Every mix that ends up great has to begin somewhere. By focusing too much on the end product, it’s easy to forget some of the the simple steps that help us get our mix sessions started as effectively as possible. Here are some ways to get yourself in a good frame of mind, and set yourself up to succeed, before diving in to make all those critical mix decisions.
It sounds obvious, but listen to the song! Spend some time with the rough mix and make some notes if necessary. There may be some specific effects or balances to take note of. Remember, this is the version of the song that the artist has been living with for weeks, months, or possibly much longer. Your job is to deliver the best mix you can, but it’s still the artist’s song, so welcome their direction.
I always import the rough mix into the session, queued up to he same start point as the new mix. This way, you can always reference your mix against the rough in real time.
This has saved the day for me plenty of times.If the artist really had their heart set on a certain delay on a certain phrase, you want to realize it in advance. Similarly, if your guitar sounds are nowhere near crunchy enough for the artist’s vision, you want to find out about long before you send them your own mix to review.
Listening through to the rough mix is also a great time for session organization, like dropping markers for song sections, naming tracks, etc. It pays not to put this off. You’ll get the most benefit from doing this right at the beginning, before digging in to your mix in earnest.
2. Ease In:
Before pulling out your most expensive plugins, start with the basics: Faders and pans. Never underestimate how effective these simple tools can be. They’re the basics for a reason!
A change of dB or two on a fader can make all the difference, and you’d be surprised how much a pan pot can do. Want an element in the center of the mix to poke out a little more? Pan it very very slightly to either side and it will jump out just enough while still appearing to be in the center.
Throwing a bunch of plugins or presets on tracks right away can make you lose perspective, and might lead you to you over-baking sounds that were totally fine to begin with. Just because a track is in your session doesn’t mean you have to EQ and compress it. Sometimes great mixing is knowing when to leave something alone.
3. Gain Staging:
We’ve all heard the arguments against the idea that “louder is better.” That doesn’t just apply to mastering levels. Keeping an eye on your levels will keep your mixes sounding ideal throughout the mix process.
Now that most, if not all, DAWs can provide 32-bit floating resolution or better, clipping your channels is not much of an issue. However, your dynamics and distortion plugins will respond a lot better if presented with reasonable input levels.
If the input to your compressor is super-hot to begin with, your threshold and related settings are not going to respond properly. I aim to have my tracks peaking around -10 dBFS, and I know some folks who are more conservative than that. Either way, you’ll have plenty of control over your sounds and also have plenty of headroom on your mix buss. (A common recommendation is to make sure your mix is peaking around -6 dB on the stereo buss to leave flexibility for the mastering engineer.)
If your DAW features clip-based gain, that’s a great solution. Your mixer might even feature a trim on each channel, or you can use a trim plugin if necessary.
4. Take Direction from the Sounds:
All sounds are not created equal; but just like people, we should appreciate them for their differences instead of trying to force everything to fit into the same exact mold.
Bright, crisp, and airy vocals might be your favorite—and mine—but if the singer tracked the entire album with an SM58 you have a decision to make. You can either:
A) Try to force the sound into something it isn’t with lots of processing, or
B) Accept the vocal sound for what it is and try to get into the vibe the singer had when they performed.
By taking the latter approach,you may find that your job is much easier and your mix is matching the vibe of the song much better.
5. Take Direction From The Song:
Everyone has opinions when it comes to music, and mix engineers tend to have more than most.
You may love super crunchy guitars and 808 kicks, but if you’re mixing a smooth-jazz ballad you’re obviously barking up the wrong tree. Sometimes however, those differences in aesthetic are not quite so obvious.
Let’s say you’re mixing a throwback, early 90’s De La Soul style record. You might still have your heart set on those 808s but that might not be stylistically appropriate. Similarly, hair metal guitars are not punk rock guitars, and so on.
It pays to have a diverse ear. Both artists and listeners appreciate when an engineer really understands the stylistic nuances.
Once you get these basics together, there is of course much further to go before your song sounds like a record. But you’ll be surprised how much shorter than road can be if you start out the right way.
(Bonus Tip: Spend some time listening in mono when you mix! This is not just for “compatibility.” If there’s room for everything in mono, there will be plenty of space in stereo.)
Paul “Willie Green” Womack is a Producer/Engineer based in Brooklyn, NY. Working primarily in Hip-Hop, R&B and Gospel, his credits feature artists like Donnie McClurkin, Wiz Khalifa, Open Mike Eagle, Billy Woods and many more.