Mixing and Mastering in the Recording Studio: Essentials and Fundamentals of Music Mixing, Mastering, and Music Production
Mixing and Mastering is an art form, and while many of these basic ideas may be matters of opinion, many are time tested methods used on tons of great sounding and critically acclaimed work. They aren’t a comprehensive list or complete method, but rather a great starting point or a proven process for production that makes sense for a lot of people making music, although you make the rules and decide how you want to work ultimately.
This article will break down the process and show proven steps for home studios, musicians, bed-room producers, and other people like yourself to make professional sounding radio ready mixes for almost any tpope of music, using basic tools that almost any DAW or Mixing console features, like EQ, Compression, Reverb, Delay and Saturation.
Keeping Focused in a World Of Distractions
Modern production can be intimidating for people not familiar with the process. Mixing a multitrack session with multiple takes and a million tracks can be complicated and easy to lose
sight of the big picture and get lost in the details of mixing and listening back to the music you record. Whats going on in the mix? Let’s get rid of the distractions and listen for improvements that can instantly help your mix sound better using plugins, analog gear, or other tools to instantly start making a better mix. For many audio engineers, mixing is a way to reveal the hidden gem in getting something that has a great idea behind it but could use some polishing. So how we mix your music in the studio?
Mixing and mastering is usually a process of trial and error. You always have to second guess every decision to really tell if you’re really trying to get critical with what your mix sound like. You have to lose all ego or sense of pride and be willing to remove something you may have spent time on if the mix decision needs to be re-evaluated.
Recording using the Best Techniques and Equipment for Great Sounding Mix
There’s no magic plugin to make your crappy microphones and poor room sound like a million dollar studio with the best mics and instruments. While sometimes mixing can improve, it’s usually best to start with the highest quality recording you can. If that means re-recording some parts with better equipment, let’s do it. You can hear quality, especially in the vocals.
From setting up microphones to choosing preamps and outboard gear the whole recording process is geared towards getting the best sounds possible. For some, mixing is a time for major changes, but for others, it may be a gradual process over the whole recording process.
Keep in mind that mixing can only do so much. For instance, watching levels and getting usable tracks out of the recording time is essential to getting something that sounds good in the mixing part. How and what you record will make a huge difference in the end product. A lot of times, if the recording process goes smoothly, the mixing process will be more gradual and result in music that sounds a lot better than the “keep it rolling” approach and “fix it in the mix”. It only takes a second to dial back an amp tone or adjust the volume or levels when recording to get a good headphone mix, and in the end a better mix recorded.
Recording as Part of the Mixing Process
It’s a lot easier to mix a session that was recorded really well than fix a mess of tracks and try to figure out what is decent and what shouldn’t even be in the mix. Take the time to listen back and comp your tracks. Listening back critically is usually a process that is best right after the material is recorded, and not something where we want to spend hours sorting through a hundred takes later and trying to chop something up that works later.
Mixing 101: The Fundamentals.
For beginners, people trying to mix their own material, or audio engineers just starting out, it can be a stressful process monitoring the level of 24 or more channels, mixing headphones for 4 or 5 musicians or more, and keeping everything labeled and organized. My experience has been, don’t be afraid to take a few minutes to keep organized or listen back and commit. Nobody wants to be on point recording for hours on end, and it’s almost always appreciated when we take a break and listen back.
Setting Up your Session in Pro Tools or Another DAW
Set up your session and organize the tracks in a way that makes sense for you. Set up busses and do the organization you need to do to keep track of all the takes and instruments.
Essential Tools to Almost Any Mix
Bussing and Groups become essential when you’re dealing with a large multi track recording project in Pro Tools or another DAW. You have to keep things organized or you won’t be able to find things. I usually at least a Vocal subgroups, but you can make separate subgroups for choruses and verses, having different guitar parts panned in different ways. You don’t want to be searching through 100 tracks trying to find the solo when you want to boost the solo, likewise, you dont want to be moving 10 faders up when you want to boost up the drums. Do yourself a favor and set up a bus for drums, vocals, guitars, bass, and any other parts. This gives you a chance to check your levels and EQ again too! By applying
Setting Levels and Adjusting Volume of Tracks
Panning and Stereo Effects
You get get crazy with the panning and stereo effects by doubling all your tracks or using multiple mics and channels and experiment with panning experiments.
Mixing and Critically Listening For Frequencies
Understanding how different frequencies and how the work together in your mix is something that a lot people want to begin to develop. Here are a few of my favorite frequies to target for different mix elements.
Mixing Kick Drum
Useful frequencies for kick drum include:
- 60 or 80 hz – Thump of the kick drum. Sometimes Higher tuned drums will feature 100 or 125hz, but generally the low thump lives below 100 hz.
- 500 hz (plus or minus 150 hz) Is a midrange boxy tone that may be scooped out to taste.
- 3-10k is the click of this. Metal and other very “sharp” tones may be in the upper range around 8k as a favorite for sharpness. Around 5k is very painful and a sharp attack can help the kick drum be placed in the mix in such a way that cell phone speakers and other smaller speakers and headphones can still make sense of the drums without the sub-100 frequencies.
Mixing Snare and Toms
Snare and Toms often can have a midrange resonance that can be scooped. Anywhere from 125-1k can be scooped to leave the main low resonance punch and remove the boxy midrange that may become apparent with dynamic mics.
Attack frequencies around 3-5k can be boosted for more attack. Even 7k can help coax a nice attack out of a drum sometimes.
Using Expanders and Gates on Drums
Expanders, especially multi band expanders, can be used to clean up noise or bleed in tracks.
Many times, I like to use a low frequency expander on toms to clean up bleed or ring. It’s more transparent than a gate, and can really clean up a drum kit with a lot of live resonances. This technique can also be used on kick drum. For example, an expander can be placed on the kick or tom channel with a frequency range of only below 120 hz, and then an expander with a threshold set to open when the drum is hit, and reduce the low frequency bleed from the kick and other toms. This has the effect of tightening up the low end, while leaving the higher frequencies alone. This is amore transparent way to gate toms, kick or snare, without a lot of pumping clattering gates opening up a the wrong times and opening and closing for the bleed from hitting the cymbals.
Gates can be used as well to get rid of unwanted noise in tracks. Try sidechaining your snare bottom gate to the snare top mic. The effect will be the snare bottom will only open when the snare is hit. This is a great way to clean up a messy snare bottom track.
Mixing In Cymbals and Room Mics
Cymbals and room mics, as well as whole kit miking techniques can be used to mic the whole drum kit as an instrument, rather than each individual drum as a separate element. Cymbals are usually mic’ed with condenser or sometimes even ribbon microphones. Cymbals can have sizzle at around 5k and air around 8 or 10k. Some condenser microphones are deliberately boosted in this range for increased high frequency content. (For example AKG C414 XLS) Other mics like the Akg C414 EB are a little flatter, or more natural sounding. The overhead mics or room mics can be the basis for the whole drum sound, or a way to accent the direct mics with overheads and high frequency content from the cymbals. Whether you choose to have body to your overhead sound, or thin the low end to have a cleaner sound with less room sound, overheads can be a subtle sparkle, or a bold and round tone that covers the whole range of drum tones.
When are cymbal mics unnecessary?
When you have a ton of open mics in a live setting, or a really heavy cymbal hitter, you might not even need to put the overheads in the mix. Maybe there’s already way too much cymbals even with the overheads muted. Or maybe there are 9 percussion mics open right beside the drums. Choosing not to use the overheads at all could be the best thing you can do to maintain a balanced mix. Often times, in a small club setting or when rehearsing, overheads are entirely unnecessary, because we can hear the cymbals just fine naturally from the drum kit.
Room mics: managing spill, bleed, and massive room tone.
Room mics are what every beginning engineer wants to try. Room mics are just extra harmonics and tones from the room that might not be picked up close to the drum kit. Try a stereo pair or a single omni condenser or a ribbon mic for room mics. Sometimes like overhead or snare bottom, room mics are not required for the style or type of drum sound we’re after.
All drum mics have bleed from other sources. You can’t mic a snare drum without getting a little high hat and rack tom for instance. So managing bleed and phase between different mics and blending together the different elements in a pleasing way is really what it takes for making a great sounding mix. Sometimes the room mics sound really good, other times (if the drummer isn’t playing very balanced in the room for instance) the room mics sound like garbage. Putting room mics in every mix for every type of kit and style isn’t conducive to getting a clean modern tone if that’s what you’re after. Likewise, if your room itself sounds like garbage, there’s no use adding even more weird resonances to all already problematic situation.
Matching all the different elements of Kick, snare, toms, cymbals like high hat crash and ride should be the first step, and great room tone will follow. If the drummer hits the cymbals way too hard, get ready to mute your super washed out room microphone tracks.
Reverb and Room Sound
Reverb, whether added naturally with room mics, or whether added with outboard effects or plugins can be a great way to make a dry sounding kit sing. Reverb should not be applied to every track or to every project even, and different sounding reverbs may sound cheesy or be totally out of character for certain types of music. Knowing when and how to use reverb and room sound is part of mastering the art of mixing and producing great sounding drums. Some reverb can really help hold together a drum kit that sounds very separated in the mix, but in general, reverb on snare drum and toms is common, with reverb on kick and overheads being a less common practice.
Using a compressor or Limiter on Room mics for a super fat and crushed sound
The pumping and breathing of the room can be an awesome sound if you’re looking for an explosive and roomy garage rock sound to the drums. For blues or other styles, a compressor or limiter on the room mics can really make the sound enormous. For a crush tone, try a mic 50 ft away, pointed at the kick drum away from the cymbals, and a high ratio compressor like 1176 or limiter on the mics to add super compressed fatness and bring out different harmonics that may not be naturally apparent in the room without compression. Many punk and rock styles can benefit from this sort of sound added underneath the direct mics.
Room and Overheads as away of globally processing the drums
Room mics and overheads are often eq’d with a solo, and you can tame problematic frequencies, while coaxing more subtle tones out. The overall drum tone will be drastically changed with even small changes to overheads and room mics sometimes, so this can be a great way to scoop or flatten the frequency response of a drum kit. Many times overheads and room mics are sent to a mix bus to be processed in subgroups. Other drum mics like kick and snare end up going to different sub groups as well, and processed separately with compression and EQ applied to channels, as well as globally to the drum bus and busses for snare toms and overheads. Blending the different elements toeghete becomes easier when you have one fader or group for similar tracks, and moving all the faders up proportionally becomes easier if you want to adjust the overall overhead or direct mic volumes. Creating audio busses or subgroups becomes almost as important as the tracks themselves for many audio engineers. Plugins and effects, as well as outboard effects, can be used at almost any stage, from tracking, to mixing down, and you’ll see loads of plugins on many pro engineer DAW session files.
Creating Contrasts for Exciting Mixes
You can’t process everything to sound the same and expect it to sound great. You have to make contrasts, The low kick, the snap of the snare drum. If there’s a lot of gating and editing out of toms, you might have to leave the overhead less processed and bring those up to mask the gating on the other tracks.
Mixing Techniques: Bottom up or something else?
Some engineers throw up all the faders and mix each according to whatever adjustments they hear that are necessary, others begin with Kick and snare isolated or solo’ed and work up from there. Bass guitar is almost always the next element to add, and building a song up from the rhythm and drums up to bass guitar, vocals and whatever seems like a pretty logical way of doing things and makes perfect sense. For this reason, most engineers put Kick drum on 1 and then snare drum and the others, followed by overheads, room mics, bass, guitar and whatever else farther down. It’s not unheard of to have 20 or 30 or even up to 100 or more channels on big productions., so keeping everything organized and labeled is a must. You don’t want to be searching every channel for the bass or kick drum half way through. Grouping similar instruments together usually tends to work out, with all the midrange of the vocals and guitars being grouped together and elements with more high frequency content like cymbals or acoustic guitar having a separate fader and processing that may be vastly different.
Vocals Last Technique
Pop rock and dance mixes usually add vocals last. After all the music production is done, the vocalist puts the vocal on top of the instrumental track. By this time, the vocalist has had time to figure out all the nuances of the track and is ready to put a stellar performance of the vocals on top. You’ll want a fader for other midrange and instrumental elements like guitars and keys to adjust the level of the musical elements against the voice.
Starting At Unity or 0 db or Whatever is Normal Level
For most mixes, it makes sense to begin with levels around 0. After all, you don’t want anything clipping your stereo master bus when you solo each track. Starting off at nominal level or 0, and then adjusting up or down the levels of all the tracks ia a great way to adjust levels. It also may be helpful to pump your mix through a few different monitoring speakers or headphones just to see how the existing mix reacts to different types of playback devices. Sometimes, a mix will sound fine in the studio, but be painfully lacking on other types of reproduction. It’s important that your mixes translate and stay focused regardless of playback device. My philosophy is to keep the mix focused on the main section of human hearing between 100Hz to about 11k. You can always have extra information for systems that support those rich lows and glistening high frequency, but if your mix isn’t solid in the main frequices, it will fall flat when being played on computer speakers or small cell phone monitors, Having those frequencies there, but not relying entirely on anything too low or high to express each of the different tracks.
Boosting Something that Isn’t there:
Abra cadabra, hocus pocus, and the magic and limitations of studio tricks
You’ll find out quickly sometimes, you’re trying to get a frequency to come out that just isn’t there. Your boxy flat kick drum could use some heart pounding boom in the low end, but no matter how much you boost 60 and 80 hz, it just sounds like a lot of hot air with no attack. It’s likely you’re fighting a battle that can’t be entirely won. The obvious solution would be, get a kick drum that has a great booming sound already, Re-record, or possibly replace with samples. Once again, great sounding recordings come from great sounding instruments, and great sounding mixes come from great sounding recordings. You can dress up a pig to look like a dog, but it will never be a dog. Mixing and music in general has a huge degree of subjectivity, and how something sounds to one person, can yield vastly different opinions and emotions from different listeners. The listeners experience is highly based on the playback system, and many people listen almost entirely to cell phones and bluetooth speakers, or they might be listening in a noisy or poor acoustic environment. Expert engineers know what their mixes will sound like in their favorite headphones, and they listen for problems that might be more apparent or less apparent depending on how crappy the system is that plays it back or how many phase problems the room may have.
Room Acoustics play a huge role in Listener Playback Experience
Room acoustics play a huge role in the performance of the speaker playback system within a room. While headphones mostly reject outside room interference, speakers are a way to excite the air molecules and create different patterns of pressure gradients within a room environment. When you think of all the different buildings and construction materials, and all the different playback systems,. your mixes won’t ever be in the same environment as the studio where you mix it. That’s why playback in different systems and under different room and environmental acoustics is a huge part of testing your mixes.
Testing your mixes against commercial material
If you’re trying to make money off your music, it may be useful to A/B your stuff with something you really like. For example, if all you ever want to sound like is Bob Dylan, play a Dylan song, then play a song of your own, and see if it fits with vibe, or what differences in EQ or mic choice may have affected the final result. Seeing how your mixes stand up to your favorite songs can be a hard pill to swallow, and many times, you stand in awe of some of the best work, while your own mixes exhibit the flaws and shortcomings as a result of your inexperience, or as a result of un changeable dynamics and limitations of the equipment or environment you had to work with.
Don’t Get Discouraged
Don’t be too hard on yourself, just gain knowledge and experience, and this will all help develop your taste and fine tune your technique for your individual preferences and the sound you’re after. Don’t blame everything on the equipment you are using or some other limitation you can’t control, focus on using what you have and doing the best job you can, and make changes to improve your technique every time. Like all great art, mixes are a lot of happy accidents, and tricks that worked, and a lot that didn’t along the way. Go with your gut instinct, and don’t be afraid to say you’d like to hear more or less or something, and focus on the details that matter. Pops and clicks, bad fades, and clipping or other distortion are obvious beginners mistakes, but a lot of great recordings may have had a few clips, or less than ideal circumstances that became the defining sound or hearing the imperfections might become add awesome character to the recordings. Have reasonable expectations, and try to get the best sound or balance right off the bat. If a guitar tone sounds bad, or if a drum is sounding off, fix it and do it right. It’s almost always worth it to do it right instead of try to fix it later.
Boost or Cut Is it Even Worth it? What is a Bad Sound Anyways and other Existential Questions
It can be very difficult to mix something that was recorded poorly and almost all the time, mixing and mastering are helping to deal with problems generated in the recorded stage. With modern digital recorders, it’s easy enough to get a usable level out of most mics without a compressor, and with in the box EQs it may be easy enough to fix something in the mix stage if you aren’t sure. The most important thing would be to not use too much compression or EQ boost or cut. Unless you are extremely confident that you want that exact type and amount of boost or cut, go gentle with the compression or track without a compressor and do that “in the box” on playback. Don’t use gear you don’t have to, and switching OUT the EQ button can be the best thing for tracking sometimes. Learning what is acceptable level, and what is ideal level and what is “trash that take” level is important. 1 or 2 clips can be acceptable in some cases, but 100 clips is not. -12db or -10 db is an acceptable level, -20 or even -30db could be usable but if the waveform should be somewhere between flat line, furry jelly bean, and squarish blob below 0db digital clipping.
Practice good recording techniques for vocals and use the best mic you can!
Vocals are usually the main focus of modern music, so recording the vocal performance properly is an important step towards capturing the song. Some musicians will adopt recording at home so they have unlimited time, but the recordings may be less than ideal because of acoustic or equipment limitations. It’s often times better to use that as a scratch track and do the vocals over in the studio and with a good mic rather than go with a poorly recorded version. The wrong mic or room can make a recording worthless, so make sure you’re using the right mic for the job and utilizing a pop filter and good recording environment to capture the best sound you can from the start. When recording studios pay thousands for a microphone they aren’t paying for something 100 times better than what the average home studio consumer can afford, they’re paying for something slightly better, but hopefully, close to 100 percent perfection. Then, using the other audio engineering tools, as close to perfection as possible.
Choosing mics can have two general philosophies. You can pick a darker mic for a brighter source if you want to change the tone, as well as change the polar pattern of the mic your using to help capture the character of sound you’re going through. Most dynamic and condenser mics have proximity effect, so getting the mic closer to the source will result in richer deeper bass tones, and backing the mic off, will yield flatter more detailed room sound. Sometimes a harsh source, paired with the wrong mic and too aggressive of a preamp can build just the wrong type of tone, and you have to switch things up. If something is sounding too boomy or bright, swap the mic or adjust the mic placement to improve the sound.
Go easy on the distortion and compression at first
Compression on drums often brings up the room tone and background noise, so too much compression on the drums can bring out your less than flattering room tone. In some cases, that sound is totally awesome and the perfect match for your garage rock or blues band sound. You can always add more compression and distortion later, but it’s more difficult or next to impossible to reduce distortion or compression later. Guitar tones should be perfect and not overblown, and the engineer shouldn’t need to do a huge boost or cut to make it sound right, the amplifier should sound good in the room and work with drum kit and bass tone already. It’s pretty easy to give a guitar a bit more bite or a little less bite, but a huge boost won’t sound as good as a more natural boost of the appropriate amplifier tone control knob. Overall, most things like electric guitar or bass don’t need a whole lot of compression while tracking. While it’s nice to have a good compressor going from the start with an few db of gain reduction, crushing 20 or more dB of gain reduction in tracking is usually a bad idea. Maybe try tracking another channel with the un affected version too for safety?
Getting the Right Tones for your Tunes
Get the tone right from the start, and gain or distortion can really thicken up different elements, and way too much can just add mud. If there is a rhythm part or something that goes almost the whole way through, consider reducing the gain a bit if it’s taking up too much space in the mix. Often times, a screaming solo or another loud gainey part, followed by a clean part is just the ticket to having a highly contrasting interesting mix. You can still hear the parts, and the sound is perfect. Sometimes, you can do a DI guitar or bass as well. This clean DI feed from usually right after the pedalboard and before the amplifier gives a clean feed to re-amp or use digital amp simulators to experiment with more amp tones afterwards in the mixing process. While straight DI guitar or bass usually sounds terrible, the mellow sound of a tube amplifier or digital amp simulator