6 Steps For Getting Your Best Mix Ever
Audio engineering is a surprisingly competitive arena. Us meek and mild mixers often find ourselves in head-to-head competition — or even tougher — competing against some imaginary beacon of greatness.
But this ain’t basketball. We don’t know who wins based on points. In fact, the only people who really keep score are other engineers — “the kick in that song is a 9.2 out of 10, but the vocal reverb is only a 7 out of 10.”
Most people don’t really think or judge music this way.
What makes a great mix? Well, most producers will tell you a great performance and great arrangement mixes itself. There’s a reason for this.
A great mix isn’t really separate from a great production, and a great production isn’t really separate from a great song. This mix isn’t really the balancing of production elements. The mix is facilitating the song on record.
This facilitation comes through the balancing of elements, the manipulation of tone and dynamics, and the orchestration of space.
But the whole goal is to make the listener hear and feel a song in the artist’s intended way.
We aren’t really manipulating sounds, we’re manipulating emotional cues in the form of sound. Let’s break it down:
1. Figure out the Emotions of the Song
This is the sum of the parts. When you listen to the song, lyrics and performance, there are feelings and intentions.
Now, some of them will be clear, others will be ambiguous, and some will be contrasting. But we’ll get to that. For now, the question is what should the end listener be feeling when they’re listening to the song.
This may vary from section to section. Or the feeling might come from the difference between sections.
The point is: Figure out how the song is meant to hit the listener. The more you can figure this out, the stronger of a foundation you have for your mix.
2. Figure out How to Support the Emotions
Emotions are complex. You might have a “sad” sounding piano riff. If the whole effect were sadness, you might have a sparse, dragging and/or lightly played drum part (or maybe no drums). But, you might have the sad piano riff contrasted with driving drums. This might create the feeling of fighting through something, or feeling distressed, or a host of other emotions.
Figuring out how each part interacts gives you context for your mix. If the parts contrast in feel, perhaps they should contrast tonally or dynamically as well.
Is the piano supposed to be sad — as in depressed — or sad as in haunting? Perhaps emphasizing lower tones in the former and higher tones in the latter will help convey that intention.
I can’t prescribe any kind of formula for this, that’s the beauty and subjectivity of mixing.
3. Figure out What’s Important
Once you have an idea of what and how everything is contributing to the song, you can start figuring out what is most important to the feeling and when.
This way, if you are, say, EQ’ing separate elements, you know which element is bowing out of the way of the other. If the bass has all the inside groove, you don’t want to EQ the bass to make room for the kick. Or, if you do, you want to do it because you’re turning the bass up louder than the kick.
Similarly, if the piano is expressing the feeling you want featured, and the bass is really just there for support, you probably want the piano to dominate in the record. In fact, it might even be good if the piano is masking the bass a bit in that scenario.
4. Scrutinize Your Vocals
As humans, there is nothing we understand more clearly than the human voice.
Even if the song is in a different language we hear joy, pain, anger and love fairly clearly. There is some degree of universal language that supersedes words.
Find the parts of the performance that convey the feeling, and bring those out. Check the entrance and exits of words, notes and phrases. Lots of interesting stuff tends to live there.
5. Think of Associations
Literal meaning tends to be underwhelming in a song. A literal meaning in a song would be when the performer tells the listener what to feel. It can be useful to a degree, but ultimately you want the listener to find their own emotions in the song.
One way to do this is to think of associations. An association is when something makes the listener think/feel something else. In this regard, the listener digs the emotional response out from within.
An easy example: putting an echo on something.
Echoes are often associated with loneliness because we tend to hear echos in empty spaces. If the context is right, the listener will pull that association up themselves.
6. Focus on Transitions and Variation
I asked on my Facebook page which main elements make for a great song. Almost everyone mentioned “contrast.”
We are meant to detect contrast. We have a built-in kinetic sense that we naturally use to focus our attention on whatever is changing. And we enjoy change.
Making sure these changes are well orchestrated is paramount to an effective song — primarily to keep the song engaging (at the very least).
And that’s how you make the best mix.
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