25 mixing tips
27th Nov 2007 | 12:57
Here are 25 of the best fader-flippin', knob-twistin' tweaks to add to your arsenal
Drums and percussion
1. The number one tip we can give you for mixing drums is: compress, compress, compress! Intelligent compressing, mind you. For sharp, punchy kicks, you want the attack between 3-6ms (to allow the 'crack' through) and a short enough release that the compressor is able to return the volume to full before the next hit.
2. Wherever possible, it's useful to have drums on separate tracks, even if you then send them to a group for more processing. You can then adjust relative levels and process each individually, making for a much more controlled mix.
3. For that Phil Collins-style gated-reverb effect, try sticking a big reverb patch after your toms, and then insert a gate after it so that the reverb tail is quickly cut short. Alternatively, you can add subtler 80s space with short reverb settings and a compressor inserted afterwards.
4. You can give sharper and punchier attack to all manner of sounds by inserting a gate and then setting the threshold higher than it needs to be. With the attack set as close to zero as you can get it, the signal will burst through very quickly, and at a very high level, making the sound that bit punchier.
5. If you find your rhythm section isn't gelling properly, try sending all the different elements to a separate group and compressing them together. This makes for a much more coherent sound. It's usually worth leaving the kick drum separate, though, as it can really affect the compressor's action on a percussion group channel.
6. Unless they play electric guitar, most producers would never think to apply any distortion to their sounds, but it can be a great effect on almost anything when used in moderation, including drums. Try applying some subtle distortion to things like hi-hats, cymbals and snares. It also works brilliantly on breakbeats, often making them sound older than they are. Of course, you can always crank it up if you want to get extreme...
7. If you're using lots of EQ boost, particularly to upper frequencies, just make sure you remember that the human brain has a tendency to instinctively prefer louder signals when placed side by side with quieter ones. They might not be objectively better when heard separately, so always increase EQ gain in small increments.
8. Ear fatigue is a common problem whenever you listen to music loud for extended periods, and, because of the nature of the ears, the first thing to go is the ability to hear treble. People tend to overemphasise the treble to compensate, so, if you're not careful, when you come back the morning after a heavy mixing session, it'll be too trebly. Always check out the final mix with a fresh set of ears.
9. As a general rule, you should use EQ cut on elements to make space for other elements rather than boosting everything (which just makes mush), but if you must boost, try to get your hands on the best EQ plug-in you can. As a test, you should be able to add 8-12dB of gain to the treble of a track without it sounding harsh.
10. When you're trying to hone in on a problem frequency, the best way to do it is by applying excessive gain with a quite narrow bandwidth (Q) setting, then sweeping the frequency back and forth until you hit the right area. With the frequency identified, either pull the gain down - or into minus figures if you're trying to remove it - before adjusting Q to taste!
11. Be careful when adding EQ before compression - EQ can dramatically affect the level of a signal, radically altering the way the compressor responds to it. The same goes for level settings (particularly following a compressor) - whenever you apply any kind of serious EQ gain or attenuation, you should check the level is still right.
Reverb and vocals
12. The order in which you insert effects can make a huge (and useful) difference to the resulting sound. For example, placing a reverb after a distortion unit means you get reverberation of the distorted signal, whereas if you put the distortion after the reverb, the reverb itself will be distorted too, which will sound very different.
13. Layering isn't just for instruments. Always try to get multiple takes of a vocal part and try layering them for a fantastic genuine chorus effect. If your vocalist is blessed with perfect pitch and you're getting phasing instead (or, as is more likely, you've only got one take to start with), try copying the vocal and detuning one or both, then layering them.
14. As an interesting twist to having a reverb inserted onto a bus channel, try also placing a gate before that reverb, so that only signals above a certain level can pass through the gate and have reverb applied. This works brilliantly well on percussive riffs, percussion and vocals - just be careful not to compress the source material before sending it or it just won't work.
15. We've mentioned that it's important to understand the varying results you'll get by inserting effects in different orders. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that it's often a great idea to stick different types of effects after your reverb to make it interesting. Chorus, delay and flanging are some particular favourites of ours.
16. While reverb can be great, it can have the effect of swamping a mixdown very quickly and making it sound messy. If your track sounds a little dry without reverb, a cleaner technique is often to use small amounts of tempo-delay. This has the similar effect of 'filling in the gaps', but in a rhythmic and more manageable way.
17. If you do want to use reverb, but it's still swamping your track somewhat, try inserting a compressor right after it. This keeps the volume of the reverb higher for longer, which means you can then reduce the reverb time - you still get thick reverb in the gaps, but a shorter reverb tail means less residual mush.
Bass and compression
18. One of the keys to music production is that two sounds are often better than one. A lot of the best synth and bass patches you've ever heard - those with tons of character and loads of weight, punchy yet drawn out - are actually multiple patches layered. So choose one bass for character and another for weight.
19. Bass cut is the pro's secret weapon. You might have heard about it before, but it's vital that you know why it's so important. Sub-bass frequencies are inaudible on most systems, but they can still trigger compressors and limiters, and they still swallow up headroom. Trimming below 30Hz allows you to raise the bass without overloading your system.
20. The best way to set up most effects is to start with extreme settings and then work backwards. So, if you're trying to set your attack and release times, start with a higher ratio than you need and plenty of make-up gain, so you can really hear how the timing settings are affecting the signal.
21. Don't be afraid to use more than one compressor on a channel. If you compress a signal to make it punchier, don't shy away from applying a second compressor later to compensate for the effect of other processing you might have applied, such as reverb, chorus or phasing. And, by the same token, try bypassing the compressor sometimes!
Sidechaining and bouncing
22. The common dance trick is to create a mix group containing practically everything but the kick drum, then compress that group with a sidechain compressor, using the kick drum as the sidechain input. This causes the music to 'pump' in time with the beat. You can do this subtly, or in an obvious, over-the-top fashion. Other similar applications include 'ducking' the bass guitar with the kick drum to tighten up the bottom-end, and using the vocal to duck the rhythm guitars or keyboards a little so they stand out in the right places.
23. Sidechaining isn't just for compression. You can use a synth note or drum sound to trigger a sidechain-equipped gate and create chopping patterns. This is great for giving your track a Mylo-style edited feel, chopping up a string pattern for excitement or just generally playing around - try putting the gate on a variety of signals.
24. Make sure you don't push your output signal into the red when you're bouncing your finished mix, unless you specifically want to. If you do, it will probably cause unpleasant distortion and also cause your signal to be squashed, reducing the dynamic range and making things harder for any subsequent mastering that might be done.
25. You can use a sidechain-equipped gate to pull the timing of layered parts together, for instance, backing vocals. For example, if you have two parts that aren't completely tight together, run them both to a bus, insert a gate and then use the better timed version to trigger the sidechain of a gate, so that the gate only opens when it plays, making the two sound in time.