Recording by way of home-studio set-ups has become relatively easy nowadays, with decent equipment being available at low or at least affordable, costs. Virtually every enthusiast will have, at minimum, a decent hardware synthesizer (i.e. a Korg, Yamaha or other) with some means of recording it to their computer. DAWs (Digital Audio Workstation) are extremely popular and every hobbyist seems to have an idea on what makes good hardware, what the best software to buy is, or the ultimate way to master audio.
Similarly, every hobbyist will eloquently churn-out advice on how to achieve the ultimate mix, by way of effects or volume balance perhaps. Regardless of the debatable, questionable or downright tenuous, the only sure way to achieve a good mix is to always use your ears. As abstract as sound is, there are a variety of factors which affect every mix differently: from the actual signal-volume to your hardware.
This article will help in pointing-out some of the very basic audio mixing tips, which will help you consider how to mix music. Once you are familiar with these you can experiment to your own liking, and ultimately achieve the sound you desire.
Speakers or Headphones?
A valid question, and one which crops up frequently among hobbyists or semi-professionals, is whether to use speakers or headphones. Of course a professional studio will never mix or master without high-quality monitors, for too many reasons to list (frequency response, signal separation and much more). If you are just starting out however, perhaps by dabbling in electronic music, using good quality headphones will equally serve your purpose. The ultimate advice is “Use your ears:” remember that mantra.
Ensuring a Good Signal
You will not be able to achieve a balanced end-product if the signal for individually recorded tracks is a poor or feeble one. This does not just imply that it is something recorded at low-volume, but it speaks generally about the quality of the audio. Is there noise such as crackling or hissing? Ditch it, find out the cause and re-record. Is it a feeble signal, perhaps overly compressed? Ditch it, fiddle with it and re-record. Is the signal distorted? You know what to do.
Ensure that you can hear each track clearly with an even signal, and then you can work with mixing various elements separately, panning, EQ’ing and other effects.
So now you have your hands on the melancholic violin track, or the cantankerous prima-donna that is the lead singer. Getting your levels right would imply that the melodic instruments, including descants or counter-melodies to use more specific terminology, are heard above the rhythm section - usually consisting of keyboards, bass and drums.
The best way is to fiddle with the volume levels on your mixing desk (or virtual mixing desk in your sequencing program of choice) in order to get some balance. For now, don’t worry about effect-processing such as compression of bass/drums.
Follow the audio mixing tips above regarding levels. Once you are satisfied with the result, move onward.
Panning simply means to move an instrument (or instruments) to the right/left channel of your mix (in stereo). Generally, panning is one of the first steps in letting your mix “breathe,” so that every instrument or vocal is audible. Note that even little panning is always helpful but it isn’t required for every element of the mix.
You may want to pan brass instruments/horn-section particularly, and pan it quite a way to either left/right channel. It’s generally a good idea to leave the rhythm section (bass/drums) and the lead singer (or melodic material) firmly in the center of the mix.
Re-listen as you’ve panned tracks. You don’t want to end-up with something ridiculous such as backing vocals more prominent than the lead.
Lastly, there is the final touch and sculpting your mix to resemble your vision (or something along those lines). EQ (acronym for Equalisation) means making some frequencies in the spectrum more prominent than others, so that the instruments in each track occupy a “space” in the spectrum. It is an absolutely gargantuan topic and writing about it would likely take-up more than just a single article. We could not hope to include this topic in a general mixing-article: entire books have been written about EQ’ing as an art form.
Some simple tips include:
Always EQ negatively: that is, instead of adding to a frequency, subtract from it.
Know the style and sound you are trying to produce. Most electronic-based music favours EQ’ing in the lower-frequencies of the spectrum (80Hz-500Hz) and creates a mix which leans heavily on the bottom-frequencies.
- Learn how to cut-off and peak for more precise equalisation.
For more information, check Kubton’s guide. Here, you will find specific tips and some free EQ plug-ins.