10 odd audio mixing tips to significantly improve your mixing skills.
Whether you’re a musician, who loves to record & mix her/his own stuff, a home/project studio owner or someday-to-become-pro-mixing-engineer, you must be reading a lot of recording and mixing related articles, be it SOS, Computer Music or Tweakheadz, checking out tons of gear reviews and taking in all the audio mixing tips from the pros you can lay your eyes on.
Sooner or later you’ll run into condition where you spend more time pretending you’re learning, chasing or dreaming of “better tools” and most important – realizing that most of the audio mixing tips industry pros give, somehow doesn’t work on your multi-track recordings and mixes.
Reading endless fundamental audio mixing tips provided by industry’s pros won’t help you, simply because you’re not one.
I’ve been there, eventually figured a way out of my desperation and would like to share my 10 odd audio mixing tips, that will help you move out of the stagnation and significantly improve your audio mixing skills.
After implementing at least one of them you’ll gain more knowledge and experience that reading all the SOS magazines yet published. But if you decide to proceed with all of them, after you’re finished you’ll be light years ahead of you, who’s now staring at the screen soon to find out 10 most trivial, but highly overlooked audio mixing tips. Let’s begin!
10 OBVIOUS BUT OVERLOOKED AUDIO MIXING TIPS TO HELP YOU MOVE FORWARD
Tip #1. Improve studio acoustics.
Even out frequency response, reduce reverberation time, take control of standing waves and room tones at low frequencies. Obvious, right? Then why haven’t you implemented this in your studio yet?
I’m not talking absorbing panels at mirror points, something in corners to act as a bass traps etc. This is just imitation of acoustic treatment. It’s better that nothing, but it’s same bad only in a different way.
If you’re serious about pursuing a career in audio business, save yourself thousands of $ and invest in your studio acoustics big time once, so you can forget about buying new monitors or plugins just because they might be “better”.
I’ve spent tenths of thousands of € on software & hardware gear while I could just have invested one tenth (or even less) of that amount into acoustic treatment and gotten instant results without spending a € more on needless stuff. Yet I didn’t. And I have a powerful excuse, which I bet you don’t:
Tip #2. Mix on headphones using Sonarworks Headphone Reference plug-in.
This may look as an advert (I have nothing in common with this company, I only use their product), but purchasing Headphone Reference plugin by Sonarworks and getting my AKG K712 Pro headphones calibrated individually was the best decision I’ve made in my entire career. This was a game-changer for me and you can read more about my first impressions here.
It takes serious amounts of time for brilliant ideas to get trough labyrinths of stubborn prejudice formed by industry’s leaders who most of the time get paid to spread the word. Just to name a few outdated dogmas: ProTools, Tape, Vinyl, Mono compatibility and the 11th commandment “thou shalt not execute mix on headphones”.
I’ll explain myself in another post someday, but for now: if we treat studios acoustically to achieve near zero reverberation time and have frequency response as linear as possible, why are we restricting ourselves from mixing on calibrated headphones? Those not only have nearly flat frequency response, but also zero reverberation, which we want gone in our studios anyway. Not to mention that more and more people are listening to music on headphones.
So if you don’t have your clients sitting in control room and “helping” you make mixing decisions, try doing your next mix on headphones while demoing Sonarworks thingy.
Tip #3. Mix low-quality songs & remix your own old ones.
Be it recorded using poor techniques, cheap equipment, or just mediocre performance – everything goes. Since you’re on a long way to the top, this is what you are and probably will be working on for years, because of one simple reason:
Everyone you know, who’re at the same level of skill, know only one “sound guy” who happened to have a studio – YOU. You won’t get better performers until your performers won’t get better. And artist who perform better today, know a “sound guy” of their own, who’s at the same level of skill.
And what can be worse than multi-track recording & mix you for your own band? Remixing stuff you know well can help not only to monitor your progress over time, but also improve the arrangements and resurrect songs themselves. Although resurrection might not be your goal, but it is a fun and very effective way of learning. And after you’re done you’ll be astonished how different your old and new mixes sound.
Not to mention that making low-quality songs sound best they can will bring you most satisfaction and improve your editing and mixing skills drastically. Excessive manual editing, rearranging, micro-automation, pitch correction – techniques are endless when it comes to making a shit sound decent.
With a little patience and right tools event poorest recordings can sound decent enough for its owner to not recognize it in the final mix. This makes you look like a magician in your client’s eyes.
Just to ensure you that my audio mixing tips actually work, I’d like you to download my first mix ever made for ska band of mine in 2005 and a remix I made six years later.
Tip #4. Edit the heck out of your tracks before you reach for a plug-in.
Thousands of cuts, fades, x-fades, comping, pitch correction, volume automation, panning, and as a reward HPF & LPF is all you get before reaching for the first plugin.
It’s always very tempting to start dropping plugins much too early and see where it can get you. At least a small amount of reverb… Stop right there!
You should develop a habit, of literally editing the shit out of your tracks before you insert your first plug-in, which should be a high pass filter and a low pass filter. Try this:
- Make sure everything fits perfectly into the click. Drums first, then all the other tracks. Some of them sometimes require slight delay or several ms of rush to develop or keep the groove. Check if all drum tracks are in polarity relation you want them to be in, also look for delay and compensate it on every drum channel. This helps tighten the beat and achieve nice stereo image.
- Gate or manually remove all unnecessary stuff. Drum spill, guitar silence, other recorded silence when the player is waiting for his cue, take good care of vocal tracks. Swap ugly breaths with expressive ones, remove mouth noises, fret noises, hums, buzzes everything that’s not contributing to the music.
- Delete badly performed parts and interchange them with better ones. Don’t be afraid to repeat or loop parts of tracks.
- Double all tracks that need doubling by taking identical part from same track few bars later/earlier. Guitars recorded in mono might hugely benefit from this.
- Apply LPF and HPF on all tracks in need for it. This is your first reward.
- Automate volume envelopes of everything – like “manual dynamic processor” was your full time job.
- Adjust volume and panning only after you’ve done all the dirty editing. This is your second reward.
By now you should have a pretty nice mix, that can be enhanced by surprisingly small amount of plug-in power. Your third reward! BUT…
Tip #5. Only use built-in plugins of your DAW.
Gear Acquisition Syndrome (G.A.S.) stands for uncontrollable craving for new things. It applies to audio engineers and musicians as well as we’re chasing new gear like crazy be it software or hardware. If it’s done with the intention to make your work easier and faster while maintaining high quality – it can be justified, but more often than not we buy new tools just for sake of newness.
Subconsciously we know – new gear won’t help us get better at what we do, but consciously we do everything possible to justify a new purchase.
How many times new plugins sounded much better than the old ones? And the old ones were new back in the day, didn’t they?
By restricting yourself to only use your DAW’s plugins you are actually trying to achieve the best sound possible based on listening and not just putting new shiny stuff on, without even knowing what it does. Also you’re preventing further development of G.A.S. Interested in prevention? More here.
To reinforce my point, I’d like you to read this article by Graham Cochrane on his blog “The Recording Revolution”.
Tip #6. Only use plugins one of its kind.
If you’re not comfortable with stock plugins, then choose the ones you love most and use only those. One of each: EQ, compressor, reverb, delay, whatever. By doing so you’ll likely develop same “listening” skill you would, using only stock plugins. The difference is only that you’ll use tools you love and are fooled into “knowing” that they’re doing good job.
However this one is the least effective out of my audio mixing tips #5 #6 #7.
Tip #7. Either use GUI-less plugins, or the ones with GUIs and sound you don’t like or controls you don’t get.
If you want to go event further – find the worst looking and crappy sounding free audio plugins and make them work. No Graphical User Interface? Even better!
It’s a paradox, but nowadays visual cues have a major impact on audio world. Pretty GUIs can make us believe anything. If you’re not convinced, please drop a quick look at The Reaper Blog, then at McGurk effect and then come back here.
Audio software and gear manufacturers take serious advantage over us based on G.A.S. and McGurk effect. As a result we have a community of sheep ever searching for something, that doesn’t exist and trying to convince everyone that something sounds much better, when in reality they sound the same. With the bottom line being that it doesn’t even matter to the listener.
Thus mixing using poorly designed and coded plugins can help us disconnect a string between what we see and what we hear.
Fact is – cheap GUIs might be hiding great code, and cheap sounding effects can be just what you were looking for or at least enough to get the job done after you’ve performed all “edit the shit out” processes.
Tip #8. Switch to a new DAW.
This one is even more extreme than any above suggestion out of my audio mixing tips. Not only you get an unfamiliar DAW, but also new bundled “crap”. Too little hardcore? Try switching to new OS and work there.
Tip #8 serves same purpose – getting yourself out of your comfort zone as well as making your ears hear in a new way. Eyes will be shocked not being able to fool your ears by looking at familiar GUIs.
While it may seem completely insane to complicate yourself with this amount of unfamiliar tools, it may also be your shortest way to improve your skills as mixing engineer and find your perfect instruments, you would never have looked at otherwise.
Tip #9. Record a band using one single stereo mic.
If I was forced to choose only one of all the audio mixing tips I wrote here, that would be #9. For best results that should be a band able to perform acoustically and without a live drum set. BUT if there’s one (drum set) – that’s even more of a challenge to you.
Back in the day this was the only way to record a band. No multi-tracking, no over-dubbing, no editing, no post-processing of any kind and no stereo. And there are lots of great sounding recordings made this way that are loved by listeners to this day.
Mixing – meaning pushing live people around and listening for the result instantly will help you completely rethink every audio mixing concept you knew – be it volume, panning, tone, proximity, loudness, sound texture, reverberation, room acoustics – everything. And you will most definitely have largest amount of fun by implementing this one of all 10 audio mixing tips I’m giving you.
I once took this kind of opportunity and lessons I learned were invaluable. Both to me as sound engineer and to the musicians.
Tip #10. Put yourself on a deadline.
While this may seem like the most stupid of the odd ways I’m suggesting, it’s one of the most important things when it comes to maintaining a healthy ratio between productivity and quality.
If you’re like me – tweaking could go on for years and the end result won’t ever see daylight. That’s why it’s nearly impossible for me and people alike to finish personal projects be it a song, family vacation video, or my company’s website without a time restriction.
Deadline is essential in our line of work. That’s why mixing for F.O.H. in live events is much more satisfying and rewarding than mixing in the studio. You have a very short time-span to do your job the best you can using only tools you are provided with at the moment, while trying to solve all sorts of problems in between. There’s no time for philosophy and the “now or never” factor makes us move forward and end stuff.
And by the way – F.O.H. mixing is a great way to improve your studio mixing skills. But let’s leave this for later. Today – be sure to set yourself a deadline before starting your next project.
1. Like in every other line of work, going out of your comfort zone in the studio is the key to improvement and perfection. Fact is – routine can either lead you to stagnation and loss of interest or to improvisation and search for unconventional ways to make your job more fun and efficient.
2. In visual driven audio world it is very important to disconnect your ears from our eyes and let your ears judge your actions. Looks of gear we use doesn’t matter. Sound is all that counts.
3. By applying the idea of “less is more” you can help yourself move closer to the roots of what a great recording and mix actually is and concentrate on doing things instead of searching for tools to do ’em.
4. If you want efficiency right away, invest in something fundamental like studio acoustics or headphone calibration to save lots of time and even more money in the future.
That’s it. Now let me know if you’ve already knew some or at least one of these 10 audio mixing tips and tricks I just told, or maybe you think they’re useless and you have developed your own secret methods for significant improvement of skills as sound mixing engineer?
As always – thanks for reading. Comments, questions and suggestions appreciated! Cheers.