2 Mix Tips That Have Nothing To Do With Plugins (and Two Bonus Tips That Might Get You Fired)
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I was working on a mix this week that I couldn’t quite get sounding right. After working for a few hours without much luck, I realized I was on autopilot. Adding processing and reaching for EQ’s with no real reason, I wasn’t really listening and reacting. Instead, I was just blindly making my usual moves. The next day when I came back to the song, I reset every channel, dropped the faders to zero and started over. This time I didn’t reach for any plugins, instead I simply focused on the balance and in no time I had the track feeling much better. Here’s a couple quick thoughts about mixing that have nothing to do with gear.
Balance Is Key
As a producer who came up in the generation of YouTube tutorials, laptops, and endless amounts of plugins, balance was sort of an afterthought. No one really talked about it. Although to be fair, I wasn’t looking that hard either - maybe because balance isn’t as exciting as reaching for that shiny new plugin.
But I find that by really focusing on balance I get a better mix every time, and often move faster!
A lot of common mix problems can be solved with balance as well.
Want a closer vocal? Turn it up!
Kick and bass fighting for space? Start with the balance before you reach for the EQ.
Trying to sit an instrument back? Don’t add reverb! Just turn it down.
Of course, you’ll still have to use processing and other techniques but as a general rule, I like to get as close as possible with balance and then reach for processing to do the rest.
Plus by doing this, you usually need fewer plugins and you'll save a lot of CPU!
If Everything is ___, Nothing is ___
This can apply to almost any area of your mix.
If everything is bright, nothing is bright.
If everything is wide, nothing is wide.
If everything is wet, nothing is wet.
If everything is loud, nothing is loud.
It comes down to context.
If you want your vocals to swim in reverb, try keeping the rest of the track pretty dry.
If the goal is a bright vocal, try rolling off the top end of the instruments.
If you want the synths to be wide, tuck your drums into the middle.
Want the drums to feel bigger? Turn down everything around them.
This principle applies most of all to level. If everything in your mix is loud, it’s actually going to sound smaller. Try picking 3 elements and making them the focus of your mix and keep everything else in the background. You’ll probably find that you get a much bigger and louder feeling mix.
DISCLAIMER: These next couple of tips could either be viewed as going above and beyond or as overstepping and potentially ruining your chances of getting hired again by the client. Communicate effectively. Be sensitive to the situation and what the client wants.
Bonus Tip 1: The Mute Button
Is the song feeling crowded? Can't get that guitar part to sit right? Trying to create space for the vocal? Or maybe you find yourself turning elements down so low you can hardly hear them?
Try muting it!
I was struggling to get the groove to feel right on a mix recently. So I muted all my drums and brought them back in one by one starting with the kick. If an element added to the groove, I would keep it. If it didn’t, I put it back on mute. By the end, I had muted a good 3 or 4 tracks and the result was much cleaner than if I would have tried to keep everything.
Bonus Tip 2: Replace
Again, be careful with this one. The point is to achieve the client's vision.
There are times where the source tracks aren’t what you need to achieve what the client wants.
If I’m mixing a hip-hop track and the reference has a kick drum that really knocks, but the kick the producer used isn’t hitting hard enough I’ll often reach for another kick and replace it.
I find if the source sound is way off the mark, you get a cleaner result and save time by replacing instead of by heaping on compression and EQ trying to make it work.
Now drums are a pretty common thing to replace or augment with samples. But what about the rest of the track?
Although it's much less common I have had situations where replacing the bass or a keys sound was needed to get the song sounding how the client wanted.
Sometimes you need to be a little heavy handed to get the mix right!
If you’re like me and are easily distracted by shiny plugins, hopefully this blog will serve as a reminder that at the end of the day there is much more to what we do! And that sometimes getting back to the basics is the best thing for your mix.