When I first started recording at home, I was really peeved to discover that - shock horror - my mixes didn’t sound like the albums I loved. Of course I wasn’t recording at Ocean Way or Bearsville or Abbey Road, but it wasn’t just that. I mean, I’d dialled in a guitar sound I loved. I had a bass sound I really dug. I spent weeks crafting the perfect drum sound. Everything was killer; so why did they sound like such a mess when I put them together?
The reason, of course, is that you have to mix each instrument to sit with all of the others instead of just getting great sounds for each and then smashing them together. As a guitarist, it’s a hard thing to admit that the tone you’ve spent your life crafting might not cut it on a recording, but what I learned – eventually – was that if you want your guitar to sound great in a mix, you have to be pretty savage in how you EQ it, yet subtle at the same time. Let me explain.
CREATE SPECIFIC FREQUENCIES
If you want your mix to sound powerful and detailed, you need to carve out specific frequencies for each instrument to occupy. If your kick drum, bass guitar and rhythm guitar are all blasting a lot of power in the low end, it’s going to sound like arse. All of these instruments will be fighting each other and clouding up the bass frequencies, and you’ll lose all of your punch. The way to counter this is to either EQ your sounds in the mixing stage so they’re not clashing, or use gear that doesn’t stomp all over everything else in the first place. In terms of guitar, I’m not a fan of boosting frequencies in the EQ stage. I much prefer to dial in a sound I love from my amp and then use EQ selectively to reduce or fully remove any frequencies that clash too much with other instruments. The result typically ends up being a ‘frown’ EQ curve with very little in the low end, and no highs above 5kHz. This leaves the bass, kick drum and toms to occupy the low end, and the snare and hi hats (and maybe a separate distorted bass track) to take care of the highs.
Ideally, you would lower the mids in the drums and bass so they’re not eating up your guitar sound. If your song is vocal driven, you may have to carve out some chunks of your guitar tone, too, in order for the vocals to be prominent. That’s okay. That’s why we have tricks like double-tracking to keep guitars sounding full and powerful even when they’ve been through heavy subtractive equalising.
A great way to get a nice mid-range-rich tone on record is to use a smaller amp with a smaller speaker. Jimmy Page famously recorded a lot of Led Zeppelin’s classic material with a small, low-powered amp (varying reports say it was a Supro Thunderbolt or a little Fender), and his guitar sounds huge in the mix because it’s not stomping all over John Bonham’s massive drum sound. Frank Zappa often recorded with a little battery-operated Pignose amp with a six-inch speaker that simply isn’t capable of producing the kind of low end of a 12-inch speaker, and yet his guitar always cuts through without eating up the other instruments. If you’re using digital modeling, try using models of smaller amps or speakers on your tracks to see what happens. You may find that while a 4x12 cab model sounds great for a more full-range sound while you’re practicing, a switch to a ten-inch or six-inch cabinet may be just what you need to retain the things you love about your tone without becoming a mix-hog.
I recently picked up a great new tool for quickly nailing mix-ready guitar tones: the Master Match module within IK Multimedia’s T-RackS 5. It lets you import up to three reference tracks that it then creates a mastering profile for and grafts onto your mix. But it can also do it with individual guitar tracks, which means if you find a few isolated seconds of a guitar tone you really like then you can ‘borrow’ its mix settings for your own recording. It’s not going to make you sound exactly like Eddie Van Halen, but it will help you achieve a similar basic EQ profile of how the sound sits in the mix. You can then tweak it to fit your final mix more effectively. It’s not a magic cure, but it does force you to think a little harder about what you’re doing with your mixes, and you can then apply that new knowledge to whatever other mixing and mastering tools you wish to use.
Ultimately, the right mix is a combination of personal taste, creativity and making the most of the gear you have. But whatever you’re working with, you can improve your results greatly by thinking of each instrument as its own collection of frequencies and making sure that you never overload any one particular area of the EQ spectrum.