There is a common question on Forums all over the net: “How do I get a bangin’ mix that pastes my ears back through my mate’s Sub?” And there are a lot of tutorials, many good, that offer answers but what I so rarely see is the one-ring-to-rule-them-all answer. It is as though mixing (making) music is only in getting the knobs to the right position. So wrong. A craftsman is far more than a robot knob twiddler with a thousand pre-defined routines. The difference between something that is more of the same and a magical experience is in the execution. It is the heart, the passion, the care of the artist knowing how to make the feeling. Hard to put into words but that is where a good mix comes from. I have records that aren’t overly well mixed or mastered (thinking Judas Priest’s “Sin After Sin” album or Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska”) but guess what? Who cares! as they are far too good to waste time on trivialities. I can hear what is going on and it is magic.
Here are some practical pointers.
Step #1 – play the instrument well. A good line will be good no matter how poor the instrument; but a good instrument can only ever be as good as the player. If I were to let Kenny G play with my horn (eek!) the result would be far better than if I were to fiddle with his. I think I need a sleep now LOL.
Step #2 – this should be Step #11 but I know most of you won’t want to read that far. There is no quick one-size solution. But if there was it would be Delay lines. If you can only afford one effect then let it be a delay line as Delay is all about creating a sense of space. That can be subtle as in a room ambiance or overt as in a 3/16th groovemaker on a TB-303. Delays can also be used for Choruses, Flangers and even Comb Filters and Phasers. Learn delays well and then you will find everything else easier. Just don’t clutter your mix. It’s about subtlety.
Step #3 – Your Ears/Brain are the best friends you never knew you had. Learn to hear critically, knowing a good piece of music from dross will put you in far better stead than thinking loud is good or that anything on Idol is actually art. “Gangnam Style” may not be as high an art form as Vangelis’ “Blade Runner” but the rules are still pretty well applied and it is fun; the balance of the elements is right. Same with Spice Girls and even “The Macarena”. The rules however are wrong in many other things that masquerade as cool and take you off the path of music. Teach your brain the difference. It may make you a grumpy old man but most artists are exactly that for that very reason. You can’t have both.
Step #4 – EQ the second-best friend you never knew you had. Lean to use EQ. Yep this should be #12 but if I don’t throw a bone… Cut before you boost is the golden rule. If you want more bass in your mix then look at all the instruments playing/straying in that area (Kik, Bass, Piano, Pads/Strings, FX) and decide who needs to be the bass-star. If it is the bassman then cut lows from the drummulator, pianoist, keyprodder and that guy who looks like Riff Raff and makes weird noises over in the corner (sorry Brian).
Step #5 – The Middle Way – Buddha had it right when he said there is no happiness in extreme behaviors. Smart fella that, he woulda made a good mix engineer as he would have known to make a good mix. All parts had to be in balance, able to do their jobs in making a better life. Rock on old dead dude.
Step #6 – is really just Step #5 but I’ll separate it to make sure it is understood. Recorded music is an illusion. Just as a painting isn’t the subject of the painting, what comes out the speakers is a set of pointers that the listener’s brain turns back into hip, sad, bouncy, bassy etc. A recording that seems super bass-heavy can’t be recreated by using the fattest bass you can find followed by 18db of Bass Boost. Won’t work. Mona Lisa’s eyes seem to follow you because Leo knew how to paint pointers to make you feel that the eyes were on you. Music is about learning to make those pointers both in the playing and in the recording. That there is the master rule. From there you learn the tricks.
Some of the best moments in my music are really simple sounds played with a feeling. The mix lets the sound have the right place. I can’t always say how I got there but I can say I got it about right. That is art.
Take a listen to Boz Scaggs “Sierra” and tell me it isn’t a lovely mix and that it doesn’t move you? If it doesn’t then perhaps you need to be an accountant. Go on listen, we’re done here grasshopper.