If you want to turn out great mixes, there are only two tools that you really need to get it done: an EQ and a compressor. These plugins are what I call the power tools of mixing. Sure there are a lot of other fun effects and tools to use like reverb, distortion, and automation, but at the end of the day if you can get EQ and compression right, you can get a great mix. And if you don’t get them right, nothing else is going to help.
Via Mark Hunter Flickr
Use EQ To Clean Up The Mess
No matter how well your tracks were recorded, when it comes to mixing those tracks together there is always a mess. A sonic mess. So many instruments (vocals included) have frequency overlap. They share many of the same frequencies in the audio spectrum. This creates a masking or covering up effect that takes away from the beauty of your tracks.
Your first job is to use an EQ to strategically remove both offensive frequencies (low rumble, muddy mid range, biting highs) and overlapping frequencies in multiple instruments. By taking away what you don’t need you instantly reveal what’s great about your tracks. Take a kick drum for example. By removing any low mid mud you instantly make the kick drum seem to have more bottom as well as click up top. Think of EQ as your chisel on a beautiful slab of marble stone, cutting away to reveal art underneath.
Use Compression To Contain And Create Energy
After cleaning up the sonic mess with EQ you can benefit greatly from tasteful compression on your tracks to do two things: contain the energy in overly dynamic instruments (say a powerful vocal) and to bring out more energy in a otherwise flat sounding track (perhaps a rhythmic acoustic guitar or piano). Compression is your best friend when it comes to making things pop in your mix and not letting one track takeover another.
There are two main ways I like to use compression and they both rely on very different attack settings. You can get wildly different results with the same compressor when used in these two ways. Using a faster attack style of compression on tracks like your snare drum, can allow you fatten up the signal. While using a slower attack an make a vocal or guitar pop out of the speakers a bit more.
It All Adds Up, So Be Subtle
Now even though I think of EQ and compression as power tools for mixing, I must caution and encourage you to use them subtly. Don’t think of them needing to completely transform the track in question, rather use them to subtly improve that track relative to the others. A little subtractive EQ and tasteful compression on 30+ tracks can add up to a HUGE result.
It’s one of those things that you don’t notice as much as you’re doing it, but if you were to bypass all the EQ and compression plugins at once you’d hear your mix fall apart. Trust that the process is working and always compare it to what it sounded like before and you’ll go far!