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Posted September 4, 2011 by Stephan Earl in Tips and Tutorials
 
 

Mixing Essentials: Five Tips to Improve Your Mix

Mixing Essentials: Five Tips to Improve Your MixHow to mix music?  As home studio recording musicians and producers we want our recorded tracks to sound great. But often, our area of expertise may be singing, playing an instrument, composing, or remixing prerecorded tracks. But if you intend for your finished piece to be heard by others in the form of a CD or MP3, then writing and recording the music is only one-third of the equation. The other two are mixing and mastering.

Below we’ll look at some essential tips to help you obtain a good mix that’s ready for mastering. Mixing is an art and not a science, so don’t expect to become a professional mixing engineer overnight. However like any art, with regular practice and the tools currently available inside most popular daw packages, you can certainly whip up a great sounding mix that you can be proud of. Alright then let’s get started!

1. Mix Music: Use Your Favorite Music as a Reference

Once your tracks are recorded and you’re ready to mix, it’s a good idea to gather a couple of commercial tracks that were recorded and mixed professionally and use these as reference tracks. The music can be any style, but should be of a similar style to the music you’re mixing so it acts as an anchor and keeps you within the ballpark. Using a reference track doesn’t mean that your recording should (or will) sound like the track you’re referencing. Keep in mind this music has also gone through a mastering process. However, you should be listening out for overall instrument balance, EQ, reverb and other effects levels. Also pay attention to the idiosyncrasies in your room acoustics. Do your ceiling corners have a reflections? Do bass frequencies gather in parts of the room and sound boomy? Listen to your reference track in headphones and in your speakers for comparison.

2. Mix Music: Learn from Your DAWs EQ Presets

Since you’re reading this article, I’m guessing you’re a home recording artist like me and not necessarily a seasoned industry-leading mixing engineer. However the professionals that create plug-in presets for popular DAWs often are. Learn from their expertise. Key up a preset from your favorite EQ or filter plug-in and study the parameters. Look at where and how the frequencies are increased or decreased and the type of filters used. Use these settings as a guide or starting point, then using your ears, adjust the parameters to fit your music and taste.

3. Mix Music: Steer Focus, Create Space

When listening to music, our brains can really only focus on one musical part at time. It’s why we often play a song we like several times to get a thorough listening of its various parts (i.e drums, bass line, rhythm guitar riff, etc). So you’ll want to steer the listener to the parts in the music that are most important such as the melody or other key parts. Creating musical focus will also create interest and help the music sound less cluttered. While creating focus for your music, visualize that each part will sit in one of five key spacial areas in the audio spectrum: Near, Middle, Far, Left and Right. This is also known as creating sonic dimension or a 3D mix.

To create sonic dimension in a mix we use panning, EQ, delay, reverb and automation. For parts that should be more prominent you’ll want to: have them centered or close to center in the mix, use full upper sonic frequencies, have a bit more bottom presence, and have less reverb and delay. For parts that are less prominent (or further back), you’ll want to: roll off higher frequencies above 5kHz or 10 kHz, possibly offset the part further left or right in the panorama, roll off deeper levels of bass frequencies, and add higher levels of reverb and delay. Use your DAWs automation feature to increase or decrease the volume of parts as you want them to be more or less prominent in the mix of reverb and delay. Use your DAWs automation feature to increase or decrease the volume of parts as you want them to be more or less prominent in the mix.

While we’re creating space for tracks to sit comfortably within a mix, you should consider as a rule of thumb to roll off lower frequencies in all tracks where it’s not needed. Use your daw’s eq or low shelf filter to roll off frequencies below 200Hz to 250Hz on all vocal and instrument tracks in order to leave room for the bass and kick drum. Then decide whether the bass track or kick drum will drive the low energy for the song and roll off one or the other at about 100Hz to 150Hz. This way the bass, kick and remaining instruments will have their own space and will sit comfortably in the mix.

4. Mix Music: Use your Eyes to Help Your Ears

If you don’t already have a good spectrum analyzer, I definitely recommend you add one to your arsenal of sonic tools. There are a few really good spectrum analyzers out there including my favorites SPAN by Voxengo and Blue Cat’s FreqAnalyst. Both are free and work as VST or AU plug-ins.

I’m currently using FreqAnalyst because it’s a native 64-bit plug-in on the Mac while span isn’t as of this writing. Spectrum Analyzers are very useful for several reasons, but a couple of which are important for home recording artists. First, they help you to learn what frequencies your instruments are occupying so you can better EQ them. Secondly, and most importantly, if you’re mixing in a room that has not been acoustically treated to reduce bass and high frequency reflections, what you’re hearing may not be the most accurate representation of the actual sound. Using a spectrum analyzer as a visual reference will help you use your eyes and ears occupying so you can better EQ them. Secondly, and most importantly, if you’re mixing in a room that has not been acoustically treated to reduce bass and high frequency reflections, what you’re hearing may not be the most accurate representation of the actual sound. Using a spectrum analyzer as a visual reference will help you use your eyes and ears together so you can ensure your mix is properly balanced across the frequency spectrum.

While you’re on Blue Cat and Voxengo’s websites you should check out the other free high-quality audio tools for mixing that both have.

5. Mix Music: Avoid Listener Fatigue

This last tip may appear obvious, but I’m sure we’ve all been there. In the heat of the creative process we may forget to eat, sleep or do other important things that allow our brains a chance to reset and refresh itself. Here are a few best practices to avoid listener fatigue:

Listen at low volume levels while mixing. This is important not just to avoid listener fatigue, but also to save your precious ears.

Take a break. Step away every couple of hours and take a short break. Relax your ears.

Eat, sleep, finish tomorrow. It’s always a good idea to let a day pass before completing a mix. After a good meal and some rest, you’ll come back to the music refreshed and possibly with a fresh perspective.

Happy recording!

Check out Build Acoustic Sound Panels in Your Home Studio to help build an acoustically controlled mixing environment.

Stephan Earl

 
Composing, recording and producing music in the home studio environment for over 25 years, musician and author Stephan Earl now enjoys sharing his home studio setup experience with other home studio recording musicians via HomeMusicProduction.com.