Help me learn to properly mix tracks.
July 13, 2006 5:49 PM   Subscribe

Help me learn to properly mix tracks.

I've been exploring the one-man-band model for a while - using recording software to put together different tracks I've created as a way to get my compositions out of my head and into my ears. I'm pleased with the way it has helped my songwriting process, but everyone I've played the songs for has had an unflattering comment on the mix. I posted to Metafilter Music for the first time, and cortex left a comment about the inadequacy of the mix. I knew he was right, and at this point I had to admit that yes, I have a problem, and that I should try to get help:

My name is Daniel, and I'm an unskilled mixer.

I usually have a hard time getting my tracks to sound "together" and often spend quite a while tweaking levels with little improvement. There are tracks at, the one on MuFi that garnered cortex's comment was this track.
posted by thedaniel to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, I should add I'm not asking for help on this track specifically, but for ways to figure out the skill in general. If you want to advice on the track, feel free, but 'teach a man to fish' and all that...
posted by thedaniel at 5:50 PM on July 13, 2006

Response by poster: *advice=advise. Preview button is there for a reason.
posted by thedaniel at 5:51 PM on July 13, 2006

Mixdown is the hard part, yeah. It's about 50/50 knowing what boxes/plugins do what to the sound, and knowing what sounds good.

Remember: the professional work you hear was not only mixed, it was mastered -- a separate step to prep for recording.

I think the Yamaha Recording Handbook has some stuff on this, and there are several other books that will cover it; all will be niche, and likely require special ordering.
posted by baylink at 6:12 PM on July 13, 2006

Are you using good headphones?
I've been using these for nearly 5 years. Not top of the line, but a significant improvement over nothing/crap headphones.

Overnight, my mixes went from shameful to pretty damned good.
posted by zerokey at 6:13 PM on July 13, 2006

I just listened to your track - definitely sounds to me like you're using poor headphones or monitors (or nothing at all).

What are you using for a mic? The vocals sound a little fuzzy to me (intentional?).
posted by zerokey at 6:16 PM on July 13, 2006

Mixing is hard, no doubt about it. Really, there are two issues involved: the recording and the mixing.

First, the recording. No matter how great your mix, garbage in, garbage out. While there are things you can do in the mix to try to salvage a bad track, you owe it to yourself to study the Yamaha Recording Handbook (as baylink helpfully suggests) and to really focus on getting the best sound you can out of each track. Listen to them one at a time through quality monitors and headphones, try to pick out the flaws, and make adjustments to improve them.

For the mix itself, practice is really the only solution. If you're having trouble working with your own material, you might find it helpful to mix someone else's. A bunch of bands (Nine Inch Nails comes to mind) offer stripped down multitracks that you can import into your editor of choice and play around with. These are obviously high quality tracks, and they may well already be EQ'd and tweaked, but it gives you a chance to mess around mixing without having to deal with the stigma of listening to and working with your own material. You could also ask around and see if you cna get some fellow musicians to offer up their multitracks for you to practice with. If you had both the tracks and the final mix, you could compare your mixes against their master and analyze the differences.

For a long time, I've wanted to try to build a collection of publicly available multitracks that people could download and practice mixing with. Perhaps this is a good one for projects.MF?
posted by zachlipton at 6:34 PM on July 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I struggled for a long time with mixes. There is no magic bullet, but balance is the easy (and last) part.

Your basic ammo is:

Dynamics (compression, limiting)
Reverb (plus echo, ambience)

All of these can be used both on the individual tracks and also on the final mix.

The key lesson I learned was to use EQ to give each instrument its own clear part of the audio spectrum. If the bass is filling the low frequence, CUT BASS on everything else. Cut treble on the bass. Think of the mix as a jigsaw puzzle of frequencies, with each instrument filling a part of the puzzle.

Build the mix up from basics. Start with drums. Balance and EQ and compress them until the kit is sounding right. Put it on an aux so you can change the level without screwing up the balance. Now do bass. Solo it, then bring in the drums and tweak the settings until they are sitting well together. Then bring in the other instrumentation one element at a time, leaving the most dominant parts until last.

Do as many mixdowns as you need or use automation. Once you have a stereo mix you can do the final mastering and add another bunch of EQ, compression, reverb and excitement (if necessary) plus limiting if you want it. You don't need to add much at this stage but adding the same EQ/Reverb settings to the whole mix, or parts of the submix, can really make everything start to gel, especially if you've been smart about jigsawing the audio spectrum.

Basically, don't fight traffic. If a part wants to dominate, let it. It's like playing in a band. The really hard part is knowing when not to play.
posted by unSane at 6:38 PM on July 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the tips, all humans.

The pointers to the Yamaha Recording Handbook are appreciated - I want to improve my recording technique as well, but for right now I'd like to have what I have on my hard disk now sound as good as possible.

Zerokey - I am using a pair of Sony headphones that probably cost me no more than 35 bucks, and the vocals are done with a Groove Tubes GT55 mic in an environment less than ideal for recording. I'm working on building a vocal booth in my apartment.

unSane - thanks for the specifics.

zachlipton - mixing others' tracks is a good idea.
posted by thedaniel at 6:54 PM on July 13, 2006

Best answer: A good beginner site, covering the basics of recording and mixing, and a helpful forum: Audiominds
posted by Artful Codger at 7:12 PM on July 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

An extension to what unsane said is to give the inividual instruments distinict spatial (left to right) parts of the mix. Imagine you are looking at a band on stage. Drums all the way across. In a studio I'd break out the individual drums but this might be difficult for you (haven't listened to what you have). Then vocals down the middle and bass and guitars spread out left and right.

A tendancy of new mixers is to over emphasize each individual sound. Turning down an instrument is almost more important as turning one up. So as you build the mix begin to kick things out as well. Some of the best mixes have somewhat muddy drums on purpose.

Again as mentioned compression can be key. Too much dynamic range can really lose the effect.
posted by bitdamaged at 8:27 PM on July 13, 2006

Ya in what you have linked to above you've got the vocals and guitar smack dab on top of each other both centered and in the same range. They're sitting right on top of each other you may want to pan the guitar off to the side and bring it way back.

Or from an arrangment sense simplify the guitar part during the vocals

You also have none bass. Everything sonic in that is in the mid to high range, a weakness of cheaper gear but in this case even more a weakness of the arrangement. In this case honestly the song needs more dynamic range than the mix.
posted by bitdamaged at 8:32 PM on July 13, 2006

I highly recommend getting a decent pair of near-field monitors (I have a pair of relatively inexpensive active fostex monitors) rather than headphones for mixing. I've almost universally been disappointed in my mixes that were done late at night or when mrs. chimaera was studying -- there's no substitute for the sound of speakers in a room. It's good to record with headphones and check mixes with them, but speakers are a vital part.
posted by chimaera at 8:34 PM on July 13, 2006

I'm predicting a rash of recording and mixing questions now that mefi music is open. I have a few questions brewing myself that I might post, and I've been getting out my books on micing, recording and mixing.

Brad Sucks (Frenetic) has the raw wavs for his album on his site. I have not downloaded them so I'm not sure whats there but I suspect there are lots of individual tracks for each song, since it's meant for re-mixing. You might try that out, doing lots of different stuff like straight mixing, re-sequencing and re-imagining the songs, etc.

I mix like crap so I don't have a lot of good advice there. Maybe see if you can send your raw tracks to someone who mixes well, have them give it a go. If they use the same software as you, you might be able to get some insight out of that, since you can look at all the settings after they're done.
posted by RustyBrooks at 9:01 PM on July 13, 2006

This seems to be pretty handy guide to mixing in Garageband put I particularly like how he explains spacing out your mix.

In terms of compression you should be wary of applying too much compression, particularly to your mix as a whole. A little compression on each track is far better than a lot on the mix. Tracks such as vocals and drums generally use the most compression.

Applying compression to the mix is usually only done in mastering and preferably with specific mastering tools such as a maximiser or finisher (which are really just multiband compressors - ie it compresses the various frequencies differently depending on their content - chained with a limiter, which prevents your mix from clipping)
posted by TwoWordReview at 2:20 AM on July 14, 2006

I went into a recording session with my band a year ago and I actually compiled a long Word document with tips I could pull out from anywhere and everywhere. I'd love to email you the file though if you'd like it. I'd copy and paste relevant parts, but boy are they stolen from the internet.

One of the best things had how to do drums step by step. I never got to try this one thing in practice but it seemed to be the best. It sketched out mixing the kick drum to the vocals, bringing the snare up to the level of the kick, the high-hat to...uh...details get fuzzy here. It was that sort of thing I was looking for, not the "start with drums, work your way up to guitar and then everything's overloaded" approach.
posted by Brainy at 11:50 AM on July 14, 2006

Read Tweak's Guide.

And here is a detailed comment I made on a similar question about mixing.
posted by ludwig_van at 2:42 PM on July 14, 2006

Response by poster: Brainy: my email is in my profile.

Everyone else, thanks for the links! Hopefully in not too long I'll post another track on mufi that sounds like a mix and not a loose stack of tracks.
posted by thedaniel at 2:57 PM on July 14, 2006

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