Mixing, like any art, can't be reduced to a formula. All that counts is the finished product, which means there is, literally, any number of ways to proceed. Just the same, I have developed a somewhat systematic approach to mixing that usually works for me and for the types of music I tend to mix (the standard rock instrumentation of drums, bass, acoustic and electric guitars, keyboards, vocals, and so on).
In this column I'll share some of the thoughts and techniques that go into my approach, including a few gleaned from friends and colleagues. None is radical, nor is any writ in stone as the only way; indeed, experienced mixers will probably be familiar with most, if not all, of my methods. But if you're relatively new to mixing, or if you consistently struggle with particular problems in your mixes, you may find something of use here.
It's A Style Thing
Mix appropriately for the musical style. That may sound obvious, but what we're really talking about is musical vision-that is, having an idea, in advance, of how the final product should sound. Essentially, mixing is about getting the right balance of levels. Just as different styles of music employ different instrumentation, the relative volumes of the different instruments vary from style to style. Therefore, it's important to be familiar with the style of music that you're mixing, to know which instruments get foregrounded, which backgrounded, and so on. Of course, it's okay to break the "rules"-but it sure helps to know them first.
For music with vocals, the level of the lead vocal is typically a defining element of the mix style. In heavy rock, for example, vocals tend to get mixed low, as if they were just one of the instruments-indeed, they may even be mixed lower than the main guitar tracks (check out Rage Against The Machine). Commercial country music, on the other hand, tends to feature the vocals; no instrument is allowed to distract too much from the voice and lyrics. Vocals are prominently featured in pop, too, yet slightly less so, on average, than in country.
Other defining elements of certain mix styles are drum and bass levels. In jungle, house, and other "electronic" dance styles, for example, an emphasis on the bass and rhythm elements is common. Consider, too, how drums and bass are featured in styles such as reggae (especially the modern stuff), hip-hop, and, well, drum 'n' bass. Classic rock 'n' roll, on the other hand, often showcases electric guitars or keyboards.
The Bigger Picture
When you start work on a new mix, rather than solo the individual instruments and commence equalizing, compressing, and so on, try first to make the song sound great using only fader levels and pan positions. This approach-the art of mixing stripped to its essentials-will not only get you focused right away on the bigger picture, but it will also help you hear what's working and what isn't. For example, you may find that certain instruments are fighting for the same sonic space. In that case, try panning them far apart in the stereo field. Later, you can differentiate them further with EQ or what have you; for now, though, keep working to make the song sound as good as you can using only levels and pans.
One secret to a great mix is knowing how to select and highlight the one or two instrumental elements that make the song rock hardest (an aesthetic choice that usually relates, by the way, to the aforementioned style considerations). Once you determine the element (or elements), the rest of the mix can be built around it. In other words, great mixes are not usually "democratic," in the sense of each instrument having an equal say, but instead tend to employ a hierarchy of levels.
In vocal-based songs, the challenge often is to find the right balance between the foregrounded elements and the lead vocal. Instrumental-based songs, on the other hand, are usually a bit easier to manage, as typically there is only one instrument to spotlight.
Clean up individual tracks with mutes, gates, or however. To do this, you have to solo each track (in particular, those with instruments that come in and out of the mix), listen carefully for any unwanted noise, and then squelch it. If you have automation (either digital or analog), programming mutes or gates is the quickest and easiest approach. If you mix without automation, you can use outboard gates and/or expanders. As a last resort-say, if you don't have enough gates to go around-you can always erase sections between parts. (This is risky, so make a copy of the track first in case you screw up.) The goal, of course, is tracks that are free of extraneous sounds-coughing, lip smacks, chair squeaks, and so forth.
You should also check for unwanted noise on continuous-playing tracks-for example, amp hiss on an electric-guitar part. In the case of amp hiss (or other constant noise), try patching in a single-ended noise- reduction unit, such as Behringer's Multiband Denoiser SNR2000.
The Great Equalizer
A mistake that novice mixers often make is boosting every band of EQ on every channel. Though this may initially make the signals sound "better"-at least to inexperienced ears-the seeming improvement is largely due to the signal being louder. (Remember, boosting EQ adds gain.) But there are other reasons not to go this route. Not only does it fairly defeat the idea of equalizing, but on analog mixers-at least those typically found in personal studios-it also usually adds circuit noise to the mix. Indeed, with every band boosted on every channel, the compounded noise can be considerable. (To hear for yourself, stop the tape, turn up the monitor-room output, and listen while switching the channel EQs into and out of the signal path.)
Whenever possible, then, cut rather than boost-or use a combination of cuts and boosts-to get the sound that you want. Cutting lets you eliminate undesirable aspects of the signal without adding noise; afterward, if necessary, you can add make-up gain with the fader. In general, experienced engineers end up using a combination of cuts and boosts on any given channel.
For those unfamiliar with subtractive EQ, it's instructive to spend some time experimenting with sweepable mids. First, dial in a radical cut-say, 15 dB. (If you have control of the bandwidth, set a narrow Q, as well.) Now, turn the sweep knob slowly from hard left to hard right while listening to how the cut affects the signal at different frequencies. Next, do the same thing with a 15 dB boost and compare. What you're listening for is how a cut on one side of the frequency spectrum results in a sound quite similar to that provided by a boost on the other side. For example, a low-mid cut (depending on the source, of course) can result in an apparent brightening of the signal-much like what you would get by boosting the high mids.
Here's another important point: soloing an instrument to EQ it can be helpful, but the only thing that really matters is how the instrument sounds in the mix. Therefore, be prepared to change the EQ once all the other instruments are brought in. Often, after an instrument is equalized appropriately for a mix, it sounds quite unappealing when soloed.
Still another trick is to EQ the effects rather than the instrument itself. I find this to be especially helpful when I'm happy with the quality of the signal (that is, how well the instrument was recorded) and I want to alter the tonal balance only subtly, without messing up the naturalness of the sound. You can EQ the effect either inside the effects unit (advantageous, because digital changes don't add circuit noise) or by patching the return into a channel strip and equalizing from there (which is nice, because it allows you to readily pan the signal or even compress it, if you want). This is an excerpt from the following article: Ten Tips for Nailing a Mix.
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