Over the years I’ve encountered a number of situations where an artist or producer has asked me to re-mix a song that he or she had already had mixed, but just wasn’t happy with the previous engineer’s work. Based on the samples found on my media page, these artists were able to figure out pretty quickly that there had to be a better way.
So what did I find in these mix sessions that were handed over to me? I’ve been lucky enough to get a pretty comprehensive lesson in “what not to do” by examining a couple handfuls of other engineers’ Pro Tools sessions this way, and a few major things stood out to me.
1. Mixing too loud
And I’m talking crazy loud! I see it most often with hip hop and pop music – the pre-mastered two-track the artist got off a website or from a friend, or even a multi-track beat bussed to an aux and limited to hell with a Waves L2. It’s no wonder these producers weren’t happy with the mixes on their songs – how could you ever expect to hear clarity and depth among all the elements in the song when you’re leaving essentially less than zero headroom with which to operate?
Particularly when working in the digital domain, and and while I don’t necessarily recommend constantly looking at an RMS meter on your master bus, you should make the effort to make careful metering a bigger part of your life.
Which leads me to my next point…
2. Understand the importance of mastering
I think a lot of people make the mistake of mixing too loud because they are unaware of the critical purpose fulfilled by the mastering engineer. Everybody wants his or her mix to sound loud enough to compete with radio quality music, but if you don’t leave the loudness up to someone with the right tools (as opposed to leaning on that L2) – ie. a mastering engineer – you won’t be fooling anybody.
It’s the job of the mastering engineer (among other things) to make your song loud! When you’re mixing, just make sure you don’t clip the master (no “overs”), and mix it sound all of the elements sound the way you want them to. Definitely do NOT mix INTO a cranked limiter, and just don’t worry about the overall loudness because that’s what mastering is for!
The only time I ever use an L2 on the master bus is when I’m bouncing a track for the artist to listen to in his or her car or ipod, and it’s going straight to mp3. I know, it’s a totally cheap and quick “mastering” job that will allow them to hear the mix in common listening situations like in the car or on the subway. I always tell them though that it’s NOT mastered and they shouldn’t treat it like a finished product.
3. Improper use of compression
The rule of thumb I like to stick with is when you’re mixing something bassy, compress before you EQ, otherwise the order is not terribly important. It doesn’t always matter a ton, but it doesn’t make sense to do all this fine EQ work on a bass guitar, then have it compress totally inequally at different frequencies and ruin all the work you did. Remember, the default signal flow of a large format mix desk is to have dyanmics (compression and gating) followed by EQ. So why not emulate that in the digital domain as much as possible? Yes, sometimes it is appropriate, and on almost all large format desks you can swap the order of inserts. The point is to THINK about this.
Of course, all that matters in the end is how the mix sounds, but these are simply some best practices to help make it as easy as possible for you to avoid some of the pitfalls common to poor mixing technique.