We all have a tendency to make mixing more complicated than it really is. On the surface (and in many publications, both print and online) mixing seems to be about turning fancy knobs on fancy plugins and using all kinds of secret moves and voodoo gear. In reality, the process of mixing is simple and can be summed up in one word: balance.
Via Brandon Flickr
You Only Have One Job
Much like Anakin Skywalker was supposed to bring balance to the Force, your job, your ONLY job as a mixer is to bring balance to the recorded tracks before you. Nothing more, nothing less. You do this with simple tools like faders, pan pots, EQ and compression. If, when using these tools you keep in mind your sole job as a mixer is to bring balance to the tracks, you will mix with purpose and clarity.
Instead of thinking you need to “change the sound” of your tracks or “fix” everything, you should think about balance. Listen to the tracks and ask yourself: Do things sound balanced to me? If not, make some adjustments. If so, leave things alone. Instinctually we know to do this. We hear that the kick drum is too loud, the vocal is too quiet, the guitars should be panned out. We grab faders and pan pots and go. This is the essence of balance mixing.
But We Get Off Track
Thinking that faders and pan pots are only a small fraction of the mixing process we falsely assume we need to do “more” to churn out a great mix. But if mixing is only about one thing, balance (and it truly is), then we should never underestimate the simple moves and we should never overestimate plugin settings other effects.
This means starting with proper gain staging and volume fader positions before moving on. Take your time with this. Relative volume of one track to the next is how you get the core of you mix in place and it affects everything else that comes after it. Spend time mixing with faders only and pretend that plugins don’t exist. It might be the best thing you ever do.
Try to bring as much balance as you can to the mix with only volume and pan and the rest of the process will come much more easily. If you find yourself wanting to jump ahead and get off track, stop. Does the track in question really need plugins? Or does it simply need to be turned up?
What About Plugins?
Understanding that mixing is truly only about balance helps you with plugin decisions. It changes the way you look at using an EQ from a “hype the track” tool to a “help this track find it’s place” tool. It also changes the way you look at using a compressor from purely a “slam this thing” tool to a “control and better position this track” tool.
Like we looked at before, you don’t want to crowd the mix box, and EQ is a great tool to stop that from happening. But those EQ decisions were framed by the need to bring balance to the mix, to get the low stuff lower and the high stuff higher. It wasn’t purely to change the sound for the sake of changing the sound.
Some Helpful Challenges
To help you go from a tweak-aholic type mixer to a focused balance mixer, here is a suggestion you can implement in your next mix. Grab a timer (on your phone even) and set it for 20 minutes. Then throw up your faders and start mixing with one simple rule: no plugins. The only tweaks you can make are to volume and pan.
Your goal? To make the mix sound radio ready. Will you get there? No. But you should be able to get pretty close, at least as close as you can with the tracks in question. The purpose of this exercise is to help you see just how powerful the word “balance” is and why it’s the essence of mixing.