Have you ever sat down to mix a song and you began by inserting plugins and tweaking knobs randomly? I know I sure have. Why do we do this sometimes as mixers? What do we think we’re actually accomplishing by jumping in at full speed? All we’re doing is simply changing the sound. Big deal. Even my 3 year old can do that.
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Start By Listening
Before you start throwing plugins around aimlessly in a mix, start by listening to the tracks a few times. Close your eyes if you like. Identify in your mind the strengths and weaknesses of the song. How do the drums sound? Flat? Punchy? Muddy? What do the vocals sound like? Dynamic? Consistent? What does the mid range sound like? Harsh? Mellow?
If you’re really smart you might pull out a pen and some paper and begin writing down your first impressions of the tracks (even if you recorded them), because as Grammy winning engineer Dave Pensado says, “There’s only one time to hear a song for the first time.” These initial notes on the strengths and weakness of the track will in essence tell you what to do in the mix.
Clean Up The Mess
Once you’ve listened to the mix a bit and thought about what is lacking and what it’s doing well, it’s a good time to follow those notes to the problem areas first. I like to do corrective mixing first. And by this I generally mean subtractive EQ. I begin pulling out what is either hurting the mix or what’s covering up the good stuff.
Sometimes this one step alone will make your mix come together very quickly. Chiseling away at the ugly in your tracks can reveal a musical masterpiece lying just below the surface. Why jack up your mix with random plugins and blind tweaking when you can start with something as simple as intentional subtractive EQ?
Enhance What’s Left
After you’ve tightened up your mix with some junk clearing EQ, it’s a great time to enhance what’s left. You can do this with compression, saturation plugins, delays, reverbs, and even automation. This is the creative part of mixing where anything is fair game as long as it makes the song compelling and engaging to the listener.
This part of the mixing phase looks different for every mixer and every mix. But be careful not to become aimless here either. Stop and pull out your notes from your initial listen through. Remind yourself of what parts of the track you had identified as it’s strengths. Then highlight these in any way you deem necessary. This is what you liked as a listener, so it’s probable that the average listener will be drawn to those parts as well. Feature them.
Plan To Win
The big idea here is that I don’t want you to mix in chaos and without purpose. You want great mixes? Make a plan. You must plan in order to win at this thing. Have some direction. Draw up a blueprint. Outline what the mix needs and then use the tools available to execute that game plan. Otherwise you won’t know if you’re helping or hurting things and you likely won’t know when the mix is finished.
If you ever get flustered and overwhelmed, simply stop, take a deep breath, and think. You’ll go a lot further this way.