Mixing is one of those things that is necessary in the music production world, but quite often a lot of producers just can't get it right. It can be very difficult at times because some of us have the ear just to produce, while others are good at picking apart tracks and making them sound great together.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Not everyone is going to be great at mixing, but you can at least try to improve your mixes. Here are six ways you can:
1. Keep Your Mixes Simple
Whenever I offer advice to someone about their mixing, the first thing I always tell them is to keep it simple. I can't stress this enough because especially in today's music world, it just seems like all the songs out there are just jammed together with tons of instrumentation.
Instead, it's always best to ease back and start your mix with a very basic layout. Normally, you can achieve this by creating a template in your favorite DAW, and loading it up when you're ready to work. Once you have all your tracks ready to be mixed, you have to stop and think about what you want to do next.
Most producers will start by adding compression or reverb to certain tracks, especially vocals. Although it's necessary to add effects to your vocal track (to some degree), the point is that it doesn't need to be done right away.
The first thing I always do is I mix all my tracks together completely dry. I really don't see how anyone can do it any other way, because mixing them dry allows me to get the best possible sound from each track without adding anything to the mix, like effects.
If you can get your mix to sound pretty good on its own, then once you do add effects, it will only enhance the mix, not make it muddy or sound terrible.
But the other main reason to keep your mix as dry as possible is that since you're not using tons of effects, it will not require much RAM or processor speed from your computer, which in turn will make your DAW run smoother.
2. Compression Is Great, But You Need To Use It Wisely
Compression is one of those things that a lot of producers love to use, especially within the Hip Hop world. Over the years I have heard many beats from producers that seem to make it their mission to overly compress every track in sight.
One of the most commonly compressed tracks is drums. I know that a lot of times it sounds so dope if you compress your drum track, but it doesn't matter if it's drums, vocals, or clarinet (I don't know if I have ever heard the clarinet in a Hip Hop beat) - compression can do more harm than good.
Take for example, The Beatnuts' "Watch Out Now" song from the 90's. I always refer to this beat when explaining the overuse of compression, but it's a perfect example. Listen:
It's so blatantly obvious how much they compressed their drums, and maybe back when that song came out it was okay, but listening to it now, it has not aged well. The drums really sound like they don't belong with the rest of the song, if you know what I mean.
It's kind of like if you make a drum track on an SP1200, which is 12-bit and contains audio artifacts, but yet the rest of your beat was done in 16 or 24-bit, with samples from a FLAC audio file.
It just won't sound right.
3. Using Headphones To Mix Is A Big Mistake
A long time ago, I learned this the hard way. At the time, I did not have a great setup and I didn't even have speakers, so I had no choice but to make beats and mix all on my headphones.
It was convenient, but for mixing it just won't work.
The reason why is because headphones are unreliable. It's true that even stereo speakers aren't either, but most monitors (I'm talking about studio monitors) are made to obtain the cleanest sound possible. If you were to listen to your mix on your studio monitors and then on a pair of regular speakers from a stereo system, you would notice a big difference.
With regular speakers, just like headphones, extra bass might have been added in, or maybe not enough bass.
We have all been there, using headphones that sound great and have thick bass, but the minute you put on a song with lots of 808 drums in it, the low end seems too thick now.
But the main reason why headphones are no good for mixing is that the mix only sounds good to YOU. This is because you are so used to using those headphones every day for your music that of course it's going to sound great.
This is why it's so important to let other people listen to your mix.
4. Let Other People Listen To Your Mix, And Value Their Feedback
Quite often, music producers do not like to get honest feedback on their music. This is probably because they spend hours in their studio creating what they think is something truly special, but in reality, it could be a complete mess that no one will like.
It's very important to mix your tracks in a way that sounds great to you, but the main thing you must remember is that it's not about you, it's about the listener.
For example, with most of today's music, the mixes are very loud and overly compressed, and this is why when you listen to any Pop song today, it sounds the same as the rest of them. There is a formula that recording engineers are using today when they mix Pop songs, but the same can be said for Hip Hop as well.
Even though I think today's mixes suck, at least they are being mixed for the listener. And that's the way it's supposed to be.
Getting feedback on your mix is extremely important, because it's just like getting feedback on your beat itself. The great thing about feedback is that it allows other producers to listen to what you have done and give you honest criticism. You have to also remember that these are producers just like you, so it's not like you are getting just anyone to listen.
However, getting friends and family to listen to your mix is also important because it could open you up to some other ideas. Let's say your cousin doesn't listen to Hip Hop but he's a big fan of Rock music. If he were to listen to your mix, he might be able to offer advice about it compared to the Rock music mixes he's used to.
That is why it's not just about getting feedback on your mix itself, but also it gives you a chance to think of different ways you can actually do your mix.
5. Your Mix Needs To Sound Great On All Mediums
Just like how your mix should sound great through your studio monitors instead of headphones, the same can be said for many different devices.
With the exploding popularity of mobile devices, and the fact that most people are using their phones to stream and download music, it's necessary that you make your mix sound great everywhere.
Which is also virtually impossible!
What you must remember is that with a mobile device, or even a clock radio, your mix will never be 100% perfect like it is in the studio. With that in mind, my advice is that you should always make your mix sound great in the studio with nice monitors, and the rest should fall into place.
You may come across an article that tells you how to optimize your mixes for small listening devices, but that's not going to ever happen. One of the reasons is because those small devices have tiny speakers that are just not capable of producing the sounds that a studio monitor can.
However, if you are thinking about mobile devices, most people will use earphones to listen, but that's when you have to trust those companies that make the headphones, to reproduce your mix accurately. Whether it's a phone, small radio, or car radio, it will never be perfect, but you can at least try by nailing down the mix properly in the studio.
6. Never Mix Right After You Have Completed Your Beat
You might be one of those people that are so excited about the beat you just made, that you want to start mixing it right away. Wrong!
There are many times when I have produced a beat that sounded great, even though it took me a few hours to make it. But after it's done, my ears are so tired that I cannot possibly start mixing it because I'm just not ready.
The best thing to do is to wait a few days. Yes, a few. I don't mean the next day, I mean two or three days at least. The reason why is because first of all, it gives you a chance to take a break. Second, when you do come back to that beat, you might notice how it sounds very different than what you remember. If that is the case, then you're still not ready to mix.
Now it's time to fix the beat.
So by taking a break of a few days, you're actually getting two benefits out of it, and that's a good thing because you wouldn't want to spend a few hours mixing the beat, coming back a few days later and not liking what you mixed.
If you did that, then you would have to start all over again.
When you're ready to mix, not only should the beat be finally finished, you should also be mentally and physically prepared. You may think that mixing is no big deal and you can do it whenever, but if you're trying to really create an amazing mix, it should be a slow process that requires a lot of attention and focus. And you will not be able to have those things if you try to tackle the mix right away.
Finish your beat first, take a break, reassess, then mix.
Further Reading Related to Audio Mixing
- How To Get Your Bass And Kick To Play Nice - The low end is very important and you don't want it to be muddy. Make them play nice.
- Your Snare Is Wack - Time To Beat It Up - The snare can make or break your beat. Make sure it sounds dope.
- 5 Reasons Why Your Kick Drum Sucks - It might be too thick or too thin, either way your kick drum probably sucks.
- Why Are Basslines So Difficult? Learn A Simple Method - An easy to understand method on improving your bassline.
- Understanding Mixing - Mixing is very important, and this tutorial will show you the basics.
- A Totally Different Way Of Understanding Compression - Lots of times compression is not used properly. Learn what compression actually does, in part 1 and part 2.
- Understanding Studio Monitors 101 - Headphones are not the ideal mixing solution, instead you should have good studio monitors.