It can be quite overwhelming when you start out mixing your own music. You don’t know where to start and it all sounds like a big mess, you thought it would be easier.
It takes time to learn how to mix well and the main casualty of this is that you can’t seem to finish any mixes. They all need something but you don’t know what and you feel stuck.
The following tips will help you to re-focus and keep you on track as you mix, eliminate overwhelm as you realize that you don’t need to know everything yet and that great mixes can be achieved using only the basic stock plugins that came with your DAW.
Note: this is a guest post by the wonderful BBC-trained mix engineer Sara Carter.
Keep things simple
When you’re starting out, It’s really easy to keep adding more and more plugins, not to say that is a bad thing but it is if you don’t know what you’re adding them for.
Quickly listen to each track both in solo and in the mix and ask yourself:
- what don’t I like about it?
- what do I love about it?
- does it need fixing?
Then, either leave it, fix it or enhance it.
9 times out of 10 you can probably fix what you don’t like by using:
- EQ for tone shaping and cleaning out mud and resonances
- a compressor to control dynamics
- a little bit of reverb for some added fairy dust!
Pick one EQ, one compressor and an effects plugin you like working with and stick with them. Learn them inside out and read the manuals!
Avoid having reams and reams of plugins in your dropdown lists that either sidetrack or confuse you. Limit your choices and see how much quicker you make progress in your mix.
Sure, it’s nice to have a few premium plugins but make sure they do something that no other plugin can do and that it inspires you to be creative without taking you down a path you don’t know how to get back from.
Have a plan
Try to have a clear idea of what it is you want to do with the mix.
I know, you open up your session and you’re full of enthusiasm and can’t wait to slap some plugins on and get started. The problem here is that you can end up wandering down paths that might cause your mix more harm than good so before you do anything, write yourself a little plan or to-do list.
Now you’ve got your plan, start to set up a static mix. A static mix is a mix using just levels and pan, no automation.
A good place to start mixing is at the chorus or a place in the mix that is the loudest or has the heaviest arrangement.
Spend around an hour getting the static mix set and start with the drums followed by the instrument that you feel is the one that carries the vibe or energy of the song, the one that drives the melody.
Whilst you’re working, pay attention to your gain staging. Watch your individual track and master fader meters and try to keep your levels in the green to yellow area and. Most definitely out of the red.
If your tracks have been recorded on the hot side then you can use clip gain or a trim plugin in your first slot the bring the level of the actual audio file down before it hits any plugins. This is beneficial if you are seeing red lights inside your plugins, overloading it to the point of distortion. Not good.
Don’t work predominantly in Solo
It’s really tempting, especially as beginners, to solo select every track to hear it more clearly in isolation but the problem here is that things sound very different in solo compared to when they are interacting with all the other moving parts of your mix.
By all means, use solo but don’t work in it all the time because no-one will ever hear any of the tracks in solo, only you. Your listeners will only listen to your mix so keep perspective by using solo sparingly.
Overdoing the special effects
Reverb sounds lovely, doesn’t it? It makes everything sound lush and dreamy and it can hide (to some extent) small mistakes made during tracking, making it very tempting to fall back on, especially when you hear something you don’t like in the mix, commonly the vocal performance.
The problem comes when you decide to use reverb on every track and the mix starts to lose definition and gain mud, lots of it. Limit yourself to only 4 or 5 reverbs across the mix, try a short delay instead of a reverb on the vocal and see how that sounds.
The same goes for the other special effects. Overuse can limit the impact of the entire mix so spend some time learning what all the effects do and how they work together but in the beginning, try and stick to short reverbs in a few selected areas like:
- small drum room
Don’t boost what you can’t hear
It’s likely that you’re mixing in a small bedroom on averagely priced studio monitors so you’re probably missing out on some of the very low and very high frequencies in your mix.
It doesn’t mean that they’re not there but because we can’t hear them the tendency is to forget about them so beware of boosting frequencies your speakers can’t reproduce very well that might end up sound overpowering on more high end or full-range speakers.
Some of the cheaper studio monitors can roll off low frequencies from 60Hz or even 80Hz, so boosting down there to get more power in your kick drum could end up sounding way too flabby on another system.
So, if you’re relatively new to mixing or have found yourself struggling and don’t know why then try this more simplistic approach.
Figuring out WHAT you need to do, WHY you’re doing it by having a plan, then learn HOW to use EQ, compression and reverb/delays properly so you can execute that plan and turn out a mix that’s clear and punchy in super quick time.
Not only that but now you can actually FINISH those mixes that you’ve been sitting on, the ones that have you feeling stuck or overwhelmed!
Now I want to help you!
Friends, I’d love to hear your thoughts on some training I’m working on for 2020.
Is this you?: You are a self-producing musician or music producer between the ages of 32 and 55 who is looking to release more music than you have previously been able to do but is having trouble with mixing and mastering.
If this is you, I would love to jump on a quick 20-minute call with you! I’m currently creating a new step by step video training course and I want to make sure it’s the perfect fit for those I want to support the most. I’ll forever be grateful! : )
You can contact me directly by emailing [email protected] and tell me a little about your mixing struggles and what you’d find most helpful right now.
P.S. If this is not you, but you know someone who fits this description, please share this article with them.
Have any questions about the blog post? Drop them in the comments below and then consider keeping in touch with me by joining my email community for free mixing guides, cheatsheets and articles to help you get better at making music in your home studio.
More about Sara Carter
Sara Carter is a BBC trained, mixing and mastering engineer based in Basingstoke in the UK. She started recording and mixing music in the mid-’90s from a small home studio until eventually landing her dream job working from the famous BBC's Maida Vale Studios and Broadcasting House in London.
She’s worked with a wide variety of recording artists from Beyoncé and The Black Keys to The Cure and Rod Stewart and has been credited on records by Corrine Bailey Rae and KT Tunstall amongst many others.
Sara now runs her online mixing and mastering business Music Mix Pro in the UK working with unsigned rock and indie bands from all over the world. She also writes regularly for the Production Expert blog and has been interviewed on the Working Class Audio podcast and the Recording Studio Rockstars podcast.
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