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My most used mixing tips and tricks

In this article I cover a few of the mixing tips, tricks, and milestones that have had the biggest impact on the quality of my music. This is going to be geared more towards novices. While it doesn't go in depth into any of these techniques, it does provide a bit of guidance on where to look. I linked to several video tutorials in this article. Note that I did not create these great videos, but I felt they would make a great resource for further learning.


Introduction

There is no one single trick to recording and mixing music. Its best described as a skill that is composed of a wide variety of different tricks and bits of knowledge that can be useful in specific kinds of situations. There can be multiple ways to mix any given song and what works well for one song will not always work for another. Learning how to mix is a matter of expanding your bag of tricks and developing a feel for when to use them. It's a process that takes, above all else, a lot of time and practice.

A lot of the tricks I've picked up on over the years are extremely subtle. So subtle, in fact, that the effect is almost unnoticeable. I remember when I was just starting out I would occasionally stumble upon one of these subtle pointers and think to myself, "what's the point? You're average listener won't even notice the difference!" It seemed I was overwhelmed enough without having to nit-pick over subtle details. My attitude changed when I realized that a large number of subtle, nearly undetectable tricks will add up quickly and have a major impact on the final mix. Since then I've been collecting these subtle tricks and adding them to my mixing bag. Slowly but surely my mixes are improving.

That said, there are a handful of "milestone" mixing techniques and concepts that did have an immediate and major impact on my music when I discovered them. These are tricks that I use in nearly every mix and they are most often fundamental to achieving a more professional quality of sound. I wanted to briefly cover some of these tricks/tips with this article. Though I'm far from being an expert, I definitely feel that I have at least passed the novice stage and I may have some worthwhile advice to offer.

Since the biggest thing that will improve your mixes is a better understanding of the tools at your disposal the first few tips will be about coming to a proper understanding of these common mixer tools. These aren't exactly tutorials on how to use these tools, instead the focus is more on how to think about these tools and the effect they have on your music. After that I'll expand into some of the other useful tricks I've picked up on. You can use the links below to skip to particular sections.



1. Thinking about EQ and frequencies

If you would have caught me in my earliest days as a mixer and asked me what an EQ is, I probably would have classified it as an effect. I suspect this is common among the newcomers. EQ can change the tonal quality of a track, so it's natural to think of it as a tool to change the way your track sounds. Sometimes EQ can be useful like this, but that's not the typical way I use it today.

EQ is much more than just a simple effect and I find it to be as valuable and indispensable as the pan knob, if not more-so. Its best thought of as a sculpting device. Think of the individual tracks of your song as puzzle pieces. You want to fit these pieces together nicely. If one piece is getting in the way of another piece, you might have to move it or reshape it. One way you can move it is horizontally, or by panning it. The other way you can move it is vertically, or with EQ.

All sounds are made up of frequencies. If the stereo left and right channels are the horizontal space of your musical picture puzzle, then frequency is the vertical space. I won't delve too much into it here, but simply put higher frequencies are heard as higher pitches and lower ones as lower pitches. You might assume that since a single note is said to have one pitch then it should only occupy a single point in this frequency space, but that's not the way it works. When you hit a single note on your piano what you are hearing is the fundamental frequency plus the "overtones" sitting on top of it. What you are actually hearing is multiple frequencies or tones stacked on top of one another, but because all of these overtones are part of the "harmonic series" they are perceived as a single pitch. It is this arrangement of harmonic overtones that gives every instrument it's tonal quality, or "timbre." You can learn more about frequencies, overtones, and harmonics in this excellent video.

So that last paragraph may have been a bit complicated, but the most important part you should have taken away from it is this: The frequency range is the vertical space of your imaginary musical soundscape. All of your tracks will take up some of this frequency space. Some tracks will tend to hog up more of this vertical space than others (they have a broad frequency range), and different instruments tend to occupy different areas of this frequency space.

When too many tracks collide in the same frequency space the result can be ugly and unappealing. Similarly, if one area of your frequency space has a lot going on in it and another area has little to no activity, then your mix might sound unbalanced and uneven. The idea, in most cases at least, is to distribute your tracks evenly across this vertical space without too much clashing and overlapping between any of the tracks. EQ is one of the best tools you have to do this.

I tend to cut with EQ much more than I boost. Remember, EQ can't boost a frequency that isn't there. If the guitar track you just recorded has a real lack of important mid range frequencies then you're not going to fix it with eq. Instead I tend to record my instruments with a nice broad frequency range then I use eq to cut down on the frequencies I don't want.

Before I had a firm understanding of EQ and frequency I regularly had mixes that sounded cluttered and messy. I was really limited in the number of instruments I could use before the whole thing turned into a sloppy mess. Discovering the proper way to EQ had a major impact on my music. EQ is one of the more important things you'll master as a mixer, and it's something you have to tackle early. Your mixes will not improve until you've come to comfortable terms with your EQ. Read about it, study it. There is a nice video discussing EQ here. This video also talks a bit about side chain bass compression, which is another useful trick to keep in mind. Anyway, to wrap this section up, EQ is not particularly difficult. It just takes some practice and ear training.

2. Thinking about compressors and dynamics

Some people think of a compressor primarily as a tool that can help make a track louder. True, compressors can be used in that way, but compressors should more commonly be thought of in terms of dynamics rather than overall amplitude.

One of the most common ways I use a compressor is to rake in any out of control dynamics. The word dynamics refers to the change in amplitude over time. For example you might play a song on your acoustic guitar that starts off quietly but builds strength over time until you hit a loud chorus with heavy strumming, then the strumming gets soft and quiet again as you go into the next verse. This variation in amplitude over time is referred to as the dynamics of the song.

Compressors can be used to tone down the dynamics, make the loud parts a little quieter or the quiet parts a little louder. Dynamics are often crucial to the emotional impact a song has on it's listener so this tool needs to be used cautiously. I would never use a compressor to control the dynamics on an emotional solo guitar recording like the one I described above, however there are often cases where the dynamics of a track can cause problems.

One of the most common places I use compressors to control dynamic range on guitar tracks that are mixed with a lot of other instruments. Acoustic guitars in particular are really dynamic, even if it's not intentional on the player's part. When mixing your guitar with a lot of other instruments you need to find that crucial level of amplitude where your guitar sits well with everything else. Too low and it gets buried by the other instruments. Too high and it overpowers everything else. I will often compress my guitar tracks to control the dynamics so I can get the track to sit well with the other instruments.

Another way to think about dynamics is on a single note basis. We'll continue using the acoustic guitar as an example. When you strike a note on your acoustic guitar there is an initial loud attack followed by a ringing tail that quickly fades out. In the second section of Twilight Village I recorded a solo melody with my acoustic guitar. The guitar had a lot of other instruments to overpower in order to be heard. Initially when I recorded this solo you could only hear the attack of the notes when they were plucked because that was the only part that was loud enough to peak through the sound of other instruments. I couldn't simply turn up the volume fader on my guitar track because then the attacks would be too loud, so I applied a good bit of compression to the solo making the tails louder and the attacks quieter. This filled out the notes of the solo and made the made them fuller. You can now clearly hear both the attack and the tail of the notes.

These ideas work really well for acoustic guitar, but it can be used in the same way for any kind of track. Percussion for instance is one particularly useful place for dynamics control. If I have a lot of percussion layered together I'll often compress it to tie it together. Anytime you have a track that's not sitting well because of it's dynamic properties, you can use a compressor to control it.

3. Thinking about reverb

There are many different ways to use reverb and it's really easy to over-do it. If pan and EQ can be thought of as the horizontal and vertical axis of your musical painting, then reverb can be thought of as the axis of depth. Reverb can have the effect of pushing objects further into the distance, but it can also cause the track to loose some of it's focus. The visual analogy would be the blurring of an object, it spreads it across the space. Too much reverb can clutter up the limited amount of frequency and stereo space. One general rule that I tend to follow when using reverb is this. The more instruments I have competing for space, the less reverb I tend to use.

There are many different kinds of reverb and plug-ins out there. All of them have their own subtle characteristics. As a beginner I remember ignoring the spectrum of different reverbs. I didn't notice a big enough difference between them to worry about it. When I really began to pay attention and compare them I began to realize that these differences are important. If reverb is an area where you don't have a lot of experience then my first piece of advice would be to listen hard and compare. Get used to the subtle differences and become familiar with the effect that each one has on your track and where it sits in your mix.

One common place I use reverb is in the final mastering stage. I will typically apply some reverb to the whole track. Most often I won't apply enough for the reverb to be easily noticed. That would just clutter the track up. Instead I tend to apply it with a lot of subtlety, tucking the reverb just underneath the "noticeable difference" range. This has the effect of tying things together, filling small gaps in the stereo-frequency space, and making tracks fit more tightly. You may not easily detect the reverb itself, but you can often feel the difference in the way the tracks sit with one another.

4. The mastering chain

No other plug-in has had as monumental of an impact on my music as Izotope's Ozone. This plug-in is a "mastering chain." What's a mastering chain? It's a chain of effects (usually eq, compressor, stereo imager, and reverb among others) that are meant to be applied to the entire song.

The first time I used Ozone it made a big noticeable difference. It tied everything in my song together and made it bigger, fuller, and much more professional sounding. I've used it on every track since. I highly recommend picking this up or looking into something similar. Don't just settle for the presets, though they are a nice place to start. Read about the effects and how to best use them for your unique song. One key to a successful mastering chain is subtlety. Try not to over-do any of the effects in the chain. As I've already stated, one subtle change may not have a big effect but multiple changes can add up to a huge impact.

One particular effect in this chain that I would like to discuss is EQ. I tend to use mid-side eq in my mastering chain. This technique involves applying two EQs to your mix. One is for processing the far left and right of the stereo channels, and the other is for the middle of the stereo spectrum. What I generally go for with mid/side eq is to push the bass and percussion to the middle and boost the mid range on the sides. This creates a nice, anchored sound. You can learn more about mid-side eq processing by watching this awesome video.

Another thing I'll occasionally do with the mastering chain EQ is cut out a slight "Fletcher-Munson curve." This is the area in the 1k to 5k range. On reason for this is because there tends to be a lot of frequency information buildup in this range. A lot of instruments tend to operate here. Another reason is that our ears naturally perceive this frequency range as being louder. There is a great information video about this here. When I do cut this area it's usually a real slight drop, less than a db.

So that's a really brief introduction to master chains. Mastering can be really important to the sound quality of your mix so if you're not using a mastering chain yet, I highly recommend looking into them. It can help you pin down the big, full, professional sound that you're looking for. A quick search on youtube yields a lot of results for anyone interested in learning more.

5. You can automate pretty much anything

This seems pretty obvious looking back on it, but I recall for the longest time I didn't fully understand what automation was or how to use it. It finally dawned on me when I was just starting on a track that I ended up calling Ghosts. I was playing around with some stuff in Reason and I realized that you could program the volume faders to move at certain points in the song. That whole track ended up being an experiment with this newly discovered world of automation.

Automation is pretty simple really and it doesn't require a lot of description. The idea is that any variable such as a volume fader, a dry/wet knob, a bypass button, envelope settings, the tempo, ect. can be programmed to move automatically during the course of a song. Most modern audio recording and mixing software will give you the ability to automate pretty much everything. If it's a knob, fader, number box, or button, then you can probably automate it.

This allows your music to be more dynamic and it gives you the power to change small things about your instruments and tracks at any given point. I'm willing to bet that I've used automation in some form or another in every song since I discovered it. Learn how to use the automation features of your DAW software. It's an extremely valuable tool.

6. Mix sounding thin? Layer the crap out of everything

I tend to heavily layer every element of my songs. Think of your instruments/synth and sample patches as being ingredients. They do not always stand well on their own and they often work best when blended with other instruments or patches. Let's take my song Axial Color Blur as the first example.

You can divide this song up into a few distinct sections. There's the percussion, the bass, the rhythm section filling out the middle, and the melody. That's four sections, but the number of instrument tracks I have on this is far greater than four. The melody in particular has numerous synthesizers, all "blended" together with panning and volume, all playing the same notes in synchronization. These notes work together to create a nice thick texture to carry the melody with.

In Spring Step you can pretty clearly hear the percussive layering. There are multiple drum loops and drum machines playing together to create a big complicated grove that acts as the foundation for the rest of the music to sit on. Mechanical Graveyard is a good example of bass layering. Once again, a single bass melody that's being played by multiple patches. Each patch is adding depth and changing the character of the sound. In this particular example one of the bass tracks thats sitting in the higher frequency range is being side-chain compressed with the kick drum. I'll talk a little more about side-chain compression in the percussion section.

It's important to notice when layering is adding something useful or simply cluttering things up. If your solo patch or recording is producing the sound you want, you don't need to add anything to it. However, if it has an element of the sound you are looking for but it doesn't seem to be enough, then start searching for the missing ingredients. When you find this missing ingredient it will usually blend surprisingly well.

Layering is especially useful when recording guitars. When I record rhythmic strumming on an acoustic guitar I'll usually record two or more takes of the same thing. I'll pan each take to opposite ends of the stereo space then blend them to taste. This creates a thick and full sound. Though the takes are similar, they will have slight variations. This is a good thing. The slight differences will add an extra element of depth and complexity that sounds wonderful. There is a nice video demonstrating this here.

Another classic and well known trick is to record one take, duplicate it, then pan each identical take to opposite ends of the stereo space. Move one of the tracks forward slightly, maybe a few milliseconds. This will make your track sound a lot wider. Just make sure you avoid phase cancellation problems when you do this. This same effect can also be achieved with a delay.

Delays that are this short will not be perceived as echoes that are separate from the source, but instead it has the effect of changing where we perceive the sound to be coming from. Because we have two ears that are spaced apart and the sound has to travel through space to reach them, sounds do not tend to reach both ears simultaneously. If a sound source is closer to your right ear then your left, then it will reach your right ear first if only by a few milliseconds. The difference is too short to be noticeable, but your brain's sensitive sound processing equipment is able to detect the delay and it will perceive the sound as originating from the side without the delay. Moving one of the duplicates ahead slightly will make the added depth more convincing.

Electric guitar is another prime candidate for layering. Ever wonder how Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins manages to get such a thick wall of hard rock guitar goodness? He layers the crap out of his guitars. Tons of guitar tracks, playing the same chords or melody with different complimentary tones, all panned, blended, and mixed to taste.

One more useful blending trick I wanted to mention is called parallel compression, sometimes referred to as New York compression. This is commonly used on drum tracks, but can be applied to anything in need of some extra kick or life. The idea here is to take a duplicate of the track, apply a lot of compression, then tuck it in beneath the original track to give it more power. This is a trick that I'm starting to use more and more lately. There is a nice video about parallel compression here.

Layering and blending are important concepts in recording and mixing. Blending your sounds together will go a long way to prevent mixes that sound thin and weak. Don't be afraid to experiment with different sounds. I'll often reinforce some guitar riffs and melodies with subtle synthesizers or sample patches that add some of the missing frequency depth that I'm looking for. If it sounds good, then go with it.

7. Percussion and stuff

I used to battle a lot with percussion in my mixes. The reason is simply that I'm not a drummer. I don't own a drum set nor do I own the equipment needed to record one. Every bit of percussion I do is sample and/or loop based. That's not good for someone that has always heavily preferred the live drum kit sound to electronic percussion. I'm still not always happy with the way my percussion sounds, but I have picked up on a few things that have helped.

I've not yet found a satisfying way to emulate that real drum kit sound, but I have found a few packages that do a commendable job of it. EzDrummer is one of the first that comes to mind. It's a solid VST that I used to use quiet a bit.

Drum loops are another good option. I used to avoid these because it can be hard to get them to flow well with your music. Since they're not written specifically for your song they won't be able to "breath" with it so to speak. Then theres the fact that it kinda feels like... well, like cheating.

Regardless, I find myself using them more an more. I find that one good way to go is a nice layered blend of loops and sample based drum machines. I attempt to get the "breathing" out of the drum machines. I will also sometimes slice up the loops and use them as a combo loop / drum machine to give me more control over them. Really in the end I haven't found a perfect method. Some things work well for certain kinds of songs. The best advice I have here is to just experiment and try to find something that works for your mix.

So how about kick drums? Depending on the kind of music your doing, you will sometimes want your kick drum to have a lot of power to it. You can sometimes beef it up by creating a really low sub-bass range synth, maybe a sine wave at around 60hz or so, then applying a noise gate with the kick chained into it so that every time the kick hits, the synth is played. Here is a nice video talking a bit about this technique.

Sidechain compression is another way to bring out your kick. This technique is most often heard in dance music, but I've used a subtle amount of it in other genres to good effect. The idea is to compress something, usually the bass line (or commonly synth pads in club music) then run the kick drum into the sidechain of this compressor so the kick activates it. This will squish the track every time the kick is played, making more room for it. Here is a good video about it.

Closing words

Ultimately, the single greatest piece of advice that I have for any frustrated newcomer that is trying to wrap their head around the confusing world of audio mixing is the same advice that we've all heard a million times. We're given this advice every time we endeavor to accomplish any new skill or goal. We've heard it so many times that we often fail to take it seriously. In the end, there is a reason that it's spoken so often. It's true. How can you become a great audio mixer? A lot of time, practice, and patience. The more you do it, the better your mixes will become. It will take a lot of time and a lot of crappy mixes, but you will slowly get better.

Well that's it for now. I may expand on this article in the future, or possibly even do a second one. If you have any questions, suggestions, feedback, or you want to share your own mixing tips, please leave it in the comment box below! You don't have to register, just type in any old name and your message and click submit! I would love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading!



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