Learning to Mix

Discussion in 'Microphones (live or studio)' started by tyCobb, May 4, 2008.

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  1. tyCobb

    tyCobb Guest

    With all the tracks recorded for my band's first demo, six on Garageband, three on Cubase (unfortunatley we found about Cubase later), we are now ready to mix.

    The problem is, though, none of us really know what we're doing when it comes to mixing. Sure, we've read through Bobby Owinski's Mixing Engineer's Handbookand obtained as much knowledge about its content as only a few newbie mixers can hope to, but we're still struggling to find a consistent method to go about the process from project to project. We've "mixed," and I use that term loosely, a few songs in the past that we felt turned out o.k., but we've spent a good four-five months recording these tracks (in our basement studio) and don't want to see it all go to waste due to a poor mix effort.

    It seems the response I keep getting in regards to mixing, and is even mentioned in our reference material, is something along the lines of "rely on your intuition and do what sounds good to you." I agree with this statement, however it doesn't help someone whose "intuition" is a guess-and check method that churns out sub-par mixes and a lot of frustration.

    We mix on a good Panasonic Stereo system with all the EQ'ing and Boosts off, aiming for flat sound. Right now, we don't have the money for Mackies or KRK's, so it'll have to do.

    Any help you guys can offer me will be greatly appreciated.
  2. TheFraz

    TheFraz Active Member

    Feb 5, 2007
    Chances are you are not going to learn how to mix and make your songs sound great. Mixing takes allot of practice, trail and error, and a solid understanding of the properties of sound.

    It is something that you develop over time, and practice.
    I am not trying to discourage you from learning how to mix. It just sounds like you want your songs to sound their best. I think you would be best to except your limitations and pay some one to mix the tracks for you. At least for the time being until you develop stronger mixing abilities.

    If it is something you really want to learn, then an investment into some proper monitors should be made at some point. There are some real nice monitor pairs for around the $400 mark. Mixing on a stereo system is just asking for a bad translating mix. It is good that you flattened the EQ, but even at that it will have an inherent (chances are apparent) colorizations. Though I have heard some killer mixes done on a similar set up. It really depends on your ears and the system. But more often then not it makes for a lousy mixing set up (though great for references, since your probably know what sounds good on them).
  3. mwacoustic

    mwacoustic Guest

    So are you happy with the mixes you have gotten so far, but you just want to find a method to do it faster? Or are you not happy with the end result still?

    If it is the latter, then perhaps you could post something in the Song & Mix Critique forum here and get some suggestions on what to improve.

    If it is the former, then I don't know if there is any magic formula (more are than science). But practice and experience will help. In general, I'd start with basic levels, then pan, then levels again, then eq if needed to carve out "space" for individual parts, then tweak the levels, then maybe compression or reverb, then tweak the levels, then tweak the panning, etc, etc... Then listen to the mix in your car, through headphones, whatever other system you can try and tweak some more. Take a break for a few days, then give a listen with fresh ears, and see what it needs.

    Hopefully someone more expert than I will chime in here, because I'd like to make my mixes better, too!
  4. tyCobb

    tyCobb Guest

    It comes down to consistency, I guess. Some of my mixes will be good, while others will be muddy or phony-sounding. I suppose some of this can be attributed to not having the greatest guitar/bass/drum sounds since we recorded it ourselves, however it usually comes down to:

    1. Bass and Drum (low-end) problems concerning lack of fullness.
    -If I try adding more "fullness," as in low-end, the mix turns out muddy and incoherent. Without it, it has a decent amount of punch; a manageable body, but still lacking.

    2. Guitar problems in general.
    -I never seem to know what to boost/cut, or add/subtract, to make the guitar track keep up with the bass and drums in terms of tone and placement in the mix. Perhaps because the guitar is doubled I have problems with setting them in the mix properly or having each possess its own sound to avoid clashing.

    3. Vocals often vary in volume.
    -Vocals come in soft relative to the overall mix of the instruments. What I often debate is whether or not I should bring the vocals up to compete with the music, or the music down to compensate for the lower vocal levels. The latter will affect the overal mix volume, which is sometimes a deterrent in me choosing this option.

  5. tr3eman9

    tr3eman9 Guest


    i have a very similar situation to you, except that i might buy some new monitors soon. but i also might not, in which case i will, like you, be mixing on a high end consumer stereo system with all the EQ etc off.

    will be interested to see how you come out.
  6. UncleBob58

    UncleBob58 Active Member

    Apr 9, 2003
    Fairfield County, CT
    Home Page:
    I'll assume that you don't have great monitors or a properly treated room. Been there, done that.

    The first thing to do is learn the peculiarities of your mixing environment. Listen to a few tracks of known artists in the style of your own project in your mixing room, then your car and a few other places. Use a CD, iPods tend to overly compress the mixes.

    Mix at a low/medium volume. It will save your ears and, when you do finally crank it for a listen now and then, you will notice that there will be a much better balance between all of the parts.

    Part of the muddiness is probably two or more instruments occupying the same frequency range. A concept that was taught to me is to think of the entire track as a grid or a graphic EQ. Each instrument will occupy its own frequency range.

    Decide which are the most important elements of your track(s). I'm assuming that it's rock, so that means vocals and drums. Get them sounding as great as you can. Start with all the EQs flat. Next would be the bass. Using your EQ make sure that the kick and lower toms are not conflicting with the bass. Remember the grid? Carve a hole so that the kick and bass occupy different frequencies. You probably want a lot off punchiness for the kick since it has short, sharp transients and the bass is a lot smoother, so that will have more of the lows. The rest of the instruments, with the exception of solos, are supportive. Carve holes out of them so that they don't conflict with the rest of the track. Removing frequencies with EQ can be much more effective than adding them. I have come across many situations where I would reduce frequencies and then could actually make the part louder without affecting the other parts.

    Take breaks to rest your ears, and A/B with your "control" songs (remember the tracks of known artists in the style of your own project?) to make sure that you are still in the same ballpark.

    This is extremely overly simplified and not really practical in actual practice, but it gives you a starting place. It's more like a jigsaw puzzle, all the pieces making up the whole picture. You'll be going back and forth between all the parts tweaking until it works right.

    Mix without any reverb or delay effects at all, they also can contribute to the muddiness. Once your mix is really pulled together you can then use the reverb to put everything in the same "space" and pull it all together. You should be able to hear the reverb when you solo instruments, but it should not be apparent when every single track is running full bore. That's when you can begin to add the fun stuff, delays and other FX.

    Don't forget to automate volumes, especially the vox if it gets lost in the mix. (I can remember having to practice the mix, two or more people adjusting EQ and volume on a big old analog console while the tape was running. Why adjust EQ on the fly? One track could have acoustic guitar on the intro, BG vox on the chorus and the guitar solos, and several tracks could have multiple parts. We were limited to 16 or 24 tracks so had to cram as much on to each track as we could. I definitely don't miss track management.)

    Take your mix(es) and listen to them in your other preselected places to check on the translation.

    Again, remember that I'm just giving you an extremely simplified starting point. Mixing is an art. It takes practice and experience, and not everyone can do it well.

    I primarily do audio post production - sound for film and TV. Mixing action sequences is especially difficult. You have dialog, Foley, sound FX and music all running at the same time, and the focus of the audio mix has to compliment the visuals on the screen.

    Have you seen the film "Ratatouille"? An absolutely brilliant sound design and mix. Randy Thom, the sound designer and re-recording mixer has stated that the three minute scene where Remy the rat is attempting to escape from the kitchen took over 30 hours to mix. The sequence begins at about 2:00 and ends at about 5:00.

  7. tyCobb

    tyCobb Guest

    Your coments were very helpful, thanks a boat load. Another newbie question:

    When you say "carve a hole," in relation to an instrument occupying its own frequency range, is this anything like when panning each instrument to make sure they don't overlap (example Bass and Guitar should both be at 10 o'clock)? If so, it might be an easier way for me to look at it considering all the technical terms regarding EQ'ing give me a headache when I read about it in the book I own.

  8. DonnyWright

    DonnyWright Guest

    If you pooled your cash and bought enough time to mix one song at the nicest "Pro" studio you can find, and watch and learn. Ask lots of questions.
    Hands on goes miles.
    Eventually you learn your favorite way to approach a mix.
    Some likes to do the drums first. Some don't.
    Some likes to mix dry and flat. Some don't.
    I hired a friend to help me mix my album just to get a fresh pair of ears on things and watching his way of doing things helped me refine my own technique drastically.
  9. UncleBob58

    UncleBob58 Active Member

    Apr 9, 2003
    Fairfield County, CT
    Home Page:
    For example, you have two instruments (guitars) that occupy the frequency range of 2kHz through 10kHz.

    For instrument "A" you roll off 8kHz through 10kHz and 2kHz through 4kHz and increase 5kHz through 7kHz.

    For instrument "B" you reverse the EQ scheme of instrument "A"; you increase 8kHz through 10kHz and 2kHz through 4kHz and roll off 5kHz through 7kHz.


    You have now "carved a hole" in the sonic spectrum of "B" in the 5kHz through the 7kHz range and "filled the hole" in the sonic spectrum with "B". They now occupy different frequency spectrums, "B" has more highs and lows, "A" is more mid-heavy. Panning gives them even more definition. In the "old days" the Strat/Les Paul combo many bands had made it easy, they had their own distinct personalities.

    To repeat, it is nowhere near that simple, that is the basic concept.

    The sounds with which you are working are not flat to begin with. What you are attempting to do is to give different tonal aspects to each of the instruments with EQ so that they do not occupy the same frequency spectrums and are not competing with each other.

    I am by no means a "mix master". I can put out good, solid, clean mixes; but they have nowhere near the sparkle and life a really experienced pro could give them.

    Many of us, myself included, end up living with our projects much too long. I work on lo/no/micro budget film projects. I have spent up to 700 hours on a feature film (usually 250 to 400 hours). After vetting the film, cleaning up & editing the production dialog tracks, recording & editing ADR, creating & editing the Foley, sound FX & ambiences, and editing the score & music - with numerous walk-through/talk-throughs with the director & producer thrown in for good measure - I am much too involved to be objective about the mix. I am more than happy to hand over the mix responsibilities to someone else, although usually I don't have that option. When the opportunity does present itself I fly second chair and tell the re-recording mixer why things are there and what they do in relationship to the visuals, but let him make the decisions as to how to make it work, with the director and producer giving their input as well - and they have the final word; it's their project and their money. When I don't have the option of letting someone else mix I take a few days off, deadlines permitting.

    I know what you're going through. I spent 20+ years as a touring musician and session player (musical director/keyboards/vox). I was lucky; I worked with some great engineers who shared their knowledge when they had the time. As my skills improved I worked quite a bit as a second pair of hands during mix-downs, especially during the analog days. After retiring from the road I engineered at various studios for about six years before getting into audio post, so I've done my share of music engineering and mixing.

    I found it much easier working on other peoples material, I could be much more objective. The drawback is that the guitarist always want the guitars louder, the vocalist always wants the vox louder, the drummer, the bassist, etc... Or with rap and hip-hop it was the large posses, and "leave your guns with the receptionist and no drugs in the control room..."

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