So you’ve had the best idea you’ve ever had. Your bass, melody and beats are all perfect together… But somehow something’s not right. They don’t pass the car test, and you feel like you’re not doing them justice. Well, you need to add some sparkle to your mixes. Stand back and dive in with these seven tips to make the perfect mix. And if you enjoy these, don’t forget to check out our courses dedicated to the art of mixing & mastering.
1. 1D, 2D, 3D
Think of your mix not just in one dimension, not two, but three dimensions: width, height and ‘depth’. You’ve probably grasped the panning thing – make the most of the stereo space – so consider that as your/left right dimension. Now think ‘up and down’ in terms of volume and impact. Then try to imagine your mix in terms of its dynamic, its ‘depth’, how those frequencies fill your space. The more of the frequency range your mix fills, the greater its dynamic and we all love a good dynamic. EQ will be your friend here to cut frequencies and parts away from one another or boost, say, vocals, away from guitars. So fill the frequency space as much as you would the stereo space and your mix could enter new dimensions.
2. More or less
We know your production tool kit is full as most producers have more than enough power at their music making fingertips. Apple has thrown a gazillion GB of downloads at you with Logic, Ableton includes a huge library of instruments and effects, and your sample library folders are probably bulging so much that your very hard drive space is threatened with extinction. You have it all. Modern producers have such a luxury of choice – or for ‘luxury’, should we say ‘tyranny’? The problem with all of these collections of sounds, samples, presets and plugs is that, well, now that you’ve got them, you might as well use them, right? Wrong. Not only do they present too many options at the compositional stage – which bass from those 1000s should you use? – they also provide too many temptations at the mix stage. Why not just add another bass? Or layer a pad over that gap? Some strings for that hole maybe? In some genres of music, sparse is good and gaps can be just as powerful as kicks. So if you hear a space, relish and enjoy it before filling it.
3. Let it shine
And continuing the theme of ‘the lesser the better’, if your track is sparse – and in dance music that is more likely than less – then make sure that the few ingredients you do have are the best that you can get. With the kick, make it the best kick in the world: compress, combine, layer a sub; make it the T-Rex spine of the track and let the rest of the tracks be the rib-cage hanging from it. If it’s the vocal, make sure it’s the best damn vocal; the most well recorded, rounded, in tune and colossal voice. And if it’s that synth lead hook, make sure it’s not the synth lead hook, preset 35 from Massive (other synths are available). We’re not preset snobs here (not that much anyway) but make that sound your own and you’ll have the confidence to make it outstanding. Ultimately, decide what element makes your tune – the one thing will get people coming back to it again and again – and whether it’s that hook, the kick, the vocal or the break, give /it/ a break and let it shine…
4. Don’t tell anyone you’re doing this (part 1)
… because they might think you’re cheating Have a listen to your music collection. What is the one outstanding mix in your compositional genre that sounds incredible? Just the one, mind – we’re talking the ultimate production. Right *shhhh* take it, and load it into your DAW as an audio track alongside the mix you’re working on. Then, identify why it sounds better than yours. (And if it doesn’t, you’re done, you’re finished, bounce down now!) What has that producer done that you haven’t? Is it in the mastering? Or the arrangement? Or the dynamic of the mix? Don’t be afraid to copy it – no, not the whole track, just the mix element that lifts it above yours. Don’t be afraid to stand on the shoulders of that mix giant.
5. Solo sounds rubbish? Don’t worry!
By this we mean: don’t worry if a track sounds bad in isolation as long as it sounds great in the overall mix. We had a great demonstration of this from a top producer we were interviewing who solo’d a break that they’d been working on and had scooped the bass end out of it so that it sat well with the kick and bass. It sounded terrible in isolation but incredible in the mix. So don’t be afraid to destroy to build – the bigger picture is more important than an individual sound.
6. Invest in great speakers
OK, ok, this is an obvious one, but you can’t overstate it. The better the monitor the truer that monitor usually is and what you are hearing is a great representation of your mix. If what you are hearing is accurate then what other people hear will be as good as it gets on their particular speakers. Also, if you can afford it, consider the newer systems that can adjust themselves to your room, so if you’ve been less than generous with the time you’ve spent on acoustics – and let’s face it, we’d all rather get a decent suite of plug-ins than start messing with bass traps – these monitors can measure your room and adjust themselves accordingly. We’ve used them and they really do work. Yes, great speakers ultimately cost but what’s the use of that fantastic suite of plug-ins if the result is being played through a couple of 50-quid video game speakers?
7. But if you have to use rubbish speakers, learn your sound
And here’s one if you haven’t got the cash for those ‘true’ speakers. It’s the old ‘try your mix out on a car stereo’ tip and one that still holds true, especially if you have cheaper, less accurate speakers. Try your mix out on as many systems that you can – the car, your nan’s radiogram, headphones, your next door neighbour’s five grand hi-fi – whatever you can find. Eventually you will find a sonic pattern emerging from which you can learn about your speakers. If your mix generally sounds bass light it means your studio monitors are delivering a coloured bottom end and you are compensating too much by pulling the bass back at the mixing stage. Similarly if it’s too toppy, your speakers aren’t delivering enough up there so you are pushing it too far. If you can learn the deficiencies of your cheap speakers then you could learn to mix and live with them.
8. BONUS TIP! Don’t tell anyone you’re doing this (part 2)
Cheat. Yes, cheat. Either get someone who knows what they’re doing to fix your mix for you – a colleague, fellow student, Daft Punk etc – or, even more cunning, buy one of an increasing number of software titles that might just help you out. iZotope’s Neutron is one that we’ve tried and whatever it uses – complicated algorithms, black magic, deals with the mixing devil – it pretty much works.
If you want more high-quality tips and instruction, join us here at Point Blank Music School. We offer a BA (Hons) in Music Production and Sound Engineering accredited by Middlesex University, and there’s also an option to study remotely online. If you just want to learn about mixing but aren’t based in London, try our equivalent courses online and in LA. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have any questions.
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