Here’s an excerpt from The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook, Second Edition, available here.
Most great mixers think in three dimensions. They think “Tall, Deep and Wide,” which means to make sure that all the frequencies are represented, make sure the mix has depth, then make sure it has some stereo dimension as well.
The “Tall” dimension (which is called “Frequency Range”) is the result of knowing what sounds right as a result of having a reference point. This reference point can come from being an assistant engineer and listening to what other first engineers do, or simply by comparing your mix to some CDs, records or files that you’re very familiar with and consider to be of high fidelity.
Essentially, what you’re trying to accomplish is to make sure that all the frequencies are properly represented. Usually that means that all of the sparkly, tinkly highs and fat, powerful lows are there. Sometimes some mids need to be cut or other frequencies need to be added, but regardless what you add or subtract, Clarity is what you aim for.
Again, experience with elements that sound good really helps as a reference point.
The Effects or “Deep” dimension is achieved by introducing new ambience elements into the mix. This is usually done with reverbs and delays (and offshoots like flanging and chorusing) but room mics, overheads and even leakage play an equally big part as well.
The panning or “Wide” dimension achieved by placing a sound element in a sound field in such a way as to make a more interesting soundscape, and so that each element is heard more clearly.
But before we can talk about how to make a great mix, it’s good to be aware of the signs of one that isn’t that great. Does your mix have any of these characteristics?
Signs Of An Amateur Mix
No Contrast – The same musical textures are used throughout the entire song.
A Frequent Lack Of A Focal Point – There are holes between lyrics where nothing is brought forward in the mix to hold the listener’s attention.
Mixes That Are Noisy – Clicks, hums, extraneous noises, count-offs, and sometimes lip-smacks and breaths are all things that the listener finds distracting.
Mixes That Lack Clarity And Punch – Instruments aren’t distinct, and low-end frequencies are either too weak or too big.
Mixes That Sound Distant And Are Devoid Of Any Feeling Of Intimacy – The mix sounds distant because too much reverb or overuse of other effects.
Inconsistent Levels – Instrument levels that vary from balanced to too soft or too loud. Certain lyrics that can’t be distinguished.
Dull And Uninteresting Sounds – Generic, dated or frequently-heard sounds are used. There’s a difference between using something because it’s hip and new and using it because everyone else is using it.
So you’ve seen what comprises a bad mix. What makes a good one? First of all, let’s look at the elements that a great mix must have.