4 Ways Matthew Weiss Improved His Mixing in 2015
Happy New Year! … or a week later depending on when this article came out [editor’s note: two weeks! wooo]. Regardless, you might be reading this in July of 2020 — but either way: Happy New Year. To me. Because I’m writing this on January 4th of 2016.
Anyway, 2015 was a great year in my own personal development as an engineer. I bought some fancy shmancy gear. I linked up with some amazingly talented and creative artists. And, perhaps most importantly, I stepped my game up significantly.
What’s really cool is that I can actually pinpoint specific changes I’ve made in my own mixing that have led to those improvements. And now I want to share them with you.
1. Rethinking Balance
For the longest time I was on this kick where balanced meant everything sounded like it was in “the right place” in terms of levels.
What I’ve come to internalize is that it’s perfectly okay, and usually preferable, when there is some element that is just dominating a mix. This is something I’ve “known” for a while, but something I’ve had trouble internalizing because my instinct is to make things feel balanced.
In reality, the fun of a mix is making something too big and making the other elements work in that frame.
A good example of what I’m talking about is “Chandelier” by Sia. In the chorus, check out how loud the buzz bass is (specifically the buzz part), and how loud and wide the low string pad synths are. They are absolutely swallowing the mix and it’s awesome.
2. Unsymmetrical Panning
Similar to my instinct to balance things nicely, I had this compulsion to have symmetrically weighted panning schemes. I’ve been consciously breaking away from that.
Disproportionate sides are perfectly fine — and in fact — it’s part of what makes a mix feel “wide.” And “wide” is a key part of what makes something sound “big.”
In previous years, if I had three guitar parts during a verse I would usually pan one hard left, one hard right, and one straight up the middle. Nothing wrong with that. But now I’ve been experimenting with panning the third one out from the middle or even into a hard left or right position. Yes it sounds a little disjointed at first but that’s just my gut telling me “the sides aren’t even, nooooo.”
A cool example of this is “Streamline” by System Of A Down. In the verses there are two takes of the finger-picked clean guitar, but the one panned right is significantly brighter and louder. Similarly in the chorus, the heavy rhythm guitar on the left is bolder and mid-rangier than the one on the right and the right one has a brighter tonality. The string section hangs a little left throughout the song. The guitar solo is panned out 50% left, while a new cello section comes in leaning right. The end result is a stereo image that never feels “even,” but always feels wide and exciting.
3. Organizing My Primary Bass Range
I’m a sub guy. I always have been. Like a 30-60Hz kind of man. To my own credit, my mixes have had a really dynamic and present sub range for a while. But, I’ve sometimes erred on the side of under repping my primary bass range — that 80-200Hz range. Lots of stupid useless stuff happens in this range, but it’s also the clearest representation of the bass.
I tend to be of the mind that I like every bass element pushing the sub, but in reality I’ve been getting a much bigger, more musical mix when I allow one or two elements to work the sub and let things like bass guitars just live in their proper place.
A great example is “It’s Time” by Imagine Dragons (another Manny Marroquin mix). The bass has a ton of presence in its primary range, and while it does extend into the sub range, most of the sub energy is coming off the kick. There’s also some nice floor toms and stomps jumping around that range as well. What we end up with is a very big low end.
Part of this is also accepting that perfect clarity won’t and shouldn’t always exist in the low end. The bass guitar dominates the low end and slightly masks all of the other low end elements, but this sort of harkens back to point #1.
4. Bolder Automation Choices
I’m sure I’m not the only person to face this hurdle — but automation always feels more dramatic when I’m doing it, and significantly subtler when I’m casually listening.
In other words, I might do a 1 dB jump on a shaker to pick up some energy halfway through a verse. When I make that move it feels significant. But when I listen an hour later, I barely notice it. I come back and do a 3 dB jump and it sounds like it’s way too much. Listening later, it’s just enough to guide my ear where it needs to go and provide that drive and excitement.
A couple good examples to check out are “Didn’t Know You” by Karmin (mixed by my buddy Andrew Dawson) and “Gods And Monsters” by Lana Del Rey. In the former just check out the level leap between the verse and the chorus. If I were to take a pot shot guess I’d say the difference is about 3-4 dB RMS.
In “Gods And Monsters” listen to the movement of the strings. Specifically the difference between the Verse B part and the Chorus A part. Then listen to the level of the bass between the Chorus A and Chorus B part. Additionally, going back to the strings, listen to the level of the strings between the first Chorus A, and the second Chorus A. The strings are steadily climbing throughout the song. If I were to guess the level difference between the strings from the first verse to the last chorus, I’d guess about 10 dB.
My main mantra has become “change is fun.” The more a song moves around the more fun it is for the listener.
How have you improved your mixes over the last year? I’d love to hear some ways you’ve grown, so please share in the comments below!