Mixing is more about the ears
than the gear
Creating great mixes involves more than moving a few faders on a console.
Whether you're creating a songwriter demo, producing your own album, or composing music that will be used in film, radio, or TV, the quality of your mix can be almost as important as the quality of your songs. Here are some tips to make sure you're in the mix.
Back in the days before home studios, typical songwriter demos were just that—quick demonstration recordings that gave the flavor of the song. If a publisher was pushing the song and had a sound in mind, they might have booked time in a studio to record a more elaborate demo, but this wasn't always the case—and even if it was, the songwriter wasn't expected to do more than bring the song, teach it to the band, and get a good enough performance to make the sales pitch.
Those days are long gone. And like it or not, songwriters and composers have now added "audio engineer" and "producer" to their job descriptions. Today's demos need to convey more than the skeleton of a song; publishers and labels expect to hear the hooks, harmonies, beats, and sounds that polish the tune to shining gold. The good news is that the technology to produce such ear candy is available and affordable. The bad news is that putting it all together and creating a great mix requires skill, patience and perspective.
Getting the melody and arrangement right is now only part of the package. As the publisher of one high-end music library told me recently: "We can use your songs—as long as the mixes are great." Short of hiring a professional to mix your work—and there are times when this can be extremely valuable—there are several things that you can do to make your demos shine.
Zero in on your hearing
One of the hardest things for people to do when mixing their home recordings is to actually hear what's going on. This is especially true if you, like many modern songwriters, are working alone. Think about it: You've had the song in your head, and then you've recorded the parts, building up the tracks to flesh out the arrangement. You're used to hearing things a certain way (for example, with the guitar up loud while you tracked a solo; or with lots of reverb on your voice while you cut your vocals). You have zero perspective.
In a professional mix, the engineer almost always starts from scratch, listening to each track without effects and setting levels as he or she hears them. You should do the same. Zero the board—a technical way to say "turn off EQ and effects, and set all the faders to the same place." Then, bring the sounds in one at a time. If you like what you had going on before you zeroed the board, make a note of it (or, if you're using a digital mixer or recording software, save the mix for later reference). But starting over can give you fresh perspective. You may realize that the loud guitar is interfering with the vocal, and that your song is more effective if your voice is less reverberant.
Keep it down
Speaking of listening, one of the worst ways to mix is by turning things up too loud. In addition to the damage you may cause your ears (I speak—loudly—from experience), listening loud usually gives a distorted impression of what the recording actually sounds like. If you have to crank the speakers for your mix to sound good, there's something wrong with the mix. It should sound good at low and moderate volume, as well.
You can use an EQ to make space in a mix by reducing frequencies that interfere with other instruments.
Use EQ to make space
Listen to a great mix, and everything seems to lock together like a jigsaw puzzle. The pros have an advantage in that the tracks they mix are probably well recorded with great mics in great-sounding rooms. But even they must sometimes use an equalizer to adjust the tone of their tracks. While there are many different ways to use an EQ, one of the more universal tricks is to open up room for the bass by rolling off (engineer talk for making quieter) the low register of other instruments. This is especially effective on guitars: Set the EQ to cut everything below 120 Hz. When the guitar is isolated, it might sound a little thin, but when the guitar and the bass are together, both sound great. This trick also works for other instruments, as well as vocals.
Keep references on hand
To reinstate your idea of what sounds good, listen to other mixes in the style of the song you're working on. Go back often. Listen for things like the level of individual instruments (how loud is that bass?), as well as their tone (how bassy is that bass?) and their placement in the mix, the effects used, and anything else your ear can pick up. When it comes to mixing, it's fine to plagiarize.
Think of the Big Picture
Film and TV work is booming for home-based composers and songwriters. If that's a market you're after, be aware that the kind of mix that works on a radio or CD-bound song may not work if the music is to be used as background to dialog. Midrange instruments and percussive noises may distract from the action onscreen. If possible, listen to any mixes you do for film and TV with the dialog in place; make sure you can hear both the speech and the music.
Clean up your tracks
If you're using digital recording technology at home, you should use that technology to get rid of unwanted noise and other sonic garbage by editing it out. (If you're in the analog world, you can do this also, but it's a bit more complicated). Take a vocal track, for example. In most cases, there'll be space between the phrases where the singer is fidgeting, breathing, and making other assorted noises. (I had one guy who had the sniffles— not a pleasant thing to hear through reverb.) Get rid of that by either muting the vocal track during those sections or—even better— by cutting out the unwanted audio. Just be sure not to cut off the beginning or end of the singer's actual performance. This technique also works on instrument and acoustic drum tracks. On the latter, it's an especially effective way to get rid of "bleed" from neighboring drums (for example, snare hits that can be heard on the tom mics when the tom is not playing).
The use of effects can enhance a production, as long as they don't distract from the essence of the song.
Use effects, but sparingly
Professional mix engineers have more effects than ever before at their disposal, but if you listen to a great mix, you'll often find that they use these effects sparingly. For example, if you have acoustic guitar, Hammond organ, electric rhythm guitar and lead guitar tracks, and they're all bathed in reverb and delay, your mix is actually going to sound small and distant. If you don't believe me, check out some of the stuff from the late '80s, when digital delay and reverb first became affordable. It sounds like the musicians are playing inside the drum of a dryer.
Watch dynamics and levels
One of the trickiest things for home recordists to get right is the level and dynamic range of a mix. In most cases, the differences between loud and quiet sounds should be minimized— the listener should never feel like turning up the sound in the quiet parts and turning it down in the loud parts. Dynamics processors like compressors and limiters are designed to reduce these loud/soft differences, but they should be used carefully. Too much compression and limiting, and the track will sound like it's "pumping and breathing." (For reference, check out a top 40 FM radio station; they tend to squash, or compress, the songs they play to the extreme, and they usually sound pretty bad.)
Let the vocal breathe
The trend today is toward more intimate vocals that sound close to the ear or have an "in-the-same-room" ambience. Reverb still sounds great on vocals, but burying your voice is no way to get your song across. And don't use effects as a crutch—if you're not confident with your vocal, hire a singer.
That said, AutoTune and other pitch correction tools have become common—you can hear them in action on many a pop song, often intentionally so. So you can use pitch correction without shame, but it'll sound more acceptable in the context of a dance or electronic pop song than it will on a sensitive piano ballad. In the latter case, you may be better off with a vocal that sounds less polished and more organic.
Get out of the studio
Home studios usually rely on small, nearfield monitors. The theory is that nearfields are less affected by room acoustics because the listener is close to the speaker, so its sound is therefore uncolored by reflections from around the room. That's only partially true: While nearfields will be less colored by the room, the acoustical properties of your space do play a role in what you're hearing (yet another reason to listen quietly). Small speakers also tend to produce less bass than larger speakers, so it's not uncommon for home mixers to cranks the bass without realizing it. Therefore, it's essential to take your mix out of the studio. If possible, burn CDs or load high-resolution files onto an iPod and listen on headphones, boom boxes, car stereos, computer speakers, home stereos— anyplace you can.
Know when to stop
One of the real drawbacks of working at home is the freedom to do almost anything, laying multiple tracks, using tons of samples, and adding gobs of effects. While that can be effective, a lot of times, it detracts from the important business of writing songs and getting them out into the world. So if you find yourself tempted to polish the pearl over and over, resist. Get the song done and move on.