Getting great instrument sounds in a mix is a combination of many factors. Finding space in the mix for each individual instrument is essential. This is often achieved through judicious use of EQ, compression, volume and panning. For example, the skill it takes to get great drum sounds, marry the kick drum to the bass while also giving the electric guitars rooms to breathe and sparkle is developed over time and repetition…a lot of repetition. When this is done properly, the instruments are exciting to listen to. Each has its place and role to play and when they come together, the song takes on a life of its own.
A great mix engineer always makes the treatment and placement of the vocal a priority. Once the instrumental mix is generally where it needs to be, it’s time to make certain that the vocalist is running the show. A combination of EQ, compression, tuning (if necessary), effects and volume fader automation should all serve the ultimate goal of making it sound like the singer is in charge. There are several risks associated with improper vocal placement. If the final mix has too much vocal, then the instruments end up sounding small and weak. However, if the vocal is too soft in the mix, it loses its ability to communicate the emotion of the song. Every genre has its preferred vocal level. In general, pop music has the vocal more integrated into the instruments whereas country music (with its emphasis on the lyric) generally puts the vocal higher in the mix. There are, of course, exceptions to every rule but a good mix engineer will know the genre he or she is mixing in and do the right thing for the song.
On a related note, one of the best reasons to bring in an experienced mix engineer even if you’ve recorded the song yourself is a fresh, objective set of ears. It’s been my experience that if the singer mixes their own project, they tend to keep the vocals too low for a couple of reasons. One is that most singers tend to get uncomfortable with their vocals up in a mix. There are precious few singers I’ve ever worked with who genuinely love the sound of their own voices. By keeping the vocal low in the mix, the vocalist/engineer won’t have to their comfort zone but the mix suffers. The second reason has to do with the fact that the singer already knows the words and assumes that they’re hearing the words when, in fact, they may be too low for someone who doesn’t know the song to understand.
Mastering a Good Mix
Mastering a mixed recording is a separate skill altogether. While this isn’t an article about mastering, I’d recommend using a dedicated mastering engineer (not your mix engineer) when it comes time for this step. More to the point, the value of a good mix is that the mastering engineer will spend much less time (their hourly rates are generally higher than mix engineer rates) getting the finished master together. In other words, money you spend on a good mix will end up saving you money on a final mastered recording.
Doing It Yourself
If you’re still intent on doing your own mixing, consider hiring an expert to mix a song or two for you and then ask them for the session files back. Assuming you’re using the same recording software (i.e. ProTools, Nuendo, Logic), you’ll be able to examine every detail of how the mix was done and use the finished mix files as a kind of tutorial so you can ultimately learn to do them yourself.
Cliff Goldmacher is a songwriter, producer, engineer and the owner of recording studios in both Nashville and New York City. Cliff is also a regular contributor to EQ Magazine and Pro Sound News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.