Doing a great job on a track’s mix and master can make a world of difference. It can make it go from OK to amazing. In this article we’ll run you through essential tips and tricks to make your mixing and mastering awesome. First, we talk about sound sources, then about mixing and lastly we treat mastering.
What you listen on matters
Before we start talking about the actual mixing and mastering, you need to make sure that you have quality sound sources you can listen on. I’m talking about the full 20 – 20, more specifically the frequency range from 20 Hz to 20 kHz. This is also known as the full frequency spectrum that we humans can hear. You want to be able to hear everything, those highs you boost, and definitely the heavy lows. After all, you don’t want to be painting in the dark. Yes, those amazing Genelecs, Yamaha’s and Mackies monitors are very expensive, but fortunately there are many headphones available that offer the full frequency range that “just” cost a few hundred pounds.
Once you have that sorted, we proceed to the mixing and mastering.
Here are our essential tips for good mixing. Try and apply all of them, as the little differences that each change creates leads to a major change in the final mix.
- Stay organized
Label, color and name everything properly because eventually it will save time as big projects tend to get messy. Don’t be lazy about this.
- Order your plugins properly
With mixing, the logical line up of your plugins is to first EQ, then compress and then add reverb and/or delay. EQ first so you don’t process any frequencies you don’t need to. Then compress and lastly add the reverb and delay, so that these will reflect the final original sound.
- Never clip
Not in synths, not in your mixer, not on the master, if you want to hear it louder, just turn up your speaker volume. Clipping will affect the dynamics in a bad way, and most of all cause distortion. If you like distortion use a plugin for that. Those will often sound better and are easier to control.
- Layer drums
“Why do my drum samples sound poor in comparison to the drums of the artists I like?” It’s because they layer them. Most of the time one snare doesn’t cut it, but five snares might. Use one for the attack, one with some nice mid-low frequencies for the body, one that has a nice ring tone, one with a nice release. There’s endless possibilities.
- Make it wide
Stereo is the difference between left and right. To create a wide mix that sounds real stereo, you should apply some differences between left and right. Drums are very good for that. Have a hi hat coming from the left and another one from the right etc. Or a synth that moves around a bit. Or using a ping-pong delay on hits or high pitched synths. A personal favorite is the technique called “The Haas-Effect” developed by dr. Haas from Germany. Here is how you pull this off: pan you original sound all the way to one side and send it to an auxiliary, bus or send. Pan the auxiliary, bus or send all the way to the other side. Then delay the send signal somewhere between 10 and 60 milliseconds (depending on the sound). This tricks the brain in to thinking that the second sound is a reflection of the wall on your right, therefore creating a room and therefore a stereo effect. This can sound really special on sounds with few low frequencies like guitars, some synths, hi hats and sometimes even snares.
- Better vocals
When dealing with vocals: boost frequencies up from 5 kHz to add clarity to the vocal. When doing this, a problem might appear and that is that the ‘esses’ of the words sound terribly harsh and loud. You can solve this by automating the volume on every “S” sound, or you can filter out some of the frequencies around 8 kHz in your EQ. If the vocal is fighting for room with other elements in your mix, you might solve this by cutting out frequencies around 2 – 3 kHz on those opposing elements. To add a special effect to the vocal, add a 30 to 50 millisecond delay to it, which often gives it that little bit extra.
- Emphasize the drop
Take away low frequencies right before the drop hits. This difference will give more impact to the drop or climax of your track.
- Reverb and delays
When applying reverb or delay, use an auxiliary, bus or send (whatever it is called in the DAW you are using). This way you have easy access to both dry and wet signals if you want to make adjustments later on. This is where you FL Studio users fall short, because Fruity Loops has a maximum of only 4 sends. Make sure that when you use an auxiliary, bus or send, you have the dry/wet knob of your plugin all set all the way to wet.
- Clear your mix
When EQ-ing, always cut off frequencies you don’t need, especially low frequencies. Taking away these unwanted low frequencies will make the mix sound clearer and less muddy.
Compression is used to compress big sound in to a smaller package. This makes the softer sounds louder. It reduces the dynamic difference within sounds. Resulting in a softer signal but when using the make up gain (almost all compressors have a make up gain knob) it will result in a louder signal as this is now possible because of the compression. When compressing a snare, use a long attack and short release. When compressing a vocal use a soft knee.
- A final check
When you think you are done mixing, there is a trick to check if the dynamics of all the elements in your mix fit together nicely: turn you volume way down so you can barely hear anything, then listen if you can spot the most important elements of the track (think vocal, kick, snare, main melody). If so, good job! If not, improve your mix until you do.
- Exporting for mastering
Have the main output of your mix around -10dB so there is enough dynamic headroom for mastering.
Now that you’ve exported, we proceed to the mastering.
Mastering, is applying the final touches before commercial release. With mastering you make the track louder, more clear, and possibly take out some mistakes in the mix.
- Essential tools
Most people use the following gear when mastering: EQ, master reverb, multi band compressor, exciter, stereo widener, and off course a maximizer (preferably in this order).
- Master EQ
Mastering equalization is used to take out mistakes in the mix (fix frequencies that are too soft or loud). Hopefully you have an equalizer with the ability to mid/side EQ. This allows you to process frequencies in the middle of your mix and on the side of your mix differently. To make the mix sound wider, cut a bit of low frequencies, boost some of the high frequencies on the side and boost a few of the low frequencies in the middle. This creates a greater difference between middle and side and thus makes it sound wider.
- Master reverb
Then apply a little bit of reverb over the master, this will glue everything together nicely.
- Multi-band compress
With a multi-band compressor you can compress most often 4 different frequency ranges (the bands). Don’t do too much as little differences will have great impact in the mastering stage. With the right treatment it is possible to create a slightly tighter and louder end product. Most likely it sounds better to have a longer attack and release on the low frequencies and faster attack and release on the higher frequencies.
An exciter is used to add harmonics, this will give a certain type of extra sound to the track. All exciters sound differently, so feel free to play around with those and listen what sounds best.
A stereo widener can be used to widen the mix. Preferably use a stereo widener that has a multi-band option as well. With this you can center the low frequencies and widen the highs, which will lead to a wider overall mix.
- Then maximize
Finally apply the maximizer. The maximizer will reduce the difference in peak level and RMS (root mean square) level. The peak level is the loudness of the peaks in the mix, the RMS level is the actual loudness that you and I can hear. Therefore a maximizer reduces dynamics but creates loudness in exchange. In commercial releases the RMS level is somewhere between -3 dB and -8 dB. You are aiming to find that perfect balance between dynamics and loudness.
When you are finished with all this, export or bounce your track as a 320kbps mp3 and listen to it on all different sound sources you can find. I mean crappy laptop speakers, car stereo, your iPod earplugs, everything. This is how most of your listeners are going to hear it, in mp3 on shitty speakers or earplugs. If your mix sounds acceptable on the majority of these, you did a good job. [FutureMusicProducer]