What I Learned About Mixing in 2012

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2012 has been full of learning experiences for me, both personally and professionally. Usually when someone uses the phrase “learning experience,” they actually mean “painful experience.”

It’s so true, right?

Any time I learn a powerful lesson, there’s almost always some sort of discomfort that comes along with it. Take mixing, for example. I love to mix, but there are days where I would rather swim with hungry alligators than work on a mix.

Sometimes mixing comes easy. Sometimes it’s painful.

But if you can persevere, there’s always something to learn, something that will make your future mixes better.

Here are some of the things I learned:

Give Your Mix a “Time Out”

No matter how awesome you think your mix is, resist the urge to share it with the world until you’ve given it a time out.

Time-outs work like gangbusters in the Gilder house. Our two-year-old Owen can completely lose it some days. Sticking him in a “time-out” in the corner for two minutes usually does the trick.

When it comes to mixing, one of the best things you can do for your mix is to simply step away. After a couple hours of mixing, your ears have accustomed themselves to what they’re hearing. If your mix has some blatantly huge issues, you might not even notice them.

THAT’S why you need to give your mix a time-out. It’s misbehaving, and you don’t even know it, because you’re too close to the situation.

Come back to it the next day, or maybe take a lunch break. When you come back with fresh ears, you’ll instantly hear those two or three issues in the mix that need to be addressed.

Now you can address them before you send the mix off to be heard by others.

Trust me on this one. Your ears are tricky little creatures. Make ‘em be honest with you before you do your final bounce.

Level vs EQ

This one’s so easy I regularly forget about it.

If you’re fighting with a particular track in a mix, and you just can’t seem to make it sound right, what’s your first instinct?

I can tell you what mine is. I instantly reach for an EQ knob and start twisting. If it’s too harsh or too boomy, then I obviously need to cut some frequencies in the low mids or upper mids, right?

Maybe.

But what I’ve found is that when I find myself using very aggressive EQ, chances are there’s another more obvious problem at hand.

What problem?

The track is simply at the wrong volume.

Almost every time I find myself really wrestling with a particular track, using crazy EQ cuts, sooner or later I realize that the track is simply too loud or too quiet.

I’ll remove all the EQ crazyness and move the fader up or down a few dB.

The result? It sounds instantly better.

Don’t forget how powerful a simple fader move can be.

The Great and Powerful Crap Speaker

This is one of those tips the music stores don’t want you to think about.

Yes, it’s important to have good, accurate studio monitors and/or headphones.

However, I’ve found (especially this past year) that my crappy little 3” speakers are insanely helpful mixing tools.

People always ask me, “What crappy speakers do you recommend?”

That’s a hilarious question. Just use something crappy. Something with a small speaker on it. I’ve got some old Roland speakers with a 3-inch woofer. They’re not full range, and they’re not good for making really detailed decisions.

However, they INSTANTLY show me major flaws in my mix. Like if the vocal is too loud, or if the bass it too muddy. Or maybe the guitars are too aggressive or the snare drum disappears.

As an added bonus, I only use one of these speakers, and I send a mono signal to it. So now it’s my crap speaker AND my mono speaker.

I’ve found that if I can get the mix to sound killer on this speaker, it will sound killer in my car, and it will still sound great on my nice monitors, too.

It’s not always fun to hear your mix on a crap speaker, but it can be insanely useful.

Dare to Compare

Comparisons can be painful.

You might think your mix is amazing, but then you hear it next to a professional mix, and you’re instantly sad. The pro mix sounds so much better than yours.

Yes, it hurts (and yes, I’ve been there many a time). But it’s good for you to take these long honest “looks” at your mixes. If your mix doesn’t stand up to a professional mix, then you probably have some more work to do.

It’s difficult and frustrating, but it makes you better.

Compare your mixes to professional ones, and slowly but surely your mixes will start sounding more and more professional.

The Mix is Slave to the Recording

This is probably the most important thing you could learn. (And it’s been something I’ve run into over and over again this year.)

Your mix is slave to the recording.

If the recording sounds horrible, your mix will sound horrible.

It’s so easy to have the “I’ll just fix it in the mix” mentality, but you simply CAN’T do it. You can enhance a recording. You can even make it sound better. But your mixes won’t be amazing if you’re not putting as much focus and effort on the recording side as you do the mixing side.

You must…you simply MUST…put in huge amounts of effort to capture great-sounding performances. This means rescheduling a session for another day if the performer isn’t “feeling it.” It means re-recording tracks that simply don’t sound good. It means spending lots of time working out the arrangement before you lay down a bunch of tracks. It means taking the time to audition a few mic placements before you start recording.

The better your recordings sound, the better your mixes will sound.

Period.

Your Turn!

Okay, now I want to hear from you. What have you learned in 2012? Let’s make the comments below a huge list of recording and mixing tips.

Ready? Go!

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