Mixing Tricks and Treats

Halloween is around the corner—so to get in the spirit, let’s cover treats that can make for better mixes—as well as some problems that could trick you.

Start your mix in mono. Center the channel panpots (Fig. 1) before you start adjusting levels and inserting effects. If each track sounds distinct and separate in mono, the sound will really open up when you create a stereo soundstage.

Fig 1 Mixing Panpots
Figure 1: In Ableton Live’s mixer, the panpots (outlined in hot pink) are all set to center, prior to starting a mix.

Less is indeed more. It’s easy to fall in love with a clever part, but as you draw closer to completing a mix, try muting some tracks to see if those parts are really needed. Every added track competes with other tracks, so make sure each track supports—not conflicts with—the rest of the song.

Names and labels are good. Let’s see a show of hands for everyone whose audio clips say “Record 1,” “Record 2,” etc. I understand that in the heat of creativity, it’s no fun taking notes and labeling clips—but you’ll be glad you did when you come back to mix a month later, and find that the false starts and alternate vocals are labeled clearly as such (Fig. 2).

Fig 2 Mixing Labels
Figure 2: Both the tracks and the clips within those tracks are named in this view of Studio One’s Arrange view.

Cut the noise. Trim clips to only those sections with audio. The noise between those sections may seem insignificant, but lots of little bits of noise from lots of different tracks can add up. Deleting this noise is like removing dust from a painting.

Normalize guitar track audio that’s going to be processed by an amp sim plug-in. Distortion-oriented amp sim presets are sensitive to input level changes, especially with distortion. If your input levels are inconsistent from one track to another, you’ll be constantly tweaking drive or gain controls. You don’t have to normalize to full scale—normalizing to -1 or -2 is fine. What matters is a consistent level, and that you base your presets on these levels.

Consider processing electric bass parts with Melodyne. Although most people associate Melodyne with vocals, it works great with bass. Even with a perfectly tuned bass, the tuning will vary when a string sustains. Flattening the pitch variations with Melodyne (Fig. 3) gives a stronger bass line because it will be in tune with your other instruments, instead of fighting their tuning and creating beat notes.

Fig 3 Melodyne Bass
Figure 3: Melodyne can process bass to make sure that the low-end notes are perfectly in tune with the rest of the track.

Do a reality check with headphones. Headphones can compensate for studio acoustics issues, which is important unless you really trust your studio’s acoustics. Of course, headphones have their own issues, like exaggerating the stereo spread—but a quality set of headphones, designed for studio use and when used as a reality check along with speakers, can help make better mixes.

Mix at low levels. Although the Fletcher-Munson curve will trip you up because the bass and treble won’t be as prominent, mixing at low levels makes it easier to hear the relative balance of all the instruments. After nailing the balance, turn up the volume, and make sure the bass and treble aren’t too loud. Adjust as needed.

Reduce the bass frequencies going into reverb. Reverberated kick, bass, floor tom, lower-frequency guitar and piano notes, etc. muddy a mix. Increase a mix’s clarity by reducing low frequencies before they enter a reverb processor (Fig. 4).

Fig 4 Mixing Reverb
Figure 4: Note the low-frequency cutoff, and slight high-frequency lift, in Studio One’s Pro EQ prior to feeding the Open Air reverb.

Don’t master while you mix. Many people will disagree with me about this, and that’s fine, because we all have different workflows. I prefer to treat a mix as solely about achieving the best possible balance and mastering solely about polishing that mix. This isn’t all that important if all you do is single tracks, but with albums, if your final track is processed it may not fit in with the other tracks that are processed…so you’re going to have to go back and bounce an unmastered version anyway.

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