September 6, 2007

5 Steps to a Better Sounding Mix

Proper Low end theory goes a long way, during mix-down, but just because your mix has tight low end doesn't make it a good mix; that's only one of several things you need to worry about. These tips aren't secrets - more like a checklist of tasks for every song you mix. They apply to all genres.

The 5 steps to a Better Sounding Mix:
  1. Determine Your Goal
  2. Get a Second Opinion
  3. Add Ear Candy
  4. Cut Tracks That Don't Add
  5. Test Your Mix

1. Determine Your Goal

Having a goal to aim for will serve several purposes. Perhaps the most important of which, is that you'll know when you're done. Anyone who's every recorded a song of themselves knows - that mix is never finished. Which causes projects to go over time, leading to exhaustion and frustration.

It also helps you create something that feels homogeneous; by knowing what you're trying to achieve ahead of time, you record each track to fulfill it's purpose in the song. A track that is already recorded is difficult to manipulate artificially (via effects/filters/plug-ins). Adapting tracks to a new feel rarely produces as good a result.

Which brings me to a side-note: The importance of good takes

Getting good takes from the start is extremely important. Aside from the problems inherent in digital editing, bad takes also put you in a bad spot. You have to either...
  • Leave the bad takes, and deal with being unhappy with your recording. With the added bonus of other musicians/listeners/record labels noticing these problems and discounting your work because of it. Or...
  • Re-record the takes later. This wastes your time (and money) on reproducing the set-up you originally had. And even after all this, it's hard to reproduce everything exactly. You usually have to record that entire track again for the whole song, in order to get a consistent sound, which wastes more time and money.

2. Get a Second Opinion

Actually get a third and fourth opinion too. This applies globally. When you're deciding the direction of the song (before you start recording... remember?) get other's opinions about it. When you're in the studio tracking, have a few people around to listen to the takes as you go and help catch mistakes and make suggestions.

Try to have at least one other person at every step of the process. And this needs to be valuable input, don't gather up your neighbors kids to come sit in on the recording session - you need musicians and, if possible, someone else with experience recording.

3. Add Ear Candy

Once you're finished tracking the major parts of a song it's time to add that studio touch. Even in cases when it's a very minimalist recording (think "Hallelujah" by Jeff Buckley) effects or extra tracks can add a lot to the song.

To continue the Jeff Buckley example, the song wouldn't have been complete without that big cathedral reverb. Which brings us back to the "Determine your goal ahead of time" idea. The religious content of the song is served very well, whether it be subconscious of not, by using a Cathedral sounding reverb. See how you can achieve similar results.

Ear candy can also come in the form of more noticeable effects, like modulation effects, delays, and reamping, or simply adding more tracks to the song. What's your favorite kind of ear candy?

4. Cut tracks that don't add

At this point, depending how crazy you got with adding "studio only" tracks to your song, some sections may sound a little cluttered or muddy. You might even have large sections where tracks have been reduced to nearly inaudible levels just to hear the melody.

This is when you take a long hard look at your song and decided which tracks actually add to the song. Here is your task:
  1. Listen to the Song
  2. Mute the track in question
  3. Listen to the song again
  4. Does the track bring you closer to your end goal for the song?
  5. If not disable the track (or the parts of the track deemed unnecessary)
  6. Repeat for the next track
Don't forget to get a second opinion.

5. Test your mix

Make sure your mix will sound good in the most common listening environments. However, it's not enough to just pop in your most recent mix and listen on each of these systems. Our ears adapt very rapidly to the way things sound, so here's how to test effectively:

Listen to artists similar to the music you've just finished mixing (that you think sound good of course) for at least 10 minutes. Then Switch to your mix and write down what changes are necessary in order to compare favorably to the music you've just heard.

If your mix doesn't sound good in (at least) the following mediums you have a big problem:
  • Car Stereo
  • Home Stereo
  • iPod with earbuds
  • Laptop & Computer Speakers
  • (optionally) On Myspace
Repeat for each medium and don't forget to get a 2nd opinion while you're listening! In fact, your best bet is to enslave a few professional audio engineers and force them to follow you around throughout the entire process.

© 2008 Jim Robert