1. A good record starts with a strong musical arrangement.
Thought needs to go into which part plays when, what sounds are used, which parts are doubled and even what chord inversions are played. Don’t rush this crucial – and often overlooked – part of the music-making process. Remember that the human brain thirsts for constant change, but is easily overwhelmed. Only one – occasionally two – elements should be changing at any one time. Your aim is an arrangement in a constant state of emotional and sonic flux which doesn’t throw too much at the listener at any one time.
2. Treat your room and A/B
No matter how expensive your microphone or pre-amp, recording’s are easily ruined by unsuitable room acoustics; too often the room itself is the weak link in even the most expensive recording setup. Basic acoustic treatment needn’t cost the earth and it can radically tighten up your sound. Trusting your room is one thing; trusting your ears is equally important. Train your ears by listening to music of all kinds and genres, regularly A/Bing between tracks you know are well produced and your own productions. Although it may feel like you’re cheating, nearly all top producers A/B their tracks against others: it’s the cheapest way to learn from the masters.
3. Performance is key
Great tracks are based on great original performances. And getting a good performance from an artist is a skill in its own right. The finest producers often have a natural and positive ‘bedside manner’; they are able to coax inspiring performances from a range of musicians – however tense or long the studio session gets! Musicians need to feel secure, comfortable and confident with the recording setup as well as the studio environment. Do whatever you need to get the mood right – even if you need scented candles or bowls of M&Ms (with the blue ones taken out)!
4. Catch that bus
Using buses effectively is one of the easiest ways to up the quality of a mix – and make the job easier to handle. Although there are no right or wrong choices for which parts to bus, it’s not unusual for all drums to be sent to one bus, instrumental parts (excluding bass) to another, vocals (sometimes excluding lead) to another and so on. The advantage of busing parts in this way is that you can control the volume of all parts using a single fader. You can also treat each bussed section with the same compressor and/or EQ to help pull the parts together. Some compressors – like the SSL Bus Compressor – are specifically designed to work on the bus, offering a glue-like compression that can really solidify a mix.
5. Get the kick and bass foundation right
There’s much more to getting a powerful kick or bass sound than simply turning up the bass EQ – in fact that can have the polar opposite effect. A solid low end starts with sounds that complement, rather than fight, each other. Many producers deliberately opt for a ‘fat kick, skinny bass’ or ‘fat bass, skinny kick’ scenario so that the bulk of the low-frequency work is done by one or the other – not both. Where both need to exert their low-end muscles, EQ can be used to ‘scoop’ frequencies from one while boosting the same frequencies (often fundamentals) of the other. Many producers also use side-chain compression or gate ducking, subtle or brutal, to pull back the bass line’s energy when the kick hits.
6. Give each part its own space
If you’ve every wondered how professional mix engineers get their tracks sounding so big and so cohesive without the individual instruments getting lost or buried, the answer is often down to using EQ in a selective way to reduce overlap between conflicting sounds. Although often overlooked, shelving EQ can be used to really solidify a mix – gently easing away inessential frequencies in an instrument to make way for more essential ones elsewhere. A more drastic – but equally effective – technique is to reduce (or cut) the low end of any track that isn’t a kick drum or bass instrument.
7. Use compression wisely
Compressors are possibly the most abused tool in the mix engineer’s toolbox. Used wrongly they can deaden dynamics, fight with a track’s natural rhythm and confuse a mix. But used well they can bring pump, energy and smoothness to a mix, control levels and improve mix cohesion. Knowing how a compressor works is only part of the story: equally important is knowing what flavour of compressor to use. Not all compressors are built equal: sometimes a part calls for a model with character, sometimes it requires something transparent, and sometimes it can require two – or even more – different compressors, all doing slightly different jobs in series.
8. Switch off the screen
How much should you tweak tuning and timing when preparing a song for mixing? Too little and it may be sloppy but go too far and you can drain the life and the soul from a track. Remember that many of the records we revere were made in days long before the kind of forensic editing we now take for granted – and some of the playing is decidedly loose! The answer is that your job is to serve the needs of the song – not the needs of a computer screen. It’s all too easy to let what you hear be dictated by what you see, and not what you hear. Sometimes turning the computer screen off for a short time can give you a valuable perspective and objectivity that pays significant dividends.
9. Less is often more
In the days of the eight-track, if you finished a song using only seven tracks somebody would always think of something to add on the eighth! In the era of the near-limitless track count it’s easy to keep on adding. Another synth part here. An additional pad there. Too many productions have too many parts fighting for the same frequency real estate. Examine the arrangement and ask what the song really needs – are the synth, guitar and organ parts that are all playing a similar part in the same frequency area at the same time really essential? Less is often more.
10. Leave mastering to the pros
Loud is better, right? To a point your mixes need to sound loud and punchy, but careless use of compressors and limiters at the mixing or mastering stage can ruin a previously solid mix. Where an extra 10 per cent of volume is required, leave the serious work to the mastering professionals. They’re used to maximising loudness without ruining the sound. And these days, with an increasing number of very high quality online mastering services available at competitive prices, you won’t be breaking the bank either.
Paul White is the author of The Producer’s Manual (pictured right) which you can buy here. Featuring 350+ full-colour pages packed with pro techniques, practical photos, detailed illustrations and hands-on walkthroughs, The Producer’s Manual brings together everything you need to take a mix from initial recording to final master in the project studio.