Once you’ve decided to up the ante and put your songwriter demos out there for the world to hear, it’s in your best interest to pay close attention to every step in the recording process. One of the most vital of these steps is the mix of your song. It’s not enough to have a great song. You need a great recording and a strong mix is an essential part of any great recording. The art of mixing (and make no mistake, it is an art) is not a skill everyone possesses. It’s well worth your while, even if you’ve recorded your tracks yourself in your home studio, to seek out an experienced mix engineer. While there is no substitute for a dynamic, exciting musical performance, a good mix can enhance every aspect of that performance so that the final sonic result truly makes your song stand out. On the other hand, a poor mix can severely compromise even the best song and performance. Only you can write your songs. That makes you an expert in that area. However, unless you’re also an expert mix engineer, I’d highly recommend going to someone who is.
I get it. Everyone wants to save money. I do, too, but there are places to save and places to invest. In an effort to keep recording costs down, many musicians have purchased their own recording equipment. This is terrific and there’s never been a better time to buy affordable, high-quality gear. As long as you’re as passionate about learning the engineering process as you are about your music, you’ll do great. Owning your own recording equipment also takes a lot of the pressure off when it comes to experimenting in the studio. Finally, it allows you to record as many takes as necessary to get the performances you want without worrying about the clock. However, one way to make the absolute most of your recorded performances is to let an expert mix them. It’s amazing what a talented, experienced mix engineer can bring out of a mix that might otherwise get lost or obscured at the hands of a less able mixer.
Before I cover in greater depth what makes up a good mix, let’s go back to performance for a moment. No matter how great the mix engineer may be there are some things you simply cannot fix in the mix. To be more specific, there is no way to “mix in” a great vocal or instrumental performance. What makes a performance great might surprise you. For example, sometimes it’s what you don’t play that counts the most. In my experience, the best studio musicians are the best listeners. What I mean by this is that great players base their instrumental performance on whatever else is going to be played in the song so that all the instruments work together as a whole to serve the song and NOT their individual egos. Playing too much is the hallmark of an amateur studio musician.
Secondly, the timely use of dynamics (where to play louder/softer or with greater/less intensity) is essential to a mix that breathes and has shape to it. Simply moving up and down a volume fader won’t do the same thing. When it comes to singing, all the Auto-Tune and reverb in the world won’t give a vocal performance real sincerity and emotion. All this to say, make absolutely certain that the performances are exactly how you want them before you start the mix process.
Getting great instrument sounds in a mix is a combination of many factors. Finding space in the mix for each individual instrument is essential. This is often achieved through judicious use of EQ, compression, volume and panning. For example, the skill it takes to get great drum sounds, marry the kick drum to the bass while also giving the electric guitars room to breathe and sparkle is developed over time and repetition…a lot of repetition. When this is done properly, the instruments are exciting to listen to. Each has its place and role to play and when they come together, the song takes on a life of its own.
A great mix engineer always makes the treatment and placement of the vocal a priority. Once the instrumental mix is generally where it needs to be, it’s time to make certain that the vocalist is running the show. A combination of EQ, compression, tuning (if necessary), effects and volume fader automation should all serve the ultimate goal of making it sound like the singer is in charge. There are several risks associated with improper vocal placement. If the final mix has too much vocal, then the instruments end up sounding small and weak. However, if the vocal is too soft in the mix, it loses its ability to communicate the emotion of the song. Every genre has its preferred vocal level. In general, pop music has the vocal more integrated into the mix whereas country music (with its emphasis on the lyric) generally puts the vocal higher in the mix. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule but a good mix engineer will know the genre he or she is mixing for and do the right thing for the song.
On a related note, one of the best reasons to bring in an experienced mix engineer even if you’ve recorded the song yourself is a fresh, objective set of ears. It’s been my experience that if the singer mixes their own project, they tend to keep the vocals too low for a couple of reasons. One is that most singers tend to get uncomfortable with their vocals up in a mix. There are precious few singers I’ve ever worked with who genuinely love the sound of their own voices. By keeping the vocal low in the mix, the vocalist/engineer won’t have to leave their comfort zone but the mix suffers. The second reason has to do with the fact that the singer already knows the words and assumes that they’re hearing the words when, in fact, they may be too low for someone who doesn’t know the song to understand.
If your ultimate goal is to do your own mixing, consider hiring an expert to mix a song or two for you and then ask them for the session files back. Assuming you’re using the same recording software (i.e. ProTools, Nuendo, Logic), you’ll be able to examine every detail of how the mix was done and use the finished mix files as a kind of tutorial so you can ultimately learn to do it yourself.