Quick Tips: Revelations in Recording & Mixing

The ability to record and mix music is no doubt a skill and an art form. Developing it takes time, and requires many “failures,” experiments and learning experiences.

To truly succeed and excel — in anything really — you have to have a hunger to sift through absorb the infinite amount of knowledge that’s out there.

I wanted to give you some quick knowledge nuggets I received in response to a question I posed on an audio engineering forum (which shall remain nameless because I hate it).

I asked them: “What’s your most memorable ‘a-ha’ moment in learning to mix and record?”

It’s difficult to pinpoint one single ‘a-ha’ moment, as many of us have them all the time — but that’s a beautiful thing.

Regardless, I think some of us have a couple that really stand out. Where we learned or observed something that just stuck with us forever, opened new doors and drastically improved our abilities.

Below is a collection of what I thought were some interesting responses to the question. I hope you learn something new from what others consider to be their memorable ‘a-ha’ moment.

  • “The moment i realized that there’s a big difference between knowing something and actually getting it.”
  • “When, after years of recording rubbish, somebody of near genius level steps up in front of the microphone. Suddenly, I’m a recording genius too.”
  • “Learning the most about the gear and tools I already have at my disposal.”
  • Compression: This is such a vast subject but getting the attack and release time is so vitally important. Compression can kill a performance or completely elevate it.”
  • “Realizing that knowing techniques and tricks doesn’t make mixing that much easier, but knowing how you want things to sound is more important. The techniques just help you get there, perhaps quicker”
  • “When I first realized that I could automate pretty much everything.”
  • “The day I turned off my computer screen. Simple, but highly effective.”
  • “The first time I recorded and sat down to mix in my newly acoustically treated room. Wow… first time I heard true seperation on my mixes.”
  • “How simply pulling out a little 300-350Hz on most close miked tracks can really make things sound more real and less muddy and boxy.”
  • Subtractive EQ: get rid of freq’s instead of adding. How many times did I try to bring out a certain range, when it would have made much more sense in the big picture to take out what I didn’t want.”
  • “Discovering Figure-8, and also hearing a ribbon mic on a distorted guitar amp.”
  • “Avoiding ‘default’ presets — whilst presets and templates can be a time-saver some of the time, they can also be a crutch and a bad habit to get into..  better to listen then decide.”
  • “When I removed all plugins from the session and found out that digital can sound decent after all.”
  • “The first time I threw up a quick mix of the raw tracks instead of attempting to dial in “the perfect kick sound” etc on each track in an a la carte fashion. It cut my average mix time in half and increased overall quality.”
  • “Getting stuck in a mix, throwing down all the faders, trashing all inserts and sends, and bringing up the faders again. Wow.”
  • “Compression. Specifically dynamic EQ’ing via sidechain compression.”
  • “You know, no matter how dynamic I get my performances to be, I find that I can always get them to another level by riding those faders (automation).”
  • “When I stopped using presets on plug-ins to mix and realized I actually knew what sound I wanted and how to get it.”
  • Room mics & distance mics can add depth and dimension to tracks, when blended in — especially with drums.”
  • “Making a quick level mix before EQ/Compression.
  • “Buying my first high-end preamps. Took those same old microphones, and mic’ed my drum kit. I fell of my chair.”
  • “When I first mixed in a well-treated room on good monitors and realized that all I needed to do was make the mix sound good in this room and on these monitors.”
  • High-Pass filters are your friend!”
  • Parallel compression allows more “natural” dynamics — and/or — use more compressors less aggressively.”
  • Musical Arrangement is VERY important to the outcome of a mix.”
  • “You can’t always fix it in the mix. Don’t be afraid to re-track it if it’s not right”
  • “Getting feedback on my mixes, even from non-musicians/engineers”
  • “There are no rules — adjust as needed.”

Please share some of your own “a-ha” moments in the comments!

Dan Comerchero

Dan Comerchero

I'm Dan, Founder of The Pro Audio Files and Quiztones ear training apps. You can find me compulsively refreshing Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google+.
  • http://www.audio-issues.com Bjorgvin

    Simple, but understanding the difference between sending and routing was a big aha moment for me.

    • http://www.theproaudiofiles.com Dan Comerchero

      definitely! Even though many of these moments are small and occur regularly.. ones like yours really open up doors to many useful techniques. (parallel processing, sub group processing, etc..)

  • http://freshaudio.ca Geoffrey

    Using Hi Cut and Low Cut filters and taking as much away as you can before altering the tone of the instrument. So much less muck, huge step towards getting everything to sit right.

    • http://www.theproaudiofiles.com Dan Comerchero

      I loved discovering that one too. I remember watching a “Mixing Electronica” DVD by Olav Bososki (http://bit.ly/a3xEWX) and I was amazed at how many HPF’s he used on various sounds to get rid of the unwanted low end clutter/masking.

    • http://www.weiss-sound.com Matthew Weiss

      Be careful with those Hi-Pass filters though. Some of them start to do some subtle but gnarly stuff – you can really lose depth and texture quickly if you’re not careful.

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  • http://arkarsenal.com Mark

    I just started learning how to mix, but the first a-ha moment I had with Ableton was figuring out how returns worked. I can’t believe how much time I was wasting trying to match up all the different settings for all the devices I was pinning to all the tracks! Plus, the degree of variation I learned to acheive in the mix is much higher than before.

    Great concept for an article, too. I bet it was fun asking all these guys what their favorite moments were.

  • Jay

    Buss Compression, whether it was on the master buss, background vocals, or all vocals.

  • http://www.cobaltaudio.com Andrew (CobaltAudio)

    Hitting the ‘mono’ button, gives you a different perspective on the mix, and makes the level balance much more critical. If you can get a good balance in mono, when you switch back to stereo the mix often sits better. Not a crucial mix tool, but a useful thing to punch in and out.

  • Dave

    Great article. My Aha moments:

    When I deleted all of my plugins except 1 parametric EQ, 1 reverb, 1 Compressor, 1 multiband compressor and a few special FXs. I’d decided on the plugins i liked.

    Keyboard shortcuts

    When I realized that it wasn’t the room or the drums that sounded terrible, it was the cheap mics.

    Session templates

    • Dave

      oh, And I have to add:

      the mono button.

  • rodoredo

    ,,,,,,,,, in chronological order:

    Understanding the why of phase issues

    Press the mono button regulary

    Almost never press the solo button

    Mixing into a compressor

    Substractive eq

    Parallel compression

    How to use a pultec type eq

    Be the coolest guy with your clients. You can make the best mixes, but they won’t come back to sit in front of a ugly face again

  • rodoredo

    oh, I forgot an important one. I always knew that but the day I respected this it was a big waw.

    0db in the analog world equals -18db in the digital world.

  • Jordan

    My big Aha! moment was the first time I moved from an analog console to a digital where I had more control of the EQ. I was suddenly able to see exactly what my EQ looked like and how it moved as I edited things. Blew me away.

  • Edwin

    My moment of revelation came when I realized that parallel compression was more than just re-routing signal but also balancing the wet/dry mix.

  • Sam

    Finding a drummer who wasn’t deaf.

  • eric graves

    My most recent “aha” moment was when I realized that I do know a lot of things about music and recording and it is up to me to apply my knowledge at the right time, but never all at once.

    • eric graves

      basically, don’t go ape shit unless you really have to.

  • aldo

    Having a pro engineer ship one of his projects into my DAW! It sounded huge and three dimensional, light-years ahead of anything i had ever done. That shamed me into making big improvements!

  • http://www.facebook.com/valerio.mina valerio mina

    when i understood that nothing is most important than the band, your idea of sound and your ears. My last recording was for a preproduction work and my only resource were a sub-floor (the box) 1 sm57 and 1 at2020, no exoteric preamps, no console, no high-end monitoring but…me and the band. Thinking at that it’s terrible but when the results they came out …i’d think “wow!”

  • http://www.kingseamus.com Thomas

    First time hearing the huge difference to the mix after using high pass filters on all the tracks that could benefit from them.

    First time routing out the ‘mics’ from BFD2 into Pro Tools aux tracks, and then slowly pulling up the OH, Room, and Ambient mics from negative infinite to taste.

    First time I finally got the concept of phase.

    When practical application of ‘attack’ and ‘release’ settings on compressors started to get demystified for me.

    First time automating feedback on a delay.

    The first time I got so into the zone in a mix that I found I had been unconsciously anthropomorphizing the tracks in my mix as characters in a kind of narrative.

  • http://www.soundcloud.com/quemusiq QueMusiQ

    Representing for the complete noobs, I started a couple years ago with a Beatmaker app, then bought a computer, then my girl gave me a Maschine, and I built from there. The last thing I got only a month ago was speakers. I’m a rapper who got into mixing. Self-taught.

    Aha moments:

    When I found out what flat reference speakers give you when trying to make a mix translate.

    When I learned that no headphones will provide you with what you need to mix. But they can serve as a POINT of reference.

    When I learned the value of the opinion of laypeople who just hear music and could care less about frequency ranges and “technique”. A truly visceral opinion.

    If you can’t get to an SSL bus compressor, find a decent emulator. The effect it has on programmed hip hop drums is astounding.

    When I realized the benefit of finding sounds I liked and dealing with them correctly versus layering garbage over garbage, hoping for a miracle.

    When I learned the value of using sends to maximize the efficiency of my computer resources.

    When I realized how to cut troubling frequencies early in a signal chain before adding compression can save you a lot of time and headaches.

    Key hip hop: when I realized that the masses of beatmakers who swear by the analog properties of an MPC were probably not the ones to listen to (because MPC’s are actually midi all-in-one samplers and not analog at all)

    Key hip hop: there is no such thing as a magical piece of gear that will turn you into Dilla, and some of the best beats you ever heard were made with the worst equipment/software ever. Learn to use what you have.

    Aha moment: music theory is key, even if you are just using samples and drums. (You have to know how the bassline should go)

    Basically, as an utter noob, every session yields “aha” moments that while many think are obvious and should go without saying, they should never go unmentioned. I bought a beat from one of the most noted BEATMAKERS in LA once, and asked for it tracked out so my engineer can set up the pro-tools session, he said “what’s tracked out mean?” the idea of separating the elements of the beat for mixing never occurred to him. If I said his name, you’d die. Some things that are second nature even to a non-producer engineer like me were alien to him, and he was 10 yrs in the game at this point.

  • http://youtube.com/cr125rmxr Troy Patton

    Here is a little trick I’ve been using lately…

    I was recording vocals and wanted to beef up the sound without a bunch of effects or anything, so I simply placed two different different microphones in front of her. I panned each mic slightly (very slightly) to the left and the right in the EQ and got a nice full sound with the varying differences of each microphone.

    Also, I really recommend the SE microphone filter.. It does a fantastic job of taking the ambient noise from a room out of the sound.

  • http://www.montreea.com Montreea

    A/Bing my mixes next to platinum artist mixes. Truth hurts sometimes. I’d much rather admit I’m not great and listen to those who are. It’s the first step to becoming great.

  • Brewster

    1. One night I realized that I was chasing channel EQs all over the map, as was my custom, and suddenly I realized that my singers voice, the SM-58 he sang into, the EQ on his channel NEVER changed their sound. LOOK TO THE ROOM EQ, the outboard stuff was setup wrong!
    2. Bass follows walls and colors the sound within 5-8 feet of them.

  • http://lettersandlights.com ErikKoodle

    When I realized for the past 4 years I haven’t been running my external preamp through a line input…I’ve been going through the first four inputs on my 003 mixer, which are also preamps. Double preamps… D’oh!

  • octopussy

    Another great post man! Curious on your room treatment. I’ve been pretty involved, reading and experimenting with this. Have bass traps and panels from reputable places. What did you do? did you pay someone to help or do it yourself? Maybe a good article on that? I would LOVE to mix in a place that translates and IS IN MY HOUSE! haha. I’ve almost given up since I don’t really have anyone where I’m at (smaller city) that is awesome enough to pay… Really would love to get your opinion!

  • bcamaroz

    Learning that no mater how long it takes, recording the source the right way the first time makes everyone’s life a whole lot easier. http://recordingengineersandproducers.blogspot.com/

  • Casey Brubaker

    When I learned that 9 times out of 10, the less plug ins, the better.

  • Pedro Martinez

    Stereo recording techniques , specially AB.

  • Joshua West

    Closing your eyes and listening.

  • Vincent Le Pes III

    Proper gain staging elevated my work faster than any other thing I’ve ever learned.

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