10 Tips For Productive Mixing
There are a myriad of articles with tips on productive mixing out there already, so why should you read this one? Because this list is
actually good (my mom liked it!). Jokes aside, here’s what’s working for me & a lot of my colleagues:
1. Listen on as many systems as you can
They key to a defined mix/master is a good translation across different systems. When your music is evoking the same emotions through a small bluetooth speaker and a pro grade hi-fi system – you’ve done your job right. When your kick is sounding tight and punchy in the car and on your EarPods, it’ll probably sound very similar in a club setting. Huge differences in character and timbre suggest you might’ve done something wrong. Get yourself at least one of those cheap bluetooth speakers and check your mix frequently to avoid bad surprises. It also has one more benefit: You’re switching from „engineer mode“ into a listener’s position which allows you to listen from a different perspective and notice things you normally wouldn’t.
There’s only one time to hear a song the first time, and I like to catalogue my first impressions because I trust them. So I’ll begin the process by pulling out pen and paper and noting down the weaknesses and strengths of a song. – Dave Pensado, Mixer (Christina Aguilera, Destiny’s Child, Justin Timberlake)
2. Listen to whatever you mix
Might sound overly simplistic, but before you even start touching faders, listen to the song from start to finish and I mean ACTUALLY LISTEN to the music itself. Find out the emotion the song is carrying. Would you mix a dance tune like a rough ballad or would you mix a characterful rock tune like a polished EDM hymn? Furthermore notice which instruments have a distinct role in a given section. Which elements make a chorus pop? Which elements make you move?
3. Get your balance right
Before you bust out your magic plugins and start cutting resonances and performing all kinds of voodoo.vst – make sure to get your basic balance right. Most of the time your humble volume/pan knobs are more than enough and might be supplemented by some eq and compression. It’s perfectly reasonable to spend another 30-60 minutes to have rough mix and roll from there.
4. Ask for a rough mix/demo
The key to nailing a mix lies in the demo/rough mix. Before you start mixing a track for someone else, ask them to send you a demo. Most of the time the artist has been living with the „demo syndrome“ for a while and is used to the way it sounds. Often clients could get disappointed if you don’t respect their work and ideas and disregard whatever thought they put behind their music already. Listen closely. Which elements are upfront? Which are more in the back of the mix?
5. Use a template
„Template“ might have a rather negative connotation aka „he’s mixing my track with a template like any other client“. That is not what I mean. Having a good template saves time and streamlines your process. Following scenario: You’re mixing a vocal and decide to add a dub delay to it. You pull up your plugin list, search for that Roland Space Echo vst, add it to a channel, set up your note values, route the vocal to it and maybe decide to add an eq afterwards to cut some highs and lows on the delay track. You spent around 12-15 clicks on an operation that could’ve been 2-3 clicks at most if you used a template. I have my stock plugins (Soundtoys!) always loaded up by default, spread over several send channels. Refine your template over time so that it suits your style and enhances your workflow. I also love having my metering plugins on my master bus pre loaded as well.
6. Use Automation
Think of it like this: Great painters lead your focus to the most important parts of their paintings with carefully chosen brush strokes. Automation is exactly like that. You shift your listener’s focus from one important element to a different one by automating. Accessible faders like the Presonus Faderport (motorized) make this process more artistic and fun. Also: automation is only limited by your imagination (not just by volume/panning).
7. Don’t use low quality mp3’s as a reference
Following scenario: The client wants their song to sound like „this one track on iTunes“. So you pull that up, download the mp3 and put it into your DAW as a reference. The problem here is, that before the reference got onto iTunes (and converted to their proprietary format), it sounded way different originally. Most of the time lacking crunchy highs and having undefined low end. So if you decide to use reference tracks – get the original, uncompressed wav if you can.
8 Take pauses
Most people will disregard this tip, although it’s definitely one of the most crucial. Your brain/hearing is an adaptive system that get’s used to (and tired) to whatever it’s focused on pretty fast. As time progresses and your ears get tired, the brain compensates for whatever problem you might have in a mix – leaving it there eventually as you might not notice it at a later point. It’s enough to take a 5-7 minute break once every 1-2 hours to refresh your ears and retain critical thinking and sharp decision making.
9. Reduce your tools to an essential minimum
The amount of compressors, eq’s, saturators and multi effect processors that are available to us right now is staggering and on the first glance it surely is an incredible
thing, but: By allowing yourself to be infected by the „vst slut“ syndrome, you simply switch your attention away from work and productivity to collecting, debating and mentally masturbating about tools. I have a go-to list of my top 10-15 plugins I use on every production and although there might be a better tool that is suited better for a certain task, I will simply grab my beloved „goto.vst“ and carry out whatever operation. Not because I can’t use that fancy plugin, but because at some point I decided that this is my goto utility – that’s it. This is a good way of learning how to achieve whatever desired result with the only tools you have and let’s be honest: You can really craft a SOLID mix with only 4-5 essential plugins + your humble volume faders & pan pots.
10. Mix at a lower volume
It’s rather dangerous to mix VERY LOUD and here’s why: First of all, your ears will fatigue way faster when monitoring/mixing loud. Also it’s easy to deceive yourself thinking your mix is bangin’ when it’s just simply super loud. Those mixes will rarely translate well and sound weak and wimpy on other systems. However if your mix sounds good at a moderate volume, it surely will translate well when turned up. Second big reason is that the room you mix in is less suspectible to be influenced by reflections at a lower volume. As soon as you turn it up, you will automatically get more standing waves and early reflections from your surroundings which can alter the perception of the dynamic and frequency response dramatically.
That’s it! Cetainly not THE definite top 10 list, but hopefully a useful one. If you want this article as a PDF (alongside with a bunch of other RAD stuff like my ebook with 50 more tips) – consider subscribing to the “Damn Good Crate” below. Happy mixing!
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