I consider mixing music to be like no other creative outlet. It is subjective, it is technical, it is passion, it is soul... it is music. There are however key disciplines that music mixers use to focus those attributes of mixing music in order to get great sounding mixes every time.
Without the following disciplines, mixes can quickly get the better of you. You'll only have yourself to blame if you don't work to a set of mixing disciplines. Below are 5 mixing disciplines I have used for many years that I regard as essential mixing rules which help to mix music that I'm proud and my clients praise and pay for.
For the purpose of this article lets consider we have a strong song as a starting point that was well written, arranged and recorded. Mixes are much easier to complete if the work was done correctly and tastefully in pre-production and tracking stages.
Let's start with deadlines. Why are deadlines important? If you don't have a deadline you run the risk of over-egging the pudding. It's all too easy to keep tweaking a mix which will make you lose sight of what you originally set out to do for the song. Deadlines keep a mixer focused and on target. I work to deadlines all the time for my clients. When I work on my own material without a deadline I either don't finish the song or I overindulge myself in the process which results in questionable sounding mixes.
When an achievable deadline is in place it is as important to schedule tasks within the mixing process. Setting time for the following tasks help me to be focused on the job at hand. Write down a rough time sheet for tasks such as:
- Session organisation: Includes track names, track colours, marker locations, buses, aux track setup etc
- Editing Audio: Includes fixing performance timing, tuning, clip fades, etc
- Static Mix: Getting a broad "static" mix with faders set in place
- Processing Mix: Using plug-ins and/or outboard to shape the tonality of tracks
- Creative Mix: Automation, fader throws to bring tracks in and out of focus within the mix
- Final Mix: Making small adjustments to complete and deliver mix
It is not a smart move starting a mix without preparing and organising a session first. Track names need to be clear, track colours should follow a theme that you know well, song markers need to be in place for quick session navigation, effects returns should be set up and ready (even if no plug-in are chosen).
A well-organised session will keep you focused on creative mixing tasks. The second you can't find something in a session your creative flow is broken and substituted for technical thinking. It's hard to switch back to creative thinking when you've lost focus trying to find something in a session, trust me. Try to safeguard yourself against these types of situations with well thought out mix prep and session organisation.
The volume of your monitors will play a very large part in getting mixes to sound good and translatable in other playback systems. It's all too easy to crank up the volume of studio monitors but be warned, loud monitors will do a lot of harm to you and also your mixes.
Loud monitors will fatigue your ears and concentration very quickly which can harm your time management and threaten any deadline. I don't buy into the process of setting monitors at a specific loudness, instead, I use good old-fashioned common sense. I listen to a track I mixed previously that I like the sound of and I set the monitors to an appropriate level which means I can hear buttons click on my outboard gear and control surface buttons which are placed around my mixing position.
Loud monitors can also cause problems with the soundscape. It's difficult to hear the results of compression at loud volumes, if you struggle to hear compressor attack and release times then I recommend you mix quietly as it is much easier to hear compressor behaviour at lower monitoring levels.
Another benefit of mixing at low levels is it helps mixers to get punch and clarity into a mix. If a mix sounds big and powerful at low monitoring levels then imagine what it will sound like at loud levels. The reverse never works, if you mix loud and want a punchy mix then you are only fooling yourself when you hear the mix back through a smaller playback system.
Tracking stages can get a bit unruly sometimes in regards to audio track levels. It's always worth making sure that each audio track has a good amount of headroom and that the combined sum of all the tracks isn't punishing the master two buss track. I use either the clip gain feature in Pro Tools to lower the volume of audio tracks coming into the mixer or a Trim plug-in on the first insert set to -12db across each track if I need to get some headroom in the session before I start a mix.
Less Is More
If our mixing start point is a well written and arranged song that was tracked correctly then adopt the "Less Is More" discipline. I like to get "easy wins" when I start a mix. Wins such as:
- Can I shape the dynamics of that entire drum kit to my liking with one stereo bus compressor plug-in on the drum mix bus instead of processing each track with multiple plug-ins?
- What is that one thing that will make that vocal a beautiful feature?
It's important to trust your instincts when mixing music. Use anything you've got at your disposal but use what you've got when you absolutely need it. Try not to use plug-ins for the sake of using insert point 5 or because you just purchased a plug-in on offer. "Less is more" is the key to getting mixes sounding great, quickly and without hassle.
Those are 5 of my essential mixing disciplines that have served me well over the years. Do please share any disciples that you use in your mixing workflows.