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10 Tips for Creating Better Mixes (Part 3 of 5)

Enrique: Tip numero quatro, si? We go to tip number four. Tip number four to me is something that we have neglected up until now?

Jonathan: Yes.

Enrique: Which is gain staging?

Jonathan: Paying attention to your levels, you haven’t even thought about it! It’s interesting!

Enrique: Yeah, I know! Have any of you guys at home been going, “Ah, eh, uh, what is up with volume?”

Jonathan: Right. We call it level.

Enrique: I said that it’s a lot of craft and a lot of science, but it’s in the service of emotion and art, right? So for me, purposefully, I try not to think about that end of the science, up until I get to this point.

You know, obviously, I’m going to look at the Master Fader and see if it’s Christmas tree — like a Christmas tree lighting up.

Jonathan: At some point, you’d hear it, too. It would upset your sense of balance, or your ability to turn anything up! [laughs]

Enrique: Totally. So because that’s been good, I go and now, I save that moment for now. One thing that I will say at this junction is that I’m looking ahead at what’s going to happen next. I know that I’m going to have to do a little bit more infrastructure, I’m going to have to buss some of these families of instruments to aux sends, so I can combine a lot of this audio to say, all of my drums are going to come out of a stereo aux.

Jonathan: So some people think of these as busses that might turn into stems. It’s that kind of signal flow?

Enrique: Exactly. And you know, maybe I have these four guitars in the chorus that I want to put one instance of a stereo EQ instead of four EQs. So this will happen.

So the first thing that I do is I go and following the gain staging thought is I go to the loudest part of the song. So I know that the loudest part of the song happens to be the entrance of the chorus. If I go and just loop that, I’m going to go to my Master Fader and see what my read — whew! Look at that. Already, it’s telling us that something is a little hot.

Jonathan: Your mastering engineer is going to be pissed.

Enrique: I know, look at that! Eh, eh, eh. So let’s listen.


Amazing! [laughs] We are distorting by 4.6. I’m sorry.

Jonathan: Not yet, you’re not.

Enrique: Exactly. So, the thing that I want is to leave myself some headroom. I can anticipate that when I start adding EQs and compression and things, it’s only going to get louder.

Jonthan: Mmhmm.

Enrique: So the cool thing that I have is a balance that rocks. It’s musical, groovy, and I need to leave that super safe. All I need to do is give myself some headroom.

How much headroom? I like to leave myself at least 8dB of space. I find that when I work at 24-bit with 24-bit audio, about 8dB of headroom is a healthy amount of space to grow into. So what I do is I select everything, grab my entire balance, bring it down until I can calculate that I will leave these 8dB, but I obviously need to keep my Master Fader at unity gain. At 0dB so that I don’t condition everything that is being summed into it, if you will.

So if I have plus 4.5, let’s say, and I need to have 8, I need to bring it down by about 12dB or something, so I grab my Master Fader — pardon me, I’m going to select all, I’m going to grab every one and bring everybody down by about 12dB. Boom.

Now, I’m going to grab my Master Fader, put it at zero. We’re going to reset this.


Almost! 7.4, we’re doing awesome. So I’m going to grab this guy again, and I’m going to give myself almost another dB, put that back to zero.


That’s perfectly fine for me. So now I have safe guarded my musical balance that I have going on and my engineering side is happy, and my mastering engineer is going to be happy down the road.

Jonathan: And you’re going to be happy, because your mastering engineer is going to be happy.

Enrique: Exactly. That’s right. [laughs] So that’s the thing that I do to give myself some headroom. Can you think of anything else that might pertain to this as worth thinking ahead that we’re going to master this at some point?

Jonathan: Well, I did love the fact that you called out, so always run 24-bits or greater, the signal processing will happen at a greater bit-depth anyway, but you can play — you can safely leave yourself headroom, because at 24-bits of dynamic range, we’ve got lots and lots to play with. So I agree.

Enrique: Awesome.

Jonathan: I endorse this message.

Enrique: So the last thing that I’m going to do in this tip is that now that we have brought everything down, we have enough headroom, we’re good to go, now we can have our bussing happen, because if you do the bussing previous to this, you would be turning the volume down twice. Both on the tracks that are separate, and on the busses, and it would get really confusing, so it is not, again, until I do this that I then go and do all of my bussing. Does that make sense?

Jonathan: Yeah.

Enrique: So if I was going to do — let’s say I’m going to do my drums. I know for sure that I’m going to have one stereo aux that all my drums are going to come in, but I know — I’m anticipating that I’m also going to parallel compress the drums, and then I love to grab those two and treat them as one.

Jonathan: Mmhmm.

Enrique: So again, I have my dry drums, I have my parallel processed drums, and then I want to treat those two as a package. So I’m going to create three stereo aux inputs. So this is going to be just drums, my next one is going to be drums parallel, and my next one is going to be drums all.

Then I’m going to set, let’s say, hypothetically, buss 1 is going to be for my clean drums, buss 3 and 4 is going to be for my parallel, and then buss 5 and 6 is going to be my drums all, right?

Jonathan: Mmhmm.

Enrique: So I’m going to grab all of my drums, and I’m going to put them out of busses 1 and 2. Oops, I totally — and you can’t undo that! Eh, eh, eh. If the people from this DAW are listening, this would be a great feature to undo busses.

Jonathan: I’m sure they will, because you asked.

Enrique: Thank you. So you know what this is a great moment for?

Jonathan: No, tell me.

Enrique: Taking the next turkey out of the oven. So let’s go to the finished…

Jonathan: Aha! Voila!

Enrique: So let’s go to the finished version so you guys can see this in action.

Jonathan: There we are.

Enrique: So there we are.

Jonathan: Show us the mixing desk. And there they are.

Enrique: Yeah. So if we go back to the drums where we were a second ago, we have all of the drums going to here. I’m just going to pick one. You see that all the drums are going to drums. At the same time, they’re going to this other drum parallel, and so you see that here I have drums, I have drum parallel, which I’m muting, because I’m not quite there yet in the mixing stage, and then you see that the output of these two goes to my drum all.

If you can — if you guys can take a quick scan, see that for every instrument that is either stereo or that needs to be combined, I’m doing this the whole way through.

Jonathan: Fantastic.

Enrique: I have a curve ball though.

Jonathan: Really?

Enrique: Yes. Check this out! What do you think this is?

Jonathan: That looks like a submix of your entire mix! It’s all of your drum busses bussed to a sub buss.

Enrique: Crazy stuff. So this is segueing us to the next tip. To just say two words about the submix is summing into this submix. So you see that my drums all go to the submix. Then you see that if you come here anywhere, you see that here, these guitars are grouped to this aux track, which is then going to the submix, so if I play the mix…


I can obviously —


— mute the whole mix. But there’s another thing that you should notice. Are you noticing anything different from just a moment ago?

Jonathan: Only that we’re talking about submixes.

Enrique: It doesn’t sound as exciting as maybe it did a moment ago, because it’s quieter. So see, we went all and did all these steps, and got headroom, and brought everything down, and now I have headroom, and I hit play, and it kind of sounds like a bit of a bummer because it’s not as loud, and loud feels better, I guess.

Check this out, you ready?

Can you guys, can you follow my finger? Woah. Woah. I’m turning the volume up of my playback, and I’m back to where I started.

Jonathan: You set me up. You totally set me up for that.

Enrique: So it feels like a small detail, but I feel like maybe for people that are starting out, they go, “Oh, now I have headroom and it sounds like a bummer.” You guys have to anticipate that this is going to get mastered and all of this stuff, so just bring the volume up.


Cool. So now we have our submix, and why do we have a submix? One, so that we can mute everything, but two, because as you were maybe suggesting a moment ago, one of the things that I find is super tough is that we’re always going to get tired. We’re going to spend hours, and hours, and hours, and hours doing this stuff, so we can count on losing our objectivity.

The second thing is sometimes, we might expect to be working in different places, so when you go to a new studio, you don’t really know what the speakers and the room sound like, so the thing that you need is some sort of instrument that you can count on that will never, ever change. That will allow you to get a very practical and quick feeling for how does the room sound, if you’re going into a new space, or you need to be able to check if you’re getting tired and you’re starting to just change your mix, and making radical just tweaks after nine hours of mixing.

Why? You spent nine hours building it? Maybe it’s just your ears are starting to fold. You know? So what do we do? We bring in the reference mix. Dun, dun, dun.

Jonathan: Ah, it sounds like tip number five!

Enrique: It is tip number five. A reference mix. Using a mix that has the following cues.

One, full frequency spectrum. You want something that contains information low in the 40Hz region, and something high in the 18kHz region.

You want — basically, you’re going to want your mix to cover the entire canvas, right? So you want to paint it and use the entire canvas. You want something that has — that reaches to those extremes, so that you can compare your song to it. One.

Two, you want something that is wide stereo and that also has something in the center. Why? So that you can assess if maybe, the speakers are not balanced quite right, and you want to make sure that the left is the left and the right is the right.

That sounds super simple, but sometimes you come into studios and that’s not the case. [laughs]

Jonathan: Never!

Enrique: Yeah, never. And personally, I want something that’s not crushed in mastering. That just breathes. It has dynamic range. Something that I can hear quiet things, to hear if there’s any issues. I also want to have loud, punchy information, so that I can make sure that my speakers are — that the cones are not tired and fatigued. Does that make sense?

Jonathan: Okay, yeah. So you’re choosing a reference to test the playback system, among other things?

Enrique: Yes, test the playback system and double check me.

Jonathan: Right.

Enrique: The — we’re going to use the reference mix to also start helping us with covering that whole entire real estate. It’s another great tool. So here we have a song, and what I’m going to do is I’m going to import a track.

And let’s see… I’m going to import my reference mix, which I have here, which is Los Amigos Invisibles. So this song is actually a song that I’m producing called, “Contigo,” and this is a track that I know like the back of my hand, because I’ve been working on it, and it’s been mastered, and it sounds great.

The thing for you guys is that you guys might not have a song that you have done which has all of the cues that I said. Go find something that is professional. Go find something that is awesome. The key is, don’t find a song that is awesome. It’s not finding a great song, it’s finding a great sounding mix, with all of the qualities that I just said.

So I’m going to copy that into my session, I’m going to import it.

Jonathan: Are there resources out there that you can sort of say to somebody, “This is the kind of place you should look to find those songs”? You know, especially — I think that experienced mix engineers are accustomed to this, and they probably have their rack of stuff that they go to, but for somebody that hasn’t really had enough experience to know — or to feel confident about assessing what’s a great sounding mix, any thoughts about how you go about…?

Enrique: It’s a great and tough question, because I find that you could go to any of the reputable websites on audio geekery, and type in, “What is an amazing reference mix?” and of course, you’re going to get things like, “Babylon Sisters from Steely Dan.”

But with all due love and respect to Babylon Sisters and Steely Dan, does it do — does it fulfill the requirements that I said? Of course it does. But will it stand up to this song? No.

So I think it’s a little bit of trial and error. You have to go and listen and just listen acutely. I think that the place to start is divorcing yourself from is it a good song or not?

Jonathan: Okay.

Enrique: So now, we’ve brought in the song, and as you can see here at the top, I’m going to trim it so that it’s as long as my track. You can see that it’s — already, you can tell that it’s loud. It’s been mastered already. And here’s the trick about the submix.

Eventually, when you guys are done mastering — I mean, mixing this thing, you might want to do some overall processing on the 2mix itself. So the thing that you want to do then is grab this reference that we’re about to listen to, and compare the reference mix at that end stage to what you have.

You’re going to add maybe a little bit of compression, of EQ, and you need to have two different paths to be able to do that. So if everything is being routed to my submix, then I can put that processing on the submix, and have my reference mix just be routed to my main one and two out.

So one thing that I will anticipate is if I hit play on this right now, it’s going to be really loud.

Jonathan: It will.

Enrique: So… Oops! Can’t hear it. What’s going on.


Aha! So here. I’m going to — there we go. So let’s listen to this at unity gain.


Already, the drums haven’t come in. Good morning!

Jonathan: That’s the intro!

Enrique: So what’s the obvious issue? This has been mastered, our track hasn’t. So what we have to do is bring this down and match the loudness. So what I do is I grab my entire multitrack, and I make a group. This group is going to be called something descriptive, like “Multi All.” Then, I am in solo mode, XOR so I can toggle between my group and my single track, so I can do this.

Then I go to a loud part of the song, which I already know is the chorus, and…


I bring this up to match.

[reference, switching between mix and reference]

Actually, not bad.

Jonathan: In terms of the balance and basic perspective.

Enrique: Yeah, so what I’m matching is how loud these two are. That was pretty good. Just one try, did you see that?

So, the thing is, now that I have this, then I go listen to what are the contrasts of these audio cues that we spoke about? The first one was full frequency spectrum, right?



What can you guys observe? What can you guys hear?




What I hear right off the bat is we have way too much low end, and we don’t have enough top end.

Jonathan: Mmhmm. Also, the other thing that jumps out at me, if I’m correct, is the image.

Enrique: Hm.

Jonathan: The placement.

Enrique: What about it?

Jonathan: It seems much narrower.

Enrique: Ours?

Jonathan: Yeah!

Enrique: Yeah, so that is coming up on a further installment, because we haven’t done much in the ways of…

Jonathan: I’m an advanced student.

Enrique: Thank you! So the thing that we have now that you spotted is also that we don’t have a lot of the image of this mix is not quite set. So in a way, kind of what I’m catering to is still that whole balance instinctually thing, and I’m counting on, this is going to be listened to on little laptop speakers, this is going to be listened to on maybe broken earbuds even, or coming out of a cafe somewhere.

So in mono, it sounds great.

Jonathan: Great.

Enrique: We will continue to — and I will speak about this later, but here.





And there we go. This concludes our tip numero cinco.




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