Featuring tips about dimming, balancing and EQ.
Mixing music is a process, a service and a job, but it’s also an art form, and an inspired mixing engineer will make a series of inspired decisions to arrive at a better end result. It takes a lot of critical listening and analysis, and our minds and ears are easily influenced by three things: what we are hearing, what we’re not hearing, and what we want to hear.
Because of the fatigue of a long mixing session, as well as the influence of our references, it can be really handy to have a few tricks up your sleeve to get you started and keep you on track throughout a song. As with anything creative, there are no rules, but it’s handy to have a process to keep you on track. These five tips are listed in a reasonably chronological order to keep you making critical decisions quickly and confidently.
- Mono Your Mix
- The 0dB Rule
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Balancing your mix is a really good place to start, because it’s the process of adjusting volume across your mix so everything feels balanced. Balancing includes panning, and generally it’s a good idea to completely refrain from your ’Solo Track’ button, as well as any other processing during this process such as compression, reverb or EQ.
If you can get your mix to a good place without any other processing, you’re miles ahead already. The caveat to this is that if you have effects or processing that are integral to the song, it’s good to commit these to tracks or as an auxiliary and process them individually. If you really feel tracks need some movement in this stage of the process, it can be good to cut up tracks and treat them differently, however, this could be something to make a note of for further down the mix.
Balancing helps us identify what sounds need work and where, so we’re working through an organised list of mixing, rather than blindly diving into EQ, compression and effects.
Once you’re feeling happy with your balance, dim the mix (or lower the volume drastically if you don’t have a switch!), listen, and see how it affects your perception of the mix at regular volume.
Dimming a mix is the first way to reset your perspective during a mixing session. At lower volumes, louder or quieter sources become exaggerated, and it can assist in suddenly highlighting these issues. Be wary that depending on your monitors, frequencies may be more or less exaggerated, so treat dimming a mix like a tool to assist your decision at full volume.
It’s a good idea to print, export or bounce your mix at this point as a reference for later. If you listen back to your balance after more processing, you’ll know very quickly if you’ve gone wrong somewhere, or alternately if you’re continuing to take the song somewhere great. If you’ve toggled with the dim on your mix a few times, you can start to attack EQ, but carefully.
EQ can be a sensitive one, and this practice is a good one for learning to maximise the sounds you have. It’s good practice to start with only subtractive EQ, i.e. only pulling out frequencies rather than adding. The practice of balancing a mix to start is good to get a feel for all the sounds in the context of one another, but it also reveals what sounds and frequencies might mask or fight each other for space, and consequently need to be EQ’d.
Using subtractive EQ only, you can clean up your entire mix and make space for what you’ve deemed to be important sounds and sources. Once we’re feeling good about our subtractive EQ, here’s another trick: check those decisions in mono.
Mono Your Mix
As part of balancing, it’s common to figure out your panning and put things into their own space within the stereo field. Once we start subtracting EQ, we clear away the noise, mud and masking that occurs when instruments occupy the same space within the stereo field.
We can take this a step further by checking your mix in mono and removing any panning decisions. What you’ll be left with is a mix where everything occupies the same space, and your only option is to EQ and re-balance to give everything its own space. If you can EQ and make the sources work in mono, you’ll be able to clear even more space when you switch back to stereo.
Mono is a great way to check your balance as, similar to dimming your mix, mono exposes problem areas in your mix, and you can clear them up to ensure every element is clearly heard.
The 0dB Rule
When mixing, some sounds may feel un-fixable and it’s easiest to turn them down, but a client will want to hear every element of their song. As a rule of thumb, if a sound is causing issues at 0dB, then it needs work. In addition, if a sound (besides ambience, noise or similar) needs to be set below -20dB or so, it probably needs work.
It’s good practice to be able to turn up any sounds that a client may want or need without too much issue, otherwise these tracks are just adding extraneous noise or mess.
These notes can either be your whole mix process, or as a way to get your mix to a great starting point. How deep you dive into the rabbit-hole is up to you, as once you’ve cleaned everything up and made the sounds fit with each other, you can augment, exaggerate and push your tracks towards an end goal.
If you’ve skipped out on balancing or cleaning up your tracks with EQ, it’ll make for more work later down the line. As we’ve discussed, a good balance can really set up your mix to remain on the right track, without jumping headfirst into EQ, compression and effects. Mixing can be entirely subjective, and if we lose sight or perspective, we’re fighting a losing battle. These five tips are just a few ways to keep yourself fresh, and keep your decision making quick and concise.
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