Investigate Your Favorite Music For Mixing Clues

2012 Sep 14, 2012

Here’s a fun mixing exercise: go listen to your favorite music. But don’t just lazily listen and enjoy it, listen with a purpose. Specifically today I want to give you three things to be listening for when you crank up your favorite tunes. I want you to investigate these recordings/mixes like they are a crime scene, looking for clues to how they got a great mix. Once you’ve solved the mystery, you can implement what you’ve learned in your own mixes. Let’s dive in.


Via theilr Flickr

Where Did They Pan Things?

One of the best things you can do is to decipher what panning decisions were made in the song in question. You’ll learn this the best by listening in headphones and then writing down what you hear. Where did they pan the guitars? What about the drums? Are the cymbals and toms out wide or closer to the center? Is the percussion up the middle with the snare drum or out wide? Are the harmonies up center with the lead vocal or out wide?
I’m so surprised sometimes by songs that I’ve loved for a long time, to discover that the panning is not what I would have thought from memory. One example is the Red Hot Chili Peppers on their album Californication. That album has some powerful, energetic funk rock tunes, but as it turns out, 95% of the tracks are panned up the center in mono 95% of the time. Crazy!

How Much Reverb Did They Use?

As musical trends come and go it’s important to pay attention to the drift in use of time based effects like reverb and delay. At one point (during the decade of my birth) using a lot of reverb was the norm. Before then things were kept as bone dry as possible, and things have swung a bit in between these days. What matters to you is what do you hear on tracks that you like?

Listen specifically to two things, the lead vocal and the snare drum. How wet do they sound? Does the snare crack and ring or is it close and dry? Does the lead vocal sound like it is in a small room or a large hall? Does the vocal seem to have reverb or delay on it? This is critical because they can sound very different. Analyze the reverb treatment on a mix and take note of what you learn. This will help you when you are making reverb decisions in your own mixes.

How Is The Song Arranged?

This has to be one of the most helpful things you can learn from a pro mix/recording. Pay super close attention to what instrumentation they used (and when throughout the song it was used) to make that track pop. Do you hear electric and acoustic guitars? Do you hear piano or keys? Do you hear tambourine or shaker tracks? Are there string parts?

Again, you might be surprised to hear that your favorite hard rocking tune with walls of distorted guitars actually has acoustic guitar on it. You might be shocked to find that hip hop tune has violin and piano on the bridge. You’ll also learn how a pro uses arranging to keep a song interesting from first note to final outro. This will help you in future recording sessions (knowing what to record that’s missing) as well as when mixing (what to take away at certain points). A good mix is a well arranged mix.

Get Investigating!

So now it’s up to you. Pick up your favorite playlist of tunes, slap on some headphones, and grab a pen and paper. It’s time to pick up on some mixing clues from the pros out there. Make notes of what you learn and then turn around and use it on your own projects. You’ll see improvement, I promise.

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