In today’s tech world, everyone that has a computer is expected to produce expert quality projects. This is somewhat easy when one needs to create a PowerPoint presentation or a Word Document, but it is not so easy when the final product requires unique skills.
It takes years to get to the point to create studio quality albums, but there are key areas to focus on that can make a night and day difference in the sound quality of the final output. I put together a top-10 list that can help get you thinking like a Music Engineer/Producer:
1. Check the session over before you start
Make sure you have all the parts, esp. if mixing for someone else. You would be surprised how often a part gets forgotten (Check the rough mix too!) & consolidate the files if you can – it makes it easier to “see” what’s going on in a big session, and psychologically it looks neater! It’s a small thing – but when zoomed “out” you will be able to see where everything is, rather than a mass of edits, which obscure the waveforms.
2. Get the timing right
Especially drums –very important that it’s tight if lots of parts are layered. If there is some unintended “Flaming” going on (i.e. transients of 2 snares that don’t start at the same place, or worse kicks! It can sound messy) In the case of kick drums it can make it sound weaker too, which is very often the opposite of why it’s layered with different sounds.
3. Print Virtual Instruments can be useful
Not everything benefits from this, BUT drums do, and it will help you to see if there is any issues with timing. It also stops you fiddling with the samples and sounds, and concentrate on the mix! As it’s a hassle to reprint. It also frees up system resources, if there is a lot of virtual instruments it can suck a lot of computing power, even with today’s systems, and you will be struggling to have enough power to do the mix.
4. Listen Quietly
It will help if you are in a less than ideal acoustic space (if the room is not acoustically treated, it will get worse with more volume!) I have worked in a few weird sounding places! It really helps when you keep the volume down – the more you crank it, the more any issues with acoustics (or lack of) will show up and you will make bad decisions.
5. Subs can be useful
But only if you have quite a large room (Need 12-15 feet in at least one dimension) and your neighbors will not thank you! (Sub’s tend to throw out in all directions, so it often sounds louder than it actually is, away from the speakers)
6. Listen in Mono
It’s hard to do, but very good for balance (check out other mixes, see if you can listen to them in mono – see where things “Sit” and try and work it into your balance). You might find this teaches you more than you think.
7. Be clear on what you – or the client wants
If you are mixing for someone else – ask what they want! It sounds simple but it’s not good making a “banging” mix with hard drums if they want it “Classic & Warm!” LOL ☺ & ask them what they don’t like, and see if you can fix it (there’s a challenge). Be aware also that they may not KNOW what they want, so it can be a tough job to find the right direction for a mix approach, and might take a couple of attempts, but don’t give up! listen to the rough mix, even if it’s bad, it can give a good overview of what the track is about, and also any problems (Can’t hear the vocals, too soft/hard EQ etc….)
8. Take Regular breaks
Ear fatigue is real, and just because you are young, you are not immune! Sometimes it’s hard – but even a 5-minute tea stop can do wonders for your perspective. And if you are the engineer – if you’re old enough to, please DON’T DRINK ALCOHOL while you work – it changes your perception (for the worse) and you will find yourself questioning things, as it dulls your high end.
9. Watch your levels
Start with the faders down if you can (like on a desk) and build a rough balance – if you have difficulty balancing things (can’t get it loud enough, or the fader is at the bottom, and it’s too loud or disappears) you may need to adjust your levels for better gain staging on each part – remember headroom in channels is GOOD – and the more level in each channel, the harder it will be to build a good mix before everything goes red, and in a DAW that’s mostly bad!
10. Reference other material
Reference other material, and level match it – this is very useful for seeing where you are with the tone (EQ) of the mix – and don’t forget to always print an “Unlimited” master pass, that is one without the limiter if you have cranked it hard – mix compression is ok, as long as you like it.
Have fun with it – and if you are working in a DAW (digital audio workstation) you can always come back fresh and go again!
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Jimmy Kerr is President and CEO of the Foundation for Musicians and Songwriters. He is a tech entrepreneur who has started dozens of companies including Orbitz.com. Mr. Kerr is a musician and Berklee College of Music trained Recording Engineer and Record Producer.