JTM Music

Sydney Recording Engineer / Music Lessons / Music Entertainment Provider

How to mix audio in a home studio

The art of descisions - A guide to mixing audio in a home studio

MixingJames Moore

This is a dynamically updated article on my mix mentality and info to date. I tend to revisit this every few weeks to scrawl on it. Enjoy :)

Where the fduck to start ey? Honestly I’ve been learning this stuff for the best part of a decade and I’m still discovering stuff every day. I think that’s it, it will come as no surprise that every mix engineer and muso will be like “oh man, if ure not learning you’re not living”. As soon as you think you “got this”, you probs don’t ey… nah you could but good on ya for backing yourself. Pat on the back. Keep learning though...

Learning mixing is overwhelming because there are so many cats trying to sell their bs to you. What’s the best plugin, what’s the best method, who is the best mix engineer etc. When it comes down to it though, It’s usually a dude like Andrew Scheps (who looks like Gandalf for starters So he gon be good…) giving a lecture in a university where you will really learn some shit.  Honestly he’s just a down to earth dude with some really insightful approaches and logical work-throughs to the art of making art. He just understands how to value add to a music creating situation.

Be personable, music has a big emphasis on interaction, communication and the ability to discuss things without being a dick. So do that and people will want to call you again..

Informative stuff about the nitty gritty

I think that the biggest and best breakthrough I had with mixing was really getting to know how to automate things. But before that is understanding how your mixing/listening environment affects your mixes. If you mix in a shitty boxy square walled room with no sound absorption, dampening or dispersion (not isolation) on the walls. Your speakers are going to tell you whack shit and your mixes will be weird and fucked. Read up on what room modes, reflections, sound dampening, sound absorption, acoustic treatment, sound isolation and sauerkraut are. After that, go figure out how to make your room “workable”. Until then, you are pissing in the wind. Secondly it doesn’t matter what monitors you use, you just have to know how they “translate”, which people would argue could negate all of the aforementioned room stuff. It’s just best to understand it all, and find something that works for you.

Monitors

Buy ones that you like the look of, honestly don’t think too hard. Just as long as they give you enough bass info and are in your budget, go nuts. Research for 1 hour then save up $400-600 and buy some. BUT!!! This is the secret. Buy 2 monitors for stereo imaging and bass response etc etc.. then… buy yourself 1 not 2, only ONE avantone mix cube (or aura tone if you want to fuck around with an amp). This little “grot box” will give you more information (in audio land) about how your mix will translate (to other speakers) than any other..

This little speaker when run in mono (figure out how to put your mix in mono)  gives you a realistic perspective of how your music will sound in the real world. Bass, kick, snare and vocals. If they all sit good then you’re onto something. Get the panning and low eq in the right place on your stereo monitors, then flick over to this bad boy to balance mid-range levels. Trust me… shhhh

Is that it? Headphones are good for a check. I always find that headphones always show up when your stereo panned instruments need to be chilled out. Fuck off those hard panned guitars. They kill me… Also just print/bounce your mixes and test them on everything. Make notes, tweak and go again. I find the car is a great place to start because I listen to so much music in there. I know when the snare is killing the lead vocal or if the guitar solo needs to be louder.

Monitors, yep check… it’s a slippery slope ey… just keep in mind that your ears are always the thing that you have to train. You can mix on fucked monitors in a fucked room if you understand how to hear “through” it and one way to do this is have a reference playlist. If you know what a vocal, kick sub or snare should sound like on a hand selected playlist of your own and when you put it on it the room, it’s way hyped in a certain frequency then you’re like “hrmmm 200khz is heaps woofy in here, gunna probs keep that in mind”. Reference tracks enable you to predict the room. This shit is probably too technical for you ey. Just have a playlist of tracks that you know heaps well and listen to them on many systems and take note of how different elements of the music change from medium to medium.

Great sources:

Warren huart

Mike Stav

 

Mix breakdown:

Problems

Not knowing / trusting that what you are doing is right/good

I think that the biggest thing to overcome is knowing whether what you are doing is beneficial to the music that you are mixing. It’s a matter of trusting your own ability but more so, being realistic. You don’t have super expensive gear and a well treated room but you have 2 ears and a good attitude with a logical approach. Figure out some ways to help yourself:

Testing mixes in many monitoring environments

Do mixes where everything is cranked and compare it to a mix where you have been more subtle

Spend lots of time messing with compressor/s and setting.

EQ things in a way you wouldn’t normally and hear what happens.

Beyond that, everyone has a unique approach and listening style that is theirs. They use their own gear that has naturally evolved and their style is a little different to anyone else. It’s not just about trusting yourself or believing in yourself, it’s about making descisions….

Automation:

One of the biggest breakthroughs I had was when I started really digging down into automation and setting up my routing in such a way that allows flexibility.

Automation, if you didn’t know, is the process of manipulating the volume of a track or bus using drawn-in volume levels. These can be done by simply clicking around on the volume level line or by activating write mode and having a fader activated on a console or USB controller. Either way, the desired effect is simple volume manipulation. A good mix moves and flows in a logical and “musical” way. If all of the faders stay stagnant, good chance your mix will be a bit stale… like a shitty slice of banana bread, good hype, bad execution. Think of a static fader position as a good starting point. If you leave it there it’s like a frozen river. We want things to flow, so get those faders moving.

So once you get the other shit outta the way, automation is basically the meat and potatoes of mixing. I’m not gunna throw out some percentage figure cause stats are bullshit. Just do it and do it well.

By this point you should be well aware of mix Bus routing and if you aren’t, then that’s a good place to start. Mix bus routing is setting up your signal flow and grouping instruments into busses that sum down into one stereo track. Along the way you will have automation “fader moves” programmed into the track to produce a dynamic mix. If ever fader stays flat there is no mood in the track, the more subtle and appropriate the fader moves are, the more life you breathe into the track.

Honestly I think that getting to automation earlier is more effective than labouring over the tone of a snare. If you have your routing set up right, tonal changes can happen at any point.

There is something to be said about setting up your session in such a way that allows you to progress through a mix and have the confidence to be able to go back and tweak something later if it becomes annoying. There’s a period of time where your attitude and ears are red hot and then there’s a time where you start to fatigue and your descision making process becomes more laboured and less sharp.

Bob horn: Having a 6db pad on all sub busses to be able to still hear the mix while focusing on one part. Getting away from soloing individual parts.

Hierarchy of importance:

On the take:

Timing, Tempo, Key, Arrangement + Pitch!

Tone & Dynamics

Mixing:

Comping takes

Timing nudges

Fine automation on vocals

Tonal descisions / sub mixes on multi mic tracks

Rough mix with basic eq, fx, compression and panning descisions

Tonal / eq / compressor / fx descisions

Implement descisions

Check

Make more descisions

Automation

Check again

Rinse and repeat last 3 steps

Some food for thought:

Technically if you setup your gain structure and fader positions in a good position and hit record, most of the mix is in the performance (of live musos). Not so much in a multitrack session with overdubs, but the theory still applies.

The performance of each part is where the magic is, and to an extent, even if you are programming parts on a midi roll, you are still constructing the performance of the part.

If it’s not in time, out of pitch and/or a tone that isn’t specifically chosen, then what are you doing?

I honestly think that experimenting with the tempo, key and style of a song allows for a type of creative freedom and exploration of a songs potential. Just look at all of the covers of famous songs that have ended up “cooler” than the original. Why not do it with your own tunes? The worst that can happen is that you end up in a similar tempo with a similar arrangement, which solidified the songs purpose even more so. If you find a version that you like more, then go with it. Don’t, whatever you do, sit there for 3 hours deliberating. Just make a descision and move on.

Does this tempo allow room for the vocalist?

Does this tempo feel too heavy? Is a heavy feel what we are going for?

How does this tempo affect the guitarists part? Is it too quick for his delay? Etc..

Is the bass player not getting all his notes out because the tempo is too fast?

Is there a tempo that is a happy medium between the vocalist phrasing and the drum parts?

Is the key of this song a sympathetic tone for the vocalist? Do other keys sound brighter, darker, less pitchy for the vocalist?

Creating space using fx. When things become washed out, try eq’ing your fx tracks to control the undesirable frequencies. Wet up the track and then back it off until it’s sympathetic to the track. Once the desired position is achieved, mute and unmute it and listen for the difference. Does it add something? Does it add what you want? Did you achieve the sound you intended?

While you are mixing, you will hear things that you want to change. The good mixers know the tools they have at their disposal and how they are manipulated to achieve the desired outcome. Lots of mix engineers find things that work for them and stick to them. When you are starting out it’s like anything, consistency, persistence, research, practice and obtaining as much information from industry people helps you progress your skills. Everyone wants to be a famous musician or mix engineer and have everyone praise them which is all and good, but you have to understand where you are at, what skills you possess and what skills you would like to have and or what you think is best for you to learn to progress yourself. People talk about having small achievable goals which is all well and good. The best gains I have made are when total freedom is upon me with an interest that I’ve locked on to or simply just telling myself on the day I do a mix that it will be what it needs to be if I stay true to myself.

Exploration of concepts is a process of growing and learning. Try not to get caught up on what the best/newest plugin is. Yes there are some great ones around and they really do value add but if it’s not a justifiable outlay then put it on your wish list.

Mixing music is not about better or worse. Sometimes a perceivably “bad” sound can be the exact right vibe for an instrument in a mix. So if you play it safe and don’t test the extremities of what your gear can do, do you really know what is “right” or “wrong” for a mix? There is definitely more and less desirable outcomes and that’s important to keep in mind. Experimentation is so achievable these days because everything can be saved, recalled and automated. So there’s no excuse for not being able to try a sound and see if it works. Maybe that’s the problem these days, people have too much choice and can’t even decide whether they want salami and cheese or just salami.

Compression:

This is an interesting topic for me. It seems like there are people out there that really do understand the functionality of compressors and others miss the point. For me, compression is just another “sound”. Yes the basic principle behind it is that it is a form of dynamic control through attack, release, threshold and of course ratio. Compression multiplies, it doesn’t add. So if you have a 10:1 compressed track and then it gets compressed at 2:1 in mastering it ends up being 20:1 not 12:1. Simply put, over compression can potentially change the entire sound of a mix. Not make it “worse”, just change the sound.

I like to think of compression as dunking a sound under water. The harder the compressor works, the more you submerge the sound. The attack is how fast you dunk it, the release is how fast you return to the surface, the threshold is at which point you dunk whether it’s right next to the surface or from a bit of a height and the ratio is how deep you go. Now with all of that said, the weight of a sound reacts to the compressor, if you have a heavy sound how does that affect the compressor? Or vice versa if you have a light sound. What does the compressor do to it?

With that all in mind, the next biggest breakthrough was when I stared hearing compression in recorded music. Whether it was a drum kit being compressed so hard that the high hat pulses or a guitar sounding so dunked that the notes swell. It’s about achieving a vibe, it’s not about thinking that if you whack a compressor on something with the stock setting that it is value adding. If you can’t hear what it is doing, why use it? Sometimes drums sound great with little to no compression. It depends on the genre.

Which brings me to transient designers. Unlike compressors, they change the transient (waveform). It’s kinda like getting the timeshift tool and stretching the waveform in or out. They mostly relate to attack and sustain. The attack squashes up the front of the waveform while the sustain elongates the tail of the transient. In context, lots of mix engineers use the attack setting to give a snare more crack and bring it in to your face by dialing up the attack and sometimes to soften the attack on a piano chord that is played too aggressively by reducing the attack. The sustain setting can be used to discard excess noise on a floor tom by bringing the tail up shorter or elongating a guitar delay by stretching out the tail. Either way it has become a very common tool to use which when used effectively, can makes subtle differences across many tracks. Many subtle descisions = big result. 1 huge heavy-handed descision has big risk and not as big reward.