Before I get started I just want to reinforce something – sometimes a reduction in parameters actually generates more creativity.
Being aware of a set of limitations, or guidelines, can actually allow you much more creative control over your final mix.
This could mean limiting the amount of effects that you allow yourself to use, or a more obvious one is to only use a particular set of effects that suits the genre or style.
If you have the permission to do it, perhaps editing tracks or even muting/removing “surplus” instrumentation or vocal is the first step.
Approach-wise, ideally you want all aspects of a song to reinforce together and create a stronger impact, and if you aren’t aware of what you’re doing, it’s very possible (in fact more common than you think) to get a generally nice balance of instruments that somehow doesn’t “gel.” You can hear everything, but it lacks the emotional impact.
So here’s some ideas to think about next time you’re mixing a song. There are certainly many more ideas and concepts to experiment with than just this list, but I stopped myself before the post became a novel.
1. Know What the Song’s About
Clues are in the lyrics. Knowing what it’s about gives you the opportunity to amplify the concept rather than inadvertently fighting it. That doesn’t mean you have to “follow” the lyrics with the mix in a literal sense – you might do nothing at all in that regard, but at least you won’t be fighting the meaning of the song without even realizing it, and when it comes to trying to think of creative mix directions, it’s yet another clue to help you.
2. Know the Context of the Music
What’s the genre or style of the artist? How does it relate to the artist’s identity? Being aware of this really makes it much more likely that you’ll promote that artist’s identity and overall concept, plus the artist will be more likely to appreciate what you do with the mix.
For example, does the artist exemplify “authenticity” where a raw, “character” sound with any intonation problems remaining unfixed is most desirable? Or is it about slick and smooth production?
3. Be Adventurous
A mix is not just a simple balance of the levels of the instruments in the mix, it’s about featuring various aspects that you think the listener would like to hear, or more accurately needs to hear at any given section of the song. Pretend it’s a movie – how do you present each section of the song? Don’t be scared to go “over the top” with effects, fader moves and featuring of mix aspects – you can always tone it back if need be.
Don’t be scared to turn up the vocal – trying to hide weak vocals makes it even worse. Even ugly actors have to have close-ups in a movie to make it effective.
4. Think About Texture & Tone
It’s partly tone, partly level, partly how dominant something is in the mix. If you compress something – its texture changes. Listen out for it’s tonally as a sound, rather than just checking it’s variation in level. How pervasive is it compared to everything else, despite it’s volume in the mix. How does it link into the overall texture of the song?
Textures are like a tonal color palette – you probably don’t want to mix a neon green element in with some nice earth tones (remember there are no rules!), but then again you don’t want everything the same shade of beige.
5. It’s About Melody
Even in the most distortion-fest mixes, our human nature will use our built-in pattern-detecting algorithms to extract a melody out of it somewhere, whether it be in the movement of the harmonics in the wall of guitar noise or in the groovy bass line. Make sure there’s one dominant melody at any given instant, or if there’s more than one, that they aren’t fighting and clashing with each other.