The first thing to understand about music is that it's completely subjective. You might make music for yourself, you might make music for an audience, but the audience will always form their own opinions about your labor of love. The same is true for me: some people love my work, some people hate my work. I'm fine with that.
With that said, I do believe that there are some basic concepts that (for the most part) transcend individual, subjective preferences and make the difference between a good mix and a great mix.
This is a really big one: a great mix allows every part have an important place in the sonic field within the song. The great mixes will always make every individual element shine or sing in its own way, sometimes in a way that you don't quite understand but is somehow awesome. A few surprisingly simple tips on achieving separation:
- Your mix needs to be dynamic. Some things need to get out of the way of others at the right moments to make everything equally shine at just the right time. Note that the pros automate a lot; a good mix might have hundreds or even thousands of automation moves per song.
- EQ is easily the best tool you have to help parts of your mix stick out in just the right places. Start by carving out room for each element. For example, try dipping some low end around 100 to 200 Hz in your kick and raising some low end around 50 to 80 Hz. Now do the opposite to your bass (raise low end at 100 to 200, drop low end around 50 to 80). You'll be surprised how much easier the low end of your mix is to understand.
- Cut frequencies that aren't important to a particular tone or sound to make room for others. Do this dynamically with a multiband compressor.
A great mix will always have sonic excitement, and this can be achieved in a number of ways. I've heard good mixes become great with just these simple steps:
- Add harmonic saturation to something to make it "heavier" in its own weight class. You can distort things to make them take up more space in the frequency spectrum, which in turn allows you to make that sound easier to understand and hear against others.
- Ride your faders. We're back to automation again, but hey, like I said above, mixing is automation, automation, and more automation.
Great mixes have good "space" in the width, meaning things are narrow when they need to be narrow and things are wide when they need to be wide. Don't forget to use your pan knobs – they're there for a reason. Stereo enhancers aren't even necessary here; just the fundamentals of putting stuff in the right place will go a long way.
- Keep low end in the center. Generally this helps clean up your sides.
- Make sure your snare has a great transient in the mono field, but a nice fat room ambience in the sides. Don't go overboard with the wideness.
- Move things away from the center when the vocals come in.
Ever heard a snare that was a little out of the norm or a guitar tone that sounds fresh and weird? You'd be surprised how effective it can be to just go off the beaten path. Sometimes it's fun to put yourself in a self-imposed box of limitations to see what happens. Here are some tips to stay creative:
- Try mixing a song on a board with no outboard gear. Having narrowed down your EQ and dynamics options will surely require you to make more drastic moves with your automation to achieve the proper mix.
- Decrease the number of tools you use to do a mix, or limit yourself to a select few "interesting" tools to better control the results. If you're open to thousands of tools, you might find yourself actually be less creative than ever. Some of the best music was made with an incredibly limited array of tools!
Like I said, all music is subjective, and at the end of the day, all that matters is that you are happy with the results, but I think you'll find that these principles will help take any mix from good to great. If you still find yourself struggling to make a great mix, keep in mind that it's all about your ears and your listening environment, and not about your tools. The more you rely on your gut and your ears, the better you will become at mixing. Put in the time and you will get better!
Joey Sturgis is a producer, mixer, recording engineer, programmer, writer, and performer. For a full decade, he has brought these powers to bear on nouveau strains of metalcore, post-hardcore, electronicore, and more, shaping a revolutionary new wave of hard music. Sturgis has racked up a massive list of credits for a who's who of modern cutting edge metal, channeling the raw power of bands like Asking Alexandria, Attack Attack!, Born of Osiris, Of Mice & Men, Attila, We Came As Romans, Blessthefall, I See Stars, and many more. Find him online at JoeySturgisTones.com and jsfpodcast.com.
Joey will host a free mixing master class on CreativeLive on July 16 and 17.