Mixing tracks – a basic approach to setting up your project
There are many guidelines that can help you mix your track – too many to point out here with a huge number of varying methods and tricks that will help you get a balanced and sweet sounding mix.
Over the past few months I have been working on a few projects that I’ve been sent by aspiring producers who have sent me their Logic Pro projects to mix and tweak. Having the complete project means I can delve inside the track and sort out any problems, replace elements where needed and generally process individual parts that require more attention.
This is what has triggered me to put down a few pointers and guidelines that can be followed when building a track up.
Having seen how some people put things together and the methods they have used to obtain certain results has proved how the saying “less is more” is even more true. Over complicating a production can very easily restrict the creative process in achieving the intended final result when you’re at the mixing and EQ stage.
Too many times I have sat trying to unpick over-complex tracks that are badly set up before I can begin to work on them. From a customers point of view, this will cost. Providing a track in the correct way will both speed things up and help to keep costs down. More on how to package up the project folder another time.
While focusing around dance music production, the following simple techniques can also be applied to most genres of music and the production process.
Start as you mean to go on and set some initial levels.
Leave the master output fader at zero, adjust all your levels using the individual channel faders and busses.
Solo the kick and bass and individually adjust them so the master output peaks at around 3/4 (somewhere between -3dB and -6dB).
This will mean all the other elements will naturally fall into roughly the correct area around them. As the kick and bass tend to have most of the perceived volume in a dance track, this is a good initial level to start from.
Avoid going into the red (clipping) as this will just distort the signal and you will not be able to use other processes such as compression effectively. Creative distortion should be applied prior to the output level if this is required.
Once you have started to add other elements it will become obvious how they sit in the mix, keep an eye on the faders and the levels as it will be a good indication of which elements are then the factors that push your mix level higher.
Lets say, for example, you now have the following parts in your track:
3. A few individual drums
4. A loop or two
5. A vocal line
You should now be able to see how having them all playing together affects the overall output level. Drop things in and out by muting them. Which elements are the main peak level munchers?
This is a good time to adjust your channel faders to accommodate the above. If your output is continually getting pushed into the red, then bring everything down a little until it sits nicely within the 3/4 area. Simple!!
You may notice at this stage that certain channels are bouncing around quite a lot. This is a natural effect of sounds.
All sounds will have transients and peaks, some more than others. These transients will be the main factor that determine your overall peak level.
Any sound that has a sharp attack (drums for example) can quickly push your peak level into the red. It’s then up to you to control things at their source, on individual channels where needed, or on busses to minimise the adverse effect of those peaks. This can be done using compression, limiting and enveloping techniques.
From here in it is easy to over-complicate your processing by adding too much processing or dynamic effects. Crafting tracks can be a creative process that is often held back by getting bogged down in thinking about levels, peaks, eq, compression and limiting so be careful not to over complicate your processing by religiously adding compressors and limiters to all channels in an attempt to make things louder. This will only result in a lifeless and reduced dynamic range. Yes, you may choose to use compressors for specific creative techniques and some producers like to write through a mix bus compressor as it provides a particular energy and style.
Just think why you are adding a compressor or limiter, does the sound actually require it?
When you are on a roll there is nothing worse than things that slow you down. By having a few things on hand as you go, it can keep things rolling.
Set a couple of reverbs up that can be used on send busses, one short room reverb and a longer spacial reverb. These can quickly be added to sounds to help you get an idea of the mix early on. You can replace them later for individual sounds as required but re-using fewer key reverbs will help reduce the cpu load on your system.
Try using filters on buss channels that you can group things into. Automated filtering is a great way to add transitions over sections on selected grouped parts thus reducing the need to add further sounds.
I have worked on a fair few mixes that incorporate far too many elements that crowd the mix and serve not enough purpose. Tiny percussion hits that get lost in the mix will just eat up your headroom and crowd the spectrum resulting in the key parts of the track getting lost and losing impact. Use things sparingly. If your track is going to be played on a sound system then remember that everything is exaggerated. A track can quickly become muddy and over complicated. Remember those tracks you hear at a festival that reduce to a kick and a single sound?
So to recap:
Reduce the number of elements, avoid over-processing and make space for the key elements.