18 Audio Mixing Tips And Tricks For Your Recording Studio
Specific mixing norms & practices are followed in the recording industry. Unwritten rules determine the sequence of performing tasks, addressing problems and which functions to use for a certain outcome. Sometimes you just want to browse a random set of mixing tips and ideas that may help you solve a certain problem.
From personal experience, there are 2 instances in which browsing through a random list of tips and techniques on any broad topic can be very helpful.
- On the one hand, you have exhaustively been searching for for a solution online to find a solution for a specific problem. No search, no matter what keyword combination you used, gave you a clear solution. By taking a break and reading through a list on the broader subject, you can actually stumble across the solution unexpectedly.
- On the other hand, you may not be searching for anything at all. You can just be doing some online reading, find an article with a random list of tips and techniques like this this one. While browsing through it, one of the subjects may just give give you a brand new idea, or a better way of performing a certain task you always battled with in the past.
Whichever the case, the whole idea of putting a random set of helpful information together like we did in this article, is to provide informative and helpful information to any reader, which can be applied in any recording studio environment.
On the odd occasion it may spark some innovative ideas or help to solve a long standing problem. So what follows below is exactly what I just described, a list of 18 ideas and techniques that you will find helpful or at the very least, hopefully make life in the recording studio a little bit easier for you.
1) Don't Mix The Character Out Of The Audio
When you finished recording your audio, the post-production process takes up most of your attention. Most of us like everything to sound just right. Great care is taken that the notes are optimized, every flaw is corrected, and all noise and distortions are removed. And it is exactly this meticulous process of editing and correcting, that may actually diminish the character and uniqueness of a piece of music.
Obviously, you need to correct obvious mistakes and unwanted noises. But sometimes that one note just being a little out of sync, or the vocalist not quite hitting the "right" pitch, actually creates the perfect authentic and unique combination you were looking for.
Sometimes some of the best audio productions are created by "accident". This simply means the "flaws" can sometimes result in authentic sounds with a unique character which never would have been possible if you didn't leave these technical mistakes in place.
The takeaway here is that you don't have to get everything perfect in post-production during the mix. Unpolished and a bit raw can sometimes be just perfect.
2) Accept The Fact That Mixing Can Not Fix Everything
No experienced professional in the recording industry will doubt the power and features of modern day DAW software. Their ability to edit, manipulate and correct audio files have opened a whole new world for new and existing users and artists.
Unfortunately, this created the false impression that almost anything can be fixed while editing and mixing your audio project. This is simply not true. You can correct recording flaws and mistakes to a certain extend, but some errors are just impossible to eliminate.
To be honest, some recordings are just too bad to be salvaged. A poor performance (by the artist), too much background noise, microphone bleed from nearby sources or just a plain badly recorded track, are all factors that can make a recording unusable.
So make sure you know the capabilities of your DAW software, but also know its limitations. This way you will save yourself the time and frustration of trying to achieve a result that is just not possible.
3) Record And Mix Your Audio At 24-bit
The dynamic range of your audio production is largely determined by the bit depth at which the audio is recorded and mixed. Most music CD's use 16-bit depth and a big debate is raging as to using a higher 24-bit depth is necessary at all. Many users claim there is no real audible difference between the 2 bit depths.
However, recording at 24-bit still provides you with the biggest dynamic range, which is why this bit depth is recommended for the recording and mixing phase of your production. Yes, the file size of a 24-bit recording is much larger than a 16-bit recording, but with the increase in hard drive capacity at a very low cost this should not be an issue.
Since the standard for DVD quality is 24-bit, it is even more reason to start with best dynamic audio range possible. If file size becomes an issue or 16-bit is required at a later stage, you can always export your audio at a 16-bit depth.
4) Be Careful Of Too Much Bass
If we are all honest with ourselves, we sometimes enjoy how convenient and helpful bass can be. This low-frequency sound adds a rich and full character to your audio that immediately makes it sound more dynamic with that "extra punch".
Sometime users go overboard and add too much bass. This may be a simple mistake or an deliberate attempt to mask a flaw in some of the other sound frequencies. The result is an overbearing bass that can make your audio sound "muddy" and distorted.
Try and avoid this temptation and rather aim for a balanced sound. (If you are trying to mask a flaw in your audio, rather fix that piece of audio.) If your audio is naturally bass heavy, that is perfectly fine. Just don't add bass for the sake of adding bass.
5) Address Flaws And Mistakes Immediately
Whenever you come across a flaw or make a mistake in your audio during a mixing session, address it immediately. (At the very least, make a prominent note of it to get it sorted out.)
When you are entrenched in your work, there is a lot going on and you have a lot to concentrate on. You have to listen to many different aspects of your audio, monitor different settings and may be busy planning so many future adjustments, it is extremely easy to forget about a mistake/flaw in the audio you just picked up.
The important thing to remember is to stop immediately and address this flaw/mistake in some way before continuing. This way you ensure a flaw or mistake gets sorted out and not get lost in the small mountain of information you are busy working on.
6) Watch Your Recording Levels While Mixing
Setting your recording levels up correctly can not be emphasized enough. Setting your microphone's amplitude levels too low can still be rectified, but recording levels that are set too high will cause clipping on your microphone and cause an unpleasant distorted sound that is impossible to rectify.
Monitor and adjust your recording levels during your microphone and mixing setup. Even relatively simplistic audio software like Audacity are able to monitor and indicate your recording levels (normally with green, yellow and red bars). As soon as your audio levels start jumping into the yellow and red area, turn down your recording levels. Stay safe and stay in the green.
7) Remember To Leave Some Headroom When Mixing
While you are mixing your audio, it is always a good idea to limit your track's dynamic range. Leaving your peak output at -6 dBFS will allow the mastering engineer with enough headroom to work to equalize, normalize and compress your mix for final output. Sounds confusing?
In plain language, your digital dynamic range of amplitude tops out at 0 dBFS ( This means 0 dBFS is the maximum possible digital level of amplitude/loudness that can be reached). Anything louder than this ceiling will cause clipping (the sound will simply be cut off and cause an unpleasant distortion.)
If you lower your mixing level to 6dB below this peak digital output, you are effectively mixing at -6 dBFS. Luckily your DAW software measures and shows you your levels in real-time. You can always keep your eye on your mixing volumes to make sure you stay within these limits.
8) Save Your Files Often!
While are you spending very long periods of time in your studio editing and mixing on your computer, you can easily lose track of time. You may be forgetting to do something extremely important. Saving your files!
There are few things so frustrating and give you that helpless sinking feeling, than when your computer freezes or gets shut down due to some unforeseen incident, and you realize with a shock that you just worked for two hours straight without saving your file.
This happens to thousands of users all over the world every day, so develop the habit of saving your work often. If you have to, force yourself in the beginning by setting a timer that goes off every ten/fifteen minutes to remind yourself. It will become second nature very quickly. Just get in this habit as soon as possible.
9) Use Reference Tracks For Mixing
Working for long hours every day for years will always reward you in some way. You develop and fine-tune your mixing skills, train your ears to pick up the finest detail and know exactly how you want your end mix to sound like.
With all this experience come a little bit of a risk though, especially if you work mostly on your own. You will probably be working in isolation for weeks without any external guidance or feedback.
When working on your audio for extended periods of time, you tend to rely mostly on your own experience and judgement to monitor and adjust your mix. The danger of this is that you end up working "in a vacuum", and can venture in the wrong direction without anyone to correct you.
There is a direct way of constantly monitoring your mix and make sure you keep working in the right direction. Making use of reference tracks can help you stay on course and make sure you are constantly judging your own audio against industry standards.
A reference track is a song/audio track that is already a commercial success and from an established artist. This not enough though. Make sure this song sounds good to you in a variety of different scenarios and over time. Also, make sure it's in the same genre and style you are aiming to make your own production sound like.
Having a recording ready on your system to play back at a moment's notice will help you judge your own attempts objectively. This will also guide you to make sure your audio "sounds right" and the overall feeling, rhythm and mood you are trying to create, is on par with industry standards and norms.
The aim is not to copy the reference track in anyway. It is there to hold your hand and act as a guideline. Left to your own devices for too long, and you may end up very far from where you need to be. Only after comparing your attempts against a reference track will you realize how far off-target you have gone.
Always keep a reference track or two ready and make sure to compare your own mix on a regular basis, especially if you are still finding your way. You will save yourself a huge amount of time and gain a lot of invaluable experience.
10) Do Not Do Your Equalizing In Solo
If you recorded all your instruments (and vocals) in solo, it only seams logical to equalize and fine-tune them in solo. After all, you need to make sure each instrument sounds perfect before adding them to the mix, correct? Not quite.
Your audience are going to listen to your entire mix, with all your instruments and vocals playing together. They will never hear or care what each individual instrument sounds like on its own. And this is something you should always keep in mind.
Your instruments may sound great when you equalized them on their own, but you may be in for a very unpleasant surprise when you add all the instruments together in a mix. Some may sound completely too loud, harsh or not in sync at all with the rest of the mix. You just wasted a lot of time fine-tuning one instrument, just to find out it does not work at all in a mix.
Rather start by adding and listening to all the instruments together in one mix. You can then identify any individual tracks that are not sounding right or needs extra work. You will now be able to work on this track in solo and re-insert it into the mix until everything is working well together. You can repeat this process with each track that does not "fit" until you are happy with the way the whole "compilation" sounds.
At this point, with all your tracks in sync and sounding well balanced together, you can start equalizing the whole mix to optimize and get the best possible quality. You would have saved a lot of time and be able to achieve much better overall result.
(This does not mean you can never mix a track in solo. Over time you will gain enough experience to know right from the start when a track does not sound right and how to correct it in solo to work well in a mix. This ability comes with years of experience though.)
11) Don't Overdo It With Effects
We are spoiled for choice with countless effects available in our DAW software. This makes it very tempting to "overload" our audio project with special effects. This can and very often do more damage than good to a recording.
Remember, your effects exist to complement your recorded audio or vocals (not the other way around). As soon as your effects start taking center stage instead of your recording, you are going off-target and setting your audio project up for potential failure.
12) Use Your Software's Shortcuts
Learning your DAW software's shortcuts, or even better, creating your own will be a huge advantage. Not only will you save a lot of time, you will also be able to work more productively.
Having a proper full-size keyboard is almost a must for using shortcuts, as its size will make it easier to quickly and accurately hit the right key when needed. Your DAW software also makes use of your Function Keys on the top of the keyboard which is also a lot more easy to access using a full-size keyboard.
13) The Importance Of Track Alignment
It is very important to make sure all your tracks are aligned at all times. It sounds obvious, but for some reason, not enough attention is given to it more often than you think.
When recording different sound sources on different tracks, they needed to be combined and synchronized in your DAW. Track alignment means these different tracks starts exactly at the right moment, stay synchronized and ends exactly where they should.
If your different tracks are not 100% aligned, even by milliseconds, it is immediately noticeable and just sounds very unprofessional. With DAW software being extremely accurate to make adjustments to 1/1000 of a second, there is no real excuse not to have and keep everything aligned. Most high-end DAW software has built-in tools to assist you with this as well.
14) When "Good Enough" Is Really Enough
It is "blessing" to be a perfectionist, but sometimes it can also be a bit of a curse. Whenever you are recording or mixing, you should strive to get the best possible result in each stage. Checking and double checking your settings and refining your audio to be as close to ideal as possible is a good practice. But only to a point.
Going over a piece of audio mix, or the same take over and over again because you can't nail the audio to your satisfaction, can result in you wasting precious time and productivity. This is where the perfectionist in you must take a backseat.
After a set number of attempts, you must accept the fact that what you have is good enough, for the time being anyway. When worst comes to worst, you can always go back and redo some parts that remain unsatisfactory. But in most cases, you will find that your attempts turned out to be more than good enough.
To stay disciplined and keep yourself from getting stuck in this endless loop of trying nonstop to get the perfect result, use a deadline or set yourself a limit on the number of attempts to get a recording or mix right.
I know its a compromise in a way, but in time you will learn that there is no such thing a the "perfect sound".
15) Use The High-pass Filter
This is one of the first filters you can use to start cleaning up your recording. Especially if your recording is especially bass heavy or all the low frequencies on your track sounds a bit "muddy" and distorted, a high-pass filter will help tidying things up.
In case you are unfamiliar with a high pass-filter (or some referred to as a low-cut), it basically attenuates low frequency below a certain level, while allowing low frequencies above this level to pass through untouched.
This is one way of getting rid of unwanted frequencies at the very low end of the scale, which can be especially helpful if you are trying to balance your track. It will also tidy up your lower frequencies and make it sound more punchy.
Just remember that different tracks have their own characteristics and the same amount of filtering can not be applied to all. When applying a high-pass filter, make sure you adjust the level of low frequency detail that will be removed so that it only removes the unwanted low frequencies.
In the eagerness to tighten up your track and make the lower end sound more punchy, it is easy to overdo do it and too much low-end sound gets cut away. Some lower frequencies may be a vital part of the track, making it sound balanced and complete.
Always listen to the overall track, and keep adjusting the filter until just the unnecessary parts at the lower frequency range are removed, while preserving the valuable parts of the lower frequency that contributes to the overall quality of your track.
16) Focus On The End Result When Starting Your Mix
I only started realizing the importance of this practice fairly recently. When you know you are going to add a certain amount of compression, balance and effects to your whole project at the end of you mix, you will save yourself a tremendous amount of time by doing this right from the start, and continue applying it as you work your way throughout your audio project.
This approach will help you set the correct tone and balance right from the start, and you save yourself the time from doing everything twice. You spend days and weeks making sure every note sounds right, the volume is set correctly and all track works nicely together. You may be undoing all this hard work if you only add all the compression and balance to your whole project afterwards.
By applying these effects to your audio afterwards, you will potentially be changing the whole tone and dynamics of your audio you have been working so hard and long to get just right.
By applying these effects you were planning on adding to your finished mix, right from the start you make sure every note and track sounds correct right from the start. By the end of the mixing process, you end up with a final audio product you are happy with and safe in the knowledge that no unpleasant surprises are waiting for you.
(If you are still unhappy with your audio after finishing you mix but not sure how to round it off and make it sound just right, just leave it in the capable hands of an experienced mastering engineer. He will know exactly how to turn your final mix into a well polished and superior end product.)
17) Always Trust And Rely On Your Ears
Your DAW software is extremely powerful. They not only allow you to adjust almost every possible aspect of your track, but also measures and give you a readout of every note's volume, balance and tone.
It is only normal to start relying more on what your software is telling you, than what you are hearing and what you ears are telling you. Your DAW may tell you a track is out of sync or too soft in comparison with the rest of the mix you are working on. A dangerous habit can develop where you start disregarding what you hear to fix a "potential problem" and make sure everything looks "right" on screen.
One of your biggest assists in the recording studio are your ears. Especially if you already started developing a trained ear from months/years of critically listening to your audio, this should be you most trusted "instrument".
You know the saying, "your ears don't lie", and that is mostly true in the recording industry. What this means is you should trust your ears, even when your DAW's settings are indicating something else. Just remember, your software can only measure, analyze and give your feedback on data of your audio. It has now way of telling you if it sounds right, unique and create that special feel you were looking for.
Finally think of it in this way. Your ears are the final judge of your audio work, and your DAW is just a guide and tool to help you mold and fine-tune the sound you want to create and hear. (Not the other way around where you create something through listening, and then letting the settings and measurements on your DAW tell you whether what you are hearing is indeed correct.)
18) Learn A New Function Every Day
By now you probably realize how packed full of features most DAW software packages are. In fact, chances are pretty good you will spend a lifetime extensively using the software without even touching many of the functions and tools available to you.
This is perfectly normal, as you will only need to make use of a specific series of tools to get your desired results and finish your audio project, depending on your own personal needs.
However, you may be missing out on some functions and tools in your software that will help you in a variety of ways. It can help you achieve difficult results with more powerful and easy-to-use functions you didn't know were available all the time. You may also discover tools that can enhance the overall quality of you audio.
It is good practice, and I would like to challenge, you to learn at least one new function of your software each day. It will not only deepen your knowledge of the software but can also reveal a very valuable tool or function. (And it will probably take you 15 minutes at most to discover and master.)
By no means a comprehensive or exhaustive list, these 18 tips hopefully proved to be helpful for the majority of readers of this article.
There are countless more helpful information that can be learned. I will revisit this article at a later stage and add some more tips and techniques if necessary. You can also let me know in the comment section below if you want a more comprehensive list and I will make it a priority.
As always, feel free to leave me any comments or suggestions you may have, and I will respond and try and get to them as soon as I can.
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Catch you in the next article and happy recording!