3 Essential Mixing Tips from Warren Huart
Today, I’d like to talk about my top 3 mixing tips. These, I believe, are the three most important things that I think about when I am mixing a song.
Number one, the most important thing for me is to identify what is driving the song. Now, that can be rhythmically based, such as an incredible drum groove, or it can be instrumentally based, such as a piano.
Now obviously, I have been truly blessed to work with some incredible musicians. I’ve had the privilege to work with The Fray on their first two albums, and their main song writer in the band is the singer who plays the piano. So very often, it’s a piano based song, and that was the main driving force, not only in the mixing, but in the recording of the track to have everybody play with the feel of the piano.
When I worked many years ago with a band called The Thrills from Ireland, Dave Sardi was the producer. Loved the piano players feel, and when we were choosing takes of bass and drums, we actually chose them based around the scratch piano. Whatever was feeling really good with a scratch piano, because the piano track felt so good, and when it came to mixing, the piano was featured relatively heavily, considering the band was a guitar based band.
So that is an instrument based idea. Obviously, you’ve got bands like rock bands that have incredible guitar riffs that carry the song, and you may feature that, or not so much feature, because when I say this, it’s not necessarily about making it the loudest thing in the mix, it’s about identifying things that support with it.
So if, in the case of The Fray, it’s a Piano driven song, it’s not necessarily about maybe turning up the piano so it’s so loud, it’s about finding the things that groove and help the piano, and vice versa, and just create that illusion of the song moving really, really well.
So it’s really important to identify what’s driving the song. It can also be, of course, a loop. It could be an incredible drum loop. It could be, believe it or not, a shaker part. It might be that there’s just something about that shaker where you just push it a dB or two up, and you’re like, “Oh.” The whole song grooves.
So if you can, spend some time sitting back and listening and find out what is driving the song.
Number two, trust your ears. This is a big one. I get a lot of emails, a lot of questions, a lot of comments about, you know, what frequency should I boost, you know, how should I compress this, how much compression. I think all of these things are massively important, and very relevant, and there is so many YouTube channels and people out there telling you the right way and the wrong way to do things.
Firstly, there is no right way. There’s definitely lots of wrong ways, but there’s no right way to do it. So when I say trust your ears, trust your ears. I think that we acquire the ability to hear certain frequencies after we’ve been doing this for a certain amount of time.
What I mean is like, I might be able to pull up a vocal and go, “Oh, there’s too much 700” and pull it out. Quite often, there’s 700 or 600, which is just a little nasally in a vocal, and that’s very easy to pull out, because I can hear it immediately, but trust your ears, because if something sounds thin and weedy to you, then it’s thin and weedy. If something sounds bombastically bottom end-y and blowing up the mix, then it’s blowing up the mix.
Just because somebody says in a video or a blog or something that you shouldn’t high pass something, ignore that. Do what is best. If it feels like you do have to high pass that bottom end going crazy, then high pass it. If it feels like you should boost some low ends to do the opposite because it sounds so thin, then boost it.
Trust your ears, because everything is recorded by different people, heard in different ways, with different pieces of equipment, and none of us do things the same way, and none of us hear things in the same way. So when you encounter a problem that you’re hearing, that’s something you’re hearing. So trust your ears. Don’t just do things because somebody told you how to do it.
Even if it’s me. Even if I’ve given an example of how to do something, it may not work in a certain circumstance. Do what instinctively feels good to you, and you will actually get great results, and you will also help yourself to feel more confident in what you do.
Number three. Don’t be afraid to have instruments be supportive only. It’s not important to have everything up at the same volume all of the time, which means just hearing an instrument, you know, at the same level as other instruments will not give you a good mix, it will just give you a balanced mix of lots of instruments playing at the same time.
Sometimes instruments are just meant to be supportive, but more importantly, as we were talking about in point one, maybe we identify, say in a piano/vocal song, the piano is driving the first verse, but maybe when the chorus comes in, some rockier guitars come in, and it’s okay to duck that piano down so it supports the guitars.
We’ve already established the piano groove in that first verse, and then the first chorus comes in, and we might want to lift it with some more aggression, and in come the rock guitars. Then maybe the second verse is a compromise between the now introduced guitars and the piano, and you find ways of blending those things so it features the guitars here, but still has enough drive with the piano.
This is where real mixing comes in. It’s not about just having everything be at the same level all times. It’s not even necessarily about hearing everything at the same time.
For instance, I’ve made rock records — like proper rock records as an engineer with well known producers, and they would put down octave piano parts. So for instance, it would come up to a heavy rock chorus, and it would be like, [imitates guitars], and believe it or not, we had octave pianos going, [imitates piano]. They were blended in with the guitars.
Could you hear them? Did you know there was a piano in them? No, but if I muted the piano on our mix, suddenly the guitars didn’t sound so fat. So it’s not important to have everything be the same level, and it’s not important that everything be individually audible and distinguishable.
Every instrument will have a different role to play. Don’t just mix everything at the same level. Unless it’s like, three things. Obviously, tambourine, vocal, and piano, you want to hear the tambourine, you want to hear the vocal, you want to hear the piano, but in a big rock song where there might be a piano playing, maybe the piano drives the first verse, and it becomes supportive with the guitars in the first chorus.
These are the things that are important to know. It’s about identifying the instrument that’s driving the song, but then understanding its role. Sometimes it’s pushed up, sometimes it’s pushed down. So don’t just fall into the trap of making everything the same level the whole time.
It can get a big, loud, slamming mix when you do that, but you might find it very uninspiring and unimaginative. So this is where volume automation and pushing and pulling different instruments and featuring them become really, really important.
So please, as ever leave a bunch of comments and questions below. Those three things are the three top things that I look for when I’m mixing. I need to identify what is driving the song, what’s the feel of the song, how can all of my instruments be supportive of each other, what do I feature and when do I feature those instruments. Most importantly, I trust my ears.
It’s one of the biggest things that I had to overcome, because the most amount of mixing mistakes I ever made was when I didn’t trust what I was hearing, and I was just doing things that I thought you were supposed to do.
So trust your ears. If something doesn’t sound right to you and you think it needs to be changed, then trust it. Trust your instincts, and make the correction, and you will learn so much from that experience, and you’ll do things that make more musical sense than just doing things because you think you’re supposed to.
Please leave a bunch of questions and comments below. Thank you ever so much for watching. I love your comments. I learn so much — as much from you as you learn from me, and I love this community, and thank you for being so supportive and so positive in your comments.
Have a marvelous time recording! Thank you.