What do you do when you’ve mixed and mixed and mixed a song and it still doesn’t sound right? You’ve tried every trick you know to freshen things up; you’ve bought new plug-ins, new speakers, rearranged your furniture, got a new haircut and your mix still isn’t right! Don’t worry, I’ve been there, too. I think as songwriters, producers, and mixers, we all have. And while it’s often tempting to try to find that missing piece of gear or rework or re-record tracks in your production, a lot can be unlocked by re-thinking our process and employing some tools we already have in unique and fresh ways. I’d love to share 5 creative ways to get you unstuck when mixing.
Get your balance right first
One of my favorite approaches to mixing involves a Left, Center, Right approach to panning. I start by panning things hard left and right, going by feel. Generally, I keep my kick, snare, bass and lead vocal centered (as do most people) but from there, I’ll try anything! A great basic rule is, if you have a double of something, pan the tracks hard left and right. If you don’t have a double of a part but you have another track that lives in the same frequency range, pan those hard left and right. Try balancing rhythmic elements on both sides - if you have two loop tracks, pan them. Two synths, pan those. You get the idea. The challenge now becomes finding space for everything. If you find that tracks are starting to blend into each other, rather than panning them somewhere between the center and hard left or right, work with EQ to carve space for them. Or, grab a delay plug-in and add a very short delay to a track to create a sense of depth so that a particular track sits “behind” the other tracks that are competing for the same frequencies. Once I have a basic panning set, I work on my overall volume levels. So much of creating a great mix lies simply in the volume levels of each instrument. Make sure that some tracks intentionally really stick out. Try making aggressive moves in your balance. Often times we think a great mix is hearing everything perfectly clear all the time but science has proven that the human brain can only effectively track 3-4 elements at a time. Use this principle as a guide when mixing. Balance your levels so that the 3-4 really important elements of your mix really stand out. In most cases, this is going to be the lead vocal, main keyboard or guitar part, drums, and bass. Beyond these 3-4 elements, look to create depth and mood with your other parts, intentionally leaving some things much quieter in your balance.
Jump on the buss
Another great way to get unstuck is by adding instrument and vocal sub-groups to your session. Start by creating the obvious ones - drums, background vocals, keyboards, guitars, loops, etc. By creating groups of tracks that can be processed as one rather than many parts, you’ve created new tone shaping options for your mix. Start with the standard approaches like compression, EQ, and reverb on your sub-busses and check out the results. You’re going to notice a big difference in the sound of a drum kit if it is compressed all together versus one drum at a time. If this is familiar territory for you or you’ve tried this approach and things are still sounding stale, try completely different combinations of tracks. Create groups based on rhythmic properties - long pads and synths in a group, quick transient tracks like electric guitars, percussion and drums in a group, and bass and vocals in a group. Grouping tracks this way will allow you to add really musical, transparent compression as these groups will likely work with the same attack and release settings since the parts fit together musically. Another fun buss trick is to create parallel processing for groups of tracks that can be blended in and out of your mix for different sections. I call these “color” busses because they are designed to add color and character to your sound. When adding color busses, make sure you still have your track outputting to your master buss and just use these as parallel sends. Try sending all of your drums to a buss that has a bunch of distortion or heavy compression on it and just bring it up in the choruses or the most intense parts of the song. Or try sending all of your background vocals to a buss with an auto-panner, chorus or pitch shifter on it and just bring that up in the bridge. The key here is to be creative and try some unique approaches to jolt you out of your rut. If your mix is close to being done, consider doing a save-as for the version that includes all these new ideas. Don’t be shy with these concepts, the idea here is to push the boundaries and then pull things back when needed.
Reverbs and delays
Beyond having reverb and delay on your lead vocals or using it in very audible ways on guitars and keys, there are other subtle ways to apply these effects. One of my go-to's is what I call the “Rolling Stones” approach to reverb - pan just the reverb opposite the main sound you are listening to. Dry sound all the way right and the send of the reverb all the way left. Check out “Start Me Up” by The Rolling Stones and notice that the reverb of the rhythm guitar is in the left channel while the dry guitar sound is panned to the right channel. Try this approach on any tracks that are feeling too panned or could use a sense of space around them. This will also keep the original track from feeling too wet as the dry sound is still present on one side. As I mentioned in the first section on balance and panning, adding a super short delay to a track can create some space around it or cause it to sit back in the mix a bit, depending on the length of the delay. I especially love this approach on a parallel drum buss to create some room around the drums. My normal drum mixing approach will involve four different busses, one of which will be directly fed by the outputs of each track for EQ and compression (which I’ll call my main drum buss) and three busses that will be used in parallel; slap delay, room reverb, and long reverb. Being able to mix and match the levels of each of these busses really allows me to make sweeping changes to the feel of my mix without having to go in and make a bunch of changes to individual tracks all the time. This frees up time and saves me from going down the “I’ve been working on this kick sound for 4 hours” rabbit hole in which many of us have found ourselves all too often. Many times a good combination of drum buss compression and reverb will fix whatever issue you were having with the kick drum in the first place. The same goes for vocals. Once I have a basic sound on my lead vocal track, which usually amounts to EQ and compression, I run at least four different stereo effects busses for the vocals; slap delay, long delay, room reverb and plate reverb. I will often make my long reverb something that modulates or adds additional sounds to the effect like high octave trails or some delay effect. Another go-to for me is to mute a particular section of my lead vocal track (often a bridge or “down chorus”) and use a send in pre-fader mode to feed a reverb or delay track. This way you’ll only hear the effect and not the dry sound of the vocal. This can be really effective if you’re trying to create a spacey sounding section or just do something really different for a brief moment of the song. Again, the great thing about adding busses is that you can make big changes to your mix quickly without losing the integrity of your dry tracks. Try running your vocals super dry and add reverb and delay as you move through the sections of the song, but rather than doing it in the normal places, try making your choruses really dry and your verses or pre-choruses really wet. Along with this, try putting a short delay or EQ before your reverb plug-in to control what is feeding into the reverb. If you always reach for the same reverb or delay plug-in, start your next mix with all different models than you normally would use. This will put you a bit out of your comfort zone but will force you to use your ears to make choices and not rely so heavily on muscle memory and habit. Trust me, it works!
Creating new sounds with duplicates and heavy processing
When I get stems from another producer to mix, I’ll often make duplicate tracks of synths, guitars, drums or background vocals. I do this in order to experiment with heavier processing directly on the dry tracks. I’ll pitch up a background vocal or synth part a full octave and add a bunch of delay and reverb to create a new pad sound that didn’t exist before. I’ll typically keep these tracks low in the mix, but when done with taste, these sounds can add a ton. I’ll also take a duplicate lead vocal track and add a stereo chorus to it to create a sort-of fake double. This is especially effective in choruses or bigger sections of a song where more energy is needed but you don’t have more recorded vocal tracks to work with. As a general rule, these sounds should be felt more than heard but once in a while, you’ll stumble onto a sound that just works and becomes a major part of the production. I recently took a plucked string part in the chorus of a song, pitched it up an octave and added a long delay with modulating delays to it and it sounded beautiful. When I played it for the artist, they had no idea what it was but they loved it!
Mix buss concepts, paint with broad strokes
If your basic balance is feeling great and you have a good combination of effects and automation happening in your mix but things are still falling a bit flat, try experimenting with effects on the whole mix itself. This can come in the form of EQ automation like a filter sweep or an automated delay that rides up for a transition. On one recent mix, I was having trouble adding character to the bridge so I tried adding a stereo delay to the whole mix, just for that section. It created this great, sweeping, spaced-out sound that worked well with the material. The key to making it work was automating the plug-in on and off and getting the mix level dialed in within the effect. I’ll often have a tape saturation plugin on my master buss to add some “glue” and tape compression and EQ. Although you can add tape emulators to any and all individual tracks, I find it really useful to use just one instance of it on my master buss to quickly hear what it does to the whole mix. If you have the time and the DSP, try adding it to each track as the first insert. This will inform your mix approach in a new way and create some subtle shape to your mix right from the jump.
Hopefully all of these ideas have jump-started your creativity and caused you to think outside of your normal box. Mixing can be just as creative as writing and producing, you just have to be bold in your choices and not be afraid to fail! If you find yourself getting stuck or going down a deep rabbit hole that seems to have no end, get up, go outside and walk around the block. Getting unstuck sometimes simply requires that you change your environment and move your body. I would love to hear some of your go-to workflows and mix concepts in the comments section below, so please share!