Mixing Part 1: The Basics
Thanks to my buddy Vaughan for requesting this tutorial series. Would you like a tutorial for something specific? Request one here.
Let me start by saying that what I’m going to lay out here isn’t by any means the only way to mix – however, these are some solid concepts that have helped me. Mixing is an extremely subjective topic, yet it’s the defining factor in whether a track will be solid and pleasing to the ears, or weak.
The intention of this Introduction tutorial is not so much to show you how (we’ll do that in the next session), but to help you understand why we do the things we do. If you understand the reasoning behind things, then the practical techniques will make more sense.
Why learn to mix?
Back in the day, a songwriter or producer generally didn’t need to know much about mixing, because it’d be handled by a dedicated mix engineer – and, if you have a big budget, this is still a good route. But technology and culture have changed the audio production landscape, and more music is being recorded in small project and bedroom studios than in big traditional facilities.
Which sucks for the big facilities, of course.
The nature of the software we use to create music these days means that not only is it possible to mix your own stuff, but in a sense, you should be building a mix as you write the song – particularly if you’re making FX-rich dance, hip hop and pop tracks.
So, you’ve got a tune, and each sound in it is fantastic. Well … each element sounds fantastic on its own – so why do they sound so awful when they’re put together?
The reason is, bandwidth. The only way I can think of to illustrate it is this: imagine you’re a kid, and you’re making a picture on a piece of paper using coloured stickers.
You can’t make your picture bigger than the piece of paper. No matter how grand your vision is, it can only be as big as the paper is. Try to cram too many stickers into your picture, and no one can see what the picture is supposed to be any more.
How this relates to mixing is that the technology we use to listen to music has a finite bandwidth. Bandwidth is the picture frame – it’s the capability of a sound system to play back sound – there’s only so much it can handle.
Each sound we add to a mix consumes a piece of space in the bandwidth, and the more we try to squeeze in there, the less we can hear what’s going on overall.
Less is more.
Sound has energy
Every sound you’ll add to a mix has energy, and that energy is spread out over various frequencies. These range from low bass thumpy bits (around 40-120Hz) to the crispy crunchy top end bits (around 4kHz up to 22kHz), plus everything in between (the mids). If you’re lucky enough to have access to an oscilloscope or spectrograph, you can actually see the energy profile of each sound in your mix, typically represented as a big squiggly line.
But whether you can see the sounds or not, the crucial thing to understand is this: when a bunch of sounds with similar profiles are mixed together, we get areas of overlap. Say, for example, that we’ve got a nice warm pad sound playing fat chords, and a bass guitar holding the groove. It’s important that we hear both sounds in the mix.
But both sounds contain a lot of energy around the 80Hz mark – which is in that heavy bass area. On their own, each sound is fantastic, but mixed together we get a huge booming going on in the low end – what gives?
Energy is cumulative. Because both sounds contain energy at the same frequency, we’re creating a spike at 80Hz. This is not good. We have to create space for both sounds to live in piece and be heard.
Therefore, we have to make a decision about which sound has more right to the 80Hz frequency – or, which of the two needs it most. In this case it’s a no brainer – the groove is important, so the bass guitar needs that frequency. So, we use an Equaliser (or EQ) to remove energy from the pad sound at the points where it interferes with the bass guitar.
This has the effect of thinning the pad sound slightly, so when you play it solo it doesn’t sound quite as epically fat as it used to – but in context of the overall mix, it’s much better now. You can hear both sounds clearly, and they sit well together.
In the next part of this series, we’ll look at more specific techniques of building a tight sounding mix.