Getting your final mix right is just as important as coming up with a good tune in the first place. Luckily, Chris Lyth is here to help...
The greatest song ever written can sound terrrible if it hasn't been mixed properly. But what makes a great mix? We could argue about that all day, but roughly speaking, I'd suggest that a great mix is one that serves the narrative arc of the track, and that will sound good across a range of playback devices.
As you're reading iDJ rather than Flute Monthly, we'll assume for the purposes of this article that your mixes are designed primarily to be played in clubs. So here are a few tips with that in mind…
Firstly, try to achieve a good instrument balance using the faders, before you resort to compression and EQ. Follow the process below to get a usable basic mix balance. It’s only a ballpark range, so don’t get too hung up on the numbers, but they should work as a starting point. You're going to need to watch your peak volumes on your master channel. Either look at the number read-out on your DAW master, or put a dedicated level meter plug-in on it.
Pull all your channels down to zero except your Master and Aux. Bring up the kick until it hits -12db on your master channel, then bring up your snare/clap so that it pushes up the level on your master to -10db. Now bring in the rest of your hats and other percussion, and keep all of this under -10db.
Now for your bass! Bring it up so that it’s sitting between -10db and -8db. If it’s difficult to keep it in this range, then it’s telling you a story (a sure candidate for compression). Now add everything else, balancing it all out so that your entire master is peaking at no more than - 6b. This will likely be the most challenging part, but once achieved this should have your mix sitting at a relatively decent balance.
As you start chiselling away with EQ and compression, keep an eye on your master peak so that your individual levels are all sitting reasonably within these guides.
This is one that gets forgotten, but it's something that, with a careful ear and a little patience, can elevate a mediocre mix to a great one. Although drums aren’t generally considered melodic instruments, they do exert a pitch. When possible, try to tune kicks and snares to the root note of your track, and your toms at appropriate intervals - preferably voiced to a chord within the track.
Get the vocal level right
If you're working on (for example) a house track with a big vocal as the main hook, the vocal mix level is make or break for the track as a whole. Assuming your vocal is well recorded, turn up the vocal channel so that it sits on top of the bed of music.
Once you do this, you may hear tones or frequencies that sound incongruous: often these will be in the low midrange, especially if the vocal was close mic’ed in recording. Now grab an EQ and very gently apply some cuts until the problem areas are tamed.
There can of course be tonal inconsistencies in a long vocal take, due to its organic nature - for instance, if the vocalist leans into the mic or hits a particular note much louder than the rest. A compressor would then be used, preferably in three stages:
1. Apply some gentle compression to even out the level. The amount will depend on the style, but around -3db to -5db usually works.
2. Add a limiter with no more than -2db, to clamp down a little harder on any strays that the first compressor missed.
3. Then send everything to a parallel compressor set up on an Aux bus, with an aggressive setting that would stun a police horse. This, blended in carefully, will reinforce and add excitement to the tone.
Use your ears, not your eyes!
It can be tempting to be overly clinical when using plug-ins, and with all the visual information available it’s temping to use it as a crutch, and you can end up getting distracted. So try to mix with your ears: if it sounds good, don’t change anything, even if the visual read-out looks strange. Mixing is an art, not a textbook process!
Keep it dynamic
A great mix is about more than just level placement and good EQing. A good mix should be dynamic, pushing and pulling in a way that best serves the track. Record volume shifts on your parts as your track progresses. If your track has a chorus, bump up the drum bus and lead instruments to help it land with more of a bang. Alter reverb levels in breaks, add more feedback to delays, automate high-pass filters to create bass drops, and so on.
Label and colour your tracks
Our brain responds to colour quicker than it does to words, so if you get yourself an established colour scheme you will be able to navigate your way around your mix much more quickly and easily.
Grouping is good
Grouping similar tracks can give your music a more cohesive sound through the use of compression and EQ, but it can also be useful for if you want to raise the level of an entire section, such as the backing vocals.
Actually do a mixdown
There’s a tendency, when producing your own music, to mix the track as you go along, then slap a limiter on your master bus and call it done. But separating the creative and practical tasks can work wonders for both sides of the brain. Once you are happy with your arrangement, bounce down your individual parts to audio, give it a week for some objectivity to brew, and then spend time concentrating on just the mixdown.
When to mix
It’s pointless trying to start a mix after a long day in the studio, when your ears are tired. Start early in the morning, when you're at your most fresh and objective.
Have a checklist...
- Is the frequency balance correct?
- Is the mix appropriate for its genre? Use some well-produced tracks in a similar style for reference
- Can you hear both the kick and the bass clearly, without any clashes?
[For more on this, see Bass, How Low Can You Go? and Can You Kick It? Yes You Can!]
- Are the claps/snares sitting nicely? Not too thin or boomy?
- Are the lead instruments or vocals clearly audible and consistent in level? Does anything suddenly jump out or disappears? If so, correct that with automation.
- Are the beginning and end clean? Is everything ending as it should, with no sudden dropouts or overhangs?
- Is there too much/not enough reverb?
- Does the mix sound good across different systems? Try listening to it on your home hi-fi, on your phone, on your car stereo and so on.
Lastly, always sleep on your final mixdown before committing to it. As stated previously, morning-fresh ears are always the best!
Words: Chris Lyth