Category: AudioBasics

Tutorials 15th September 2011 | 2,108 views Comments (2)
No matter how good your tune is, a poor mixdown can completely ruin a track by making it sound muddy, distorted or undefined. You’ve spent hours perfecting the musical side and you want your tune to sound fantastic on every speaker system it might be played on. Mixing down is the final step in the production process, and the following tips will help you to get the hang of it.

Before you start your mixdown

If you do it separately to arrangement, it’s important to have EQ’d your track properly: this is the number one issue I hear in most of what I listen to pre-mixdown. Just one or two bad resonant points can mess up the mixdown, mainly because we try to compensate by making things too loud in the mix. Here are a few things you should watch out for…

Snare Crossover – most people know to be careful of kick crossover, but snare crossover is just as important, not just on the bass but all your other sounds as well. In my experience this is one of the most common reasons for snares being too loud in the mix

Kick, Bass Crossover – even if you have high-passed a pad at 150hz, it might be throwing out more volume at 150hz than you realize, and this applies equally to stabs or any other sound in the mix. Don’t just rely on side-chain compression to give your kicks space.

Pad/Synth Crossover – just as important as keeping the bass and percussion clean, a few pads or synths in the same range can ring out massively and destroy your mixdown and compression. Work out which bits of each sound you need, and take out the bits that interfere but don’t detract from the overall sound.

Reverb/Delay Tails – again these can ring out and mess things up, so don’t over-do it and make good use of hi/low pass filtering to keep things big but clean.

Notch EQ – sweep up and down the spectrum to find resonant points that ‘ring out’. Notch EQ sweeps are a really good way of learning how your sounds interact with each other. It’s worth spending time sweeping through the frequencies of every individual sound in the mix to see what’s going on, and then work out which ones need to be taken out. After a while it will be instinctive and you will have less and less EQing to do. I don’t recomend you sweep through the spectrum with headphones on, as you could seriously damage your ears if the sweep hits a loud point!

Mixdown References

If you can, give your ears a break before starting your mixdown; it takes about 20-30mins for your ears to adjust. Start mixing down at very low volume, loud enough for you to clearly hear the sounds but not booming out at all. Doing it this way will prevent your ears from getting tired, which would in turn make your mixdown suffer.

There are a couple of really quick ways to check your mixdown using different devices – these are what I refer to as references. It’s important to get as many references as possible, on as many different speakers as you can get your hands on. Here are some examples:

Mono Master output – this is a quick and dirty way to show up imbalances in your mixdown. Things that are too loud will stick out a long way, and any phase problems with your bass will also be easy to hear.

Headphone check – headphones are a great reference tool, so have a quick listen to your track on some normal headphones.

Laptop speaker check – laptop speakers traditionally lack low end, which makes them a great reference for checking the general audio balance and verifying that musically important elements are audible.

Car, HiFi, mini speaker stereos, etc – these devices all tend to have very different sound characteristics and often have built-in EQ presets. Listen to your track on as many different such devices as possible to ensure it sounds good on all of them, and note down any areas of the mix that don’t sound as good as you would like.

The Mixdown

By now you probably have a fair idea of what’s wrong in your mixdown, or at least know that something’s not quite right (unless it is, then woo! you can stop reading). Following are the 5 steps you should take to get working on those issues:

First Step – set all your channels to -Inf volume. Be careful if you are using sends or FX routing which will change significantly because of this e.g. side-chain compression, and take a note of anything that will mess up so you can adjust it to correct later if necessary.

Second Step – bring in your base break and make sure it sounds tight and big. I also recommend peaking a kick drum at -15dBFS at the start of the mix and switching off any limiter or compression you have on the master. Build a mix round the kick peaking at this level and you will be in good shape for “self finalizing” or professional mastering. This works best in 24 bit setups.

Third Step – bring in your bass, make sure it all fits together perfectly, ensure all of the sound is clear from top to bottom, taking care that the sub isn’t overpowering the rest of the mix or getting lost in it; it should be pumping along nicely with the kick. If you find that your snare seems to jump out of the mix with tiny volume changes, then most likley you have some EQ to do on the bass.

Fourth Step – add the rest of your sounds, one at a time, gently, and keep things balanced. Close your eyes and get a feel for the soundscape. Every single sound should be clear and if not, have a look through the rest of the mix and very gently tweak your channels, trusting your ears. Ensure your percussion and bass are still pumping nicely with every sound you add.

Fifth Step – stop the music, rewind to the beginning, make a cup of tea, turn it up (not too much), sit back and listen. As a listener, not a producer, don’t tweak anything, just listen to the end. If anything needs tweaking then go back to step 4, remembering to turn the volume down again first.

By now hopefully your mixdown is sounding better, nothing is clipping, bass and percussion are sitting tight and your synths and soundscape are bouncing around just right. Get more references from different speakers for a last check, and don’t worry if you find yourself constantly going back to the mixdown to tweak. It takes practice, but the more references you take, the faster your brain will learn to pick up on the problems.

Take regular breaks, do a draft mixdown, then come back to it after a few hours, or 24 hours if you can stay away that long. At very least sleep on it, as tired ears become more and more useless as the hours wear on.

Once you feel your mixdown is as close as you can get it to perfection, you may want to add a touch of compression to your master output which will help bring out the details. A ratio of 1:3 will probably do, and then just bring the threshold down slightly until it starts to flicker, but make sure that it doesn’t add any distortion, especially to the bass. If you want to add limiting, bring the volume on the compression down a few db, then add a limiter, turn the volume up on your amp/speakers (so you don’t suffer from “louder is better” syndrome which often leads to massively over-limited/compressed music), then slowly adjust the threshold of the limiter by a maximum of 0.5db at a time. Adjust it to taste, but remember: the more you limit, the more dynamics you lose, and louder isn’t always better. A flicker of limiting is more than enough in most cases.

Eventually all this stuff will happen naturally as part of your arrangement process. These steps are just to get you started so you can see what’s going on and how things interact with each other and cause imbalances. The rest is practice, practice, practice.

5 steps to improve your mixdown –

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