The Lucky 13 Song Mixing Tips

Before I get started I just want to reinforce something I’ve mentioned in earlier posts – sometimes a reduction in parameters actually generates more creativity. Being aware of a set of limitations, or guidelines, can actually allow you much more creative control over your final mix.This could mean limiting the amount of effects that you allow yourself to use, or a more obvious one is to only use a particular set of effects that suits the genre or style. If you have the permission to do it, perhaps editing tracks or even removing “surplus” instrumentation or vocal is the first step.

Approach-wise, ideally you want all aspects of a song to reinforce together and create a stronger impact, and if you aren’t aware of what you’re doing, it’s very possible (in fact more common than you think) to get a generally nice balance of instruments that somehow doesn’t “gel”. You can hear everything, but it lacks emotional impact.

So here’s a bunch of ideas to think about next time you’re mixing a song – there are many more ideas and concepts to experiment with than these, but I stopped myself before the post became a novel.

1  Know what the song’s about. Clues are in the lyrics. Knowing what it’s about gives you the opportunity to amplify the concept rather than inadvertently fighting it. That doesn’t mean you have to “follow” the lyrics with the mix in a literal sense – you might do nothing at all in that regard, but at least you won’t be fighting the meaning of the song without even realising it, and when it comes to trying to think of creative mix directions, it’s yet another clue to help you.

2  Know the context of the music. What’s the genre or style of the artist. How does it relate to the artist’s identity? Being aware of this really makes it much more likely that you’ll promote that artist’s identity and overall concept, plus the artist will be more likely to appreciate what you do with the mix. For example does the artist exemplify “authenticity” where a raw, “character” sound with any intonation problems remaining unfixed is most desirable? Or is it about slick and smooth production?

3  Be adventurous. A mix is not a simple balance of levels of the instruments in a mix, it’s about featuring various aspects that you think the listener would like to hear, or more accurately needs to hear at any given section of the song. Pretend it’s a movie – how do you present each section of the song? Don’t be scared to go “over the top” with effects, fader moves and featuring of mix aspects – you can always tone it back if need be. Don’t be scared to turn vocal up loud – trying to hide weak vocals makes it even worse. Even ugly actors have to have close-ups in a movie to make it all work.

4  Think about texture and tone. It’s partly tone, partly level, partly how dominant something is in the mix. If you compress something – its texture changes. Listen out for it tonally as a sound rather than just checking it’s variation in level. How pervasive is it compared to everything else, despite its volume in the mix?
How does it link into the overall texture of the song? Textures are like a tonal colour palette – you probably don’t want to mix a neon green element in with some nice earth tones (remember there are no rules!), but then again you don’t want everything the same shade of beige.

5 It’s about melody In even the most distortion-fest mixes, our human nature will use our built-in pattern-detecting algorithms to extract a melody out of it somewhere, whether it be in the movement of the harmonics in the wall of guitar noise or in the groovy bassline. Make sure there’s one dominant melody at any given instant, or if there’s more than one, that they aren’t fighting each other and canceling out.

6 The pocket. It’s more than something to put your wallet in. It’s that magic interaction of instruments when it all suddenly locks into a groove. Spend some time adjusting relative timing of instruments to see if you can help the groove “gel”. You’ll know when it happens because it’s magic and you’ll start moving with the music whether you want to or not. Note that Beat Detective and other forms of quantization can fight this effect – it’s “felt” rather than being on an exact grid. Saying that, if the playing is too loose then a timing grid is definitely a step up.

7  Keep it simple stupid. Less is more. These things are fundamental truths, despite our over-familiarity with them often leaving them as meaningless statements in our minds. Think about the mix as a photo – the more people you want to appear in the photo, the smaller they’ll have to be. Don’t be scared to bring the main things to the foreground, and push other things back to the point of blurriness or being hidden behind the main elements. A good mix is not about individual band members’ egos, it’s about the overall blend. When you think about it, the individual band members have the least idea about what the mix should sound like – they all hear completely different versions of a mix depending on where they stand/sit when they perform.

8  Three “Tracks”. Back in the olden days, after mono and stereo, there were three tracks. One was for “Rhythm” (and could include drums, bass, percussion and rhythm guitar for example), one for Vocals and one for “Sweetening” which might be things like brass, strings, lead instruments etc. This strategy is still a great one to keep in mind for mixing. It forces you to think about your rhythm section as one single thing, and you need to make it all gel. Bass needs to lock in the pocket with the kick drum. Sweetening nowadays is whatever else you need outside rhythm and vocals. Think carefully about which mix elements fit into each of these three roles, and if all three are already populated – maybe it’s time to do some cutting. Note that some instruments such as guitars might switch between modes depending on what they’re playing at the time – rhythm, fills or lead.

9 One thing at a time. Rather than thinking of one of the aforementioned three tracks as just “Vocals” perhaps it’s better to look on it as “Melody”. The melody line often chops and changes between vocal, instrumental fills and solos. If you think of these three elements as playing a similar role at different times in the song, it makes it easy when trying to decide on levels/sounds between the three. It also highlights that you shouldn’t have any of those melodies crossing over each other and fighting at any point – keep ’em separated!

10 Getting the bass sitting right is tricky – especially when it needs to work on both large and small speaker systems. Try mixing the bass while listening on the smallest speakers that you have, to get it sitting at the right level. Then adjust the tonal balance while listening on bigger speakers to reign any extreme frequencies back in. Sometimes you might need to layer the bass sound to get this to happen effectively.

11 Don’t over-compress everything. Listen to the TONE while compressing each instrument and keep it sounding natural if possible. Pay close attention to the start and end (attack and release) of the notes of each instrument you compress. Your final mix should be sitting at an average RMS level of about -12 to -18dBFS with peaks no higher than around -3dBFS. Leave the mastering engineer to do the final compression and limiting. Remember to leave dynamic range in the mix – contrast! Our ears need some sort of contrast to determine what’s loud and soft. If you hammer all the levels to the max you may as well just record the vacuum cleaner at close range and overdrive the mic/preamp. Hmmm. Might have to try that.

12 Easier than Automation. In these days of automation, it’s easy to spend inordinate amounts of time tweaking automation changes on instruments or vocals between different sections of a song (eg adding more reverb to the vocals in the chorus or adjusting rhythm gtr levels in the bridge). With today’s digital audio workstations, extra tracks are usually in ready supply, so rather than fluffing about with automation for a specific section of the song, why not just move that part over onto another duplicated track instead, then just make whatever changes you need to suit that section. Much quicker than continually mucking around with automation on the same track. By the way – make sure your mix is dynamic. A mix is a performance in itself, not a static set of levels.

13 Use submix busses for each element of the mix. Eg drum subgroup,  guitar subgroup, vocal subgroup etc. Rather than send all your drums straight to the L/R or Stereo mix, first send them all to an Aux return channel instead. Then send that Aux to the LR/Stereo mix. (Tip: disable solo on the Auxes) This makes it simple to do overall tweaks to your mix even after you’ve automated levels on individual tracks.
You need to be careful about aux effects returns and where they come back though, as their balance might change slightly if you adjust the instrument subgroups.
And hey, what about creating just three subgroups – Rhythm, Melody, Sweetening? Let me know if it works ;o)

Sources: Stephen Webber, Bob Katz, Mixerman, Mike Senior.

Digital Recording Levels – a rule of thumb

Okay, I mentioned this as one of my tips in a previous post, but there’s confusion and many heated debates out there about the ideal level to record into your digital audio workstation.

I’m just summing up the information readily available elsewhere (if you are willing to wade through endless online debates and the numerous in-depth articles), for people who just want to know right here and now what the best level is to record into their digital audio systems.

So I’m going to start with just a quick easy rule of thumb for these people, followed with a little bit more detail after that to explain why I’m recommending these numbers.

I apologize for simplifying some of the math – but if you’re really interested there are plenty of texts and in-depth articles available with a bit of searching. I’ve included a few references and links at the end of the article.

The rule of digital thumb

  1. Record at 24-bit rather than 16-bit.
  2. Aim to get your recording levels on a track averaging about -18dBFS. It doesn’t really matter if this average floats down as low as, for example -21dBFS or up to -15dBFS.
  3. Avoid any peaks going higher than -6dBFS.

That’s it. Your mixes will sound fuller, fatter, more dynamic, and punchier than if you follow the “as loud as possible without clipping” rule.

For newbies – dBFS means “deciBels Full Scale”. The maximum digital level is 0dBFS over which you get nasty digital clipping, and levels are stated in how many dB below that maximum level you are.

Average level is very important – people hear volume based on the average level rather than peak. Use a level meter that shows both peak and average/RMS levels. Even better if you can find a meter that uses the K-system scale.

Some common questions:

Q: Why do we avoid going higher than -6dB on peaks? Surely we can go right up to 0dBFS?

Answer 1 – the analogue side.
Part of the problem is getting a clean signal out of your analogue-to-digital converter. Unless you have a very expensive professional audio interface, or you like the sound of the distortion that it makes when you drive it hard, then you’re going to get some non-linearities (ie distortion) happening at higher levels, often relating to power supply limitations and slew rates.

Most interfaces are calibrated to give around -18dBFS/-20dBFS when you send 0VU from a mixing desk to their line-ins. This is the optimum level!
-18dBFS is the standard European (EBU) reference level for 24-bit audio and it’s -20dBFS in the States (SMPTE).

Answer 2 – the digital side.
Inter-sample and conversion errors. If all we were ever doing is mixing levels of digital signals, we would probably be fine most of the time going up close to 0dBFS, as most DAWs can easily and cleanly mix umpteen tracks at 0dBFS.

EXCEPT there are some odd things that happen;

  • Inter-sample errors can create a “phantom” peak that exceeds 0dBFS on analogue playback.
  • When plug-ins are inserted they can potentially cause internal bus overloads. These can build-up some unpleasant artifacts to the audio as you add more plug-ins as your mix progresses. They can also potentially generate internal peaks of up to 6dB – even if you’re CUTTING frequencies with an EQ, for example.
  • Digital level meters on channel strips seldom show the true level – they don’t usually look at every single sample that comes through. It’s possible to have levels up to 3dB higher than are displayed on the meters.

Keeping your individual track levels a bit lower avoids most of these issues. If your track levels are high, inserting trim or gain plug-ins at the start of the plug-in chain can help remove or reduce these problems. Use your ears!

Q: Aren’t we losing some of our dynamic range if we record lower? Aren’t we getting more digital quantization distortion because we’re closer to the noise floor?

Short answer. No.

Really, both of these questions sort of miss the point, as we shouldn’t be boosting our audio up to higher levels and then turning it down again. So there’s nothing to be “lost”.

It’s the equivalent of boosting the gain right up on a mixing desk while having the fader down really low, giving you extra noise and distortion that you didn’t even need. You should leave the fader at it’s reference point and add just enough gain to give you the correct audio level. This is what we’re trying to do when recording our digital audio as well – nicely optimizing our “gain chain”.

The best way to illustrate this is to throw a few numbers up;

Each bit in digital audio equates to approximately 6dB.
So 16-bit audio has a dynamic range of 96dB.
24-bit audio has a range of 144dB.

With me so far? Probably doesn’t mean a lot just yet.

Now, let’s look at the analogue side where it becomes slightly more interesting.

The theoretical maximum signal-to-noise ratio in an analogue system is around 130dB.
Being awesomely observant, you picked up immediately that this is a lot less than 24-bit’s 144dB range!

In fact, the best analogue-to-digital converters you can buy are lucky to even approach 118dB signal-to-noise ratio never mind 144dB.

So – let’s think about this.
If we aim to record at -18dBFS, how many bits does that give us?

24 bits minus 3 (each bit is 6dB remember). That’s 21 bits left.
What’s the dynamic range of 21 bits? 126dB
What’s the dynamic range of your analogue-to-digital converter again? 120dB-ish.
Less than 20 bits.
One bit less than our 21-bit -18dBFS level.

The conclusion is that when recording at -18dBFS you are already recording at least one bit’s worth of the noise floor/quantization error, and if you actually turn your recording levels up towards 0dBFS, all you’re really doing is turning up the noise with your signal.

And most likely getting unnecessary distortion and quantisation artifacts.

Apart from liking the sound of your converter clipping, there’s NO technical or aesthetic advantage to recording any louder than about -18 or -20dBFS. Ta-Da!

Mix Levels

If you’ve been good and recorded all your tracks at the levels I recommended, you probably won’t have any issues at all with mix levels.

The main thing is to make sure your mix bus isn’t clipping when you bounce it down.

Most DAW’s can easily handle the summing of all the levels involved, even if channels are peaking above 0dBFS. In fact even if the master fader is going over 0dBFS, there’s generally not a problem until it reaches the analogue world again, or when the mix is being bounced down.

Most DAWs have headroom in the order of 1500-2500dB “inside the box”. You can usually just pull the master fader down to stop the master bus clipping.

Saying that, it’s still safer if you keep your levels under control.
Like I mentioned before – a key problem is overloads before and between plug-ins. If your channel or master level is running hot and you insert a plug-in, it could be instantly overloading the input of the plug-in depending on whether the plug-in is pre-or-post the fader. So use your ears and make sure you’re not getting distortion or weird things happening on a track when you insert and tweak plug-ins.

Try to use some sort of average/RMS metering, and try to keep your average mix level (ie on your Master fader) between about -12 to -18dBFS, with peaks under -3dBFS.

Mastering will easily take care of the final level tweaks.

To conclude – when recording at 24-bit, there is a much higher possibility of ruining a mix through running levels too high than having your levels too low and noisy.

As Bob Katz says, if your mix isn’t loud enough – just turn the monitor level up!

PS – say “no” to normalizing. That’s almost as bad as recording too loud.

Bob Katz’ web site.
Plus Bob’s excellent book “Mastering Audio – the Art and the Science”.
Paul Frindle et al on
A nice paper on inter-sample errors

Download a free SSL inter-sample meter (includes a nice diagram of inter-sample error )

12 Tips for improving the quality of your recordings

1. When recording to digital – keep your levels a bit more conservative. Aim for -18dBFS when recording at 24-bit. And at 16-bit? Best to just stick to 24-bit. Don’t worry about levels looking low on the meters, and don’t worry about “having less bits available”. You’re still getting 21 bits, which is about the maximum you can actually encode from the analogue side anyway. You’re not losing anything, and you’re getting decent digital headroom and much bigger/more dynamic sound. Try it!

2. The best EQ you’ll ever get is on the end of the microphone. Spend time getting an awesome sound from the microphone itself, and your mixing will be much easier. Get the mic/instrument position nailed and try different mics if the sound’s not working for you. Omnis are awesome. Don’t think the most expensive mic is always the best, either – the humble Shure 57 and Sennheiser 421 are more than just drum mics.

3. Don’t over-compress everything. Be judicious when you compress – be aware of what you are trying to achieve. Are you even-ing out the performance of a bass track? Or compressing the drums to get a particular texture? Don’t just do it to “turn it up”. That’s what the faders are for. If you want your overall mix to sound louder – get the mastering engineer to do it. Over-compressing will rob your song of “punch” and fatness.

4. Set the compressor release-time so it works with the rhythm of the track. Set it as long as possible but so level reduction still manages to get back up to unity before the next beat/phrase. Then fine-tune so it adds to the groove. It’s tempo-based.

5. Work with the song arrangement. The maximum volume in any given song is divided into however many sounds/instruments you have playing at the same time. 20 small guitars do not usually sound as impressive as one big guitar. (They might have an interesting texture though). The instruments in a 3-piece band will sound bigger than those in a 12-piece band UNLESS you deliberately leave space for each instrument at different parts of the song. Don’t be afraid to cut things out, or to have musicians not play at various points – which leads into…

6. Create contrast. On the subject of arrangement – take a leaf out of Nirvana’s songbook – create big contrasts between, for example, verses and choruses. “Loud” only sounds loud if it’s got some “quiet” to compare against. Another reason to watch your compression, too. Try subtly easing down the rhythm guitar level as you go through the verse, and then suddenly bring it back up to the original level for the chorus. Sounds loud again, doesn’t it?

7. Commit. Don’t record 70 takes of a vocal track and then edit it later. Why didn’t you just keep doing punch-ins until it was right? Now you’re going to have to spend 6 hours trying to edit vocals when you could have got a decent take in probably an extra half-hour. Murphy’s law will also make sure that NONE of those 70 takes contains a good first line of the third verse.

And if you think that the rhythm guitar sounds perfect with that grottelflange pedal on it – record it like that! If you’re paranoid – capture both versions – and keep the clean guitar track in a backup session.
In other words – don’t defer all your decisions till the mix – make a call and go with it.

8. Be daring. Bands don’t usually become famous for sounding just like other bands (maybe in the short-term). They become famous for being unique. If the band sounds like everyone else, you’d better be trying hard to find something unique in there and be highlighting it. Or find a unique way to present them in the recording by your approach. Don’t be scared to go “over-the-top” with effects – you can always make them more conservative if you have to, but it’s almost impossible to go the other way once you’re used to the sound you have.

9. Err on the side of performance. There’s magic in a good performance. Does it give you goose-bumps? Better to have a piece of music that moves you than something that’s technically perfect but “cold”. This is where an experienced band can nail it – they can give a good performance early-on, before they get bored. By the way – don’t run-through the whole song when sound-checking otherwise the performers get stale before you’re ready. And why weren’t you recording already anyway!?!?!

10. Highlight character. Often it’s the imperfections that make our ears prick up. Ideally the imperfections shouldn’t be big enough to ruin the song, though. Have you often thought the demo of a song is better than the final recording? What made the demo unique? Don’t try to make every instrument “perfect”. Don’t EQ instruments while they are solo’ed – you’ll end up trying to make everything sound fat and full, which adds up to “bland”. Try to make at least one sound unique in the mix.

11. The mixdown is a performance too. If the levels are static in your mix, it’s going to sound boring. The human brain is wired to detect change. You better have some stuff changing through the song to keep the listener’s brain stimulated. If you have an interesting arrangement, you probably don’t need to worry so much about eg levels changing through the mix, but if your mix lacks contrast, you’d better be riding those controls. Think of the song like a movie – what’s the camera looking at now?

12. Use your ears – not your eyes. One of the dangers of digital recording is that we can see what the waveform looks like. And what the levels look like. And what the EQ curve on the plug-in looks like. Turn off the display when you’re doing your critical listening. Don’t move all the drum beats and bass and guitar perfectly in time – they’ll sound tighter but thinner. Don’t tweak your EQ until it “looks” better. Have you noticed how you notice things differently while you’re bouncing the final mix?