The northwest air is filled with a chill, Starbucks is pushing their 420-calorie pumpkin spice latte, and everyone is settling into their studios for the winter. Now is the perfect time to be setting goals to work on. Some people might want to find a new piece of gear to explore, others may be pursuing more clients, but I propose before you commit to the next big project do one thing. Ask yourself, how can I get better this season at mixing? Here is a small tip that I have learned early on that has been invaluable for me in the studio and live environment.
Don’t have creepy faders.
What does that mean? Well, nothing related to Halloween if you are wondering. In the studio environment, as you begin to track and record parts for your album, you normally start with drums and get them loud, punchy and sweet sounding. And after a time, you finally get them to sound just like the album you love. Moving on from the drums you track some bass and get it to sit nicely with the kick and the rest of the kit. Then after you add on some vocals, keys, percussion, reverb, electric guitar, background vocals and who knows what else, all of a sudden your drums sound lifeless. Why is that? It’s a question I asked myself many times starting out, but I found it comes down to two things.
Ignoring mix busses
As tracking a song progresses, you move from instrument to instrument with each successive one being on the top because you want to hear it clearly as you record it for any mistakes. One by one, each fader will creep up towards the top as you begin making changes. Sooner than later you are going to run out of headroom and start clipping the channel, reaching digital overload.
Worse yet, if you are sending all your tracks to your stereo out, it doesn’t allow for easy fine-tuning of your mix. Very quickly you will be asking yourself why the mix sounds nothing like it used to. And this problem is only magnified if you have any automation written to your track. You will be fighting an uphill battle the entire mix.
Here is my secret. You don't have to be pumping the volume levels anywhere near 0db on any channel. In the digital realm, you won't get any tone from doing that, just clipping if you go over! So in that case...before mixing, bring every fader down to about -15, route each channel and send to their own bus groups, DCAs etc., and label everything.
ORGANIZATION IS KEY TO NOT FRUSTRATING YOURSELF LATER.
When everything is routed to a bus, it means you can write automation on the channel and still make changes to the overall channel levels without making a second automation pass. Finally, use your master output volume knob to taste, and then go make your next hit.
What tends to frustrate you in the studio?
What do you wish you were better at?
Focus on those things, one at a time, and before you know it, they won’t be a struggle anymore.