It’s a common misconception that you need the most expensive, top-of-the-line equipment in order to churn out radio-ready records. Yet, I learned in college that the quality of the mix has more to do with the person mixing the song than the equipment that was used.
During my senior year of college, I was in the last stages of my final project in my Producing Recorded Music 3 class. Beyond the stress of the recording sessions (which is a story for another day), I had a bigger problem with the way the mixes turned out.
At that time, the engineer had over 10 years of experience. The studio we recorded and mixed in probably contained upwards of $2 million in equipment. The mixes sounded amazing in the room, and I walked out on cloud nine.
None of this mattered. Why? Because the mixes sounded like trash when I listened back to them at home.
The bass was SUPER weak, the panning was too drastic, certain instruments were clashing with others, and more. The situation was a recipe for disaster from day one: the engineer had no knowledge on the quirks of the room or the equipment, so he had no way of knowing that the room wasn’t calibrated and the monitors were bass-heavy, and we didn’t have time to test the mixes on other speakers (which is a must-do).
Two hours after I was jumping for joy at how great the mixes were done, I was stressed out and trying to figure out how I could fix them before my final presentation.
So what did I do? I opened up the ProTools sessions, exported all the tracks dry (since I didn’t have any of the plugins or outboard gear used at the studio), imported them into Logic Pro and re-mixed them on the best set of headphones I had: a $15 pair of Philips headphones. It took a couple tries, since they didn’t have the best sound. It also didn’t help that the L train ran directly outside my window.
Long story short: I made it work, got an A on the project, and was complimented on how polished the mixes were.
How did I Do It?
With the odds stacked against me, I pulled on every piece of knowledge I’d ever learned on the topic. There are a million ways to mix a song, but the following tips are essential.
Balance the mix
Working with only the few plugins I had and absolutely no outboard gear, I stuck to what I knew: Equalization (EQ), Panning and Volume Control. This process allows you to tone up each track and carve out its own space. If I knew then what I know now, I’d also use the art of compression to aid in this process.
I equalized (EQ) each track by reducing and/or cutting any frequencies that weren’t needed in order to free up audio space for other tracks that needed those frequencies. I then panned each one a bit to the left or right, depending on what sounded better to me, and tweaked the volume of each to make them blend well together. At the end of this process, I used one of the mastering suites built into Logic to add the extra polish, and bounced the mix down.
Use a reference mix
For each mix, I found a similar-sounding, professionally-mixed song from my iTunes collection and inserted it into the session. This way, I could compare and contrast between the mix I was doing and the song mixed by a professional, then adjust my mix accordingly. This helped level the playing field with my mediocre headphones, since I was listening to both through the same source.
Check the mix on different sources
To make sure that I didn’t show up to my final presentation with crappy recordings, I tested each mix on different audio sources: a boombox, a car stereo, my iPod, and several different computers. I took notes from each sound source on what needed to be fixed, and adjusted accordingly.
This step is VERY important. Every set of speakers and headphones is made different, so you want to make sure your song sounds good on all of them, not just yours.
Avoid sonic burnout
If you find yourself mixing for several hours and things are starting to sound muddy, you have entered the stage of sonic burnout. At this point, you should step away for a few hours or more; trying to push through this stage can only damage your mix. Every single time I have ignored this step, I regret it.
What’d We Learn?
Audio mixing is the organization and frequency-manipulation of several audio sources to make them sound good together. While I had the privilege of taking several classes in college on the subject, you guys have the advantage of the Internet and superior technology.
If you are a complete beginner to the art of audio mixing, read this piece. YouTube also has tons of tutorials on every plugin and piece of equipment you can think of, and there are various free articles floating around like the 5 Phases of Every Good Mix and 3 Tips For Mixing In A Bedroom.
There are plenty of songs on the radio today that were recorded and mixed on equipment that cost next to nothing. There are also songs recorded in multi-million dollar studios that sounds like hot trash. I also love to mention that Rihanna’s “Umbrella” was based around a drum loop built into Apple’s Logic Pro software, and that song was a worldwide hit that went several-times platinum.
At the end of the day, it’s not what you have, but how you use it.