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…
Did you know that mixing can be summed up in just one word? It’s true. Mixing isn’t about plugins, converters, or studio monitors. It isn’t about acoustically treated rooms or golden ears. All of those things play a part (potentially) in getting a good mix, but to focus on them when mixing is to miss the entire point. Let’s kick off Mixing Month with this critical video…
If you are recording in a modern home studio comprised of a computer, an audio interface, and software, then one of the simplest things you could do to make your tracks sound better is to stop recording so hot into your DAW. That’s right, many of you are recording signals that are way too loud, giving you worse sound and for no real reason.
Digital Vs. Analog
The confusion is rooted in old analog workflows that simply don’t carry over into the digital world. Now, most of what we know of great recording technique comes from the analog world, and it’s really helpful. Nothing about mic placement, arrangement, room acoustics, performance, and effects has really changed in the digital world.
Audio is audio and sound is sound, and the great engineers of the last 50 years still know what they are talking about and we would do well to pay attention to how these masters of their craft captured the sounds that they did. Technique is everything, the medium might change, but philosophy of recording doesn’t. With two exceptions.
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Yesterday was Thanksgiving Day in the US and it’s a day we gather together to focus on the many blessings in our lives and the things/people we are thankful for. As it relates to the world of audio mixing, there are many things I’m thankful for: affordable gear, great resources online to learn from, and of course wonderful people to collaborate with. But today I thought I’d share three specific mixing techniques that I couldn’t live without and am thankful for.
1. Mixing At Low Volumes
Until someone taught me that everything sounds good loud, I had no idea that I should be mixing at lower volumes. I would mix at a level that made my tracks feel good and so I thought I was churning out a great mix. Turns out, that’s the worst thing I could be doing for my mix.
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One of the most helpful things you can do in your home studio is get your speakers setup to their full potential. The first question you have to ask is are your speakers where they belong. There are some simple things you can do to instantly reduce unbalanced reflections and unnecessary bass build up.
But let’s say you’ve done that and still need to take things a step further? One thing I’ve had to do over the years is tune my speakers using reference tracks.
What’s Wrong With This Pro Mix?
One thing many of us home studio owners don’t do enough of is listen to pro mixes on our studio monitors. We spend all of our time in the studio listening to OUR mixes. Big mistake.
The great thing about a pro mix is that, well, it’s a pro mix. In theory it’s been recorded by top engineers in a great sounding studio, mixed by a top engineer in a great sounding room, and mastered by a top engineer with careful attention to balance. In essence when listening to a pro mix you can be confident that it’s a good benchmark for quality sound.
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Part 28 of 31 – As you near the end of your mix, one of the best things you can do is reverse mix it. This simple little move will tell you a lot about your volume balance between kick, snare, and vocals.
What Do You Hear Down There?
If you take your monitors and turn them all the way down and then bring them up in volume ever so slowly, what is the first thing you hear? Ideally it should be vocal, snare, and kick drum. What’s that you say? You haven’t tried this little trick?! Today’s your day!
I love mixing drums. Well, I love it and I hate it, but when the drums turn out well it’s a great feeling. One thing I’m always trying get just right is the amount of punch and smack that the drums have. You usually want the kick and snare to jump out of the speakers a bit so you can feel them, not just hear them. But no matter how well you think you’ve mixed your drums there is a test worth putting them through to make sure you’re on the right track.
Turn Down The Volume
Hopefully you are aware that mixing at loud volumes is a bad idea. In fact, mixing at lower volumes will almost always get you a better mix. But this is especially true when it comes to mixing drums. With the speakers nice and loud, even a monkey could make drums sound awesome. The lows and highs get hyped and you “feel” the drums pounding. It’s an illusion.
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The more you mix a song the more confused you’re likely to become. Your ears start getting compressed, you lose perspective on your EQ balance, and you can easily fool yourself into thinking your mix sounds better than it really does. What you don’t want is to deliver a mix to a client (or share your own music to the world) that actually sounds worse than you thought it did.
So how can you avoid this issue? With some simple reality checks. Today I want to share three that help me out tremendously.
Listen On At Least One Other Speaker Setup
One of the smartest things you can do when mixing is to take breaks from your primary monitor setup and check the mix on something that sounds totally different. Every speaker and headphone has a different EQ response so you’ll get a different “color” of your mix on different systems. As will the rest of the world.
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The challenges of mixing in a home or project studio are many. From acoustic issues, to lack of speaker variety, to noisy roommates, we can find ourselves buried in headphones and turning out unbalanced mixes. The VRM Box from Focusrite is supposed to fix all of that.
The Answer To All Your Problems?
Since Focusrite is a company that makes great gear for pros and home users alike, I trust what they make. Plus this device has looked so unique as it tries to solve a specific part of the mixing equation. So I had to pick it up and use it. But is it a magic box that can instantly make you a better mixer? Below is my complete video review, including my final verdict of whether this is something you need.
The best mix engineers are the ones who’ve made the most mistakes. There’s nothing shameful about making mistakes really, it’s all part of the process. My goal for you, however, is to help speed up the learning curve a bit by pointing out what I think are six of the most common mistakes in mixing happening all the time. If you can eliminate these mistakes, you’ll be well on your way to making better mixes. Be sure to check out part 1 and part 2 of this post series for the first four mistakes, then come here and read the final two!
Mistake #5 – Not Taking Breaks
The more you mix the more you come to realize that you simply can’t trust your ears at all times. The “golden rule” of audio, that if it sounds good it is good, only applies if your ears aren’t shot. Unfortunately our ears aren’t consistent like speakers or microphones, they hear things differently depending on the time of day, how tired they are, and even the moisture in the air. Our ears are literally made of drums, that change constantly. The only way to gain perspective on your mix is to take frequent breaks.
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