You might be feeling one of these extremely common frustrations regarding mixing in Pro Tools: I am a music production beginner and don’t know how to approach a mix from scratch? Or you might be wondering: what sort of practice routine or templates can I set up to help improve my mixes?
Don't worry you're in the right place! I want to cover the first point in this blog post and next week I will approach the second point, practice routines.
One of the big problems you encounter when learning to mix is that most people are schooled to approach problems by breaking them down into smaller tasks. This is, of course, useful when mixing, but often novices are breaking down these tasks into inappropriate chunks.
For instance, I have seen beginners do all of their equalisation, then the compression, then the effects etc. Others start on the kick, then move to the snare etc. Unfortunately, though, these are both poor strategies, as mixing isn’t really a linear process. More on this later.
Without exception, the mixing process really begins by listening. Every song is unique, so to come up with a plan of action you need to understand its purpose i.e. its place in the world, why was it written and who is it for?
This should tell you who the song should appeal to and this is who you should be mixing it for. For instance, a punk rock song will require less precision and creating a “high fidelity” mix could even be detrimental to the message of the song.
To be able to do the mix, you need to understand both where you want the mix sonically and emotionally, and also where the tracking and production put it currently.
To better understand the workflow of mixing, let’s break it down into 5 action stages.
Listen to the song from start to finish without pausing, make notes on:
What are the pros/cons of the recording quality?
Any immediate concerns? (such as tuning, timing, arrangement, phase coherence)
What is the purpose of the song? (both musically and lyrically)
What elements are the most important? (listening for lead melodies and important harmonic elements)
What sort of genre precedents will the listener expect?
The first few times you do this, take some physical notes. As you get more experienced, you may find that you just start to think about all of this naturally.
It is important to start with the administrative and laborious tasks, such as editing timing and pitch, phase correction, routing, colour coding and grouping. Sometimes I’ll even do some “pre-mixing” which will remove obvious spectral or dynamic problems such as:
Removing resonant frequencies with notch filters
Removing rumble with high-pass filters
Using clip gain to help reduce excessive dynamic range and aid consistency
The reason that this is important, is because separating these tasks from the creative ones means that your brain doesn’t have to switch between different types of activities and therefore lose that focus you can achieve from being “in the zone”. I have also found that once I start the creative tasks, I get lazy and don’t end up doing the boring stuff.
A bonus tip here is that if you have an EP or album, you can batch all of it into a single session. This way, you are super focused and can get the work done in less than half the time of doing it individually.
When you start to make a decent income from mixing, this would be the first thing that you should outsource to an assistant. However, be aware that you will want to oversee action step 1 first so that you can direct what editing needs to be done.
Often, an assistant will be less experienced and may be tempted to over-edit the source material. This is because they are often only focused on the technical aspects and not the artistic or creative side. Just a little bit of direction at this stage will save you hours of corrections later.
This is where it gets a little more fun! you can add all your basic processing such as EQ, compression, saturation and FX.
Before you spend time loads of time processing, spend a few minutes just balancing and panning the instruments. You will be surprised how you can alleviate some of your perceived problems just from an appropriate balance.
My approach to this static mix stage changes dependant on the notes I made in the mix planning stage.
I know some mixers like to always start their static mix stage with the rhythm section and build from there, and others like to start with the lead vocal. This can work well, as long as you have planned and prepped the mix before this stage.
If you watch me mix, it may seem like I am arbitrarily jumping around between instruments, but there is a simple methodology there. I am handling the "big wins" first i.e. the most important instruments to the song, the overall “shape” of the mix and any obvious problems. In the case of most contemporary genres, this is often the drums and lead vocals.
I also like to apply top-down mixing approaches as early as possible. See my YouTube video here for more information on that.
I find that prioritizing the important elements AND the big problems get me closer to a finished mix in a fraction of the time.
If you think about it, this makes sense; there is no point wasting a lot of time processing a tambourine which is barely audible in the mix!
One final tip here is that it is much more important to process instruments together, rather than in solo. Remember, the listener is not going to be listening to elements in isolation. If I am struggling to hear the nuances of an instrument, I usually like to solo groups of instruments rather than just one channel.
I pretty much only ever use solo to identify problems that I am already hearing when the mix is playing.
This stage is where you fine-tune everything. Think of yourself as the conductor and it is your job to make sure that the song has the right journey and emotional impact.
This stage can also include the automation of plug-in parameters, so it is a great way to help maximise the impact of the song’s “scene changes”.
We are entering into the realm of diminishing returns here. You can get a mix 80% there in a few hours, but this stage can be a little nitty-gritty and can take another few hours to get the final 20%. However, this is the difference between a good mix and an outstanding one.
Naturally, your client will want to hear your mix and have the opportunity to give their input. However, this is also a chance for you to take a break. Listen in other environments and generally “refresh” your ears. You’ll be surprised on the amount you can improve a song with just an hour of tweaks the next day!!
So there you have it, the 5-stage mix process! By breaking a mix down into these macro stages rather than breaking it down per instrument or by function, you can get better mixes faster and without the overwhelm.
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