MULTI TRACK MIXING – MIXING GUIDELINES
Although there is always room for creativity in the mix, there are established routines and techniques which it pays to learn before you start to develop your own mixing style. Here are a few ‘essentials’ which you should keep in mind when mixing a pop song.
- Pan the bass drum and bass guitar to the centre, and keep them fairly dry. These elements underpin and hold the whole track together, so they’re a good place to start.
- Put the snare in the centre and then pan the rest of the drum kit. Beware of hard panning though, there’s something disquieting in hearing a drummer whose arms apparently stretch right across the stereo field! However, hard panning does work well on other percussion instruments, such as tambourine and shaker.
- Choose the decay time of any reverb effects used on drums and percussion carefully; if it’s too long you can easily lose the rhythmic drive, and because reverb fills up the spaces between sounds, it also detracts from the sense of loudness.
- Bring up other instruments to their appropriate levels, and once they’re balanced in mono, separate them out by panning. Pay particular attention to the overall stereo balance, both by ear and on your meters.
- Your lead vocal needs to be in the centre of the stereo image and well forward. If the vocal is too loud, it will sound ‘stuck on’; if it’s too quiet, you’ll start to lose out on intelligibility. Checking from outside the room is especially useful when evaluating vocal levels.
- Some instruments, especially the human voice, often require you to ride their fader throughout the mix in order to achieve appropriate dynamics. A suitable soft-knee compressor will make this job much easier and often has the benefit of making the vocal sound more exciting and punchy, but beware of over-compressing the sound (unless that’s the effect you’re after).
- Use a reverb treatment whose tonality complements the vocal, and remember — the proportion of dry signal to wet has a strong correlation with the perceived intimacy or distance of the performer.
DON’T DO THIS!
Here’s a short list of things you shouldn’t do when mixing, which I’ve compiled from (bitter) experience.
- Don’t mix when you’re tired after a 14-hour session.
- Don’t try to achieve a balance by continually raising levels, you’ll end up with no headroom and risk distortion.
- Don’t attempt to make every part sound big and impressive, your mix will sound like an aural competition. Accept that some parts are supposed to be up-front while others are in the background.
- Don’t forget to check that your mix sounds good in mono, before you start to use the pan controls.
- Don’t monitor at continually high levels, it dulls your sensitivity and quickly tires you. It can also damage your hearing, and in any event, it will alter your perception of sound for several hours.
- Don’t forget to check each signal in isolation for unwanted noise and distortion. Set up your mixer and effects gains before you start mixing.
- Don’t drown the mix in your latest favourite effect — no matter how much it cost! Most professional mixes use effects sparingly.
- Don’t attempt better instrument separation by applying lots of EQ boost to everything, the overall effect will sound unnatural and harsh. If you must use EQ, cutting always sounds more natural.
- Don’t stick to the rules if you can improve something by breaking them!
Published in SOS August 1995