How To Mix A Hit Record

I have been in some very heavy mixing activities over the past several weeks. I came across a course outline from Roger Nichols. He is probably best known as one of the audio engineers that works closely with Steely Dan. Roger’s course outline highlights questions that people have when it comes to mixing. I chuckled when I went through the list of questions. However, I must admit, that I often find myself chasing phantoms when I mix. What if I cut this track by .5dB? What can I do to save this terrible sounding guitar? How could I have tracked this instrument so poorly?

For those of you not close to the recording process you may find the list of questions interesting. At least you will know what many audio engineers worry about when they mix.

Mixing: The Tips and Tricks That Make It Easy

  • How do I start my mix? Which instruments do I start working on first? I end up going around in circles, chasing my tail, if I had a tail!
  • How do I get the ultimate drum sound on my record? Can I make a poor recording of drums sound good in the mix? Can I make good sounding drums sound bad in the mix?
  • Should I always record the bass with a direct box, or should I mic the amp? How come I can never get the bass to sound the way I want in the mix?
  • Should I spread the piano hard left and right? Does it help if I use 4 or 5 mics on the piano? The studio said the piano was tuned a couple of weeks ago, it that good enough?
  • Does it help if I double-track all of the guitars? How about 12 tracks of guitars?
  • I record lots of percussion on my records, but I can never hear what I want in the mix. How do I keep the percussion from getting burried in the track?
  • How do I get a clear vocal sound and still keep it above the track? When I limit the whole track to make it louder the vocal gets burried.
  • I am stumped when it comes to panning. I usually just spread out all of the stereo tracks and put the solos in the center. Is this the right way to do it?
  • I keep doubling and trippling the background vocals, but I just can’t get that big vocal feel I like.
  • I have added horns and strings to my kick-butt love ballad, but I just can’t get that Lionel Richie killer mix that I was reaching for.
  • I record the tracks myself and then the producer sends the session out to someone else to overdub drums, or guitars, or horns. How do I know if I can get everything put back into my Pro Tools session properly?
  • Should I use compressors on the stereo bus to make my mix louder? Do I need to make my mixes so loud?
  • Are multi-band compressors any better than regular compressors?
  • How come I have to use so many external reverb units and reverb plug-ins, and the reverb still doesn’t sound right?
  • How do you make sure that the vocal parts that I fly around to other sections of the song line up correctly?
  • Is it ok to use AutoTune on the entire vocal track? How should I go about tuning tracks that need it without things getting out of hand?
  • What is the best microphone to use on lead vocal?
  • I was told to record everything as loud as I could without going over, now during the mix I have to pull the fader way down to get the right level. The problem is that small moves make too big of a change in level and I can’t get the balance right. Was I wrong to record so hot?
  • What is the difference in mix-buss resolution? Does it make any difference?
  • What are the real differences between 16 bit, 24bit, and 32bit floating point? How about the differences between 48kHz, 96kHz, 192kHz, DSD, DVD-A, and PDQ-Bach? What should I mix to? Should I bounce-to-disk, mix to DAT tape, Masterlink, or analog tape?
  • If I send my mix to a mastering facility, what format should I send to them? If I want my mix loud should I make it loud, or should I let the mastering house do it? How is he going to know how much louder I want my mix if I don’t do it before I send it?
  • After my record is a hit should I buy a Ferrari or Lamborghini? Is the flat-12 better than the V-12 engine?
  • I heard the Pro Tools HD with version 6.1 software is certified for “known ice”. Is that true? Where do they hide the de-ice boots?
4 replies
  1. faraz anwar
    faraz anwar says:

    hi there,
    i have Question regarding my mixing.thing is when ever i mix a track in the end i never get a good low end when i compare with other artist cd it alway sounds very small why?.best regards
    faraz anwar

  2. Richard Cleaver
    Richard Cleaver says:

    Hi Faraz,

    Generally, the low end is the most troublesome to mix. The reason? Most of the time it is due to poor room acoustics.

    Perhaps the single most important factor in terms of creating a portable mix is the control or mixing room itself. Obviously, a great pair of monitor speakers will also help but I would check the room first and then your monitors.

    Too many folks mix in rooms with inadequate bass trapping and, as a consequence, they cannot really hear the low end properly. And mixes come out sounding either bass heavy or bass light.

    If you can’t attend to the room acoustics, you can try imitating reference CDs. And practice. Listen to your mixes on other systems and experiment. If your low end is weak, chances are the current mix room is building up the bass. Try increasing the low end of your mixes and see what happens on other systems.

    At the end of the day, a good mix will translate well on a wide array of playback systems. A talented mastering engineer can also help things along.

    Good luck!

  3. Michael
    Michael says:

    I am very confused about the whole mastering thing? How much should I leave up to the person doing the mastering? Should I try to get my mix as close to other artists that i like or just go for a decent mix leaving the mastering to get the punch and ecitment out of the mix?

  4. Richard Cleaver
    Richard Cleaver says:

    Hello Michael,

    Your best course of action is to talk to the mastering engineer. There are numerous websites that offer tips on how to prepare your mix for mastering. Here is one site to get you going.

    My approach is to produce a mix that is pretty close. I deliberately leave headroom for the mastering stage. I also produce mix stems (two track fully effected audio files usually broken out by lead vox, bg vox, keys, guitars, bass, drums, percussion and other). This gives the mastering engineer all that is required for a strong finished product.


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