Hard Truths: A Good Mix Takes Work

a good mix

Sometimes everything is going smoothly in a session and your process feels effortless. Unluckily, this is not always the case.

We wish to combine to be simple and satisfying and fun—and sometimes it is! However, any pro mix engineer could tell you that the bulk of their time is spent on difficult and challenging tasks.

I will get straight to today’s hard truth: getting mix is hard work.

That does not mean there are not methods to make your life simpler as you mix. However, when you aren’t prepared to put in the effort your outcomes will never measure up.

It isn’t meant to be discouraging.

The flip side of this hard truth is that you could improve the sound of your basic tracks by a big margin when you simply put in the time to do everything you could.

Here’s how to do it.

Sweat the details

It may seem tedious, however, spending time on the fine details of your tracks always pays off.

I am talking about basic tasks such as comping vocals, checking edits, fine-tuning automation and keeping great gain structure.

Strictly speaking, these may not all be mixing tasks, however, they make an enormous difference in your mix.

1. Cleaning up

Bad edits or poorly comped tracks could break the immersion of a compelling vocal performance.

Excess noise, clicks and pops and any other artifacts from the tracking process should be dealt with for your basic tracks to sound their best.

The worst part? Mix operations that affect dynamic range almost always increase the negative effects of these artifacts.

That means every time you apply compression or limiting you will be boosting the noise floor of your raw material. If there is excess noise, you will hear all of it—particularly after mastering.

It’s lots of effort to ensure every single track in your session is scrubbed completely clean for mixing, however, it’s worth it.

Making this little bit of effort goes a long way!

2. Automation

Automation could be a similar sticking point. Individually adjusting dozens of breakpoints a dB or two at a time is tedious.

However, it makes a difference. There is only so much a compressor that could even out your levels before it begins working too hard.

Taking the time to do passes of level automation for very dynamic sources could give you better outcomes from your plugins.

Don’t miss this chance to get more from your mix just because it is time-consuming.

3. Gain staging

In the heat of the moment, you may find yourself losing track of your gain structure.

As your insert chains get longer and more complex, you are certain to forget to check your meters and adjust makeup gain accordingly.

However, getting stuck with hot levels at the mix bus could make a huge impact. Not enough headroom is one of the main mix errors we see in tracks uploaded to LANDR.

When you do not take the extra time to check gain structure as you go, reigning your levels back in at the end may change how your plugins interact with each other—and change your combine.

Do your best to keep an eye on the headroom throughout your mix process.

Front-load your labor

With all that in mind, efficient engineers do everything they could to reduce the amount of time they spend dealing with mix difficulties.

The best way to do that is to begin before the mixing process even begins.

Staying vigilant during a session and catching mistakes as they happen takes focus, however, do your best.

Resist the urge to put off dealing with problems at the moment—even when they interrupt the action of the session.

Patching up issues later with less than ideal solutions shows through in your final product.

And if something went seriously wrong, you might even be forced to re-record. That’ll double your work anyway!

Make templates

Preventing points before they occur is important. However, what about workflow enhancements you could use during the mixing process?

One useful option is to build a set of combine templates.

Mix templates are a sensitive topic. Some engineers swear by them, others say they’re not so helpful.

There will not be consensus within the professional audio neighborhood, however, templates can simplify a few of your workflow.

Any repeatable actions in your mixes may be added to a time-saving template you possibly can recall in any scenario.

Most engineers cease wanting to utilize templates for particular person channels, but when you find yourself utilizing the same EQ and compressor on kick drum for every mix, why not!?

Behind the curtain

It may seem like all this extra work makes mixing completely unglamorous. However, here’s an associated truth—the easier it sounds, the harder it was to pull off.

Artists, engineers, and producers want you to think their outcomes are the product of pure musical intuition.

More often, you’re hearing a calculated strategy that took some amount of trial and error to good.

A prime instance is the “lo-fi” sounds which are sometimes used for effect even in large budget productions.

It might seem at first like the engineer simply dropped in a verse from the artist’s rough demo to capture the “raw” feel of a first take.

In reality, these lo-fi tones are often among the most extensively processed sound in a mix.

It takes lots of mixing finesse to get these textures to actually work the way they are intended.

One thing’s for sure—it’s definitely not an unedited, dry phone mic take!

Be prepared for creative, unconventional approaches to be more challenging than tried and true techniques.

However, don’t let that cease you. Similar to any innovation, you solely ever see the tip of the iceberg!

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