Get Better Mixes By Going For The Big Wins

| Mixing, Tips

Want some mixing advice? Don’t spend too much time focused on the little details. Sure all the fine tuning is important, but you don’t want to overspend your time and energy there. Instead, pour the majority of your mixing brain power into these three core areas and you’ll get big results. Trust me.

Build A Killer Static Mix

I know the strong urge to start throwing plugins around and automating faders is there, but so much of what makes a great mix takes place before you actually start mixing. In fact one of the absolute best things you should spend time doing is creating one killer static mix. And what might that be? A static mix is simply a mix of all your tracks using only volume and pan, nothing else.

Why does this work? This process of playing through the song over and over and messing with faders and pan pots forces you to give every track its place. Think in your head, “If this track had to stay at one volume and pan position for the entire mix, where would that be?” Do your best to compromise, but create the absolute best balance you can using only volume and pan, because in the end, you will be starting your mix with each track at the best place possible.

Pretend All You Have Is EQ

Now that you have a great rough balance going (your static mix) it’s time to do your major sculpting. It’s time to pretend like EQ is the only tool you have to make your mix come to life. EQ is by far the most important tool you’ll use in the mixing phase short of the volume fader, and it’s the most powerful as well.

Spend the bulk of your time mixing here. Do whatever you have to do with EQ to get all your tracks to play nicely together. Carve out what you don’t need, emphasize what you need a bit more of, or radically alter a sound to make it fit. Also, do yourself a huge favor and EQ your tracks while listening in mono. You’ll make better EQ decisions, trust me.

Bring Your Tracks To Life With Tasteful Compression

Finally, it’s time to bring in some compression. With your tracks sitting at the best volume, panned to the optimal spot, EQ’d to perfection, all you really need to bring them to life is a dash of compression. Whether you need some fast attack squashing compression or some slow attack rhythmic compression, a little goes a long way here.

Compression, when done right, can take sonically clear tracks and give them energy, presence, and punch. Drums get a bit fatter, guitars cut through better, and vocals sound upfront and full. Compression is control tool that really can contain tracks that tend to get out of control, while featuring tracks that need some “air time.” It’s truly something that makes a flat recording have life and passion.

Pareto’s Law In Mixing

If you’re familiar at all with Pareto’s Law then you’ll like this. Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto famously gave traction to the fascinating pattern that 80% of results come from 20% of activities. For instance, many companies make 80% of their profits from only 20% of their products, their big sellers. The pattern shows up all over the place, and not just in business.

As far as mixing goes, I have found that 80% of my mix’s sound comes from 20% of my mixing decisions, namely my static mix, EQ, and compression. I can then spend a crazy amount of time on other things like reverb, delay, automation, mix buss processing, effects, etc. In reality, it’s the above mentioned three big wins that create the majority of my mix, yet they don’t take a long time to do.

Spend 80% Of The Mix On These Big Wins

With that in mind, what I’m suggesting we do is spend more than 20% of our time on levels, EQ, and compression. I say flip it. Spend 80% of our time on these activities and 20% on the rest. Why? Simply put, if these big wins are what make or break our mix, it’s worth take the time to perfect them. The rest of the mix process (effects, automation, and even sweetening) crucial as they are, only serve to enhance the core of what we’ve done.

On your next mix, give this a try. Don’t spend the majority of your time fine tuning the fun details. Put in the work on the big wins and see if you just don’t get your best mix yet.

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29 Responses to “Get Better Mixes By Going For The Big Wins”

  1. billwesley

    Just wanted to drop by and say a big “thank you” for helping this longtime home studio guy to become an even more enthusiastic, more assured and competent mixer.

    Well – thank you, Graham!

    Reply
  2. Andrew Eiler

    -Very good tip. For a few months now I’ve followed your workflow (including this) based on REthink mixing and it has organized/cut down my mixing time drastically! Thank you.

    Reply
  3. Micheal Prater

    The good ol’ 80/20 rule. Use it at work all the time. Pareto was also famous for his chart.

    Reply
  4. AMA Fru

    Simply outstanding… Your tips every now and again help pull me back to focus on what’s really important. GET GOOD MUSIC OUT! Thank you.

    Reply
  5. DJ Darkside

    Graham, you always give us such great information and the crazy part is that its mostly common sense. But its great to have someone like you instill confidence in some of us ‘rookies’ that we are indeed on the right path and to just keep cracking on. I guess my only issue at the moment is the amount of content I have to practice on. I currently produce my own music with the hopes of collaborating with emcee’s and DJs, but that proves to be impossible at times. I have started writing my own material and recording it but its not anything serious so I just dont work on it. I would like t connect with bands that need their tracks mixed and go from there. Do you or anyone here have any advice about getting tracks from musicians to help me practice the mixing side of things on a much larger scale?

    Again, thank you so much for all the information you have here, your site is great and I visit everyday at work on my 12 hour shifts to learn from you :) Keep it up!!!

    Reply
    • Graham

      I know what you mean. I actually launched this thing called Dueling MIxes last year with my buddy Joe Gilder. Members get a new song to mix each month with tutorials and webinars to help you along the way:

      http://www.duelingmixes.com/

      Hope it helps!

      Reply
  6. Alec

    Dear Mr. Cochrane, I’ve been following your posts for about a year or so though I’ve never dropped a line. But today I’d like to thank you for the generous sharing of your knowledge. I’m 43 and was about to quit the scene when you gave me what I needed to REALLY start once and for all! I started playing musical instruments and writing songs in the mid of my teens back in the good old 80′s and I’m sure that I’m cut for the job… LOL… But I live in Brazil and here it’s always been difficult to have access to good quality stuff and information. So, since then I dedicated all my time to improve my English and saved up every penny to buy my gear abroad. Then, when I had almost everything I always wanted to, I realized that I’d need lots of help to learn how to use it. Well, at first I thought that at this point of my life maybe it could be a little too late, “too old for rock’n roll” if you know what I mean. Then, that’s when you entered the story… THANK YOU VERY MUCH!

    Reply
  7. Elizabeth

    thank u for this post..I’ve been doing static mixing a lot lately, I just didn’t know what it was called lol…thank you for confirming what I’ve been doing isnt wrong :) still need a lotta work but i’m on the riight track. God bless :)

    Reply
  8. RickG

    This is probably the biggest mistake I have been making. I’ll try to get each and every sound “effected” to my satisfaction befor moving on to the next sound. This is extremely time consuming and I can spend an entire night getting a single sound right (at least as I expect it to sound in the final mix). This article makes me think I’ve been indulging in a HUGE waste of time. Perfect Sense! I’ll be mixing raw tonight!
    Thanks Graham. I’ll let you know how the 80/20 rule works out.

    Reply
  9. DF

    Wow! This is the most succinct and useful mixing advice I’ve ever read.

    Doing midi sequencing and hybrid production with hardware and soft synths I’ve developed a bad habit of wandering all over the place adding and changing elements and effects. I then get tired and become sloppy with the mix.

    I didn’t make a New Year’s Resolution yet … but it’s never too late: I will commit my arrangement to audio and then follow this wonderful advice.

    Reply
  10. Okon Anthony

    Thanks for all your awesome tips Graham. They are highly appreciated. I also bought one of the books you recommended “Mixing Secrets for the small studio.” Although I just completed my 2nd chapter, but some of my questions are being answered gradually. Thanks.

    Reply
      • Okon Anthony

        please, i read about the effects of monitor ports. and i tried closing the port (of my M-Audio BX8 D2) as the book recommended and i noticed a difference. is it ok to leave the port closed or to leave it just as it was manufactured?

        Reply
  11. Allan Cash

    Very important tips Graham! I see I was doing too much time adding effects and generally spicing up a sound before moving to the next track.It really created some muddy mixes!

    Reply
  12. Patrick Talbot

    I’d say this also apply to the whole thing, not only the mixing part.

    We have to stay humble and realize what makes good music: 80% is the song and 20% may be the recording/mixing. If the song is great, well arranged and performed, then it will come through no matter what.

    See early Beatles recording for example (which in sonic quality by today’s standard would easily be topped by any recording newbie in his bedroom with basic gear) but still ring today in many ears and will probably continue to do so in many years to come… Ear that on the radio and try not to sing along, and you’ll see what I mean! ;)
    Could it be better with quality recording and a mix/master by today’s standard? Probably.
    Does it really matter? Nope.

    Not to say that working at presenting music at its best is unimportant, but for musicians out there, mixing is only that and we also need to focus first on making the best music. You can polish a turd as much as you want, if that’s all you have, in the end it will stay a turd.

    My $.02

    Reply

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