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Music mixing is an incredibly subjective creative art. It can take years of hard work and trial and error for any mixer to discover his or her individual style, not to mention develop their chops. I know I'm still learning with every project I work on. In this movie, I'd like to share some tips that I hope will you start you off in the right direction as you delve into this vast and crucial area of music and audio production and begin to create your own distinctive sound. You've got to keep in mind the limitations of your software and your hardware, and know the limitations and virtues of your source audio tracks.
What microphones were used? Cheapies or industry standards? A bad original source track will cause you big problems in the mixing phase. Were the tracks recorded in a noisy environment or an acoustically sound room? Recording nice hot but not peaked levels will always give you better signal to work with and a low amount of noise. And a quiet mediocre original source recording will introduce problems, namely ambient background noise to your mix as you try to raise those elements up to be heard. The more you can know about your system, your gear, and the history of your source tracks, the better armed you'll be to optimize them in the context of a mix.
There are still a lot of things that be done to overcome deficiencies like these, but it's good to be realistic about what you have to work with from the get-go. Know the effect that the room or space in which you're mixing has on how you hear things. Bring your speakers into some different spaces and play the same piece of music through them. Get to know your gear and your space. Maybe invest in some bass straps or other acoustic treatments to create a more manageable sound in your mixing room. Okay, here's where high school geometry comes back into the picture. Make sure your speakers or monitors are at ear level, equidistant from one another, forming an equilateral triangle with your head at the tip and the two speakers at the far points, aimed 30 degrees inward at your ears.
It's also essential to get your speakers up off your desk or console. Invest in some speaker stands. Mixing at a moderate volume, especially for long sessions, is also crucial. Start out the day with your speakers turned up too aloud and your sensitivity will be crushed by lunchtime. It's generally a bad idea to do a whole mix in headphones; you really want to hear your mix in actual speakers. Be sure to test your mix in headphones, certainly, but don't make that your starting point, unless the only thing that will ever be done with your mix is playing it in the headphones. For example, you might be doing background music for a walking museum tour where listeners will always be using headphones.
Headphones can generally be deceiving. Listen and trust your ears to tell you what's going on. You should also be mixing with your gut. There's an emotional aspect to music which you should be tuning into and reacting to. Mixing is the process that brings all of the aspects of listening and feeling together. If you're not feeling it, it may not be quite right. Trial and error is a great way to see whether something is working. Keep pen and paper handy to make notes for yourself while listening, but don't forget to keep listening. Have a crazy idea? Try it! You can always press Undo.
Make a list and have CDs on hand of some of your all-time favorite sounding recordings in the genres you're working within your mixes. Every time you hear something that blows you away, you should add that CD to the list. Even investigate the producer, recording engineer, and mixing engineer who are on the record and use the Internet to find out what else they've done. These can be personalized reference guides to making things sound good. After a certain number of hours, ears can develop fatigue. The time it takes for this to happen is different for everyone, but in my experience, it's somewhere in the four to six-hour range and depends on what you're mixing and how loud your speakers are.
Throughout a long day of mixing, you start to fail to be able to hear certain frequencies with the same accuracy that you may have had just a couple of hours before. If you do continue mixing through fatigue, the work you turn out will not actually sound like you think it sounds. Sensitivity to certain frequencies will diminish as your ears become fatigued, and you may start boosting those frequencies in your mix to compensate. When you hear the mix a day or two later, you may realize that those frequencies have been made far too loud for a balanced sound. Take frequent breaks. Mixing can be physically and mentally taxing endeavor when you work at it over many hours.
Breaks not only keep you rejuvenated and give you time to remember to eat a meal or get some sunshine, but they give your ears a rest period as well. You'll hear things more distinctly and more clearly if you don't let ear fatigue set in. Use the entire stereo space of your mix to position things and create sonic space between instruments and voices. Let things breathe. With audio mixing, you're looking for balance and blend. The elements in your mix need to work together, not against each other. Things should be individually discernible, but should also sound as if they're all in the same space.
Once you've used your stereo sphere to your liking, it's always good to listen to your mix in a mono environment as well. You can use Export Song to Disk in GarageBand, and under Audio Settings, click the Mono radio button before exporting. See what it sounds like. Learn to use EQ to remove offending frequencies from your tracks. Sometimes the EQ requires to make an instrument sound good by itself when solo-ed is not the EQ you want on that sound once the whole mix is up. Too much low end in your individual instrument tracks will compound and make a real problem for you later.
Remove the low end from instruments that don't need it and if your mix is thin at the end of your process, you can always EQ the entire mix and add in some lows. It's often better to cut frequencies than it is to boost frequencies. The best advice I ever got about mixing? Mixing is about taking away, not about adding more. Sleeping on it is a great technique for being able to hear you work clearly. Make a mix and then listen to it again the next day. If it still sounds good, you've got a mix. Be prepared for the possibility of going back to the drawing board a couple of times.
This should be considered normal. Sometimes starting over is the best solution. Know if and when you've hit that point. A good tip is to start your mix by reducing the individual levels for every track in your project down to -6.0, and work up from there. If you don't do this and start out say at 0 or unity gain, you'll run out of headroom very quickly when you start boosting things. Listen to your mixes on many different systems. On your mixing station, in your living room, on your surround sound media center, on a cassette clock radio, or on a boombox, on good headphones and on bad headphones.
One of the most telling environments in which to hear your mixes is in the car. Mixing is a craft and an art and many people spend their whole lives learning to become master mixing engineers. It's an incredibly technical and creative endeavor. That said no one to say enough is enough and either start over or call it done. Contemplate what Leonardo da Vinci had to say about it: "Art is never finished, only abandoned." And finally, have fun while mixing. In my humble opinion, mixing can be one of the most enjoyable aspects of audio production.
The more practice you have with it, the more likelihood there is of making truly classic mixes and the more you'll enjoy doing it. Mixing isn't for everyone, but those who end up being really good at it most certainly love doing it. You kind of have to. It can be tedious, repetitious, and very detail-oriented. Allow your enjoyment of the process to flow out through the speakers to your listeners.
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