Newsflash: I do dumb stuff in the studio and have made a ton of mistakes over the years. Today I have another classic mixing fail for you. When I was first introduced to the concept of using a reference track in the mixing process, I thought it was great because virtually every time I referenced a track, my mix sounded better than the pro mix. At least it did in my home studio…
Every time I complete a recording or mixing project I try and take a moment to sum up what I learned from the process. This week I released my latest solo EP, The Tree and I’ve enjoyed sharing it with many of you, hearing feedback, and celebrating the completion of a 3 month journey.
But today I want to point out a few lessons I learned along the way in hopes that it will encourage you to keep learning and stay humble!
Drum Editing Isn’t Always Necessary
Now I could have told you this years ago. If you have a talented drummer who is fairly comfortable playing to a click track, drum editing isn’t always needed. In fact, my mantra has been to only edit if you need to. Otherwise leave it alone. But truth be told, I actually love drum editing. In fact, there’s some addictive quality to using Beat Detective to snap transients to the grid. I know, I’m weird.
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On Monday I released a brand new EP and along with it a little documentary showing you behind the scenes process for this project. If you missed the first part of the documentary, check it out here. Today I have the final half for you. This inside look into my recording and mixing process will hopefully encourage you to go make some music of your own, or to finish that latest project.
And of course, if you’d like to check out my new songs go here and download the EP. Name your price and get to listening!
There seems to be a growing debate about how far a mixing engineer should take a track before handing it off to be mastered. Many of you have voiced concern about how much processing (specifically on the mix buss) is OK and how much should you leave for the mastering phase. I think much of this is born out of confusion over what really happens in mastering. My suggestion? Pretend like mastering isn’t even an option.
Don’t Defer Your Responsibility
One of the dumbest things you can do in audio is to defer responsibility to a later stage, or to someone else entirely. What I mean is this: many people setup to record a band and it sounds OK, but they assume it will sound better once it’s mixed, so they settle for mediocre sounds. Or they have great sounds, but too many to choose from. They defer the responsibility of committing to a tone or performance.
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You’re song isn’t ready to be released until it passes the radio mix test. No matter how good it sounds sonically, no matter how much you’ve referenced it to other mixes, no matter how many revisions and tweaks you’ve made, unless it you’ve walked through this process systematically, your mix hasn’t met it’s full potential.
One way many home studio mixers shoot themselves in the foot is the overuse of stereo tracks in their mixes. From stereo pianos, stereo drum loops, stereo guitars, to stereo synth pads, there’s simply too much stereo happening. In fact, with so many stereo tracks, their final mix ends up (ironically) lacking a lot of stereo spread and clarity.
The Secret Is Mono
One day I stumbled upon a very interesting thing. When listening to some of my favorite rock and pop albums of all time I noticed one common theme from artist to artist and song to song: 95% of the tracks within the mix were mono.
Whether it was an organ, a piano, or acoustic guitar, the reason these great mixes sounded huge was because they were comprised of mono tracks, not stereo tracks.
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Following on the heels or our discussion of EQ, today I want to share the simple truth about compression.
Automatic Fader Control
Compression was actually invented to stop stuff from blowing up. Well, more correctly it was used as a way to protect electronic equipment and tape from overloading. Think about it, audio is very dynamic. A snare drum, a rock singer, an acoustic guitar: all of these can go from whisper quiet to all out ear drum blast in a second.
Before compressors were invented, an engineer literally had to hand ride volume faders to control the signal level before it hit tape, every single time. How annoying this must of been!
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We all know we’re “supposed” to use EQ when mixing. We see the big boys using it in magazines, videos, etc. They come stock with our DAWs. They come built into our live consoles. Clearly EQ is a normal tool for the mixing engineer. But why? What’s the point and how should we be using it in our mixes?
To begin with, the term EQ stands for “equalizer” so we have a pretty good idea of what its role is. The EQ exists to equal out the tone of each instrument. It’s a tool to balance your audio out perfectly. And, as we established earlier, all you’re doing in mixing is balancing.
So at its core, EQ is simply another weapon at your disposal to bring your tracks into perfect balance so the listener hears all your parts with clarity. Just like with a guitar amp, whose tone controls help you get the most balanced guitar tone possible, your EQ plugins help bring the best tonal balance to your mix.
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The problem with our ears is that they adapt; they get used to whatever they are hearing. One solution to “wake” them up is to periodically flip back and forth between two very different mix volumes. You want a standard volume (which ideally is relatively low) and then a super low volume. If you have a dim switch on your interface, you’re set. If not, watch this video.
Today I want to share a helpful strategy to getting better sounding mixes with fewer plugins. Why is fewer plugins a good thing? For one you can save CPU power if you mixing on a native system (which many of us are). Secondly, I’m of the belief that the less processing you do to the audio, the better.
This strategy is kind of a backwards one. It’s called Top Down Mixing and I think you’re going to love it.
The Three Layer Mix
There are definitely a few philosophies on how to approach a mix, but the one I keep coming back to is this Top Down approach. It’s based on the fact that your DAW signal flow (or analog console) is comprised of three layers. And what you do on the top layer affects those beneath it.
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