Everyone who’s tried producing their own music knows that sometimes your mixes don’t come out sounding as “big” as they did in your head. Comparing your own mixes to professionally produced tracks can leave you wondering how your favorite artists achieve such a full, satisfying sound.
If you’ve ever wondered how to make a mix that sounds as big and impactful as your favorite records, read on for some mixing tips and techniques that will make your tracks sound larger than life.
One of the easiest ways to carve out space in a mix is simply to clean up your tracks.
START WITH A CLEAN SLATE
In mixing, sometimes less is more. By “trimming the fat” off your tracks before you start a mix, you can eliminate unneeded information that is just taking up space, which will allow you to make everything else sound even bigger later. For example, home recordings often contain subtle background noise that can become a real problem when you start layering multiple tracks.
Start by trimming any extended empty space out of your recorded tracks. Use the splitting or cutting tool in your mixing software to separate the silence and delete it, then add short fades to the beginnings and ends of the remaining clips for a clean start and finish. By cutting out that dead space, you’re drastically reducing the amount of extraneous noise in your mix, putting the focus back on the actual tracks.
SCULPT WITH SUBTRACTIVE EQ
Recordings often contain extra frequencies that aren’t part of an instrument’s sound, such as high-frequency buzzing from an electric bass or the rumbling low-end of an acoustic guitar mic’d too closely. Similarly, synth presets and drum samples are often made to sound rich and full on their own, with more bass and mid frequencies than you actually want. This extra sonic content can muddy the waters of your mix, leaving less space for the sounds you like to shine through.
This is where subtractive EQ—the act of cutting rather than boosting frequencies—comes in handy. Use high-pass filters to cut out low frequencies, low-pass filters to cut out high frequencies, and shallow dips in the midrange to de-emphasize unwanted tones. To get rid of harshness or resonance on an otherwise good-sounding track, use a dynamic EQ (an effect that acts like a hybrid between an EQ and compressor) to automatically reduce those frequencies only when needed, rather than taking a whole chunk out of the sound.
USE EQ BOOSTS STRATEGICALLY
Once you’ve gotten rid of excess frequencies, you’ll have more room to enhance the good-sounding stuff. However, if you boost the same frequency ranges on too many tracks, your mix can start to sound “bloated” in those areas. Try spreading out your EQ boosts so that every track can shine in its own range. For example, you might boost the low frequencies on a bass guitar track, mids on a synth track and high mids on a guitar track. This way, you’ll have a full-frequency wall of sound instead of an unbalanced mess.
Sometimes, your mix will sound great in one section of a song, but not in another. Most recording software allows you to automate EQ changes just like you’d automate volume changes. For example, if you take the bass out in the bridge and find that your guitar suddenly sounds too thin, you can compensate by automating the EQ to make it sound thicker just for that part.
Saturation plugins emulate the unique characteristics of analog equipment.
ADD SOME “GLUE”
One of the reasons vintage recordings sound so rich and full is because the analog equipment used to make them imparts a consistent character to every channel. So, if you’re struggling to make tracks with different tonal characteristics gel in your mix (like modern and vintage synths), try processing them as a group with a global effect to give everything a cohesive sound.
Most recording software allows you to route multiple tracks to a group or “bus,” where you can add a plugin to affect them all at once. This is often done with EQ and compression, but there’s another type of effect that can almost magically glue your mix together: saturation.
Saturation plugins emulate the unique characteristics of analog tape, tubes and transistors being pushed to their limits, resulting in a subtle compression, distortion and tonal shift. When used on a group of tracks, saturation gives everything a consistent warmth and thickness, making your tracks sound like more than the sum of their parts. You can even use a saturation plugin on the overall mix, but it’s usually more effective to use slightly different settings on your drum kit group, vocal group, and so on.
GET CRAZY WITH COMPRESSION
One of the most common mixing tips is to go easy on the compression. While it’s true that using too much compression can suck the life out of your tracks, it can also make them sound gloriously mangled and larger than life (think Flaming Lips drums). Aggressive over-compression can be your secret weapon for getting a big sound, but only if you do it wisely.
There are two ways to use extreme compression without losing all the dynamics in your mix. The easiest way is to simply automate the volume of your over-compressed track so it gets louder and quieter as needed, while keeping that awesome tone. You can also blend the compressed and uncompressed sound to retain some of the natural dynamics.
Many reverb plugins include built-in EQ filters for tailoring the high and low frequencies.
REIN IN YOUR REVERB
Reverb can add a wonderful depth and space to your mix, but it also has the potential to make your tracks sound blurred and out of focus. Here's a mixing tip that might sound counter-intuitive: if a big sound is what you’re after, consider dialing back the reverb and using less than you think you need. If you mix primarily on speakers, be sure to check your reverb levels on headphones (and vice versa).
When choosing a reverb, be aware that certain algorithms can emphasize undesirable frequencies, turning minor vocal sibilance into a harsh hiss or the boom of a kick drum into a muddy cascade of sound that overwhelms other instruments. To avoid this, insert an EQ before the plugin to filter out those frequencies before the reverb can exaggerate them. You can also use an EQ after the reverb to further sculpt the sound.
Panning tracks left and right is a great way to make your mix sound wide and expansive, but excessive panning can result in a mix that doesn’t feel “grounded” in the center. To hear for yourself, listen to the mono and stereo versions of classic Beatles records. The original mono mixes have a good balance and sound exactly as the band and their team intended, while the later stereo mixes sound off-balance because the vocals and instruments are often panned hard left and right.
One of the most common mixing tips among pro engineers is to keep the kick and snare, bass, and lead vocal tracks in the center, because these are the most important elements of the mix. Guitars, keyboards, backup vocals and other secondary elements are often panned across the stereo spectrum to add a sense of width without pulling the mix off-balance.
THE ULTIMATE MIXING TIP: TRUST YOUR EARS
Remember that there are no rules in music production, and nobody can tell you how to mix music that sounds good to you. “Big” is not always the right sound for a song, but it may be the right sound for a verse, chorus or just one specific instrument. Experiment with these mixing tips and find the ones that work best for each song. For more music production tips, check out our blog.