Want better results from your home and project studio mixes? Follow these 10 tips to give them a more professional touch.
Is it a rock mix with aggressive midrange, a dance mix with pumping bass, or an acoustic singer/songwriter mix with "air" on the vocals? If you know what you want, you're half way there already. But many other questions apply. Should you be using mastering tools while you mix, or apply them after? Are you just getting a basic production done to hand off to a pro? Will your mix go to a mastering engineer or directly out on the Internet? Below are five simple Do's and Don'ts that can help you take your mix to the next level.
1 Cut bass frequencies: One of the biggest problems of poor mixes is an overload of bass. Bass information takes up a large amount of "energy" within a mix. With that in mind, it makes sense to examine any instruments that may have an abundance of low end, say around 180-200 Hz and below. Classic offenders are electric and acoustic guitars, keyboards, and tom toms. Much of that information can be removed and you'll never miss it. For the most part, you want your bass and kick to breathe in that range. By cutting low frequencies of offending instruments, you can clean up your mix.
2 De-ess a sibilant vocal: Bad sibilants, those nasty "ess" sounds that vocalists sometime make, can literally ruin a mix. Often, a reverb will pick up on those "esses" and emphasize them even more. So it makes sense to try to pull them out of your mix as much as possible. You can either automate the vocal channel's fader to quickly move down and back up at each sibilant spot (which doesn't always work so well), or apply a de-essing plug-in (or hardware unit). Many manufacturers make software for this purpose, including the Waves DeEsser, Sonnox SuprEsser or Universal Audio's Precision De-esser, which can quickly and easily remove those nasty sounds. Your listeners will thank you later.
3 Create mixes with and without mixbus processing: There are two schools of thought on mix bus processing, which may include such things as compression, limiting, harmonic enhancers and/or EQ. Some engineers choose to keep their mix pure and use no processing at all. They will either hand it off to a mastering engineer to finish or process it themselves in a separate session. Some engineers choose to do it all at once-mix from the very beginning with all their tools inline. They feel that's what the mix will sound like eventually, so why not do it from the start? Note that it generally takes more experience to mix with your bus processing inline. Either way, it makes sense to print mixes for yourself with and without that processing, which will leave you more options in the end.
4 Take the time to learn your speaker/room combination: This one is a biggie, unless you exclusively mix in headphones. Unfamiliarity with monitors, and the room they react in, can cause you to misjudge frequencies. For example, if your room is bassy, you will undermix the bass because what you hear in your room "sounds" right. But on other people's systems, that bass will be lacking. Take the time to play a lot of great mixes (or music you're very familiar with) on your system. Just sit, listen and learn your setup. Try not to use MP3s, as they have had frequencies removed to make them smaller. If you can't seem to get your room sounding good, you may need to treat it with products from companies such as Auralex or Primacoustic.
5 Remember to turn on Latency Compensation. For those of you who use DAW mixers with plug-ins, it's important to understand what latency compensation is. When you assign a plug-in, it takes a certain amount of time (usually measured in milliseconds) to do its job. Some plug-ins can be "latent" enough to create a delay that causes the track to fall slightly out of sync with the rest of your audio. For example, say you had a drum loop track, a bass, and a guitar, and they all had a tight groove going in your sequencer. If you then put EQ, compression, and enhancer on the drum loop, the latency from those plug-ins will cause the drum loop to be out of sync with the bass and guitar. By turning on latency compensation, all the tracks will be pushed forward to be in perfect sync with one another.
1 Overcompress your master. If you use a master fader, or processing on the stereo mix bus, be careful when using a master bus compressor. Many inexperienced mixers use a compressor just to increase the volume. While that may work, with the wrong setting it can also squash the dynamics of a mix and reduce many of the transient peaks. That in turn makes a mix sound flat and unexciting-though it may be louder. If you do choose to apply compression to the master, try to do it with a gentle touch
2 Mix too many songs at once: I know someone who mixed an entire 12-song CD in one day. Guess what? It sounds like they mixed an entire 12-song CD in one day. You can do better work if your ears are fresh and your mind is clear. Take constant breaks to ensure what you're hearing is truly what you are hearing. It's very important.
3 Put on too many effects: Overuse of effects can be a clear indicator of an inexperienced mixer. Do you really need that guitar to pan back and forth, or that flanger on the cymbals (well ok, Jimmy Page did get that to sound great on "Kashmir"). The worst offender is too much reverb, especially on lead vocals and guitars. Remember, tight mixes (think AC/ DC) have very few effects, making them sound "forward." Wetter mixes (think Annie Lennox) can have a sense of depth and lushness-when they're done right. You can always use a combination of both as well. My mixing motto has always been "when in doubt, leave it out."
4 Mix MP3s as a final. While this may seem obvious, it's important to create a final with as high a resolution as possible. This lets you have more options down the road, where you can create MP3s, AACs or whatever format is ahead of us. Try to record your sessions at at least 24-bit (either 44.1 or 48kHz is fine) and create a 24-bit master file of each mix. You can create any MP3 or AAC files from that.
5 Rely on MIDI tracks to always come back as you left them. Too many times, I've called up a MIDI-heavy session only to have the sequencer "forget" the tempo or instrument patch. Once you're done with a MIDI instrument, it's often best to print the track as audio. Simply create a new track, set its input to the output of the MIDI track, and hit record. You'll save system resources (you'll no longer need to devote CPU power and RAM to the instrument) and may also find it easier to process the track with effects.