Since the time that I realized that my music productions were taking too long to complete and that the latest and greatest plug-ins didn’t make any difference to the end result of my mixes, I started keeping a handwritten set of notes that I now use every day while I’m working. This article is the culmination of those notes, which I hope you will find as useful as I do.
This is the list of tips I wish I had ten years ago when I first got into home recording, mixing, and mastering my own music. Over time, I have wasted countless hours and spent huge amounts of cash on unnecessary products and endeavors.
This first tip may seem a little abstract but is well worth consideration. Before you start your day of recording, mixing, or mastering, try to prepare yourself mentally for the challenges ahead. Approach your work with a clear idea of what you want to achieve, and leave behind any frustrations or irritations you may have.
Try not to evaluate your work against the artists and producers that you hold most dear - this will only lead to unnecessary self-criticism. Instead, focus on improving your creations day by day. Compare what you do today with what you did yesterday, and recognize the small improvements that you are making.
Don’t give up on a project when things are not going as well as you would like them to. Instead, keep working on a project until you get the results that you want. Be persistent and develop your talent and technical know-how daily. Remember that nothing worthwhile comes easily.
It is difficult to concentrate on a single task for more than a couple of hours. Schedule breaks into your work routine, even if just for 10 minutes, to give your mind and body the chance to reset temporarily. Some people find that leaving projects alone overnight or over a one or two day period really helps to rejuvenate their constructive perspective.
If things are not going your way, and nothing in the production is working out as expected, take a step back and finish your work off with something productive and positive. For example, fix that annoying resonant frequency on the acoustic guitar that has been driving you mad all day - on the next morning when you work on the mix again, you will feel much more positive.
Apart from ensuring that your equipment set up correctly for optimum recording and playback consider the environment in which you will carry out the bulk of your work. Make sure that your DAW monitor, desk, and chair are all positioned that the correct heights and distances.
Develop an individual workflow and routine. Don’t listen too much to the advice of so-called professionals, and above all, remember that creativity has no rules or boundaries. Develop your specific style of working and creating the music that you love.
Utilize a good workflow, repetition, and familiarisation to speed up your work and stop the frustration of menial tasks from hindering your creative process. Frequently repeating activities will make them second nature. Creating new habits takes some time that pays off in the end.
Set yourself goals, milestones, and a timeframe for completing your work.
Working to a deadline will help you to focus on the work at hand, and ensure that you understand the processes of production.
Make sure that your home studio monitors are correctly set up. Set your monitors up so that they form an equilateral triangle with your listening position, and make sure that they are not too close to any walls or corners. See the article here for monitor setup.
Set up a typical workflow of groups and buses and save them as a template. The groups will include things like drums, bass, vocals, backing vocals, guitars, and effects. Pull up the template at the beginning of every new mix to use as your starting point. The groups are useful for adjusting the levels of a set of tracks with one fader move.
Use buses for tracks such as drums, vocals, small room reverb, large room reverb, delays, and mix bus (2-bus). Place your favorite processors on the buses and mix into them after you have imported the template.
Set up a mix bus chain with your favorite compressors, EQ, and stereo imaging and mix directly into it. This method will provide you with a great starting point for any mix, giving it a respectable low end and a nice touch of brightness. For more information on mix bus chain processing, see the article here.
Stay organized and make it easy to find your project at a later date by giving it a name that will make it easily recognizable in the future. For example, don’t name your project “Mix One,” name it something like “Tom Swash Mineshaft Mix V1 .0”. Also, make folders for your work, by genre, artist, and song as this will make your projects very easy to find in the future. Make a shortcut to the folder on your desktop.
Take some time to name all of your tracks in your mix with logical, easy to recognize names. For example, don’t name your guitar track “Eddie 2”, instead name it “Lead Guitar.” Try to establish a naming convention that you will carry on to all of your mixes. This method takes some time but is well worth the effort.
Arrange the tracks in the order which you will mix them. For example, the drum group first, then the bass group, then the vocals. In the drum group, arrange the tracks by overheads (left and right), kit drum, and snare drum. You can then work down the list in its logical order.
Use a color code to help identify track groups. For example, use blue for the drums, yellow for the vocals, and red for delays and reverbs. Use the same color codes in every mix you do to speed up your workflow. Don’t forget to include the color code in any template you create.
Set up a volume meter on the input to your mix bus. An easy way to do this is by utilizing the master fader function (in ProTools for example), or by routing the bus through a blank auxiliary fader and using the track meter to monitor the volume going into the mix bus.
Before you get into the detailed creative work in your mix, make sure that any performance issues are fixed and put to bed. Fix any bum notes played by the guitarist, or any miss-hits played by the drummer. Doing this now will save you a lot of time in the long run.
Regardless of how well you have recorded your instruments, some tracks will need attention at the low end. Use a simple high-pass filter to cleanup tracks such as the vocals, and guitar. However, don’t go too far with this and suck out all of the low-end life.
Play the whole song from start to finish and make a hit list of the things you need to work on, fix, and improve. Keep the list next to you while you’re working. Cross off the items which you have completed, and add new items as you find them.
If your DAW does not have an autosave feature, make sure that you regularly back-up your work. Try to save your work every 10 to 20 minutes. Some DAWs like ProTools allows you to save your work automatically at set time intervals. Check your own DAW to see if this is possible.
At the start of every mixing session, play a few songs that you are very familiar with. Doing so will help you tune your ears into your room and monitor setup. It will also help to identify any major problems that may have gone unnoticed. Keep a copy of the songs on a USB drive so that you can take them with you if you ever work at another studio.
When working in a home studio, the room will undoubtedly suffer from standing waves and varying volume levels within the room. Use this to your advantage by understanding how different locations within your room affect the playback and move to these locations when troubleshooting low-end problems.
Ear fatigue is a very real problem for people who work in noisy environments. The effects can be minimized by refining the working environment and workflow and understanding how long and at what level you should subject your ears to. Read the article here to learn all about ear fatigue and how to reduce the risks.
In the digital world, there is no need to worry too much about the noise floor, or recording and mixing headroom. I always advocate the K-20 monitoring system for home studio owners. 20 dB of headroom is more than adequate to give your mixes and songs enough dynamic range to master and release your work.
When you’re starting out on your home studio journey, consider choosing a compressor, reverb, and EQ plug-in and fully learning all of their functions, and how they affect each track. Spend at least one hour reading through the manufacturer’s operation manual and learning what everything does. Use these three plug-ins every day until you find their limitations.
Do not be afraid to scan through the presets of your favorite plug-ins. Presets have been made to offer users a great starting point for more detailed adjustment. Scanning through presets also showcases how the plug-in can drastically affect audio. Save your own presets when you find something works for your music.
Spend 80% to 90% of your time on the static mix, muting, EQ, compression, and reverb. This use of time is especially important when you are new to mixing. Spending the majority of your time here will ensure that the final mix is worthy of release. Also, spend your time getting fully acquainted with the controls on your EQ, compression, and reverb.
It doesn’t matter which DAW you use, or what plug-ins you own. You can make a great sounding mix with the simplest of tools. Just suppose that George Martin could have made all those classic Beatles albums with a copy of ProTools first and all the stock plug-ins.
If you are having problems with a particular mix, I can guarantee that the latest plug-in will not help you fix the problem. Despite what the flashy advert will tell you a plug-in is not a secret weapon or a magic wand. You already have the tools available to fix the problem; what you’re missing is the know-how.
Further to getting away from the sweet spot, spend some time familiarizing yourself with your recording and mixing room. Make sure you understand the limitations of your audio equipment and room. Be especially mindful of how the low end of your mix sounds in your room. Play music you know well at low, medium, and high volumes. Listen in stereo and mono.
Spend about three times more effort, time, and energy into getting the static mix to sound perfect. A mix can often be 80% completed by balancing every track carefully and thoroughly. EQ and compression are important, but only after the static mix cannot be improved upon.
Keep a record of your progress by bouncing down a mix at each stage in your process. For example, bounce a copy of the raw mix, the static mix, the mix after drum processing, the mix after bass processing, and so on. This way, you will be able to refer back to your progress and understand the improvements that have been made along the way.
Limit your panning choices while carrying out the static mix to just three positions - hard left, center, and hard right. Limiting your choices at this stage will help you understand your soundstage, masking issues, and stereo field in a very direct way.
Pan the kick drum, snare drum, bass guitar, and vocals in the center of your mix. Do not be tempted to get creative and pan any low-end instruments to the far right or far left of the same stage. The low frequencies need to live in the center of your mix.
Don’t spend too long agonizing over a mixing move. If you can’t quite find the right setting for a particular compressor or EQ leave it for a few hours and come back to it after you’ve worked on a few other things. Taking your mind off something even for a short time is highly beneficial.
Approach everything that you do while recording, mixing, or mastering in a very simple way. Sometimes creativity can be heightened by limiting the canvas on which you work. For example, for your first mix focus on a great static mix, a minimum amount of compression and EQ, and a very subtle amount of reverb. You’ll be really surprised at how well this works.
If you have a very busy production, try to identify the most important instruments that need to be heard as the song moves from verse to chorus. Any instrument which is not necessary and crowds the production may simply be muted using automation. You’ll be surprised how much muting won’t be noticed but will help the clarity of the songs.
As mute is your friend, solo can be your enemy. Just remember that a track never exists in isolation. Mix your tracks in the context of the complete mix. Soloing is useful for identifying and fixing problems but can be your greatest enemy if you do not have the experience to understand how the isolated instrument should sound.
It’s no secret that music sounds better when the volume is cranked up. As humans, we interpret higher volumes as having our fuller frequency range. Bear this in mind when A/B-ing mix choices, as unless the volumes are matched, we automatically assume the louder alternative is the better alternative.
Even if you are absolutely sure that your drum microphones were set up correctly during recording check the phase relationships between overheads, snare top and snare bottom, drum in and out, and the toms. Phase seems like a small issue but shouldn’t be overlooked.
After mixing the drums and vocals to a reasonable state try to put them in the same imaginary “reverb” space. The vocals and drums will sound great if they are perceived to be coming from the same place. Think of reverb as the fader that moves instruments backward and forwards.
When mixing drums, concentrate your efforts on making the drum overheads sound awesome. Make sure the right and left are in phase, centered, and balanced. Use a little compression and EQ to process the sound.
Do everything you possibly can to set up, record, and mix a killer snare sound. The snare drum is the signature percussion sound in any music track. Getting a great snare sound requires a little know-how, so check out the article here to learn everything there is to know about the snare sound.
Along with the snare drum sound, the kick drum is another important component of the backbeat of the song. There is plenty of information online to help you achieve a killer kick drum sound. A few hours in this area will not be wasted.
Find the fundamental frequency of the kick drum using a spectrum analyzer (somewhere around 60 Hz) and carve a little out on the bass guitar track. Improve on this method by learning how to side-chain so that the bass guitar level is lowered only when the kick drum is played.
Your home studio will undoubtedly have shortcomings for faithfully reproducing low-end instruments like the kick and bass guitar. As soon as you can get your hands on a decent set of headphones that will adequately reproduce the low end.
Do not over-compress anything! You’ll be surprised how big an effect 3 dB of gain reduction through compression will have on a track. Allow your music to breath and maintain a healthy dynamic range on each track.
Consider using more than one compressor on a track. Sometimes 2 or 3 dBs gain reduction by 3 compressors will sound much better than 6 or 9 dBs gain reduction by one. Many compressors have their own character and affect the audio in different ways. Using them can add to the character of your own tracks.
Use compression on group buses (for example, the drum bus or the mix bus) to make everything more punchy, and to glue the separate tracks together. A 1 dB gain reduction on the mix bus is sometimes all it takes to glue all of the separate instruments together and make the song sound fully coherent.
Focus on creating a great static mix using just your faders. Try to minimize the amount of EQ you use in the early stages of your mix. A great way to learn about your mix is not to allow yourself to use any compressors or EQ.
Apart from the obvious effects of ear fatigue, mixing at high volumes is counter-productive when it comes to getting a good static mix, compression, and EQ. Calibrate your monitor volume level to suit the room in which you mix. 86 dB is often way too high for a home studio. The high 70s are probably a more suitable dB level for most home environments.
Many engineers today still use the technique of mixing in mono to achieve their initial or static mix. Listening in mono helps to identify critical areas of instrument masking that need serious attention. Try at least one mix using the mono mixing method.
Use automation to adjust the levels of your mix. Try automating the chorus levels by +1dB to make them pop out of your mix. Learn how to control and record the fader movements in your DAW. Use the edit feature to smooth out fine-tune automation. Use automation to vary the effects, such as reverb and delay, on vocals and guitar tracks.
With your finished mix compare it (at equal volume) to similar music. Use a few reference mixes to see how your work compares to commercial releases. Make a new hit list of things that you would like to do to improve your mix and, if time allows, get back to work!
Whenever you can, compare your mixes to the music that you love. In the beginning, this may seem like a demoralizing task however you should understand that there is a long way to go before you can compete on a commercial level, and hiding your head in the sand is ultimately counter-productive. Comparing yourself to greatness, helps you understand the journey that you have started.
Listen to your finished mix on as many different devices as you possibly can. Play your mix on your home hi-fi system, your car stereo, your earbuds, your gaming headphones, your mobile phone, and on anything else you can get your hands on. Listen to how well your mix translates to these different environments.
Listen to your finished mix and varying volume levels. Even go so far as to stand in a different room and listen to your mix. These techniques often allow untrained ears to hear instrument balances much easier compared to just listening in the sweet spot. A mix that will translate well sounds good from another room and at low-volume.
Find yourself a friend, with discernible taste, who will take the time to listen to your music, and constructively critique your work. Try to avoid asking family and partners as they are more likely to tell you that it sounds great even if they don’t think so. Prepare yourself for constructive criticism you have got a few things to learn yet.
If you work in a recording and mixing environment, don’t be fooled into thinking that you can “Master” your music. There’s a big difference between mixing and mastering (see the article here), but you will probably want to maximize the loudness of your mix. Use your favorite mastering compressor and limiter to do this.