With modern synths and DAWs, it is possible for anyone to make the next big Soundcloud hit.
But getting this hit to sound like a hit requires more than a knowledge of LFOs and sidechain compression.
Listen to an exquisitely produced album like Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and you’ll notice it immediately. The snares pop, the hi-hats melt into the background, and the leads have a bite that sings through the track.
The secret to this professional-grade sound? Mixing.
Mixing is what separates ordinary tracks from great ones. A good mix will make the best parts of your tracks shine. And it will make the worst bits fade into the distance.
Mixing is part art, part science. It’s hard to get a mix that’s perfect, but by following these tips, you’ll come close enough.
- Your room is more important than your equipment
One of the easiest mistakes to make when mixing is focusing too much on equipment, and not much on the room itself. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve spent $2,000 or $200 on studio monitors, if your room is untreated and acoustically unsound, your mix will suffer.
Understand that sound is “alive”. That is, it bounces off hard surfaces, gets absorbed by soft surfaces, and lingers in the air. An untreated room will amplify all the negative qualities of your mix, giving you the wrong impression about what sounds good and what doesn’t.
The problem is compounded by the fact that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to acoustically treating rooms. Everything from the kind of walls you have to the size and shape of the room will impact how you soundproof it.
Having said that, there are a few things you can do to make your room more “mix-ready”:
- If possible, work in a rectangular room, not a square one.
- Add bass traps in all corners to absorb low frequencies.
- Add acoustic foam behind, in front of, and to the side of your monitors.
- Make sure that your monitors are placed at least a foot away from walls.
- Your monitors should be at an ear-level and form an equilateral triangle with your head (see graphic below).
- Cover any mirrors in the room with a heavy blanket before recording.
- If there are any windows in the room, insulate the openings with acoustic tape. Then cover them with blackout curtains. Add a blanket on top for added soundproofing.
One way to make sure that you set up your recording desk in the “sweet spot” of your room is to walk around while clapping loudly. The part of the room that has the least amount of echo should be your recording spot.
- Focus on how you listen
A common mistake I see bedroom producers make is listening to the mix at high volumes (either on monitors or headphones).
I can understand the reason behind it – high volume just makes the mix pop (especially the bass).
The problem with this approach is that your tracks will sound poor at low levels. Remember: most people who listen to your music won’t have nearly 1/10th as good equipment as you do. They won’t have $500 studio monitors being fed through a 8-channel mixer. And they won’t have acoustically treated rooms to listen in.
Rather, most will listen to your tracks on $50 earbuds and underpowered Bluetooth speakers. And unless they hate their ears, they’ll rarely listen to the track at 100% volume.
Your goal, therefore, should be to make your mix suitable for this vast majority, not your own high-end setup.
Here are some ways to do that:
- Mix at a “conversation level”, i.e. at volumes low enough that you can have a conversation with someone in the room. Plus, it saves your ears from getting fatigued too early.
- Listen to your music on your car’s stereo. This is where a majority of people will find your music (if you’re targeting a mainstream audience).
- Listen to your mix on the standard earphones that come with iPhone and other popular phones. Again, this will be the default listening device for most of your listeners.
- Compensate for the flaws of your equipment. For instance if you have a set of studio headphones that pump up the low-end, reduce the bass in the mix to stop it from overwhelming people with inferior gear.
- Use cheaper alternatives where possible
Studio gear is expensive. Compressors cost an arm and a leg. Good pre-amps are expensive enough to put you in the red. And let’s not even talk about those large mixing consoles.
Worse, even when you can afford the equipment, your living situation might stop you from taking advantage of it. If you’re renting, for instance, you might not be able to soundproof your room without damaging the walls.
What should you do in such situations?
In a perfect world, your studio would have a UA 1176LN compressor and that $600 Rode microphone you’ve been eyeing for years, but in this world, you have to compromise and adapt. Understand your equipment and extract the best possible performance from it.
You’ll often find that if you know your gear, you can get nearly as good results as a professional studio.
Here are a few things that can help you get more “bang for the buck”:
- Use closets for recording. The clothes and constrained space of the closet is excellent for absorbing wayward frequencies – perfect for if you can’t afford soundproofing.
- Isolate your monitors. The tiny vibrations they produce when placed directly on the desk can create a rumble thick enough to distort your perceptions. Monitor stands and pads are your best friends.
- Drag your bookshelf into your recording room. The wood and paper combination acts as a decent diffuser. Great if you can’t afford the real thing.
- If you can’t afford the hardware, get a plugin version of the gear you need. For instance, there are some fantastic renditions of popular compressors at Waves that will give you 90% of the performance of the hardware.
- Don’t be afraid to EQ multiple times on the same track. And don’t be afraid to skip on compression. Too many beginners over-emphasize the latter and skip the former.
And of course, remember to keep plenty of room in the mix. Ideally, you should have about -9db of space left for the master. This will make sure that your mix doesn’t just sound loud, but it also sounds clear.