For a long time I've struggled to get my mixes to sound open and clean. I've tried everything that I've seen or learned over the years but still could not match up to the professional tracks that sounded crisp, punchy,and incredibly clear.
Looking back there were couple of things that really stood out and made a difference in getting my mixes to sounding better and I want to share with you some mixing tips that helped raise my game.
1. LISTEN AT QUIETER VOLUMES
Avoid mixing too loud so that your ears won't get tired as fast and you will have better sonic judgement for mixing. Psychologically people feel that louder sounds better; not entirely true.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t never mix at a loud volume, sometimes you do need to check things at a louder volume, and that's fine. But for most of your mixing session, it should be at a reasonable level.
A good level I find is at around 80-85 SPL (Sound Pressure Level). There is a great app that you can use to measure SPL or how loud the speaker is playing. It's called "SPL Meter" by Andrew Smith and you can download on your iPhone and use it to check the levels.
Now here's the important part, once you've set your volume, don't change it! The whole point is that you set a balanced reference level for listening and you don't want to be shifting the loudness so much.
2. PROPER GAIN STAGING/RECORDING LEVELS
Are you recording your tracks too hot? Modern commercial tracks are louder than they ever have been so most people think that they need to push things as hot as possible to get that loudness. But that's simply not the case. Recording too hot will introduce distortion and unwanted artifacts to your mix and that's definitely something you do NOT want. So what is an optimum level to aim for when we mix? That's where proper gain staging comes in.
What is Gain Staging? In short, it is the process of setting all of the gain controls inside of the mix to get the cleanest signal possible.
When you load up a project, the first thing to do is set the input trims for all tracks in the mix. Pull all the faders down and then pull up each one separately to unity gain (0db). Then use the trim setting on each channel to either increase the volume of the track or decrease the volume of the track. Try to get a average volume (RMS) of about -18dBfs for the whole song. If your DAW does not have a trim setting then you can either insert a trim plugin or insert any plugin with an input and output setting.
You want to make sure that you have at least -6dB of headroom on your master bus so that you leave enough headroom for the mastering process.
For me, I like to mix my projects at an average RMS value of -18dBfs. This usually equates with 0dBVU, which is the analogue standard. So if you wanted to run things between digital and analogue outboard, everything is at the perfect level for the best signal-to-noise ratio and the least distortion.
Don't worry too much about loudness at the mixing stage, leave that to the mastering process. If you feel that the mix is sounding quiet, just turn up the volume knob, avoid overloading the channels to bring up the volume. This would ensure you have clean signals and your tracks will sound much more clearer and open!
3. SMART EQ-ING
EQ (Equalization - is the process of adjusting the balance between frequencies) is one of those things that takes a lot of time to understand and even more so to apply it correctly. Think of EQ as a way to shape sounds. Professional engineers sculpt their sounds to fit the whole mix better.
For example: If your lead vocal sounds muddy and it just doesn't feel right with the rest of the mix, try cutting a little around 300-600 Hz area, this area is known for muddiness and doing a narrow cut could help clear up the sound. But be careful not to cut too much otherwise your vocals might start to sound hollow.
Alternatively, you could use a high shelf boost at around 8000 kHz. This will give you some clarity and presence to the sound. Again there is no right or wrong, you have to trust your ears and make the best judgement.
Lastly, if something sounds good, leave it as it is. Before you apply an EQ to a track, the best thing to do is to really LISTEN. Listen to each track individually and as a whole and determine what needs EQ and what doesn't. Don't just boost a certain frequency just because you read somewhere on the book or seen someone do it on a Youtube video.
I hope the above tips and production techniques can be useful in your music production. Let me know if you have any questions!