Drawing on 20 years' worth of professional experience, sound engineer and producer Chris Lyth shares some useful tips for the mixdown
So you've recorded your track, it's tight and it has more hooks than Abu Hamza at a Peter Pan convention. All that is needed is a great mix-down and certain megastardom awaits. So here are 10 useful techniques to help focus your mix...
1. Think of the overall sonic picture
Try to imagine your mix as a photograph with plenty of contrast, balance and a depth of field. Use EQ, reverb, panning and delay to create depth and width in your mix. Speaking generally, to put something in the background, mix it at low volume with a large reverb and roll-off the top end. As for the foreground sounds, mix them high and bright with just a hint of short reverb.
2. Parallel compression
A technique that can help to glue your mix together is group mixing. This works by sending the output of separate tracks to a dedicated group for a particular set of instruments. Bus compression is used by many top mixing engineers to give the drums, in particular, a more coherent sound as well as giving them snap and punch. This technique is often used in genres where big powerful drums are de rigueur.
A reasonable starting place would be to set the compressor to attack 10-30ms, release 50 or auto, ratio 2:1 and adjust the threshold to show -5db gain reduction. Experiment by pushing it further and you will get an idea of how powerful this technique can be.
3. Drum distortion
Speaking of drums, don't be afraid to add some distortion to them: both acoustic and electronic drums can benefit from a touch of the filth! Most classic recordings, mixed from tape on analogue mixing consoles, are full of subtle warming distortion, much of it so slight it's almost subliminal. Try applying subtle amounts for a thicker, warmer sound and to help soft synths lose that digital edge.
4. Red is dead
Always leave plenty of headroom on your tracks, so that you're not overloading your channels into the red. Digital distortion casts a longstanding whiff of bat guano over your mix and, in time, your general spirit. Needless to say it is to be keenly avoided. Keep all your channels in the green and try to avoid 'creeping fader syndrome'.
5. Take regular breaks
If you are pounding away at a mix for hours, not only will your ears be thoroughly desensitised but your concentration will also be shot. It's likely you will be adding top end onto everything and generally undoing all of your good work. A break will help you return to your mix with fresh ears and renewed objectivity.
6. Kick and bass
Getting the kickdrum and bassline to sit well together can at times be one of the most challenging aspects of modern mixing, as often the two can end up fighting for the same space in a mix. Here are a couple of techniques to get them to play nicely - one using EQ, one using side-chaining.
EQ: As both instruments occupy a very similar part of the frequency range, we can EQ small holes in the bass and kick. For example, if you boost 80Hz and cut 120Hz on the kick then you should EQ the bass so that you are cutting 80Hz and boosting 120Hz. When cutting, aim for a narrow band of EQ.
Side-chain compression: Here, we set up a compressor so that the kickdrum reduces the volume of the bass, thereby making more room in the mix for the kick to punch through. Place a compressor on your bassline channel then find and engage the side-chain function on the compressor. Select the kick to trigger the side-chain. Set a fast attack (1ms) and as fast a release time as you can get away with - 50ms is usually OK. Adjust the threshold so that the gain reduction meter is showing anything from -3db to -5db. You will need to use your ears to fine-tune this to your needs.
7. Clean out the mud
The most obvious application of EQ is to clean out unwanted frequencies, but with careful use it can improve the clarity of the mix and add punch and focus. As a general mixing and EQ strategy, it's better to cut than to boost. Cutting helps you create space for other elements in the mix without adding excessive amounts of boost which can lead to a harsh, unfocused wall of sound that becomes fatiguing to listen to.
With the exception of the kick, bass, toms and perhaps piano, try cutting everything below 100Hz on all of your channels as generally there is little useful musical content there. This frees up a lot of space in the mix and allows the actual bass content to sound more open and powerful.
8. Define the focus of the mix
It sounds almost childlike in its simplicity, but your mix should really show off the most engaging parts of your track. Mix fearlessly: your main parts should be as apparent as a pantomime dame with her arse on fire. Find what part of the track is carrying the emotional content and focus your mix to support and compliment it.
9. Make it move
Automate to bring out the excitement in a track. For example, EQ the vocal differently in parts, pick out certain hits and add FX to them for a split second, make the reverb longer or shorter, filter sweep synths etc. A little work on automating your track can make it live and breathe.
10. Compare and contrast
Make sure that you are on the right path tonally by selecting a track in roughly the same genre that you admire the sound of, and refer back to that track often as you are mixing. Loading it into your arrangement and flicking between the reference track and your own mix will help guide the balance and focus of your mix. Listen critically: does your mix have a similar amount of midrange content? How do the levels of your vocals, drums and bass compare?
Follow these tips, and hopefully your next productions will sound crisper and more powerful than any of your previous ones. And if any readers have any mixdown tips of their own, we'd love to hear them!
Words: Chris Lyth