Fixin’ to Mix: 10 Strategies for Improving How You Mix At Home

Think back to the very first mix you ever completed. Does it make you proud? Cringe? Make you want to bury the tape or CD next to your dead hamster? Even in the best of circumstances, mixing poses a challenge. Yet it’s supremely fun to stumble on happy accidents or watch a chaotic mess of instruments meld into a sonic fist in a velvety glove.

Since first monkeying with a Tascam four-track in my parents’ New Jersey basement, I’ve learned that while certain principles lead to a superior mix, there are no hard and fast rules. Sufjan Stevens recorded his wonderful 2005 album “Illinoise” at (ouch!) a 32kHz sample rate—and mixed on headphones! The late Doug Fieger of the Knack told me that “My Sharona,” the top pop hit of all of 1979, was mixed in 25 minutes.

And with The Beatles’ debut album “Please Please Me,” 14 songs were cut in 13 hours; mixing and editing took 6 hours. Not bad for a disc that gave the world “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Twist and Shout.”

Below I’ve listed 10 helpful tips to improve your mixes—with the goal of not just making them sound better, but also adding the elements of surprise and wizardry. If mixing is on the one hand a science, it’s also an art—just like music itself.

1) Mix with not just one version of the song, but several

ProTools and other DAW programs give us the luxury of editing in minutes what used to take hours via tape. But in the olden days of golden hits, it was common to string together various versions of songs from entirely different sessions. (Think “Strawberry Fields Forever,” or “Hotel California,” which was comprised of parts from five different sessions.) So before you mix, STOP: Think about cutting different versions of the song with messed-up instrumentation, alien textures, in other settings, or with a stripped feel. Now, edit these pieces into your mix and see what happens. (Note: Click tracks and precision guitar tuners will come in handy here.)

2) Bring in another set of ears

Working on the same song as an engineer or producer for hours or days at a time can make you numb to the shortcomings and possibilities. That’s why I love to bring in a total stranger to the song—whether it’s another pro musician or my wife—to screen the tracks and give feedback. Non-musicians can actually work better here because they’ll respond from a purely visceral level and won’t over-analyze it. Hey, even a stupid lyric sung without sincerity can make or break a mix, and I’ve had “inexperienced” listeners help make a song that would otherwise break. File under “I don’t know about art, but I know what I like.”

3) Supplement your little studio with a big one

A favorite technique of mine, taught to me by a world-class engineer, is to take demos or finished recordings into a big studio and soup them up. That might sound obsolete in this age of gazillion plug-ins. But if nothing else, a big studio can lend heft and nuance to your recordings as you tap the experience of friendly engineers who do it for a living. Demos I recorded back in the 1980s still sound warm (if not corny) to my ears thanks to big-studio makeovers; others that I mixed at home from the same period boast all the charm of bass strings scratching a chalkboard.

4) Use your ears in nimble ways

I love how Sufjan Stevens mixed “Illinoise” on headphones, and who can argue with the result? As I set up mixes I sometimes alternate between expensive cans (Grado RS-1s, which run $700) and Sennheiser HD202s (which cost $89—for a pack of five!). These headphones bring out different colors that complement each other. Now I’m ready to listen on my studio monitors (Mackie HR824s). Note: Seek help from a pro engineer to angle your monitors properly, and remember that bass frequencies have longer waveforms; sit or stand back to hear low end properly.

5) Solo up tracks for “the glitch test”

It’s true that in a musician's world, “there are no mistakes.” Ah, but there are awkward moments of amateurism. Especially with vocals, solo up and run down the tracks to make sure you’ve done proper edits. Beware of sibilance on vocal tracks, which can kill an otherwise spot-on performance. You’ll also hear those things that “don’t sound right” when you monitor the whole mix. Now you can troubleshoot effectively.

6) Reference with your favorite records

One of my most fun mix sessions in recent memory was with the band Brooke and the Nice Things, a blues-soul outfit from Chicago. I prepped the tracks with punchy drum sounds, but when the band did an A/B test against Otis Redding classics, the feel was funkier. We needed to bury the drums, and while that may sound like a red-flag move, it worked. The band made the mix better by providing the reference discs that helped up hit the mark.

7) Use stems/submixes

The Rolling Stones cranked out some of their most memorable songs of the 1970s with drums mixed down to just two tracks. Old-timey engineers will tell you that stems—a two-track submix of an entire instrument group—make a mix easier to nail. I like to submix drums down to stereo, as well as guitars, backup vocals and percussion. Moving these stems down by a notch gives me much more control in changing levels, and I can compress, EQ or effect each submit easier than tinkering with each track individually.

8) Let songs “stage” themselves

Think of yourself as a film director. The most cluttered mixes I’ve ever done had all the instruments going at once, which is like walking into a crowded party. If that’s the feel you want, great. But otherwise, treat each instrument like an actor in a film. When should they enter? Exit? Reinforce the musical theme? Come back with a more (or less) aggressive tone? Pace back and forth between speakers like a caged tiger? Always remember: You are making movies with sound. Take a moment to visualize the song as a breathing document that talks to you in ways beyond EQ levels and compression ratios.

9) Know when “less is definitely more”

I’d much rather subtract EQ from an instrument then add it. It’s easier to take tracks out than heap them on: Mixes sound huge with just a bass, acoustic guitar, drums and vocal leading the way. Too much Auto Tune throws you into the junk heap of Music That Won’t Last. Given: Sometimes “more is more.” But not on every song. Let your mixes breathe—don’t suffocate them.

10) A finished mix need not be “finished”

I’ve had tons of fun taking mixes that were supposedly done, and performing limited overdubs in the pre-mastering process. Sometimes a special effect possibility woke me up from a deep sleep, or the post-mixing fixed a buried kick drum. Don’t settle for “final” until it sounds right, but don’t drive yourself crazy by going back to the drawing board. Act like a kid in art class: Splash some simple dabs of paint to your canvas and see what works.

As a parting shot, letting go is a fact of life. Just as it’s never worth holding onto resentments or chasing after a truly lost love, laboring on a mix too long squeezes the life out of. It’s never a good idea to beat the dead horse: The same Knack that mixed “My Sharona” in 25 minutes also took two days to mix a song called “Africa.” See if you can hum the melody to that one.

Perfect is the enemy of the good, so teach yourself to let go. In a bitter post-Beatles breakup interview, John Lennon said he’d record every Beatles album again if he could. He heard the flaws in every single one. So why not go back and put Auto Tune on his voice? Or edit Paul McCartney’s bass on “Sgt. Pepper” to get it tighter? Whaddaya say? Sounds like a good idea?

Didn’t think so. Mixed up is more like it.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lou Carlozo

Lou Carlozo, Reverb’s Home Sweet Home Recording columnist, is a studio musician, producer and mix engineer based in Chicago. His mix of the song “Secret Crush” beat out famous mixmasters to land in the Disney movie “Prom.” If you need help or advice with a musical project, contact him here.

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