Introduction from the Editor
Many Sonarworks users send us questions about mixing and mastering techniques and a common question is “Why doesn’t my mix sound as big/powerful/clean/punchy as the records that I listen to?” Let me first tell you that this may not be anything you’re doing wrong, but it is something you can improve upon! A mix is the sum of its parts and then some. Many of us, especially when starting out, work with up-and-coming artists and producers who are also developing their craft and the productions that we work on may not contain all the elements of an A+ level production, like those of our favorite artists. Let’s face it, if everyone could produce amazing-sounding songs, competition would be crazy!.
In this article, Eli guides mixers through the process of creating a mix that improves the quality of the production to create the best mix possible. This process blurs the line between mixer/arranger/producer, but that is what we are hired to do! These tips apply just as much to the producer as the mixer. Also, as a mixer, keep in mind the intention of the original production and work to enhance the intention, not to change an apple into an orange.
Remembrance Of Things Past
Modern mixing crosses many boundaries. The once separate creative steps of writing, arranging, producing, tracking, editing, mixing, are no longer executed in separate silos. Not only do most of us, as engineers and producers, perform all or most of these tasks, we often move back and forth freely between these separate stages of creation. Music production is fluid. Anytime may be the right time to change an arrangement element, a production idea, or a performance edit,—right up until we hit that “Bounce” button.
As a mixer for other people’s productions, our role is metaphorically like that of an orchestral conductor, whose job it is to ensure that all the individual sounds and performances blend as a cohesive and musical whole and represent the producer’s intention. An audio mixer, in principle, has no control over how performances were recorded. The parts have already been committed to disk before we start our mix. Mixing tools traditionally encompass adjusting volume, panning, equalization, and adding effects and ambiences.
Modern mixers must think like arrangers and producers as we craft our mixes. It is no longer just about levels, panning, and effects. There is much more we can do to manipulate the sounds and arrangements given to us to mix. It is at this stage where our creativity separates us from any other mixer who can create a decent balance of the production.
Let’s explore some ideas that cross boundaries between mixing and producing. These are tips for mixers in situations that require some creative outside-the-box thinking, These tips should also be kept in mind by producers and arrangers so that they can produce their best efforts.
During the initial stages of a mix, we often think in terms of fixing problems, but our job is more than just making stuff sound good. We need to make things sound and feel interesting, which is not always the same thing as sounding good. We want to give our mixes character and emotion. If everything is perfectly blended and smooth, a technically perfect mix may wind up sounding dull and boring.
One technique to grab the listener’s attention is to purposely make some things a little too loud. We’ve all heard modern productions where the kick, snare, bass, or some other element, is way up front. This may not technically be proper balancing, but it sounds interesting. It grabs the listener’s attention and focuses it on what otherwise might be a relatively unexciting part. Alternatively, featuring a rhythm part can distract from, or even elevate, a boring melody.
Conversely, try making some parts a bit quiet so the listener has to listen carefully to make out precisely what they are doing. Sometimes lowering the first vocal line of the second verse forces the listener to focus again after the exciting chorus got them dancing. I can get your attention by screaming at you or by whispering at you.
Not everything in a mix has to be heard equally well. We need to wrestle the listener’s attention away from distractions, by challenging and then rewarding them with pleasing stimulus. Listen to “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke and notice how loud some percussion elements are. From a technical standpoint, this may sound like a messy mix, but the song gets its energy from the feeling of a chaotic party. The vocal floats in the mix and doesn’t need to be heard that well for the song to be felt.
We usually think of mixes as building in intensity as the song progresses and arrangements generally support this by adding new elements as the song develops. For example, we might add additional parts in each subsequent chorus to add weight, gravitas, and emphasis. Things don’t always have to get louder or fuller on the chorus, though, especially in modern EDM production. We can surprise a listener with unexpected dynamic changes.
We can shift the emotional impact of a chorus by stripping it way down. Try maybe just a lone piano or guitar and single voice. Bringing the energy way down when we expect it to build to a crescendo is the kind of dramatic device that will draw in the listener. We’ve all heard modern dance arrangements where there is a huge build-up leading to an expected climax, only to have everything drop out. This emotional shift can create unexpected intimacy to what otherwise might be a four on the floor dance hook. Listen to David Guetta’s “Titanium” and see how the chorus is actually a breakdown that builds into the big instrumental post-chorus section.
One of the elements I try to bring to every mix is finding a way to make each section feel special and enhance the build-breakdown-build flow of the song. A simple mix enhancement idea might be to drop out the bassline for the first half of the second verse. This simple mute brings the energy of the verse way down after a big chorus. Also, try to drop out the bass or drums for a beat or two just before a chorus hits. That will enhance the impact of the chorus.
Do something that the producer didn’t think about or something that surprises them. If they don’t like your idea, no sweat, but it may just give your mix the sparkle they hoped for! Pretty soon producers will look to you as a collaborator that they count on to take their production to the next level.
Producer or Reducer
As mixers, the mute button is our most underused creative tool. Not every track in a production has to be used in the final mix. Sometimes if the mix is too dense with layered sounds and doubled and tripled parts, everything becomes an aural blur. Try muting some of the non-essential components until you get to the essence of the critical elements in the arrangement. Bigger isn’t always better. Another idea to clear out clutter is to bring down a dense part, like a piano or organ after a few beats, so the listener notices the part and then it gets out of the way of the mix.
Study the musical arrangement of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry.” Listen to how the kick drum comes and goes during each section and other instruments take over the same pattern. This very simple arrangement keeps a listener’s interest by using different combinations of just the same few elements in each section of the song. Also, notice how loud the percussion effects are in the verses. As a mixer, we are free to mute tracks to create an arrangement that changes over time, especially with today’s copy/past song structures.
When it comes to doubled, tripled, and quadrupled tracks, it is essential to differentiate each part, so they each have a unique sound or character. Separating parts can be easily accomplished in the tracking stage by using different vocal approaches, adding background singers, using different mic positions, or changing guitars and amp settings.
In the mixing stage, there are other strategies to differentiate doubles. Why not try some early reflection reverbs on the various tracks to position them in different spaces. A bit of stereo delay can help as well. Use Haas effect delays for stereo imaging with 10 – 40ms of delay being plenty for this purpose. Varying the EQ, compression, and panning are also effective means of separating layered parts.
Beef Things Up
While stripping down dense layers is often useful, adding new layers to existing sounds can enhance clarity, punch, and separation. For example, one way to make drum sounds jump out of a mix is to augment the existing drum tracks with your own samples. Adding parts is easy when you are working with MIDI drum tracks, but drum replacement is still relatively simple even you only have audio tracks to work from. Drum replacement plugins like Slate Trigger or Massey’s DRT can be used to trigger your own samples or they can create midi tracks from audio tracks that can then trigger any plugin sampler or drum machine.
The goal of triggering is to layer multiple drum samples that emphasize different elements of the sound. One sample might emphasize the drum’s attack, another the body of the sound, maybe a third to enhance the tone or reverb. Chris Lord-Alge’s signature snare sound always includes the original production’s dry snare track(s) augmented with samples that provide the ambience and width that Chris desires. For toms, I often add samples of tom ring (without any attack) to existing tom tracks that lack sustain.
A quick tip for drum samples: As you get closer to the end of your mix, it may be easier to choose the perfect drum samples to complement your mix. As you gain experience mixing, it becomes easier to choose good samples earlier in the mixing process. Sometimes adding a kick or snare sample is the final touch that brings a mix to life. Don’t forget to change the sample/dry sound balances between sections for even more dynamic color.
Create Musical Layers
Layering sounds is not just for drums, it also works well with synth sounds. When programming sustained pads, layering one pad on top of another pad may simply blur the original sound. Instead, add one layer with a distinctive attack or edge, another with a unique sustain or width, maybe a third to emphasize the release or to add some motion.
This same layered pad effect can be achieved during a mix through effects or parallel mix processing, where distortion, harmonic exciters, phasers, or rhythmic gating can provide additional flavors on top of the original, unprocessed sound. Change the effects or parallel track levels between different sections of the song to provide dynamic and textural changes.
This also works for bass sounds. During production, use different bass layers with different characters. When mixing printed audio files, there are plenty of tools, like Melodyne, that can convert audio to MIDI. Most DAWs provide an audio-to-MIDI conversion, like Logic Audio’s Flex Pitch function. Use the midi info to add sub-bass or a buzzy bass to add character and clarity to a dull bass track. Alternatively, just duplicate a bass track and add a high-pass filter and some distortion to the duplicate track so it cuts through on small speakers.
Create Special Moments
It is common to have various instruments enter at different points in the arrangement. An often-overlooked means of grabbing the listener’s interest when introducing new elements in a mix is simple volume automation. Try a little volume automation bump when adding new instruments into the mix. Once the listener is focused on it, they won’t notice when you bring it back down. You can manually ride the instrument’s fader automation or draw it in with a mouse. The idea is to draw attention to a sound as it enters and then get it out of the way of the main melody or vocal.
Alternatively, you can bury an instrument and only feature it when the arrangement has space for it, like between vocal lines. That way the part seems important when it’s featured, but stays out of the way when there is no room for it. Listen between vocal lines for what instruments or groove elements can be featured in those spaces.
Experiment with extreme plug-in settings for special moments in the mix. These special moments may happen only once or twice in the entire mix but can be the most memorable aspects of the whole listening experience. Think ear candy. Like an extreme reverb on a single snare hit that emphasizes the transition into or out of a dramatic breakdown. As a mixer, this idea can really light up a moment and also impress your client. Special echoes at different moments create interest and variety—just don’t overuse the same trick!
Try a distorted bandpass filter on your drum buss during a breakdown to give the drums a whole new feeling. Sometimes a vocal counter-melody that re-enters during the last chorus of a song can be filtered so that the part is distinct but doesn’t compete with the main chorus and lead vocal. Experiment this way with any musical part that you don’t know exactly what to do with—there is always the mute button, too!
Reverse (backward) effects are another great aural cue to grab the listener. A huge reverse swell leaves us anticipating a considerable climax. Play with expectations to create a moment. Why not drop the intensity way down right at the peak of the reverse swell. Vocals, guitar chords, piano chords, or crash cymbals are all excellent fodder for dramatic reverse swell FX. Take the region and reverse it in your DAW’s sample editor. Line it up so the very end, formerly the sound’s attack – now the climax of the swell, lands right at the downbeat of a transition point. Use fades to control the entry or start of the swell.
I often take the first syllable of the first word of a verse or chorus, copy it to a new track, and print it with several seconds of reverb. I then reverse that whole sound, so that we hear a backward reverb swell that ends just as the first syllable of the word starts. This way, the backward reverb introduces the tonality of the vocal that is about to happen.
Make Parts Hyper Real
Delays are a great way of adding interest to a sound. Instead of simply slapping on a tempo-synced delay, try panning the delays. Some plugins will do this automatically for you, but it is easy enough to do in your DAW with pan automation, an LFO, or a tremolo/auto-pan plugin. Why not also filter, distort, or saturate the delays, so they get more effected on each repeat. Echo Bandit from Nembrini Audio has all the necessary tools built right in.
When mixing, it is essential to think beyond the two dimensions of left and right. Think front and back as well. Use volume automation, reverb, and even a low pass filter as a means of pushing things a bit further away. It is useful to think in terms of dark versus bright to make a sound feel more present versus farther away. More brilliant sounds feel like they are closer and more present, while darker tones feel more distant. These effects are, of course, easily achieved with EQ, but also think about the damping and diffusion settings in your reverbs. A dark sounding space feels more distant than a bright space with no damping.
It goes without saying; we need to get the foundation of a mix right. Develop a trusted and reliable workflow with a handful of your favorite plugins that you know you can rely on to get a fundamentally well-mixed and balanced track. A solid base is what will make these special moments shine, and not just sound like mixing mistakes. Often we are presented with arrangements and productions that are lacking the punch, space, impact, or interesting elements that make a great production stand out. The tricks and techniques mentioned here are tools to enhance a less-than-stellar production and elevate the final mix and make the whole more than just the sum of its parts.