I've been working in sessions, listening to experienced producers advice and doing my own research for over 12 years. It's been a long tough road of disappointing mixes and getting into the car and being really frustrated with the results. I can assure you along the way that changes, but here are some cheat codes. I'm gonna list them here for this article.
1. A/B with Professional Music You Love!
Okay, this is the most important thing you can do to get a better mix. Mixing is all about balancing the track. NOT getting everything as loud as possible - (Repeat this in your head, and if you don't believe me now, you will later on when you realize your mixes are suffering) this is one the most common misconceptions due to the loudness wars... don't worry about a loud mix first, everyone wants their kick drums to slap and snare drums to slap, but worry about making an interesting balance! something, intriguing.
I use a lot of my favorite producers as reference and some really cool software that helps with the process, but you don't need the fancy programs [ i'll share them with you anyway ]. Here are some things to listen for while A/B
- BALANCE! (Listen to the song blues traveler - Run Around ) this is not a hip hop song, but its a testament to how to achieve a crazy balance.. its like walking on a tight rope..https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ousaiByU1ko )
- Filters (Most professional mixes and a lot of mastering presets in plugins you will see ultra high and low frequencies being cut out to give the overall track a certain vibe)
- Echo Delays (Delays and Reverbs are cool and you need to be able to pick them out of mix, listen to Travis Scott, Antidote - this is a great example of using reverb! trust! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KnZ8h3MRuYg )
- Distortion (Most of the time this is really subtle unless your going for a certain FX to stand out.. distortion can make music exciting and energetic if you need that for the track)
- Volume (This is extremely simple concept, but one of the most powerful mixing tools you have!)
You need to do this A/B live while mixing. Flip back and fourth. Volume, Balance, and Choice of instruments I think makes up 50% of what is required for a good mix. The other half is arrangement! Lets get there..
2. Make a Good Arrangement, Understand Composition!
Have you ever watched professional mix engineers working? 90% of the time when the record gets to them the mix is already better than 90% of what you hear from a lot of these trash producers. The reason is because, well first of all, it was recorded extremely well, high quality instruments or samples were used and the melody/arrangement is well thought out... take a look at any Post Malone melodies for an example. There is a beginning and end destination.. They say music is moving for a reason.
Then the mix engineer just adds some flare, puts some extra sheen over the whole thing. If you are making huge cuts or boosts in an EQ there better be a creative reason for doing it. You are probably better off choosing a different sound most of the time.
3. How to Choose the Right Instruments
Okay, this is a really important one, and makes mixing a lot easier. Drum kits are kits for a reason - they are drums that are made to sound good together. Check out this example How drums are made - Inside Yamaha Factory
Don't let instruments phase each other out of a mix. overlapping freq. can kill a great song for example a piano part will take up the entire 20 - 20 frequency range. make room for everything (goes back to balance)
There is no technical way to figure out the way to do this. This is dependent on your taste and really what makes music stand out and be original. One thing I can recommend is to make your own sounds, a lot of popular hip hip since 2015 makes use instruments you cant really detect.
4. Treat Your Room Right
Alright so I jumped on Facebook a minute and saw this meme about mixing showing someone trying to mix in an untreated room but blaming their terrible mixes on the room itself. A lot of people think this is really important obviously, but it isn't as important as the others listed here. You should be in room where you can hear everything, but if you do your A/B in the untreated room, it won't matter enough to get a great mix.
I've seen people mix on AKG 240 headphones.. your ears are the most important thing, your ability to translate and mimic your favorite mixes.. If you load up an instrumental by your favorite producer in an untreated room, and cross reference a metering program you will begin to understand whats going on. DM me if you want to learn more about this.. I can recommend some applications to help.
5. Don't Compare Yourself to Others Status
The second you start doubting yourself because someone else is doing more or better with their music you're losing. Don't worry about all that. The more you focus on that the less time you are improving your own skills.. and another thing.. consciously improve.. make it a point to improve, say to yourself
"i'm going to get better at doing this and that.. out loud".
We all started at nothing and I get that some people have natural abilities, but that includes you. Focus on your strengths.. if you focus on improvement you can guess whats gonna happen... you know.
The ones who focus on their improvements are the ones who improve. -Mvnik
6. Consult a Professional Engineer
There is a massive amount of information on Youtube and blogs about mixing, compression, side-chain techniques etc. You can learn almost anything on Youtube at this point, but speaking directly with a professional about it should give you a lot of great insight and motivation! Easy one.. If there is a local studio in your area spend some time with the engineer, be a fly on the wall in a session if you can.
Check out this crazy video by mastering engineer Eric B. from Monsterlabaudio Studio.
Don't bother looking up a Weiss Equalizer for your home studio unless you have $9k LOL
*Leave mastering to the professionals.
7. Get Inspired!
Listen to a mix from a genre you don't ever listen to, or from other countries besides the one you are from. Work with another producer on your level. Find a new artist to work with. Everyone gets inspiration from different places - these are just some of my personal opinions.. get new instruments, learn all of the buttons on a synth. read some classical music ( not old ) new classics ? Travel somewhere new -> doesn't have to be extravagant, just new.
You really want to find a place that give you a culture shock. This will keep your mind open and creative!
8. Do NOT Rely on Expensive Gear and Hardware FX Processing.
Expensive hardware/software FX do help, but they are marginal 5% of entire mix or so. Also, really talented mix engineers can accomplish the majority of what it takes to get done with stock or cheap plugins and simple outbound hardware - I guess the point is if you don't know how to use any of the equipment hardware or software then it doesn't matter anyway. Sony makes a $12,000 microphone, but if your voice sounds like a weasel dying then whats the point.. make sure the source is 100% FIRST! (doesn't matter if its a sample, or live instrument/voice)
The cool thing about hardware and what makes some of these FX expensive is that they add a certain color or distortion to a sound clip. I think thats what makes them worth anything at all. For example, an Avalon 737 preamp will boost your vocal sound make it huge and warm with some tube distortion. With that said I can use a distortion effect/some compression/an EQ to mimic that sound and depending on my level of skill and how well I can hear what the Avalon is doing to the signal you wont be able to tell the difference.
I know you hear this a lot but get great using what you have for FX.
9. Some Cool Technical Things!
For vocals cut harsh frequencies with any EQ 2k/3k or so with a sharp Q.. then boost the entire track with RVOX or any compressor.. 4:1 usually great starting point
One thing I learned is that bass frequencies aren't only at the bottom end of the sound spectrum , there is information above that can be brought out to make a mix sound more hype 800 hz or so or blend better with the rest of the instruments. 808's in particular have a cool mid range
Sometimes to make a sound stand out, you remove things around it to let it shine through. Boosting and trying to make a lead boost past sounds that are already up front is a mistake. loudness war misconception (its all about balance) adding a little distortion could push it up front, but it will increase harmonic information, not just volume. beware.
Blend live instrument sounds with samples for a hybrid mix, it will make things come alive a little more.
I'll probably keep adding to this over time as I learn new things.
10. Pick a Lead Instrument
Choosing a lead instrument is not just picking a synth and have it over the top of a rhythm. A lead part can be a synth, but it can also be the hi hats for example. It could be a kick drum etc. If you notice in all music there is one part that specifically stands out in a pleasing way.. strings, winds.. drums etc.. choose something and make it stand out a little.. NOT being subtle goes a long way here.
There is a lot of good examples for this, but I cant think of the song names right now.. DM me i'll send you a list.
11. Bonus*. Learn Sound Design
Designing your own sounds from scratch will help you stand out in a world of preset synth sounds. It will be easier to mix these sounds because YOU created them. Plus, if you create an instrument - you can present it how you wish essentially. A lot of top producers create their own sounds to maintain the ability of producing something no one else can.
If you ever heard a song where you cant really tell what instrument is playing.. this is what you are hearing most likely. a voice recording can be turned into a guitar and a door closing into a kick drum, you get the idea. check out this cool example by Galimatias. This is a perfect example of turning something really strange and not sexy sounding into something beautiful. shoutout G for this video!