Tips For Mixing Songs

in Sound
I have got some basic and seemingly trivial advices regarding to mixing a song I want to share with you that are mostly missed by beginners.

Reverb & Delay

Personally, I think it's important to keep your song a little 'wet'. By wet I mean to apply some reverb and delay to your tracks -- yes, even to the drum tracks! Note, it can be a real challenge to find a happy medium between wet and dry. Of course you shouldn't get too dry -- the listener has to notice that there is some reverb or delay, but more like on a subconscious level. I want to point out here that I'm talking about general wetness and not piercing delays you would want to use for a solo, like for instance in "No No No" by Deep Purple, or a highlighting reverb dosage at the end of a vocal's verse like it's to be found in "School" by Supertramp, or even an excessive, but beautiful use of reverb like in the solo of "Fools" by Deep Purple as well.

Since the individual instruments and their elements respond differently to one and the same reverb and moreover not every instrument requires the same 'wetness', you mostly should choose one particular reverb for each instrument. Naturally, it's not desirable to have your tracks 'swimming' in reverb except you mean to do so.

Normally, drums (especially the snare since it's so punchy) require only little and short reverb. I'd recommend to equalize it a little 'bluntly' so you get a soft sound impression. Piercing elements consisting of mainly high frequencies and a fast decay like the snare make your reverb stand out more than for instance a bass drum or a crash. The bass drum doesn't have these penetrating frequencies and a crash has a very slow decay which both makes the reverb hardly noticeable.

Especially guitars and vocals require more brilliant reverbs since otherwise they tend to gain what I would call 'vague outlines'. It's up to you to choose the right reverb time and to determine its appropriate percentage, but especially with rock guitars I would prefer a delay because the overdrive sound tends to lose some 'punch' in combination with too much reverb.

In my experience, synthesizers, organs, and keyboards tolerate more reverberation without beginning to reverberate penetratingly.

Critical Frequency Bands

A big mistake I've often made in the past was to stress the low middle frequencies. You probably know that middle frequencies and especially the low mids are responsible for a warm sound impression. The issue I often had was to set up my sounds individually until they sounded great in themselves, but only without the rest of the tracks. And if you set up all your sounds separately, you'll probably find that every instrument sounds full and balanced, but in the complete mix everything suddenly starts to sound awfully fuzzy and blurry.

There is a trick to doing that properly. You sort of have to consider your whole song as one instrument in order to equalize it properly -- I know, it can be quite hard, especially since you have to analyze and set up every single track in a proper ratio to the others. As I wanted every single instrument to sound warm and full I almost every single time added a certain amount of low mids to middle frequencies (in the range of 200 to 500 Hz -- that's the critical point). Unfortunately these frequencies, if they're accumulated much, tend to make the song sound 'blunt' and kind of stuffed full with 'non-brilliancy'.

I made the experience that it is advisable to take out a certain amount of these frequencies especially with guitar, vocal, and synthesizer tracks, and to instead add these to bass guitars and bass drums.

Nohow would you want to take these completely out, but you'll be astonished how full and balanced every single instrument sounds in the general view by reducing and shifting specifically low middle frequencies.

One more thing: Earlier I had been using loudspeakers that used to emphasize the high and low middle frequencies. Using non-linear loudspeakers can be a great issue with mixing your songs -- back then I thought that all my master bounces were great and brilliant, but when I listened to them through linear loudspeakers the bounces sounded 'as dry as a bone'. The ultimate key with monitoring songs is to firstly make them sound great through linear loudspeakers and secondly through non-linear, maybe even trashy ones.

Take An External View

There are some things anyone who is too much involved in mastering a song can easily misjudge.

It can be a big mistake, for instance, trying to make all instruments sound equally loud -- that doesn't really work. Well, actually it does work and it's possible to make all tracks sound equally loud, but it's probably not what you're really looking for. I tried this myself and had to realize that it would pose more difficulties than it would solve problems. The big issue about this is that the listener doesn't know on which element to focus and this makes listening quite taxing. Best, you create a mix that makes perfect sense to the listener and to which they can simply 'abandon themselves' without focusing.

The key is to so to speak allot a leading role to one particular instrument group and then to emphasize certain elements of this group. As soon as you have chosen a group to 'play the leading role', note that it is exactly the same important to also decide what particular element of the group shall undertake the leading role here. With drums I would always put the snare and bass drum into the foreground, with vocals you would probably choose the lead vocals and reduce the volume level of the others, and with let's say two guitars you'd pick the lead guitar or, if there is none, the one that has more high frequencies or so. It's the exact same thing as the golden section in painting.

If you're now thinking: "Yeah well, but now my other instruments are kind of drowned in the rest", I can reassure you -- It's not gonna happen. One often underestimates how well quiet instruments come through in a mix if they're equalized cleverly.

One more advise for rock songs: If you want to make your song sound powerful, put your drums into the foreground (atonal instruments sometimes require more volume than you would expect). Next, the vocals and one of your guitars (if you got some), then the next guitar together with the bass guitar. At least I underestimated for a long time how much drums actually contribute to a powerful sound impression.

And one more psychological advice: Don't let the graphics influence your mind and power of judgement. I know that sometimes they distracted my acoustic perception a bit, so I often hid my software interface while monitoring, or just opened a track mixer window in order to fully focus on the acoustic impression.

(c) Linus Schachten 2010 (Hamburg, Germany). All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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Linus Schachten has 1 articles online

My brother and I recorded the brilliant song "White Room" by Cream and shot a video, too. For the video soundtrack we took our studio recording, put a 'Space Designer' on the output track, and adapted the reverb to the acoustic features of the room we were shooting the video in. If you want to know how this sounds without 'over-applying' the level of reverb, click on Linus & Dino "White Room"!

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Tips For Mixing Songs

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This article was published on 2010/12/18