Digital audio technology has come a long way. It's now entirely possible to make great-sounding recordings in the comfort of your own home.
While technology changes, good recording techniques don't. There are a few simple things to keep in mind to make your mixes shine like what you hear on a commercial release.
Proper gain staging is absolutely critical to every aspect of recording. From setting the input trim on your preamp, to setting compressor levels on your master buss. It is inherent to all stages of the recording process.
Use The Mono Button!
Make no mistake, the mono button is critical to good mixes. When everything is summed to one channel, it makes phase relationships and equalization/level imbalances much more apparent. Not to mention many playback systems still utilize mono (club PA, grocery stores, and so on).
Once you have a mix that sounds good in mono, when switched to stereo it will really open up. It's not a cure-all, but it's important to hear how the mix sounds in both stereo and mono throughout the mixing process.
A well-mixed song will have steady equalization throughout the duration. The low-end will be tight and present, the top end will be airy, and the midrange (where most of the instruments reside) will be full and leave room for everything. Some of the biggest flaws in amateur mixing come in the equalization area in the form of boomy/overpowering bass, dense midrange, and harsh and unpleasant high frequencies.
The most important stage of equalization occurs at the microphone and source, before anything is ever recorded. You will do more for your recordings and equalization by proper microphone placement than any EQ will do after-the-fact.
ALWAYS remember that subtractive EQ is better than boosting.
The low end is one of the hardest to get right in the project studio. There are a variety of reasons, from improperly recording the low end instruments to a mixing environment that is not acoustically treated and not suitable. Most small rooms have a problem with nulls and standing waves, essentially rendering you unable to hear the bass frequencies. You can't mix what you can't hear.
It's important that if you can't get your room properly treated acoustically to learn your monitors and the deficiencies of the space in which you're working.
The midrange is really what makes or breaks a recording. Most of the frequency spectrum is comprised of the midrange. In addition to being the most sensitive frequencies to the human ear, a lot of the main energy in the song resides in this area. Vocals, snare drum, guitars, pianos, and more all fight for the same space.
Nothing should be clashing, and everything should be present and audible. The vocal/snare balance is critical to the sound of modern records.
Just like the low end, it's difficult to get that silky air on the top end of your recordings in the project studio. The kind that really opens up the mix and lets it breathe. Again, most of this is achieved at the microphone. Too much boosting and your mix will sound harsh, too much cut and your mix will sound dark and lifeless.
The best way to get a great top end to your tracks is in microphone choice and placement, and how good of a source you have.
A mix should breathe, and there should be dynamics not only in the arrangement but in the mix as well. You have a variety of tools at your disposal to achieve this, and automation is one of the most useful features of mixing. In the DAW environment almost every parameter imaginable can be automated. The human ear tires after hearing the same thing repeatedly. Great mixes have great dynamics, and it starts with the arrangement and tracking.
Another rapid telltale sign of an amateur mix is over-compression. This can often be felt as a pumping feeling, which is really just a very audible perception of the compressor doing its job. You should never hear the compressor compressing, which is a different idea than imparting the sound of a compressor to a track.
Busses are one of the easiest places to find yourself using too much compression.
This concept is certainly an equalization one, but just as much as it is dynamics. Everything should have its space, nothing should be clashing. As previously mentioned this is easiest to do with midrange instruments. Guitar, snare, keys, and vocals all take up generally the same space and they are some of the most important parts of the song.
Don't wait until a cluttered mixdown to try and find space for everything.
Creating a mix that translates can take some frustration and a lot of remixing. You might find that your tune sounds amazing in your studio, but falls apart in the car or through your tiny laptop speakers.
This can be due to the previously mentioned improper acoustic treatment in your mixing space, bad monitoring, or just simple inexperience. Making a good, balanced mix that translates properly across a variety of playback systems can take time.
Keep testing your mixes on everything you can find, and eventually you'll find yourself doing less and less remixing.
About The Author:
Brandon Stoner runs Audio Ecstasy Productions out of Los Angeles, CA specializing in guitar and backline tech for touring, custom stompbox and cable design for stage and studio, audio engineering, and many other audio and guitar-related services.