This is the continuation of ‘Tips for a better mix – part 1’, as promised. Again 5 tips to get your workflow up and running. Integrate a few of these and you will spend less time ‘inventing the wheel’ but far more time being productive.
Take it easy; use a template
An advantage of working ‘in-the-box’ is that you can create custom templates in your DAW. A template allows you to setup busses and fx routings in advance. Also you can include metering plugins, like an analyzer, LU meter, master dynamics and so on. Especially analyzers and meters are thing you would want to have standard in your workflow.
Every time you open a template the settings will be the same and so you can reference your mix directly to the analyzer. The analyzer can directly confirm that what you are hearing is also what you are seeing. That is also helpful when changing from studiolocations a lot.
A standard popmusic-template could have 7 busses; drums, percussion, bass, guitar, keys,leadvocals, backingvocals. And also it could have 4 FX; short reverb, long reverb, delay fx and chorus fx. This will not only help you in setting up this quickly but it will force you also to structure your mix.
If your DAW doesn’t support templates, you can mimic them by saving empty projects with the new structure and give them clear names like “Template Popmix”. Open the file and immediatly resave under a valid project name in its own folder.
You could have different templates for different means; one template for stereo popmusic for CD and a template for surround postproduction for video. Each template will provide you automatically with a structured workflow, all the plugins and analyzers you need, at the click of a button.
Know your plugins
When mixing on real console it is obvious that the mix will have the sonic characteristics of the console itself. That is why most studios mention which console they are using. Some engineers have a good feeling with SSL, others with Studers, some with Audient and so on. But fact is real consoles do have a sonic effect on your mix, so you want to know in advance what sound you are after and which console can help you get there.
Now not everyone has the room, finances or need for a real console. That is where plugins come in handy. Software engineers have worked hard on plugins to mimic reallife consoles and so you can have a SSL sound at a fraction of the price of a real one. Some have created a full SSL channelstrip, meaning it has a gainknob, phasebutton, low and high shelving, eq, compressor and gate. It is a copy of complete channel of the real deal. An example of a fictional channelstrip is the RChannel, from the same maker. Rchannel is packed with features and sounds great.
To start with a good basis for your mix try to use the same channelstrip for every channel. This way you will quickly learn how the channelstrip sounds and you will be quicker setting up your mix. The sound of your whole mix will be more consistent as all the channels have go through the same soundrecipe.
Now let’s just say that you have used a SSL channelstrip for your mix. Make a render of your track and call it ‘SSL version’. Make a new mix but use a different channelstrip, like RChannel. It will sound as good but different because of the different ‘recipe’ being used inside the channelstrip. Save the render and give it a appropriate name. Now compare the two and decide which one better suits your likings.
This method is also helpful when trying new plugins like eq’s, compressors, tape simulators etcetera. That is important knowhow because you will remember next time which plugin works best on what instrument or track.
Keep it simple; keep it mono
Mixing is also about recognizing frequencies which ‘bite’ eachother or do not work together well. You can adjust these frequencies by using an equalizer. Ofcourse the first step is knowing which frequencies to adjust, so how to recognize these frequencies?
A good practice is to make your mix in mono at first. This way you will hear these ‘troubles’ at an earlier stage then when your mix is already in full stereowidth. For example; a piano along with a nylonstring guitar could have some overlap in frequencies in the midlow area, and both probably need to make some room for each other. As these instruments are still panned in the center the frequencies in trouble are more likely to get noticed.
Later on in the proces you could do panning. Since none of the sounds are cluttering up anymore, you’ll end up with a mix which is clearer and more open.
Do you remember?
Most mixes are done in several versions. Make it a good habit saving your projectfiles with version numbers like ‘v1’ or ‘v2’. Also, it’s very common practice to render these workversions as a mixdown. This way you can check the workversion outside your DAW, and listen to it on different systems (in your car or ipod).
Checking your mix outside your DAW really can help you to listen the mix without being in ‘engineer’-mode. It is likely you will notice things which you want to change in the next mix. But by the time you start your new mix your ears have forgotten what exactly it was that bothered you. How big should the adjusment be or is it clearing up already in regards to the old mix?
A good way to create your own reference is to import your old render into your new mixsession and mute it, ideally it is in total sync with your mixsession. Take care not to have anything in the master bus that still has influence over the solo’d bus.
Then after making your adjustments, listen for a short moment to the old version by putting the track on solo. Now you hear what the difference is between the two mixes. It will tell you instantly whether your changes are for the good or for the bad. Then release the solo again and continue your mixing.
You can repeat this proces over and over until your are happy with your mix.
The best between the good
When you are done mixing and you passed your mastering stage with satisfaction, it is time for a realworld checkup. How does your mix stand out between the ‘rest’? Take your final mix, this is now you release master, and import it into your digital songlibrary of iTunes. Ofcourse iTunes can be replaced with whatever you are using. Do not forget to hit shuffle, your track needs to be played randomly along with the other commercial tracks in your library.
If your song happens to be a ballad, try to mix your song with other ballads that have the sonic characteristics you would like to hear in your track. In other words; the playlist must fit the genre of your track.
Hit play on iTunes. Grab yourself a coffee, a magazine and relax on a couch. All this to get yourself out of engineering mode. Playing your track outside your DAW can really help you get rid of the engineering mode due to the fact you are not able to control faders, adjust reverbs and so on.
Whenever your song gets played it should be around the same level as the other tracks. Also, spectrumwise, there should not be too much of a difference with regards to the low end or the high end. It should fit right in.
After all, while mixing and mastering you had in your template an analyzer, maybe a compressor and brickwall limiter. If your mix does stand out, but on the other side of positive, try to determine what it is that makes you criticize your mix. Go back to your latest workversion and correct your findings.
Ofcourse you could use a reference track while mastering. Import the referencetrack into your DAW and mute it. Hopefully your reference is about as loud as your mix, but do not make it your lifegoal to be as loud as the reference. Do not start your own loudness-war, you will end up destroying your own mix in most cases. The goal is to listen to the reference for just a moment to get an idea of the whole spectrum and balance. Now carefully adjust your brickwall limiters, multiband compression and equalizers to try to reach the wanted result.
Then again, after making a new releasemaster, listen to the song in iTunes again. And be happy with the result!
This was the easy part, now get going!
This was the last part in the series ‘Tips for a better mix’. All these tips can contribute to a better workflow and hopefully are as helpful to you as they are to others. Any questions regarding these tips are welcome ofcourse!