How to get better sounding mixes quickly

  • How to get better sounding mixes quickly-1

We’ve all been there, you get a frantic email from a client at 11:30 at night asking if you can turn around a mix in one day before the weekend. With your other client work and what little personal life you have left, there’s only so much time you have to churn out a mix without it sounding like utter crap.

Rush requests aside, everyone wants their work done as quickly as possible, and some artists might hinge giving you a project on your expected timeline. While speeding through an edit is never a good idea, there is an art form to getting a quick edit done. In fact, learning how to edit quickly might even make you a better mixer over all. Understanding the priorities of an edit will better help you build songs from the ground up in an effective manner. Here are some tips for getting a better sounding mix quickly.

1. EQ Before Compression

There’s a lot of discussion about which should come first between compression and EQing. In fairness, there are no set rules to say which is better but in my experience I find it more productive to EQ first. The reason being, mixing is all about finding a balance between tracks, and EQing allows you to fine tune sounds without adding effects.

Think about this: you wouldn’t add effects to tracks before all the individual tracks are in the mix, right? How would you know to put an effect on something if you haven’t yet heard all the pieces together? The same concept applies to EQ. EQ allows you to “sculpt” the sound, taking out any odd and out of place frequencies, or trim them out if they are clashing with others. These cuts might include adding a high-pass filter to vocals tracks to eliminate any low rumblings, or adding a low-pass filter to remove and weird squeaks or rattling. Once I’ve “cleaned up” a track through EQ, only then do I start playing around with compression.

2. Mix In Mono

When it comes to mixing, I’m all about building from the ground up. What I mean by that is starting with the core elements and then adding in the extra stuff like effects and auxiliary instruments. Why? Well the same principles in construction apply in mixing. Without a solid foundation, adding a bunch of pretty exterior finishes is only going to be the first thing you see when it eventually caves in.

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So how does that apply to mixing you ask? Well mixing in mono forces you to edit in a way that makes everything in the song sound good together without panning. If you can hear all the individual tracks in mono without bleeding into each other and sounding muddy, it’s going to sound ten times better in stereo. Get all the pieces in place sounding good together and then break it out into stereo and pan for creative touches. This technique might be painful, but it will make you a better, quicker mixer.

3. Get Reference Mixes

Reference mixes are extremely important for mixers and audio engineers to get a better sense of what the musician is thinking. Just because someone can perform music, it doesn’t mean they are well-versed in music production terminology and have the same knowledge that you do. Reference mixes are a simple way for an artist to say things like “here’s what I want the snare to sound like,” or ask “can we have this kind of vocal effect?”

Once you have the reference mixes, ask the artists what they like specifically about those songs and write them down on a pad of paper. If you don’t ask, you’ll end up wasting time trying to guess what they like.

On the same note, try not to use more than three reference mixes. Trying to make one song sound like bunch of songs is an impossible task and will cause many headaches.

4. Low Monitors

One of the quickest and most effective ways to test if your song is sounding well balanced is to listen back with your monitors turned down extremely low.

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At high volumes, songs tend to overload your ears and less prominent parts end up sounding way louder than they need to be. Remember what I said about building the foundation first? Same rules apply here as well.

When you turn the volume really low on playback, you will hear the true balance of all the tracks together. A rule of thumb: vocals should always sit just on top of the rest of the track. Picture a lily pad sitting on top of water — that’s visually what your vocals would look like in comparison to the rest of the song.

5. Pen and Paper

I briefly mentioned this before, but you should always have a pen and paper ready for playback.

I like to think of a particular scene in the buddy-cop comedy Hot Fuzz when it comes to this rule:

Not to overstate its importance, but having a pen and pad ready can be the difference between hours in the studio and days. Why? Writing down your thoughts will help you write a plan of action. Figure out exactly what you want to do ahead of time, where you want to start and an order of operations. Of course some things will sound better on paper than they will in real life, but staying organized is key to being a speedy editor.

I also find it useful to write out a table, and list out every part of the song including effects, EQ and panning you want to apply before you touch the mousepad.

Alternatively, sticky pads works well too. Order your notes and cross them out or throw them away as you complete them.