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4 Powerful Mixing Tools You Didn’t Know You Had

When we think of mixing tools we generally think of compression, EQ, reverb, and distortion. In reality, we have a lot more tools at our disposal, none of which require any specific plugins. We have an arsenal of compositional tools that we might be ignoring. And yet, these tools are every bit as powerful as any signal processor.

1. Timing Adjustments

At the end of the day we are trying to win the hearts and minds of the youth. And we do this by creating an experience that ingrains itself in the listener’s ear.

huge part of this is the rhythmic feel of the song. Timing changes affect the groove. When something lays right in the pocket, one can’t help but bounce to the beat.

Timing can affect feel. When an element is rushed it can feel stressful or jumpy. When an element is laid back it can build anticipation or give a relaxed feeling.

Nudging elements in time can augment or even fix these qualities. In fact, the next time something feels like it isn’t blending with another element, try listening for the timing — particularly elements that have a slower attack. It’s harder to identify the timing of crescendoing elements, but if it’s off, no EQ or level choices will ever get it to feel like it blends.

The “nudge” function is surprisingly powerful.

2. Variation

Variety is the spice of life. It’s also the spice of mixing. As human beings, we are naturally programmed to react to change. We have an innate kinetic sense that reacts to variation. This is why automation is such a powerful tool.

Everything is controllable through automation: level, tone, dynamics, width, effects, reverb and more. There’s so much that can be changed with automation, it would be impossible to list everything without writing an entire book. But when you’re listening to your mix, try to make sure the changes occurring on a mix level are complimenting what’s happening on an arrangement level and working with the story of the record.

Move your pan positions, levels, push your distortions a little harder or cool them off to follow the lyrics, ride your delay returns — make sure the record goes somewhere.

3. Tension And Release

One of the most powerful forms of variation is the creation of tension and the subsequent release. This shifting balance is a big part of what initiates an emotional reaction in the listener.

If something is out of balance for a long period of time, listening to it becomes tiring, but if it’s out of balance for a short period of time, the listener feels tense.

This is why builds and risers work so well. It’s a musical element that briefly creates discomfort. A blast of white noise is almost painful to the ear. It masks everything in the mix and forces the listener to keep with it. This also creates tension.

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Similarly, if all the top end suddenly leaves the record, the listener quickly misses it and wants it back. The release is when we give the listener what they want. We take the white noise away and suddenly the record is back, better than ever. We restore the top end and suddenly the listener breathes a sigh of relief and appreciates the record anew.

The manipulation of tension and release is one of the most powerful tools in all of music, and the mix is no exception.

4. Augmentation

Lastly, the mix is an extension of the production and nothing is truly off limits. That means dubbing in or removing parts. Now, some people will say that is not the mixer’s job. Fair enough.

That said, I get paid a lot of money to do it … so from my perspective, it sure as hell is part of my job if I feel it’s necessary. The way I conceptualize this aspect of mixing is to start from the assumption that the producer got it right. What’s in there is exactly what’s supposed to be there when it’s supposed to be there: unless it’s hard to ignore otherwise.

If the drums aren’t hitting, I will find samples to tuck in or even replace to get them to hit right. If the background vocals aren’t feeling full enough, I will light that mic up myself if need be.

Whatever it takes to make the record work. I’m sure there’s a whole internet full of folks that will talk smack on this little section, but again, my job is to make the record work by any means necessary.

Adding or taking elements out is something that should be handled with care and awareness of the client — but it’s a powerful tool and should be considered as part of our arsenal.

The bottom line is we need to look at a record in its whole. As mixers, we’re effectively the last people that have access to the nuances of the record and the last line of defense against losing the listener’s attention. Not only do we need to think about tone and dynamics, but also time and arc, ebb and flow. Time to sell that song!

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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is the recordist and mixer for multi-platinum artist Akon, and boasts a Grammy nomination for Jazz & Spellemann Award for Best Rock album. Matthew has mixed for a host of star musicians including Akon, SisQo, Ozuna, Sonny Digital, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development and 9th Wonder. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com

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