GET YOUR SYSTEM DOWN
Let’s look at the various systems you need for quality mixing, and what it takes to work efficiently within those systems to deliver a good mix.
The three important systems that you need to prepare are your monitor/room combination (monitoring system), your physical equipment and routing (gear system), and your working methods (mixing system).
When you listen to music on speakers, you are also listening to the room. The room and the speakers couple, forming a unique listening environment.
This is easy to demonstrate by talking or clapping your hands in a highly reflective room like a bathroom, stairwell, or tiled foyer, then doing it again in a carpeted bedroom, clothes closet, or living room with heavy drapes.
The sound difference between rooms will be immediately obvious, mostly because of the character of the reflections (reverb) each room adds to the sound you hear. Substitute your speakers for the clapping, and you hear what the room does to a mix.
In the more reflective spaces, intelligibility suffers as the reflected sound blends with the direct sound. Two or more conversations going on at once in these rooms makes it difficult to understand each other. The level of room sound may even overtake the direct sound, causing flutter echoes, boomy and bass-light areas, excessive reverb, and smearing the perceived location imaging.
Even if you take the same set of speakers into another room, they will sound different. In more dampened or professionally treated rooms, intelligibility and definition increase, and bass response will be more even and more accurate.
The idea is to set up a speaker/room system you can trust, then learn it. The speaker system in the room is your “monitoring system”.
Set up your monitoring system so that the imaging, room sound, and frequency response is acceptable for mixing. Sometimes it’s as easy as treating a few walls, sometimes it involves a full spectrum approach.
In all cases, unless you do all your mixing in headphones, you are hearing the room. This is why professional studios use acoustic designers and spend a lot of money on rooms and room treatment.
One easy way to learn the sound of your monitoring system is to listen in there. A lot. Play great mixes on those speakers in that room, and switch between various artists and your own mixes.
You’ll start to hear how good mixes are supposed to sound on those speakers in that room, and how your mixes compare to the greats. If you do this a lot, and do it while you are mixing, you can really improve your mixes.
It’s a good idea to make sure known good mixes sound good in that room first. If they don’t, that may mean adjusting speaker placement, treating the room, or other physical solutions.
Some other remedies for battling your room include listening on small speakers at low volume, setting up speakers in another room or even on the side of the control room, and using headphones.
The equipment you use can influence your decision making and your sound. The general rule is you get what you pay for with audio tools, but I’ve seen that rule broken more times than I can count. Sometimes inexpensive or free tools see more use than the pricey stuff, especially plugins.
So you can’t go by price, you have to go by sound, functionality, and durability. With software taking up the bulk of the processing, those are non-issues because you can usually demo before you buy, and most plugins are updated regularly. And there’s no noisy cables or rack gear “hum”, and they come with total recall.
Armed with your ilok and the install files, you can take your whole plugin arsenal with you to any studio. The point isn’t necessarily to have lots of tools, but to have the essential tools you need to get the job done right, and to know how to work those tools inside and out.
There are hit records that were made on 4 and 8 track tape decks, and today there are even phone apps with more than that. Most DAW applications come with enough tools to mix a record, and some have a stunning array of sound tools, way more than most studios used to have. But just because you can put an 1176 compressor on every track, should you?
The key is to know the sound and capabilities of all your tools, what good sound is, and what things should sound like in that room.
In today’s digital studios, you can set up your whole routing system with a template, and import tracks for mixing. It could include all the things you normally would want to set up for effects, bussing, etc. for a mix.
Using templates is like having an assistant that knows your routine, and sets up the whole room for you, all ready to go in the box. You can even just import effects templates, or drum tracking templates, or whatever you want.
This is a huge time saver for both tracking and mixing sessions, and it allows you to get set up quickly so you can start mixing. The combination of hardware, software, patch bays, cabling, mics, plugins, software, etc. is your “gear system”.
The better you know your gear system, the sound of each piece, routing of the room, etc., the faster you will work. This leads to more confidence and better results because you can focus on listening, not technical issues so much, and make better mixes.
As a mixing engineer, the next area of concentration is your “mixing system”. This is your mix method, your flow, the “procedure” part of mixing. The art part of art and science.
Where do you start, what do you need to have set up and ready to go, and what do you do next? The kick drum? The vocal? Do you group tracks? Send all the instruments to buses in groups? Put a mastering plugin on the master fader? Stand up and walk around? Put on sunglasses and dim the lights?
Questions like these should be answered, if even vaguely, up front, and a work flow set up. This gives you a head start on the mix, and a roadmap for getting to the finish line.
Of course these three systems tie together. For example, templates are both part of the gear system and part of the process. Knowing what to have set up ahead of time can really speed up the setup process and help you get to mixing.
How you do what you do really is important in the end, and the listener can hear it and feel it, even if they can’t define it.
Knowing your room sound and your gear can make a significant difference in the sound and speed with which you mix, and getting your procedure down will help tremendously with productiveness and creativity. Plan it out.
Part of my mixing system, once I’m set up, is to get the drums, bass, and vocal working together as a foundation for the mix, then bring everything else in around it. I try to make only minor changes to the foundation once I know it’s working.
By never losing sight of the foundation, I keep my mixes from losing the vocal or the punch, and I can focus on tones and spacial placement of all the other instrument around that.
If I get into a jam, I can always mute everything but the foundation, and bring elements back in one at a time, which usually helps pinpoint issues fairly quickly, and helps prevent the “creeping mix”.
That’s the one where you can’t hear something, so you turn it up. Then you can’t hear something else, so you turn it up. Then the drums need to come up. Pretty soon, you’ve lost your foundation, and you have to bring down the master fader.
The reason you want to get your own systems down is because you will make better mixes and be more productive by focusing on the sound, not troubleshooting, chasing studio gremlins, or wondering whether or not the sound is right.
Eventually, with practice, all of it will come together into one system you can trust, combining form and function, art and science, and resulting in better mixes.