Audio engineering in general is one of those things that is somewhat ambiguous in nature. Sure, there are websites and YouTube tutorials to provide you with some information, but these don’t really give any hands-on experience. And while there are both online and more traditional schooling options in this field, most are quite costly.
So, how do you really get better at recording and mixing on your own? The only real answer to this question is hours and hours of practice. Shocking I know, but audio engineering is a skill to be honed, there are no shortcuts.
In this article I am going to be focusing on mixing and what steps you can take to make your hours of learning/practicing more effective. These tips are for those who have learned the basics and want to start taking their mixes to the next level.
Preparation Helps Immensely
Don’t limit yourself before you’ve even gotten started. If you are still just randomly adding some EQ there, some compression here and hoping it comes out great… listen up. At some point, you should start developing a plan of attack for the songs/tracks you will be working on. Going in blind is not likely to produce results that you will be truly satisfied with. What do I mean by plan of attack? There are really two sides to what I am getting at here. First off, and don’t disregard this, is conceptually speaking.
Before jumping right into mixing take a moment to think about what your goals are. What part of the mix is most important? Is it the vocals? The guitars? The synths? The percussion? Once you’ve got this figured out, make sure that you don’t lose sight of this through to the end of mixing. But this is just the first step in conceptualizing a mix. Every song is different, so make sure you are giving this a little thought before just diving in.
The other side of your plan of attack is more functional. If you’re not already, you really should be using buses, templates and presets to make your life easier. While all of these do take a while to learn how to set up and use effectively, it is well worth your time. I am not going to go into details here, but just know that there are aids and practices out there that will help you to get to a better mix quicker.
Have the Right Tools (And Learn Them)
I don’t want to be the person telling you that you need to have expensive studio equipment to mix well, because you don’t, but I will touch on the topic. While you don’t need to have the top end gear at your disposal, you do want to ensure that what you have is not holding you back. For example, while I wouldn’t recommend getting a pair of $4000 Focal monitors if you’re on a budget, I would also say that you need to not be mixing on earbuds. With this topic, it is kind of hard for me to give you a specific suggestion since everyone’s situation is so different. Just remember that especially with studio equipment, you almost always get what you pay for.
On top of having adequate hardware, you also want to make certain that you are using capable software. Now, there is a little bit more leeway here in terms of what you need to spend, if anything. Thankfully plugins and DAWs have gotten much better and much more affordable over the years. So, what’s more important with this kind of stuff is making sure you know how to use it. If you have yet to, take a weekend (perhaps longer) to learn all of your DAWs functionality. Most companies have tutorials for their software either in on their site, YouTube, or directly built-in. You should do this very same process with your plugins. And just generally make sure you understand how to apply all the effect types you are using.
Ear training is an often-overlooked part of developing your mixing skills. In fact, when most people hear the term ‘ear training’ they don’t really think of engineering. This term is most often reserved for musicians looking to better their ability to hear and recognize scales, intervals, chords, etc. But there are so many other ways your ears need to listen specifically for mixing and audio engineering. Think of hearing the amount of panning, the % change in volume, and most importantly frequency recognition. If you want to be getting consistently great-sounding mixes you need to be able to hear what is making them great.
The best way to start hearing frequency and other important mixing elements is to use dedicated software. There are many programs and sites dedicated to teaching ear training like this (TrainYourEars, Quiztones, Soundgym.co). And while these are the best way to learn, they also do usually have a cost. Don’t get me wrong, you can and will improve on these skills just by continuing to mix more and more songs. However, using any of the learning aids mentioned earlier, you will greatly speed up your progress.
Start Moving Away from Preconceptions
This is where we really start to separate the amateurs from the pros. There are all kinds of “standard” practices that you will hear in mixing tutorials. For rock music, it might be panning the guitars hard left and right, while for other music it might be only mixing in mono. Whatever the rule of thumb, it shouldn’t be used on every mix. If you look at any of the most legendary mixing engineers, you will see some uses of these common methods. But all of their songs ended up coming out the way they did because they listened to their way there. Luck rarely exists in the making of great-sounding music.
Basically, what I am saying here is to never assume anything. Avoid those habits you have of just going right for the same volume, EQ, or panning every single time. Like I already mentioned earlier, EVERY song/track/album is a different animal. You have to use your ears! And that is simply what becoming great at mixing boils down to.