The key fundamentals that combine to produce a high quality audio mix have essentially remained constant for many years. Certainly, the path to achieving the results and the tools we use are continually evolving, but often the end goal is ultimately the same. The following list encompasses some of the critical elements that I consider important when mixing:
First and foremost, mixing can generally be considered as balancing. An even and accurate representation of the frequency spectrum should be the goal, irrespective of the genre. There are some genres which arguably may accentuate certain frequencies (e.g. hip hop or EDM may be more active in the bass area), but the best mixes still sound perfectly balanced.
A topic that has featured prominently in the audio world in recent times, due to the digital streaming requirements on the various listening platforms currently available. Without getting into the detail of the specifications, a dynamic mix is something you should always be aiming for. What is dynamic you ask? In simple terms, it’s the difference between the quiet and loud parts of your music. The song arrangement itself plays a bit part in how dynamic the end result will be. For example, If you have a high intensity punk rock track that plays at 150bpm without stopping for 3 minutes and is compressed to the wall, your dynamics will be largely non-existent. Alternatively, if you have a song with distinct peaks and troughs/quiet and loud parts all blended together, the dynamic range scope is much wider.
Believe it or not, even the most distorted, aggressive song can have a certain element of clarity. Otherwise described as a sense of ‘separation’ between the individual instruments/vocals. The only arguable exception might be a ‘wall of sound’ type of effect, where the aim is to achieve an overall total blend of all the sounds to create a ‘bombastic’ result. It’s important to not mistake clarity with simply adding treble/top-end to your mixes, that can be a fast track to an overly harsh, brittle sound. Once again, it comes down to making the right decisions with EQ, compression and usage of other effects.
Presence and punch
Many of my clients when submitting their song for mixing will request a ‘punchy’ or ‘warm’ sound. We often hear these terms when describing the sound of a record, but what does it actually mean? The secret lies in the midrange of the material. This is the area that our ears are most sensitive to. It’s also the region that most consumer speakers will be most responsive in. So, pay close attention to how you treat the sensitive midrange area of your audio. Various types of distortion can really be your friend when crafting the sound in this area. Also, I’m a firm believer in allowing each individual instrument/sound to operate in it’s most present area. For example, if your guitars have a lot of activity in the 1.5khz area, make room for them in your mix to allow them to breathe in this region. The same goes for each individual element.
Depth and space
These elements are predominantly achieved by tasteful panning and use of various reverb layers. For example if you blend a long, ‘hall’ type reverb the sound will appear further away and you will also lose presence. Believe it or not, even the driest sounding mix will likely have some form of subtle reverb (or multiple ones) blended to sound natural to the human ear. This topic can be quite subjective and lengthy, ultimately you want to aim for a multi-dimensional sound that is engaging for the listener. Which leads me to the next point…
Engagement and drama
A great mix should always tell a story, much like a great movie. This is where automation really separates the amateur mix from a professional mix. Creating dramatic moves that highlight individual elements of a song is what makes the song memorable and interesting. There really are no rules here, the aim is to be attention-grabbing without causing distraction from an important element in the music and still keeping your balance in check at the same time.
Context and relevance
Every decision you make when balancing and mixing, should be carefully considered to ensure it is always in context with the song and genre. This is where regular referencing should be part of your process. Context should be considered at the recording stage also, to be sure that when you’re committing to a sound it fit’s in with what you are trying to achieve as the end result. Always have the goal in mind.
I wish you all the best with your creative endeavours and I hope that this brief list gives you some insight into setting you on the right path to your ultimate mix!
Until next time,