So much of the mixing process is laid down before you even begin recording. If you really want to spend less time mixing you need to record things right the first time. But one other helpful thing to consider in order to get a great mix is to understand what I call the four corners of a mix. If your song can feature these four elements, you have a good chance of getting a great mix.
Via Image Catalog Flickr
The Percussion Foundation
All songs, whether they feature drums or not, need some percussive element. Now this may be as clear as a drum kit or egg shaker, or as subtle as a plucked violin or delicate piano. But percussion is what drives music and keeps things going. When you mix a song, make sure you know exactly what is the percussive element and zero in on that part so that it is solid within itself and it is clear in the mix.
The Rhythmic Element
The core element of most music is the chord structure, and most of the time this is presented in some rhythmic instrument like a guitar or piano. This can be the “riff” of the song as well. Now you may have multiple instruments handling this corner of a mix, but it’s important to think of it as one single element. If a part is distracting from this rhythm, then get rid of it.
The Constant Pad
To compliment the rhythm element it’s helpful to have a constant of some kind. This could be a pad on a keyboard, droning out a beautiful chord. This could be strings playing long legato chords. This could be vocals that hum, or sing simple syllables in flowing chords. Whatever it is, it isn’t percussive, or rhythmic. It fills in the gaps so to speak. It can emphasize certain notes or chords that work well with the guitar or piano parts, but without taking attention away from those parts.
The Melody Or Hook
The final, and most important, piece of this four corner puzzle is the melody. This is usually the lead vocal in popular music, but can be an instrument as well. What is the melody or hook of the song that every other instrument is supporting? Make sure this element is clear, and featured prominently. Even if it’s a guitar part, it should stand out from the chordal structure you’ve already built.
Bringing The Four Corners Together
The point of all this is to view your mixes in a simpler way. When you sit down to mix, if you can draw out in your mind a four quadrant box with each of the above elements in their own corner, then you have a plan when it comes time to turn knobs and make magic happen. All of your attention to mixing detail will be dictated and put into perspective by the four corners. You will start to ask questions like:
- Is the melody clear and prominent?
- Does this instrument or part fit as a rhythmic element or a constant pad of sorts?
- Is this element contributing to or taking away from the percussion foundation that I’ve laid?
- Which quadrant does this part belong in? Or does it belong at all??
At the end of the day, you want to mix faster and with greater awareness of the big picture. Your job is to bring all of the tracks together in a way that makes musical magic and connects with the listener. Focusing on these four corners will help you do that. And if they force you to “throw” something out, bring it on. Sometimes the “mute” button is the best mixing decision you can make!