When you mix a song, you might find it helpful to ask some questions about what you’re hearing. The questions can keep you focused, and they make sure that you’re not overlooking anything. Here are a few things to ask yourself as you’re mixing.
- Can I hear everything? This is the most important question. Seems obvious, but sometimes a musical part becomes hidden. While the mix is playing, listen just for the sound of each track and make sure it‘s there. If not, raise its fader (or turn down competing tracks). Don’t know what to listen for? Solo each track (or if you’re mixing live, solo each channel over headphones).
With any genre of music, the minimum requirement for a good mix is that you can hear all the instruments and vocals. Nothing is missing and nothing sticks out. If a vocal or instrument sticks out only once it a while, compress it.
- Can I understand the lyrics? If you can‘t tell what the words are in certain spots, raise the vocal level there with a volume envelope (automation). Also, you might compress the vocals, make sure they have enough clarity around 5 to 10 kHz, and maybe reduce 3–6 kHz in instruments that compete in the same range as the vocals. The lead vocal in rock music should be just loud enough so you can understand the lyrics without straining. In ballads, traditional country, or folk music, the lead vocal can be a little louder than that.
- Is there too much reverb or other effects? A little goes a long way. If the mix seems to be distant rather than present, try reducing the reverb sends a dB at a time, and see how little you can get away with. Some engineers ask, “Can I notice the reverb only when it‘s turned off?” You might use short decays (like 0.5 seconds) for uptempo songs; use long decays (like 1.5 seconds) for ballads.
- Is each instrument‘s sound appropriate for the song? For example, a twangy bass or an edgy kick seldom work in a ballad. Turn down the upper mids if those sounds are too bright and distracting. Similarly, is the mix appropriate for the genre? For example, if you‘re mixing punk rock, a clean, tight sound probably won‘t work. If you‘re mixing a folk song done by an acoustic group, you probably don‘t want to hype the highs and lows—leave it natural.
- Is each instrument in its own spectral space? If multiple instruments play in the same range of frequencies, they can mask or cover up each other‘s sound. Then they blur together and sound indistinct. You might roll off the lows in the guitars so they don‘t compete for space with the bass guitar. Thin out the kick and keep the bass full, or vice versa.
- Is the mix competitive with commercial CDs? Plug a CD player into your monitoring system. Put in a CD (or several) of the same genre that you are mixing. Switch back-and-forth between your mix and the CD playback at equal loudness. You‘ll quickly hear if your mix has enough bass, midrange, and treble compared to the commercial CD. Compare your mix balances to those on the CD as well. This can be very enlightening.
- Is the overall sound harsh or is it warm and pleasant? If it‘s harsh, maybe there is too much 2–4 kHz in the mix. Or maybe there‘s some distortion caused by excessive track levels or clipping plug-ins. Try reducing the amount or type of compression, too. If the mix sounds “digital” and edgy, reduce the highs a little, or use a tube or tape plug-in.
- Are solos at the right level? Generally, an instrument’s solo should be just as loud as the lead vocal. Guitar licks in the “holes” (vocal pauses) should be quieter than that so they are not too distracting.
- Are vocal harmonies at the right level? Generally, a harmony vocal‘s level should be below the lead vocal just enough so that the melody of the lead vocal is clear. If a harmony line is too loud, the listener isn‘t quite sure who‘s singing the melody line.
- Is the arrangement too busy? If too many instruments play at the same time, a mix can turn to mush. Consider having instrumental licks just in the holes, not playing continuously. Think call-and-response. Start the mix with fewer instruments and gradually bring them in so that the mix builds.
When you no longer hear anything you want to change, the mix is just about finished. A day later come back with fresh ears, and see if anything needs tweaking. If not, congratulations on crafting a great mix!
# # #
Bruce Bartlett is a recording engineer, live sound engineer, audio journalist and microphone engineer (www.bartlettaudio.com). His latest books are “Practical Recording Techniques 6th ed.” and “Recording Music On Location 2nd ed.”.