectrum, and aren’t panned, there are also some tracks that deserve to be dry and up front.
Which elements and what kind of space to use? That’s mainly up to you and your taste. Sometimes it’s also genre specific. For instance, you wouldn’t put massive reverbs on a fast thrash metal song, and you probably wouldn’t skimp on the space for a big and slow power ballad.
Reverb and Delay
The two most common effects processors are reverb and delay (thank you Captain Obvious).
Using reverb can get pretty challenging.
Too little and it’ll sound dry and unpolished.
Too much and it’ll be a cluttered mess.
You can use reverb for a contrast between verse and chorus as well. Use a different a reverb mode like a short plate for the verse and then a bigger hall during the choruses to make them sound bigger.
Reverb Creates the Stage
Reverb creates the stage in which you set your mix. Think of it this way: If you want your song to take place in a big cathedral, then use the big cathedral reverb. If you want a tight studio space, then use the space that sounds like a small studio space. Just make sure you find a good space for your song.
But by all means, don’t leave it dry.
Skipping the reverb will result in a two-dimensional and difficult mix unless you’ve carefully recorded everything with a particular room sound. But not many bedroom recordists do that, so you need to pick your reverb modes wisely.
Group Your Elements
You can make it easy on your DAW by using groups of similar instruments. If you’ve already mixed your guitars, then you can group them together and send them to the same reverb. Do the same thing with any number of similar sounding elements, such as drums, vocals or synths.
I commonly group together my vocals, my drum and percussion tracks as well as my guitars into three separate groups. By using three short, different reverbs on each of these groups they all fall into place in their space while still working together as a whole.
Just like that can you transform your mix from a cluttered two-dimensional shouting match to a nicely separated 3D image.
Reverb Holds Everything Together
Just like compression tends to glue tracks together in the dynamics department, so does reverb in the space department.
So reverb is the answer, most of the time. But if you’re scared of using too much of it, you might want to resort to delay instead.
When Delay is Better
Maybe you want to let go of the reverb for one day and use a delay instead. Delays are easier to handle, and some are much less confusing than the average reverb.
Sometimes you just need a little depth, without adding reverb, and delay can easily do the job.
So when would you substitute your reverb for a little bit of delay while mixing?
For Guitar Solos
Sure, guitar solos can sound awesome with a hefty amount of reverb. But they can sound equally cool with a nice delay.
Use a short to medium stereo delay with one repeat. It’ll add width and depth to your signal immediately. The stereo delay will make the solo sound wider, and the delay will add the depth. And if you have the original track in the middle, summing to mono won’t ruin the sound.
For Rhythm Guitar
Both reverb and delay can quickly ruin a tight rhythm guitar take. If you use too much of either one, you’ll end up with a cluttered guitar track. However, using a short slap echo or 8th note delay can also add interest. Send your guitar track to a delay via a send, and mix the delayed track underneath just to add a little space. It doesn’t have to clutter the track if you use it sparsely.
For Lead Vocals
For an in-your-face lead vocal, scrap the reverb entirely and use a delay to add depth. Delay adds space without pushing the vocal back, something that happens all too often when you use too much reverb. Depending on the BPM of the song, style, and genre, use either a short, medium or long delay.
If it’s a ballad with long, drawn-out words then a long delay creates a big sound without overpowering the actual vocal. A fast rock song benefits from a short, subtle delay and groovy pop songs use medium delays to a great effect.
Similar problems arise from using too much delay on percussion as it does on rhythm guitar. A short delay timed to the BPM of the song gives percussion punchiness without giving it too much room in the mix.
Medium to long delays with a fair amount of feedback can beef up an organ or pad sound. If you have an organ playing long, sustained chords, then a long delay can give that foundation a thicker sound.