The Dreaded Mixdown Pt. 1

When talking shop with many budding artists and music producers, often one of the biggest pain points you’ll hear them complain about is getting a good mixdown.  While fancy gear and plugins can be useful, it’s best to begin by focusing on a basic bottom up approach.

If you clicked into this article expecting to find the secrets to audio mixing… sorry to disappoint you, because I don’t know them.  I will say this though, my mixes are much better than when I started.  Why? Because I’ve done a shit-ton of them.  And just like most things in life, that is really the only way to get better at it. Even after all those mixes, I still struggle with it and daydream that one day I’ll have a world-class engineer regularly at my disposal to get my music to shine the way I imagined it. But until then, I’ll keep plugging away and I’ll share a few things that will hopefully save some of you some time.

Most beginning producers, myself included, have reached a stage where they are getting music written but it just doesn’t have that polished sound they are used to hearing from their favorite artists.  For quite some time now, one of my favorite techno artists has been Stimming. The level of clarity, detail, texture, and warmth he gets into his music is amazing.  I remember at one point being really frustrated with the lack of most all of those attributes in my music so I made it my mission to figure out what gear and software he was using. Because if only I had the same gear, all of sudden my music would sound amazing too! (heh)   I was able to discover a lot of what he was using through various sources, and while he is using some very nice high-end gear in some instances (I drool over the ATC monitors he has), I also noticed he was using a fair amount of tools I already had at my disposal.  My search pushed on to other well known artists in electronic music and I was dismayed (but later encouraged) that in many cases, I had better equipment than them.  So WTF? Why aren’t my mixes good then?  Because it’s much less about the tools and more about the experienced ears of the person wielding them.

  1. Get to know the frequency range of sounds/instruments so you can better select them.  Sound/Instrument selection is the THE most important step to getting a good mix. I’d even say more than half of the battle is won just by picking the right sounds and filling out the frequency range appropriately. If you pick a bunch of instruments and sounds that sit on top of each other, its going to sound like muddled shit.  This chart is really helpful and I keep it handy at all times in the studio. Learn how to read your audio spectrometer.
  2. Build from the ground up. Especially important in low-end heavy dance music. Get your kick and bass dialed in first. Even if your inspiration/idea for the song started with a melody or hook, go back to the kick and bass when reaching the mixdown stage and get them tightened up.  Low frequency sounds/instruments fill up the frequency spectrum quickly. Once you get them sitting nicely, you know where you stand for the rest of the tune and can fill it out appropriately.
  3. Use good reference tracks. It’s really handy to have some go to reference tracks in your library to compare to the song you are mixing. Ideally in a similar style.  It’s easy for your ears to get acclimated to the song you’re working on and lose perspective on what sounds good. A/Bing it to another piece of music you know sounds great can bring your ears back into focus. It’s also a good learning exercise to recognize why your track is lacking sonically in areas the reference track shines in and then figuring out how to make up the difference.
  4. Less is More.  This term is true so many times in life and is definitely true here. The artist I mentioned earlier, Stimming, is a master at this. The number of elements in his music are very few. It’s the amount of detail he gives to each one that makes them standout.  If you are having trouble with your mix, do an inventory of what you have in the song and decide if all of it is really necessary. If you think you need to keep piling more stuff into the track to make it better, guess what, it probably sucks. Keep it simple and develop your core ideas more.

I’ve chosen those 4 items this week because they are crucial to a good mix and for the most part don’t require any fancy gear or software to utilize them. It also keeps this post concise and to the point.  Seriously, if you get those steps dialed in, you wont even need to touch your fancy gear and software all that much.  That said, there are certainly scenarios that require those handy pieces of gear and software so next week I will delve into a few basic tips that use them.  One last thing I’ll mention is a book on mixing by renowned mix engineer, Bobby Owsinski. The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook. It’s gone through a few editions now and is a staple in the industry.  My recommendation would be to read it AFTER you’ve spent a healthy amount of time mixing on your own. The information given will be much more meaningful to you after you’ve spent some time familiarizing yourself with a mixing desk (or DAW mix view) and various mixing tools.

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