Are you an aspiring mix engineer, producer or DJ wanting to dabble in the dark arts of dance music production? If so, here are some brief pointers of the mixing stages, that we go through to mix our music.
It is important to remember when mixing down multi-track material that the mix process can only make good recordings sound better, not bad recordings sound good… Therefore it is important to get the desired sound at the recording stage. Excuse the crudeness but there’s an old saying that goes, ‘you can not polish a turd!’ Crude but highlights the importance of acquiring a quality recording, or using quality samples, before you get to the mix stage.
The mix process itself, is hard to define as either a science or an art; the truth is it is somewhere in-between. With this in mind, take these points as guidelines only and not as hard or fast rules!
To become a good sound engineer and proficient at mixing down records, you will find that it is a skill learnt only through experience. (The more you do it the better you’ll get!)
Balance is the most important place to start because providing you have got the desired sound of your recordings at the recording stage, you should be able to get a decent mix by just adjusting the levels.
Stereo image is important to help add space in a mix and give each individual part placement in the stereo field. Close your eyes and imagine looking across a landscape and placing your different instruments/parts on different areas of that landscape. Some engineers imagine the stage of a live performance, either from the audiences view or the musicians view! Again there are no hard and fast rules but the bass, kick drum and lead vocal will usually be dead centre.
I like to think of effects as “the icing on the cake”. Adding effects like reverb can help add a sense of space and realism to the mix. Add that along with chorus, flange, delay etc and this should really help get that professional sound. An important point to remember though when using effects like these, is to use them sparingly. i.e. don’t over do it!
After levelling your recordings or samples, compression is used to add punch to the mix and give presence to the individual parts. All modern sequencers, such as Logic Pro, Ableton, Cubase, Pro Tools etc, come with built-in compression plug-ins. Or, you can opt for the old school outboard option, if you’re so inclined!
Now with the parts levelled and punchy, it is important to add clarity to the mix, as certain instruments will naturally fight for some of the same frequency ranges due to similarities in their pitch range. Therefore an engineers job is to help “Cut and Boost” particular frequencies to ensure each part has its own space in the frequency spectrum. I.e. If your bassline and kick drum are both fighting for space at around 100hz, you’ve got to decide which instrument takes that space. Otherwise your mix will sound ‘muddy’ and will lack clarity. A quick tip, is always look to cut, before you boost!
Please note; the order of these stages are only to be followed loosely. As, you may find yourself jumping between stages, as you realise your vocal suddenly needs just a little extra reverb effect. Or if you realise your guitar lead was just a little to enthusiastic, you may want to go back and adjust the level. However, it’s important to remember, that any adjustments to level, effects, stereo image or EQ, will likely affect each of the other stages too. I.e., adjusting dynamics, or effects, will likely have an impact on the harmonics and thus, affect your EQ settings. The most important thing to remember, is to always tuse your ears and just listen to the impact of your changes to the overall mix.
Ok, one final tip! We recommend listening and analysing other commercially released music. Analyse tracks from your favourite Artists and DJs. If you want to sound like the best mix engineer on the planet, then it’s always a good idea to learn from the best mix engineers on the planet! At HML, we regularly take note of all of our favourite artists work. Here’s a great article from SOS about analysing commercial mixes.
Good luck, keep learning and happy mixing!