Posted December 1, 2012 by Stephan Earl in Tips and Tutorials

Mixing Essentials: Mixing Tips to Live By

Mixing Essentials - Mixing Tips to Live By - Home Music Production

Mastering the art of mixing music is not an easy task for home recording musicians.  Great mixing engineers are themselves artists, as are singers, songwriters, musicians, producers and DJ’s.  For  us mere musician mortals, we don’t often understand how much time, tweaking and years of experience went into a recorded final mix that may sound basic to us.

So without those years of experience under the belt, here are some very basic tips to keep in mind when mixing your precious tracks:

Be Detail-Oriented in EQ Separation

Being able to distinguish each instrument in the final mix is the result of proper EQ separation that only detail-oriented mixing can achieve.  When instruments are in the same frequency range (such as guitars and piano), they compete against each other, clamoring for space in your mix.  Find the frequencies of the instrument that carries the essence of the sound and accentuate this.   Cut away the frequencies you don’t need, to make more space in the mix and produce clarity.  Cutting (or attenuating) is a more effective solution than boosting frequencies in your source track.  Don’t get caught up with how the instrument sounds when soloed.  It may sound thin or empty to you when soloed, but should sound crisp and clear when all tracks are added in.

Depending on the style of music you’re creating, you can often use a high-pass filter or low shelf filter to attenuate ALL frequencies below 200 Hz. except your bass and kick drum.  For Pop and Rock music styles some engineers clear everything below 500 Hz (except kick and bass).  For mixing a Jazz quartet or a singer / songwriter track, you may not want to attenuate so much or you risk a mix that sounds too thin.

Check out my article Five Tips to Improve Your Mix to read more on steering focus and creating space in a mix.

Compression Packs a Punch

Using compression in the right way will add more power to your mix.  Compression brings balance between the soft and loud parts for a more consistent and richer sound.  Through compressors, you can automatically lessen the loudest parts to maintain a higher average that won’t distort the sound.  This all-too-important step in mixing is sometimes overlooked or often misused due to a lack of understanding of the process.

Using compressors makes the ‘musicality’ aspect of your mix so much better!  It can be daunting to take control of the four components of compression – ratio, threshold, attack and release time – but with more practice, you can gain the upper hand and come up with compression techniques of your own.

There’s no one way to apply compression, but here are some very quick best practices:

  1.  It’s often good to apply compression in stages to avoid over compressing a signal.  Apply compression on individual instruments (such as a kick drum) as needed, but also apply it to the group (such as the complete drum set) to glue the individual parts together.
  2. Use the attack time to keep the transient (initial attack sound) in place, but compress the body of the sound to make it fit better with the other instruments.
  3. Use small amounts (ratio of 2 or 3, threshhold of a few dB) to tame the sound without over compressing it.
  4. Virtual sampler and synth tracks may not need compression at all!  Huh! That’s right.  Many virtual instrument libraries contain samples that have already been compressed to fit well in most common mixing situations.  Often what virtual instruments need more than compression is EQ treatment.  This will depend (as always) on the style of music and your personal taste.

Listen, Listen, Listen

I know I’ve said this before, but listening to commercially mixed and mastered music is one of the best ways to get an understanding for how things should be mixed.  The best way to listen to reference music is using the same speaker and/or headphone monitors that you’re using to mix your own music.  I always import two or three commercially mixed songs that are similar in style to the song I’m mixing, into my tracking session. This gives your ears a slight break from your track and helps you keep your mix within the proper perspective.

After putting on the final touches to your mix, it’s time to listen to the overall sound.  It should very much sound like all the instruments were played and recorded in one room.  Make sure the sounds blend together and that not one instrument sticks out and overpowers the rest.  If your ear catches something not right, check the volume level first, the EQ or panning next, and compression last.  Use that automation feature your DAW has.  Volume automation is great for creating emphasis as needed throughout your mix.

Save, Save and Save

While you’re in the middle of mixing that perfect beat, a power outage suddenly grips you by the collar and causes you to scream because you forgot to save.  Mixing with computers puts you in a nasty spot if you don’t remember to save your mix frequently.

Unless you have a UPS (Uninterrupted Power Source) in your workstation (which I always recommend), the chances of losing your precious work is probable without preventive measures in place.  Most popular DAWs are equipped with settings that allow automatic saving of your work at your preferred intervals.  This is such a life-saver for anyone who values their mixes while they’re at work.  Check out my article Safeguarding Your Home Studio to see more on this.

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.