Mixing is more than making sounds louder or softer. It utilizes sonic illusions to support the song’s intended expressive aspects.
In order to create a more believable sonic illusion, it’s important to have a good understanding of the material you’re working on. You can try to fake mixing a style of music you don’t like, but chances are the music will be less expressive as a mix by someone who appreciates that music style.
Dance music mixed by someone who has never been to a club (and I don’t mean observing, but being able to feel the beat and how a good DJ can work a room) will not make you move as much. A ballad mixed by someone who is not moved by subtle beauty may not contain the lush swirling “waves” that the song deserves. A rock song mixed by someone who has never felt the power of a Marshall stack may not have the “push” it requires.
Now that we’ve established being able to appreciate the mood of the material we’re working on, let’s talk about how to achieve it.
Remember that we’re only dealing with a limited number of variables when mixing.
SOUND: The sound of each instrument (which can be automated and change throughout the song), including the amount of punch, smoothness, clarity, warmth, edginess, etc.
VOLUME: How loud?
SOUND FIELD PLACEMENT: Where in the sound field is each instrument placed.
SPACE: Each sound can exist in its own space through reverbs, delays and surround sound placement.
PERFORMANCE ALTERATION: This includes fixing pitch, muting parts, moving parts, or adding delays to change or introduce a rhythm).
*The interaction between all of the instruments as these variables change throughout the song is the mix.*
Often songs already have sounds and parts that express the proper mood. When encountering a song that has sounds and parts that seem to push it in a different direction (such as a club song with no steady rhythms), you may have to try to use the recorded parts as raw materials for new parts or sounds that are more fitting to the feeling of the song.
Here are some suggestions for a few example styles of music. This is not intended to be a checklist of things to do for every style. For anything not listed below, think about what’s important for the particular song you’re mixing and tweak the raw materials to make the parts appropriate.
If it’s a ballad, you may have to “smear” some parts with reverb or delay. Depending on if the ballad is lush or stark, you may prefer a wide sound or an intimate one. If the goal is wide and only mono sounds, try stereo spreading plugins or simply panning the track to one side while sending it into very short delays panned to the other side.
Be careful of the drums—on ballads they should be gently pushing, getting aggressive when the vocal gets strong but except for rock ballads rarely overpowering. I always try to establish intimacy in my ballads, so when I’m working with “swirly pads” I always ride them early in the mix to help define the vocal space.
There are many different types of dance music, offering their own particular flavors and sounds, so I’m not going to get too much into specifics here. Generally, make the beat as strong as possible. Although wide use of stereo can help to clear up busy rhythm tracks, remember that dance music will ultimately be heard in large rooms with loudspeakers far away and separated by lots of people.
In other words, people may only get to hear one loudspeaker. If a sound is important to the overall rhythm, try not to pan it completely to one side.
If the drum parts have the wrong rhythm for the material you’re mixing, there might be the need to mute certain parts at specific places or even add delays to change the rhythm. The 1/8 delay used on the kick drum in Robert Palmer’s “Hyperactive” totally changed the feel of the song.
More complicated use of delays (such as 1/8, 1/4 or triplet notes) can take a simple kick-snare-rhythm and turn it into a funky or driving beat.
If the guitars are too clean for the function of the part they’re playing, you may need to add additional distortion. The Teletronix LA-2A was (is) great for this because the distortion was very musical.
I used to plug fuzz boxes and other guitar effects into the board (after compensating for the different in/out levels) and mix through them. Now there are guitar amp plugins that create some decent distortion, but use them carefully.
If the drums sound too dry for an “arena-rock” song, you’ll most likely want to send them into reverb for a bigger sound. Don’t just send everything in at the same amounts. Get your sounds up using your kick and snare, then after adding toms and overheads into the reverbs check to make sure there’s still enough punch (you may need to back off a little).
A popular trick is to gate room tracks and have the gate triggered by the kick, snare or toms, even setting up different sets of room track faders triggered by the individual drums and processed differently (with the snare triggered room being sent into an additional reverb, etc).
Of course, if you’re trying something dramatically different, it can be a good idea to try giving the client one mix they like with the tracks as they were recorded. Having “taken care of business” you can then move on to my favorite part of mixing: “Take 2.”
Sometimes Take 2 involves nothing more than different sounds or rides. Sometimes it involves muting or moving parts.
Remember to have the client happy with a first take before trying anything drastic, and also to be fast with the Take 2. Clients have every right to expect you to move on, so it may be hard to convince them to let you take the time to develop an idea. Try to consider alternate ideas while mixing and be ready to change to the second direction in 15 minutes or less. Then let the client hear it and ask if they want you to continue or move on.