In this last article in the series, I’ll chat to you about some of the basics of mixing and mastering your track.
Preparing for the Mix
Inevitably, good mix plug-ins often use up more CPU power than lower end ones – although that’s not to say the pro’s don’t use them. It depends if they give the sound you want. The experience you have comparing similar type plug-ins, or hardware for that matter, will tell you if you are getting something you like. You’ll have to get to the point where you are picking the right tool for the applicable job. So, if at first you don’t succeed, just keep on mixing. If that is your calling, the sonic bug will catch you and you’ll be like everyone else talking about “is my vocal sitting right”, “how can I get my bass to blend well with my kick” and so on.
Don’t Trust Your Ears Alone
Okay, my point of view is never mix or master your project without the right reference. I think that it’s better to constantly listen to a reference music track you think fits the bill and make informed decisions about your mix than to simply mix using your ear’s own perception. Import a reference track, pull down its level to roughly match your mix and listen to how it compares. Your mix should be punchier than the reference because that track has already been mastered – so don’t judge your relative level or dynamics (punch) of your mix too much at this stage. Take note of where the vocal is sitting and so on and match it. At the same time, remember it is a reference and you are not trying to duplicate it, but be in the same ball park. This also means you need to know your room and reference studio monitors well – no good listening to a reference on not-so-great speakers and in a bassy, reverberant room and making the wrong adjustments. The ticket is to train your ears and reference often.
Mixing is getting all the elements of your track to fit together so that they can all be heard and that, overall, the track works. You generally start with two things: an equaliser and a compressor, as needed, on every channel. My rule of thumb is to solo the instrument and get it sounding good alone and then put it with everything else and see how it fits and make adjustments from there. An equaliser will carve away frequencies that either you don’t need (such as low sub and bass frequencies in general) or boost frequencies that may be lacking. A compressor will even out the softs and louds of the instrument. Then add effects such as reverb or delay and pan sounds to the left and right. Create a balance in your mix by making sure you have breadth (panning and stereo interest), height (enough high, mid and low frequencies) and depth (phase, distance and air). To go to mastering your mix should not have any “master” level effects, which affect the total mix, and should be below -3 dB when coming through the master meters.
Mastering is the step after mixing. It looks at the mix as a whole and makes overall adjustments in compression, equalisation, phase (stereo widening), reverb, saturation & soft clipping (purposefully distorting a mix so it gets louder) and final limiting. Use your reference again and make adjustments – here you can judge relative volume. Once you have finished, bounce your track down and put it onto an audio CD. Take a listen wherever you can – a common stereo or car system. Take note of what sounds right and wrong then go back and make adjustments. Mix and master repeatedly ‘till it comes right.
It has been awesome guiding you through all the steps and I’ll return in the next issue with some juicy info on making records.