What is a Mix / Mixdown?
Firstly, let us understand the difference between the two topics: Mixing and Mastering. What is mixing or a complete mixdown?
Well simply put, a mixdown is the process whereby the final audio of our track gets an overall balance while finding the correct space in the stereo field and is ready for mastering. Think of it as a moulding process where we get our track to really sound great! This way a good final mixdown improves the quality of a finished master.
If we have a badly mixed track there is only so much the mastering engineer can do to fix it, so it is very important that we understand how to mix a song for the music you are producing before attempting to even master it. Different types of genres require different types of mixing processes.
What is in the mixing process you say? Well, mixing doesn’t only mean we adjust the faders to a desired volume, it also deals with: Panning, equalization, reverberation, effects and sometimes even editing audio. Imagine a track without any of the abovementioned elements, it would probably sound bland, boring and 9 times of out of 10 you wouldn’t want to listen to it.
Panning the Stereo Field
A quick and useful way of panning our tracks is to imagine yourself in front of a sound stage where all of the musicians are placed on different parts of the stage. The drummer will tend to be in the centre and the guitarists to the left and mostly right, with the bass player somewhere between them.
Now imagine the lead vocalist is just off-centre, with the backing singers to one side. This is a hypothetical situation of course, but you can see how a setup like this would be preferable to having everything play dead centre. Same thing applies to your mix. Having certain instruments panned not only creates space for them in the stereo field but also allows some interest in the mix!
Reverberation and Depth in our Mix
The aim of reverberation in our tracks is to create a sense of depth and distance while pushing certain instrument tracks a bit into the background which will give our overall mix better separation.
Whether you are using a single room verb for a drum snare or percussion as well as using a vocal plate verb on a vocal, immediately we can hear an improvement to the depth and distance of our mix. Be careful not to overdo it though, as too much depth can make the song sound very far away which will lose energy and drown itself if not controlled properly. But then again this depends on the music you are producing and how the producer wants it to sound.
The Cube Mixing Rule
With the use of panning together with reverb used in our track, it can help tremendously to picture our mix down as a 3D cube. Where the panning is considered to be the width of the mix, the depth therefore is how far we use our reverb in the mix and finally the elevation would be any EQ, amplitude or delay etc used in our mix.
Having a good understanding of this diagram helps us intuitively to correctly place each and every instrument in its own space. With experience, lots of people find that this method eventually becomes instinctive no matter what type of music you are mixing, and it also helps you to make critical decisions about certain settings quick and easy.
Labeling, grouping and preparing for the mix down
I’ve prepared a song I’ve mixed for a client recently which has a full arrangement of instruments and vocals. In this tutorial I’ll strip down as much as I can and explain the process of what I did to make the track better than it originally was.
1) First thing I do when I get the separate tracks (Wav. / Aiff. format) from a client is I sit down and listen to the mix a few times and get a feel of the actual song making notes along the way already of what I can do to make it sound better as well as what type of music it is and what IDM the song is in. I then identify the main audio tracks that hold the track together as well as the lead vocals of the track. Also you’ll notice I’ve edited all the spaces out.
2) Then I set my playback settings to a high latency buffer (2048) so that I avoid glitches from my audio interface and in this case we won’t be tracking any audio so latency for recording won’t be an issue.
3) Next most importantly I sit down and label each individual track and colour and group them at the same time, this makes my work flow much easier so when I’m mixing I don’t need to still find things. Drums and bass – Yellow, Instruments – Red, Vocals – Purple, FX – Blue.
4) Finally I load by aux buss tracks and print track. Not knowing how many buss tracks I’ll actually be using, I normally have my own set template for this. I then route and name all my busses, from drum buss, parallel comp, reverb, delay, instruments, etc. My print track allows me to record my bounced down audio and compare it when I’m attempting a second mix. So all I do is mute the track and when I want to hear it from time to time I just solo it and compare it to the current version of that mix. Always remember to take a break when mixing and go outside and come back as mixing for long periods of time can really be straining on your ears.