Hello and welcome to another episode of Dojo. This month, I’m going to share three simple secrets to getting better, more consistent blends. In the ever-changing world of music mixing, engineers must constantly refine their chops while being acutely aware of current trends, past traditions, managing artist expectations, all while adding and refining their own contribution to recordings.
Regardless of genre, I’m often asked, “How can I improve my mixes?” I usually answer with “it depends”. Mixing is not mathematical, there is no theorem or equation that will give you a precise approach. It’s a matter of emotion. Your job when you’re mixing is to bring final attention to flowing, emotional moments by guiding the listener on a highly curated journey. How can we even begin to approach this abstract goal? Tighten your belt, the Dojo is now open.
Suppose you already have an intimate knowledge of the vision for the song or album. This is a crucial step! This is the one I spend a lot of time developing. I passionately believe that artists and bands deserve a mixer that is completely committed to their vision and can add deep and meaningful contributions to their recordings while still being an objective voice that can bring a little more magic to the project. Don’t start mixing until you’ve done your homework and really understood the deep level of sacrifice that artists have to endure to make their music. You should also feel the honor and responsibility that comes with it.
Your job when you’re mixing is to bring final attention to flowing, emotional moments by guiding the listener on a highly curated journey.
Now here are these three secrets to better blends:
1. Who’s downstairs?
My main goal is to get to the emotional heart of the song as soon as possible. On first listen, I don’t worry about “is the hi-hat too loud?” I mount the faders individually, as seen in Fig. 1, and just listen.
On the next listen, I get base levels and figure out which instruments are important in which sections. Quickly, I approach the genre and determine “who is at the bottom”. There are usually two choices: bass (or synths or low-tuned 8-string guitars) or kick drum. Musical genres have certain expectations. For example, hip-hop and rap usually reserve the lower end of the frequency spectrum for kicks and tuned 808 sounds, while heavy rock usually wants guitars at the bottom with just the kick drum attack. above for articulation. Your understanding of this and the artist’s tolerance for how much they are willing to push those expectations will help you decide. This does not mean that the values cannot change depending on certain sections of the song. I do a little, but overall there should be a clear winner and a clear approach.
2. Less is more
When using the EQ, use it to cut off problematic frequencies. Far too often people raise the frequencies of what they to want to hear rather than enter and spot problem areas. As a result, everything becomes stronger, and problem areas do not disappear. Does the bass drum sound? Go find that frequency by scanning a narrow, won Q point on the frequency spectrum [Fig. 2] until you find the ring, then cut it!
The same can be done for treble guitars, bass-heavy percussion, muddy keys, and particular vocal notes that really jump out and sound shrill. Don’t forget to boost with a narrow Q, sweep, isolate and cut [Fig. 3].
3. Beware of the Buzz Cut
Don’t overuse compression. Most of the time when using compression I get between 2 and 10 dB of gain reduction. Anything beyond that, and I need to have a valid reason (crush a drum kit, pin a background vocal or synth, etc.). Try to keep as much dynamic range in your mix as possible and your audience will be able to climb more into the mix, and their ears won’t get tired.
Take a look at a classic war mix from the 2000s in Figure 4. See how the music has a “cut buzz?” There is virtually no dynamic range. All is Ioud!
Now look Figure 5. It’s a classic heavy metal song, and look at the dynamic range.
FYI, Apple Music, Spotify, and others are really rewarding mixes with greater dynamic range, and if their algorithms determine that your mix is sporting a muted buzz, they’ll reduce your volume level anyway, thereby foiling your dastardly plan to win the strongest-is-best contest.
Blessings and, until next time, namaste.