What is your goal for mixing? Is it "getting a great sound?" You might even be happy with "getting a good sound." Throw out what you define now as a your mixing goal and get ready for a complete shift in your thinking.
In the business world, setting goals are common. These goals are required to be very granular in nature. For example, a salesperson might have a goal of "grow new-client sales by five percent over the next six months." Having this well-defined goal helps them reach that goal. For instance, they know they have to focus on gaining new clients instead of growing more business from existing clients. What does this have to do with mixing?
Well-defined goals have everything to do with mixing
"Get the mix to sound great" is not well-defined. "Great" by whose standards? And how do you know you've reached that goal. What one person thinks is great one minute can easily change in 30 seconds.
Therefore, you need to implement four goals into your mixing. These goals are matching the mood expected for the music, striking the proper balance of frequencies/volume levels/stereo image of the music, creating proper definition of the sounds, and providing musical interest.
The mood is the emotional appeal of the song. You can affect the mood by using the proper mixing for the genre, the song, and the expectations of the band. For example, a song that's performed with the desire of quiet meditation like "As the Deer" would suffer greatly if you cranked the bass or gave the guitar a grungy sound.
Listen to different types of music and how the instruments are mixed. How does an acoustic guitar sound in a classic rock song, a country song, a pop song? There is a time and place for heavy bass and distortion to set a specific mood. Recognize that time and place.
The first area of balance is frequency balance. This is use of frequencies so sounds are processed in a way that they work together. For example, a song calling for a lead acoustic guitar needs the frequencies of that guitar to be out front in the mix, not buried behind the cymbals.
The second area of balance is stereo balance. When a person looks at the stage and sees the drums on the right, they shouldn't hear them only from the left-side speakers. Now it's ok if the drums are centered but don't pan an instrument or vocal so it's out of balance from where it seems it should be.
The third area of balance is level balance. This is two-fold. The first is that all music should have approximately the same volume level. The second is that sounds in a song should be in line with where they are expected. For example, going back to the acoustic guitar that's leading a song, it should be louder than the keyboard.
Definition is the measure of how distinct and recognizable a sound is in the mix. This is not to say all instruments SHOULD sound distinct in a mix. A keyboard pad or guitar power chord might sound great for a particular song when it sits back in the mix, but would ruin the song if it was any louder.
Interest is a tough one to define. Let me put it this way…a song can be interesting because you alter the mix at different points of the song. Many a worship song, in my humble opinion, has the same sound throughout the whole song. Play the same three chords, and then add the minor chord in the chorus or the bridge. Not very interesting. However, interest can be improved by you when you change where an instrument sits in the mix from the chorus to the verse. You can alter the eq or the volume of an instrument. You can add or subtract effects to a sound at different points in the song to add interest. Listening to a song is like going for a ride. The longer you see the same scenery, the more likely you are to become bored. But change up the scenery and it's a great ride!
The next time you are mixing a song, ask yourself these questions;
- What is the mood of the song and how can I shape the music to meet the mood?
- How should the instruments be balanced in the mix and with each other?
- What sounds need to stand out in the mix and which ones need to sit back?
- How can I make this song interesting in a professional way?
Question(s): What goals do you have when you mix? Would you add another goal to this list?
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