When mixing it can be hard to break loose from your habits. And bad habits prevent you from making a good mix or at least it takes more time to get a good result at all. Here are some guidelines to get back to some of the basics of engineering and help you improve your skills. Do not touch that button!
When mixing do not constantly change your listening level. If you constantly keep changing your monitorlevel your ears need time to get used to the new level and you will lose your reference of balance. It’s harder to determine what exactly your balance was and how your new changes affect the mix. All in all, you won’t be able to objectively evaluate your mix. Also, changing levels is known to tire out your ears earlier which leads pushing up the faders and turning up the level more and more. The result is a horrible loudness to work with and a bad mix. Most of the time you won’t know until the next day. And then you can start all over again. How are you even able to do more tracks in one day this way?
The best way is to leave the volumeknob alone, just let it be at a comfortable level when mixing. Do not touch it even while soloing. This is also known as ‘calibrated level’, although there is more involved than just setting it a comfortable level. To make it a more permanent norm you could make a mark with a pen or a piece of tape next to the volume button. From now on this is your standard monitorlevel. This will minimize the chance of pushing the faders ‘through the roof’ and will give your ears a fair chance to detect any unbalance. Also you will be able to mix for a longer period of time without tiring your ears to much and you get to keep longer objectivity towards the mix itself. You can even mix more songs in 1 day and be sure of your mix to sound the same the next day.
Your perception of balance will improve because you have created a steady reference. It’s much easier to put an instrument in or on top of mix. Or, in reverse, things that standout or things that are to deep in your mix are much easier to identify just because you have a standard monitorlevel that is not changing. And because your reference level is not increasing, your ears are still the precise instruments as they were when your started the mixsession.
You will notice that your nominal level of mix will be around -10 dB or -15 dB. Do not worry about that, just keep the mix out of the overload indicators. Any damage done now in the masterbus is direct distortion and cannot be undone. Consider this your mastermix. You can create the correct level for the CD or DVD at mastering stage.
Check your balance
A simple but effective way to check the balance of your complete mix is to use the DIM button in your DAW. Dim allows you to listen to your mix at a temporarily lower lever, so your ears get a chance to relax from the direct pressure of your monitors and discover any unbalance at much lower level.
This way of lowering the level temporarily is better because it can be done instantly and it’s easier to get back to your standard monitorlevel without having to touch the volumebutton. Also you return to your exact standard monitorlevel which otherwise would be unprecise if done by hand.
In most DAWs it is possible to adjust how much the DIM function will dim. If your DAW doens’t have a DIM button, try to find the right ‘dim’ level by turning down you volumeknob for just this once. You could make a small mark with tape or pen to remember what you favorite dimlevel is.
The dimlevel works best at a when it is at whispering level. At this level you should notice if everything is still audible in your mix. Your drumkit and bass should still be the steady basis, your leadvocal is still clear in the mix, the shakers are audible but not on top, etcetera.
Use DIM for a short moment only and not too often, just listen to it a few moments and return to normal level and adjust your mix. This is less fatiguing for your ears than using the tempting imprecise volume knob. Another, somewhat rude method is to listen at the same level, but from another room. Let the DAW play and walk into the kitchen, for example. The door between these two rooms will act as a big mono-port. This method also forces you to get out of the direct pressure of the monitors on your ears and that is also a pleasent feeling from time to time. The opening of the door will blend your left and right monitors together, it actually acts as a mono-button as well.
By combining the level change and the monofunction you can get a fairly good idea about balance as well. Just be sure you don’t change the level before walking out of the room, keep it steady.
Start with the basic ingredients
Start your mixsession by mixing the basic ingredients of the song. By setting the mark with these instruments the rest of the song will be much easier to mix. In most cases your basis is kick, snare, overheads and bass. Start by setting level for the kick, unity gain is an okay startingpoint. Let it play around nominal -12dBFS. Then, if necessary, put in an equalizer, to change the sound and you might add some compression to make it more punchy. Again; balance, let it play around -12dBFS.
Then go on to the snare. Mix the snare in balance with kick, and repeat the same process; eq, dynamics and then balance again. Next up are the overheads. Again with the same procedure; balance, eq, perhaps dynamics and balance again. Now the last one, bass. Balance the level of the bass, adjust the sound and perhaps add some dynamics and balance.
When your basis is done, let it be. Do not touch the level again. Let’s say guitar is next. When guitar is too loud, turn guitar down instead of pushing the basis up. This will garantuee your mix won’t be any louder than the nominal -12dBFS and certainly won’t clip your masteroutput.
Keep it simple; keep it mono
Mixing is about recognizing frequencies which ‘bite’ eachother or do not work together well. You can adjust these frequencies by using eq. If you are having trouble finding these ‘troubled’ frequencies a good practice is to make your mix in mono at first. This way you will hear these problems at an earlier stage then when your mix is already in full stereowidth.
For example; a piano together with a nylonstring guitar could have some overlap in frequencies, and need to make some room for each other by using some eq. Later on in the proces you could do some panning.
Since none of the sounds are cluttering up anymore, you end up with a mix which is much clearer and more open.
But wait; there’ more to come!
Try to integrate these tips into you own workflow and you hopefully you will see improvements in your mixes. There will be a next episode of ‘Tips for better mixing’. If you happen to have question regarding the subjects above, do not hesitate to write. Enjoy!