Mixing is an art and not a science. Professionals spend a considerable amount of time mixing a song, simply because it can make such a big difference.
How did we get to this state in the evolution of music technology and performing arts?
A song which hasn’t been mixed very well stands almost no chance at all nowadays to reach the charts. Times have changed. In the 70s and 80s a song didn’t necessarily have to be mixed well, as long as it had a good melody and a well known vocalist who sang. A song could even sell just because that $25,000 sampler was used, which only studios could afford.
All that changed during the mid and late 90s. As equipment got cheaper, everyone could record a song in their bedroom using a computer, a few sound modules and a decent sound card. As more people could produce professionally sounding tracks, the competition intensified. And the requirements got higher. Everything had to sound extremely professional, simply since it was possible from a technical point of view. Consequently, the overall mix was given more attention. The advantage of using expensive equipment was gone, so if you could produce a good mix, you had an advantage over those who couldn’t. And that’s where we are today.
One of the most successful producers of pop music, boasting dozens of songs on the top ten charts all over the world, said in an interview that he spends approximately one week mixing every song. So even professionals need to sit down with every song that they produce to check what needs to be done in the mix.
No song is similar to another, because the complexity of the mix will depend on which instruments the song makes use of, how much bandwidth each instrument occupy of the frequency spectrum and if there are instruments which compete for the same frequency spectrum interfering with each other.
In addition a mix might contain mostly non velocity sensitive synthesizers which don’t add much dynamics to a mix, while another song might have a number of instruments which change very much in their dynamics. In the latter case you’ll have to spend more time getting these instruments to fit into the mix without destroying too much of their dynamics, a fine art which takes time to learn.
The fine art of mixing covers territories, such as levels, panning, filters, in which order to do things, compression, reverbs, effects in general, vocals, cymbals, adding punch, send or insert effects, commercial styles, listening to the end result, mixing down and much more.
If the levels aren’t right, the listener will judge the recording as unpleasant, if he or she doesn’t know exactly what’s wrong. It’ll be just a feeling they have.
Wrong panning can create problems in certain situations, listening to a recording in headphones, which has a strange panning, will be unpleasant too.
Too much treble on certain drums sounds won’t work. A common trick is to reduce the treble on the snare drum and increase it on the hihats, but it also depends on the genre.
Instruments that haven’t been compressed jump up and down in the mix. This is one of the most important factors when it comes to producing a commercial mix; to make use of compressors.
Too much reverb can drown the instruments in a mess which makes it hard to separate the instruments or even individual notes of an instrument. Limited use, or even absence of, reverbs can make the mix sound sterile and artificial (although sometimes that’s actually a desired effect).
Vocals might need de-essing or perhaps simple filtering to remove bass regions. Or you might want to boost the middle region to push the vocals closer to the listener in the mix, without raising the overall volume.
Cymbals which are mixed to high can disturb the overall impression of the song. Usually, the cymbals are subtle, used as a kind of foundation for the remaining instruments.
Almost all commercial music nowadays make use of compressors to add punch. Most drum sounds are compressed and often the other instruments are too.
There are plenty of tricks to consider. We have already revealed a few ones in this article. If it sounds exciting, then you might want to read a book on mixing. Or search the Internet for mixing techniques or mixing tips.
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