We’ll fix it in the mix.“ – Of all the rock‘n‘roll lies, this is certainly the best known. With equalizers, compressors and the like, you can iron out some recording problems, but you certainly can‘t make a hit out of a bad track. Fortunately, there is no recipe for how a really good song should sound, which opens up unimagined creative freedom for the mixdown. Aside from the creative aspect, there are a few basic technical points to consider when mixing that are simply characteristic of good craftsmanship. The following six basic rules will help you on your way to a successful mix.
1 / Volume - The magic key
Your most important tool for getting a good mix is the level faders. Make decisions about how your instruments should be balanced in the mix and adjust the volume levels accordingly. You can also consider which instruments are in the foreground and background of reference songs in the same musical genre. The golden rule for the mixdown is: „Trust your ears!“
2 / Dynamics - use them wisely
A distinction is made between micro- and macrodynamics. The former describes the dynamics within a recording or audio track (transient movements). Macrodynamics, on the other hand, refers to the differences in loudness within a complete song. Microdynamics can be influenced by using compressors, limiters and transient processors. The compressor is the ideal tool for keeping dynamic instruments at a relatively constant level or for bringing signals more to the foreground. Since strong compression also brings background noise to the front, it is important to consider whether or not level automation of dynamic sound sources is more appropriate. Macrodynamics can be controlled by level automation, among other things. In many mixes, for example, level dynamics can be observed that clearly differentiates between individual sections. For example, you could make a verse thinner and quieter and a chorus dense and loud. These contrasts can be used to support the tension in your composition.
3 / Frequency staggering
The frequency ranges of the individual instru- ments will certainly overlap in a mix. You can get a grip on these sonic conflicts with equalizers. When using equalizers, it‘s a good idea to first consider which frequencies are characteristic of which instrument, so that you can create space in the frequency spectrum at the right places. Then it‘s important to create space by lowering a frequency range where the basic sound of ano- ther instrument can be harmonically combined. Here, tonal corrections are often done on a very small scale.
4 / Panning - ultimate widening
Distribute the instruments sensibly in the stereo field. Bass drum, snare, bass, lead vocals and lead instruments are usually placed in the center. Two complementary guitar or synthesizer tracks, for example, can be arranged left and right in the stereo image. This allows you to create specific space without compromising mono compatibility. By arranging them within the stereo landscape, you can also separate instruments whose frequencies compete with each other. Even in this case, you should always check from time-to-time to see what your mix sounds like in mono.
5 / Depth through layering
Reverberation is used to arrange individual instruments in a room. By layering different instrument groups at different depths, you increase their transparency and positioning. By attenuating the high frequencies, you can also make instruments sound more in the background. Instruments that should be in the background can handle longer reverberation times, while vocals, drums and important solo instruments are usually only provided with a short reverb.
6 / Liveliness - create tension
No mix runs in a straight line from start to finish. „Drive“ individual parameters like track levels, panning positions and selected effect levels with automations. Use the song content as a guide. For example, how about moving the harmony parts back in the verses to emphasize them in the chorus? Well thought-out automation of volume levels, or even certain effect parameters, can bring more liveliness to your mix.
Tuning kick and bass
A solid foundation of kick and bass is particularly important for club music. By tuning the bass drum to the fundamental tone of the bass, you can ensure that the two harmonize well together. The pitch of the bass drum is easy to find with spectrum analysis tools like the freely available Voxengo SPAN : Load it as an insert effect and see in which area the spectrum is most violent. This is usually very obvious with kicks. SPAN shows frequency and pitch at the top. Now tune the kick to the keynote of the bass. When using samples, avoid jumps of more than two semitones; otherwise, the power will be lost. If in doubt, look for a different kick drum that will sit better with the bass instead.
Make thin mixes fatter
This technique, also called New York compression, adds the unprocessed signal to the compressed signal, resulting in a rich but open sound. Try to heavily compress the finished stereo mix with a very long attack and short release time and add the processed signal quietly to the dry signal. The result sounds much denser than the original without losing clarity or dynamics. If your dynamics processor does not have a dry/wet control, you can simply create a copy of the original track and compress it heavily. The result should pump nicely, but should not drag. Finally, mix the compressed signal quietly with the dry track.
Popular mixdown effects
Compressors and equalizers are the most important, but not the only, mixdown effects. A good mix is not recognized by its loudness, but by its stylish and lovingly crafted details. The task in mixdown is to select those effect plug-ins (from a vast arsenal of available effects) that support the basic message of the song and help to combine the individual elements into a homogeneous whole.
By using specific effects, you can also bring selected instruments more into the „spotlight“ of your mix. Modulation effects such as Flanger or Phaser can add exciting accents to your mix. The Chorus effect is particularly popular for adding more richness and liveliness to backing vocals, guitars and synthesizer sounds.
Exciter, enhancer & saturation
These effects can add freshness, clarity and brilliance to the signal by amplifying existing (or creating additional) overtones; however, care should be taken when using these enhancers. The ear gets used to this effect quickly, which is why they are easily overused. Carefully applied, saturation and distortion effects can also come to the foreground (e.g. subtle saturation on vocals or slight distortion on a bass line).
Zoom LiveTrak L-8
The Zoom LiveTrak L-8 combines a digital mixing console and an audio recorder with additional extras and is aimed specifically at podcasters and small bands. It has 8 inputs and 4 headphone connections, as well as six pads for playing intros, outros and sound effects. With the LiveTrak L-8 you can also record up to 12 separate tracks. An SD card serves as storage space. Alternatively, a computer connected via USB can be used for recording and playback. For recordings on the road, this digital mixer and recorder can be operated with batteries. The option to save almost all mixer settings in 7 scenes and recall them at the push of a button is also an asset in the studio.
The combination of a digital mixing console and multitrack audio recorder is particularly interesting for podcasters because of mixer presets, sound pads, and individual headphone outputs. Its direct and easy-to-use operation, as well as the extensive features, make the LiveTrak L-8 (Checkout in the Amazon shop) an affordable allrounder for stage, rehearsal room and location recording.
www.zoom.co.jp | www.soundservice.eu | Price: 438 Euro
Black Lion Audio Bluey
Bluey is a replica of the famous 1176 FET-style compressor inspired by the multi-modified Bluestripe model. The feel and workmanship are a delight to behold. In the sound test, the unit shows all the strengths of the original, albeit with a sound that feels a bit more midrange and less high frequency. At a moderate setting, Bluey effectively reduces the level peaks on vocals and makes it easier to fit the vocals into a mix. Additionally, the compressor provides pleasant musical saturation. At more extreme settings, it brings drums, for example, really far forward and, if necessary, provides them with a good deal of harmonic distortion. This signal processor can make basses nice and fat, too. Thanks to the Dry/Wet control, it can also handle parallel compression.
Bluey (Checkout in the Thomann shop) is a convincing copy of an early model 1176 compressors that includes the characteristic saturation and harmonic distortion of the original. This versatile signal processor always sounds transparent, yet slightly softer than the original - making it a true recommendation that is especially good on vocals.
www.blacklionaudio.com | www.audiowerk.eu | Price: 975 Euro
Solid State Logic SSL SiX
With a compact form factor and a relatively low price for SSL, the SiX mixer brings the legendary SSL sound to the desktop studio. The 6-channel mixer comes with two mono and two stereo inputs each. There are also two stereo cues, two external inputs, two busses and two monitor outputs. The application possibilities are extended by inserts in the summing bus and in the two mono channels. The combination of a 2-band equalizer and the compressor per channel effectively brings signals forward. The SSL SiX impresses with its excellent workmanship, feel, above-average routing options and professional sound. Its preamps sound noise-free, clear and neutral and offer plenty of headroom... even for quieter signals. The 1-button compressors perform their tasks with excellence, especially for microphone recordings, and the bus compressor can also give a mix a good boost.
If you‘re looking for a compact mixer with only a few channels, but flexible routing and absolutely professional sound quality, the SSL SiX (Checkout in the Thomann shop) is a definite recommendation - despite its relatively high price of such a compact mixer.
www.solidstatelogic.com | www.audiopro.de | Price: 1359 Euro
Behind the name Aphex Exciter is a signal processor that has been continuously developed for more than three decades and is used for both mixing and mastering applications. This stereo unit offers individual adjustment options for both channels. In the Big Bottom section, you can emphasize the low frequencies in a musical way. The frequency range to be processed, the intensity of the effect and the effect amount can be adjusted. The Exciter section, on the other hand, allows you to emphasize the mid and high frequencies of the audio material by amplifying the overtones. The frequency range and the effect amount can also be adjusted here. Finally, the Harmonics slider lets you determine the intensity of the Enhancer effect.
The Aphex Exciter is an excellent tool for adding crispness to recordings and increasing the perceived loudness. Vocal instrument recordings and drums, as well as synthesizer and keyboard sounds can benefit enormously from processing. Moreover, this device can provide more punch in the low frequency range.
www.aphex.com | www.hyperactive.de | Price: 449 Euro
Warm Audio EQP-WA
The EQP-1a passive equalizer from Pulse Techniques, affectionately abbreviated as the Pultec-EQ, has enjoyed great popularity for decades due to its musical sound characteristics. With the EQP-WA, Warm Audio offers a convincing reproduction of the popular Pultec EQP-1a, with a great feel and high quality workmanship. Compared to plug-ins, the EQP-WA scores additional points with its large controls and its direct and latency-free operation. Compared to plug-ins and the inexpensive Klark Teknik EQP-KT, the tube saturation of the EQP-WA sounds more organic and musical. Unlike Klark Teknik‘s competing model, the level control makes it easier to adjust the stereo operation of two units and, in our tests with the EQP-WA (Checkout in the Amazon shop), we usually found the desired sound faster.
With its transparent and smooth sound, this equalizer is an excellent choice for processing vocals, instruments and drums, but can also be used to great advantage on mixes (as long as you have two of them).
www.warmaudio.com | www.sonic-sales.de | Price: 699 Euro
Klark Teknik 76-KT
At an extremely reasonable price, Klark Teknik offers the 76-KT, a replica of the famous Universal Audio
UA 1176 compressor. Compared to Black Lion Audio‘s Bluey, this version is based on the 1176LN with its transparent sound. At moderate settings, this dynamics processor reduces the level vocal peaks and other audio signals very discreetly but effectively and makes it much easier to sit them in the mix. If you press all the ratio buttons simultaneously, the input signal will be squashed and saturated just like in the vintage model - perfect for bringing vocals to the forefront and making bass or drums (including room tone) super fat. A dry/ wet control, like the one on the Black Lion Audio Bluey, is missing, though. For computerless setups, there
is no alternative in this price range and you can access it without hesitation. In terms of sound, however, the differences between this and good plug-ins are limited.
With the 76-KT (Checkout in the Amazon shop), Klark Teknik has created a convincing copy of the 1176 compressors, whose basic sound is somewhat more modern compared to the original model. The feel and workmanship are excellent, considering the extremely low price, and it is simply fun to work with.
www.klarkteknik.com | Price: 199 Euro
Tascam Model 12
Model 12 combines a live mixer with a multitrack audio recorder and USB interface, allowing you to use all three modes simultaneously. This compact and rugged device offers 10 analog inputs, divided into 8 tracks, and flexible routing options. The audio recorder allows multi-channel recordings in the rehearsal room or on stage and makes a computer unnecessary thanks to SD recording. Projects from the DAW can be transferred to the mixer in multiple tracks and used for live playback or supplemented with instrument and vocal recordings. In the desktop studio, the USB audio interface is convenient for multi-channel recording in the DAW, and Model 12 can be easily used as a DAW controller. All functions can be combined, so the price of this unit is very good.
Even as a mixing console with 8 microphone inputs, a one-knob compressor on all channels and a built-in effects unit, Model 12 (Checkout in the Amazon shop) already looks great; but its strength lies, without a doubt, in its versatility. As a powerful combination of mixer, recorder, audio interface and DAW controller, it shows its true strengths in the studio, rehearsal room and on stage.
www.tascam.eu | Price: 598 Euro
What has an audio interface for recording electric guitars lost in an article about mixing tools? Audient Sono‘s clever reamp function makes it a useful tool in the DAW-based studio in order to add tube saturation to dry signals for more warmth and punch. This unit integrates DSP that allows latency-free operation of the Two Notes Torpedo Remote amp/cabinet modeling software. This gives clean instruments the sound of a high-quality combination of guitar amp and speaker. Three presets can be stored directly in Sono. The tube produces a warm, smooth and round sound; the equalizer is well tuned to
it and proved to be very musical when tested. The audio interface allows recordings in 24-bit/96 kHz quality and has an optical ADAT input and two line outputs. The two combo inputs can be used for microphone and line signals, and phantom power can be switched on or off.
Featuring a powerful 3-band analog EQ and a tube preamp with finely adjustable saturation, Sono (Checkout in the Amazon shop) is an affordable secret weapon for adding more punch and mojo to not only guitar and bass signals, but its great on vocals, synths, keyboards and drums.
www.audient.com | Price: 282 Euro