Getting comfortable with mixing can be a lifelong journey. New engineers may be eager to dive into the toolbox of plugins or hardware in front of them, but taking a second to give yourself a bit of a roadmap before you dive in can be really beneficial. Ask yourself these 5 questions before you move the first fader in your next mixing session.
What is the mood of this song and how can I convey that in the mix?
When mixing a record, especially someone else’s material, put a lot of thought into what the lyrics are conveying. Where is the writer/vocalist trying to bring us and how can you set that picture up? For example, when mixing the verse of a personal, emotional ballad, you may want to sit the lead vocal up close and set the vibe of a small intimate setting using a tight room reverb. Using a parametric EQ, you could dull the high frequencies of support instruments in a bus, so the vocals and leads sound brighter and closer in this small room, adding to their intimacy. If a song calls for a specific room to tell a story, use the mix to create that room.
What is the genre of the song and what are the staple tools/techniques in that genre?
Different genres, especially contemporary ones, have sonic qualities or loose mixing rules most people aren't consciously aware of. Modern pop and hip-hop for example feature a lot of 808 and sub bass. As a result, side-chain compression, high pass bus filtering on other instruments, and transient shaping have been used on countless songs in the genres as a way to sit everything in the mix against the heavy bass. As such, the public’s ears are tuned to the sound of these corrective tools, and associate it with a good song. When mixing a Future Bass client recently, I saw their opinion of the mix go from “good” to “perfect” the second I aggressively side chain compressed the kick to the instrumentation. In most genres, the effect would've been too extreme, but for his style of music, this technique is pretty common. It gives the impression that the kick is gigantic, ducking the rest of the instruments out of the way when it fires off. That’s essential for dance floor based music where the groove is key. Had I not known a bit about the genre, I may have ignored that tool, and it was ultimately what sold the mix for him.
In this example, Audio from the Kick is triggering the compressor. The small attack, and extreme threshold ensures an immediate and sharp duck in volume whenever the kick hits
Sometimes a specific type of gear is the staple in a genre. Take a band that’s recording a dub reggae song as another example. If you’re looking for that sound, you should start with the Roland Space Echo, or an equivalent, because it’s been featured on pretty much every big record in the genre and our ears expect it. This genre also traditionally dictates a completely different style of recording, that involves more send/return effect mixing in real-time. That interplay helps get a tone and sense of movement in the mix that you know when you hear. Even replicating that with automation will give your mix the subtle tonal character that we're used to in a dub record, but you have to know about it to execute it. Be a student of music. Wherever possible, it’s important to educate yourself on what tools are globally accepted in the styles you choose to mix in.
What song does this sound like?
We all aim to be original, but unless you’re really mixing something really experimental, odds are you can find another song that sounds somewhat similar. Put some thought into a song with a similar vibe, download it (in high quality if possible) and use it as a reference track. Reference tracks are songs you respect the sound of, that you listen to during breaks in your mixing as a guide to how your final product should sound. Your reference track is likely mastered, while your current material isn’t, so aim more to match the balance between elements, tone etc., more than the loudness . The limiting stage of mastering adds some volume you just shouldn't expect yet. If preferred, you can also cheat a bit and throw a mastering suite on the master channel while referencing between the two songs to hear approximately what a mastered version of your track would sound like. If you do this, be sure to route your reference track to another bus that skips the Master, or listen to your reference outside of the DAW. You don’t want to run your reference through another instance of mastering plugins, it should remain dry since it was already mastered.
Route your reference track directly to your external output/soundcard in order to skip any plugins that are on the master channel.
Who is going to hear this and where are they?
Prior to mixing, it’s important to consider who is going to be listening to this song and in what environment will they take it in. A huge amount of people take in music for the first time via streaming services being played through laptop speakers and Apple earbuds. These mediums didn’t even exist when a lot of mixing rules were established, and as a result it is important to mix within context of these new mediums and to reference on them whenever possible. As the mix process unfolds, test on earbuds, laptop speakers, Bose setups, cell phone speakers, or any other listening environments you have at your disposal that your listener may have.
Guessing the listening environment can really give you some extra clues when trying to stand out next to other songs in the genre. Take a fan of current dance music. The sub-bass in most modern genres doesn’t show up on laptops or cell phones, but that’s likely where the average listener gets introduced to this kind of song. So knowing that, you may want to EQ and Compress some more mids into the sub-bass so it’s at least somewhat present on the laptop or cell phone speakers they listen on. If you’re mixing a classical piece, where your listener may enjoy the music in a more relaxed home theater environment, you might want to put more attention to making a wide mix, with clear mids and highs that will translate well around the room without being harsh or overwhelming. Think about where your mix is going to end up before you start driving there.
How good is the Source Material?
The better the source material the less you have to do in the mix. Sometimes you have no say in the source material or recordings, but if you produce your own music, it’s vital to start with high quality sounds, even if you want to get to a dirty vibe down the line. It’s much easier to give some grit to a clean sound than the other way around. Drums are especially tricky to keep punchy when working in hiphop, so often if a drum isn't cutting the way I need it to in a clients mix, I offer the option of layering the drums with higher quality recording. A well mic'ed snare has more transients and a better signal to noise ratio so layering one in under a weak snare can do wonders.
When working on Omar Hakim Drums vol 2, we tracked the kit through 19 microphones and went through a ton of post processing so the final recordings are punchy and transient enough to cut through a mix with little extra work. You can hear the difference. Give your session an overview and think, "can I get a better sound for this part before I start mixing?"