Turning tech into tunes requires talent and tenacity. Last week we learned how to use virtual instruments. This week we're going to learn about mixing.
Note: This is primarily a video lesson and you'll get a lot more information from watching the video above. The instructions below are useful for reference.
What You'll Need in This Lesson
If you've been participating in this morning school from our first lesson onward, you should have all the equipment you need to get started. If not, read through the first lesson before proceeding. We're not going to make equipment recommendations here, but you should know what equipment you're going to need to participate in this lesson:
- Your computer with the DAW software of your choice installed (we'll be using Cubase)
- Your ears
- About 30 minutes of your time (plus a lifetime of practice)
Use EQ To Clean Up And Even Out Your Mix
When putting an mix together, your DAW's built-in equaliser (EQ) or an equaliser plug-in will serve as your main tool. Equalisers come in several varieties, but you'll come across four-point EQs most often. That means you have four central points where you can alter different frequency ranges: lows, low-mids, high-mids and highs. When you adjust these ranges, you can change the character of your sound dramatically. In this section, we'll discuss how you can use that to your advantage.
If you're just recording some guitar and vocals, you won't need to do much work with the EQ because your mix isn't complex. When you have lots of instruments, their recordings often share frequencies that mix with each other and can make your mix sound muddy (that is, everything blends together too much and instruments lose a lot of their distinct qualities). In that case, you can use your EQ to downplay certain frequencies. For example, in pop songs you'll often find a piano stripped of its bass a little bit to let other bass-heavy instruments (such as some drums or a bass guitar) claim prominence in that part of the mix. You'll find many instruments, including voice, tend to muddy up the mid-range because most instruments make the most sound in those frequencies or at least spill into them a little bit. You can use EQ to decide which sounds dominate which frequencies so they all can have a distinct voice while still working together in harmony.
Here's one important thing to remember when utilising EQ: lower frequencies rather than boost them. When you boost them up, you run the risk of a mix that's too loud and needs quite a bit of fixing in the end. When an instrument sounds too soft, lower the gain of the louder instruments. When you need to boost a specific frequency for an instrument, lower the ones you don't want to boost instead. This will make your life much easier in the end.
Find Balance In Stereo Channels
When we first started recording audio, we recorded a single channel. That meant everything sounded as if it came from one central point, which didn't sound perfect because we don't hear that way. We have two ears, so why shouldn't we have two channels of sound? That's the purpose of stereo — to create a more realistic recording. Of course, if you abuse the privilege of stereo you can end up with some unsettling mixes. You want to aim for balance.
Balance gets tricky, however, as if you just centre all your recordings you basically end up with a mono track. Stereo sounds better because you can virtually place different instruments in a "room". If you pan one guitar to the left channel entirely and another to the right, you get different sounds in each ear but still achieve balance. You will want to centre some sounds.
Traditionally, vocals get stuck in the centre because they are the central focus of the mix. Other instruments don't have a single stereo placement because they're large and need to span both channels. Pianos tend to take up both channels with the bass notes all in one leading up to the treble notes all the way in the other. Drum kits get messy when you mix them to the centre, so you move different drums to different parts of the mix (most often respecting their actual placement on the physical drum kit).
Basically, you have two big goals when working with stereo: create a fairly realistic representation of where the sound would actually exist in a room if you were listening to it live, and to keep the left and right channels mostly balanced. If you can do those two things, you're off to a great start.
Practise, Practise, Practise
Mixing consists of a lot more than what we've discussed in this post and the (more detailed) video above. You need to practise a lot if you want to get better. Take a mix, listen to it on different speakers and headphones, ask friends to do the same, get feedback, make adjustments, and repeat the process. You'll learn the best by listening to your own mixes through different reference speakers and headphones, but your ears aren't the only pair of ears on the planet and they're certainly not the same as everyone else's. The more information and reference points you have, the more you can learn how to adjust your mix to sound like something everyone can enjoy. Sometimes a lot of information can screw you up, however, so make small adjustments and test them first. You'll always make mistakes, but with lots of practice you'll learn what sounds right.
Thanks so much to everyone who has followed along in these lessons. This is our last one for the series, but we'll be back next week with the full guide and further resources. Stay tuned!