There are two sides to a great mix - a well written and recorded song, and a mix which enhances it. A great mix starts with well-recorded tracks that are in tune, in time and full of the right energy. If you don’t start with well-recorded tracks then you will struggle to get a really great sounding mix no matter how much tweaking you do. This article covers four steps on how to get on the way towards great mixes.
Step 1 - You can't have a great mix without well recorded tracks that are in time, in tune and full of the right energy
The first step towards a great mix (aside from having a great song) is having well recorded tracks. If you don't have well recorded tracks, then there's next to nothing a mix can do to solve that. They need to be in time and in tune, the energy of each instrument needs to be appropriate for the song, maybe think twice before using brushes on the kit when recording a metal drummer?
Step 2 - Bring out the best in what you have to work with
Layers are your friend - The first step to a great mix is having a solid foundation to build on. This can be accomplished by layering recorded sounds and using samples to enhance their character without overpowering them, for example, adding a sample to a kick or snare may allow it to sound more full and appropriate to the genre you're working in. You can use this technique to enhance the energy of the song and to give you more to work with, it's all about creating depth within the track.
Step 3 - Balance your mix, listen with honesty
As a mixer, you have to be honest with yourself. A great way of doing this is listening to your work in progress across a wide range of audio devices, perhaps use a pair of headphones in addition to speakers so that you can hear things more clearly and accurately. For example, if you're mixing a guitar solo through speakers only then it may sound like it has too much low end at first glance but when listening through headphones it may become apparent that the low end needs less emphasis than anticipated. Listen through ear phones, your laptop and a car (or any different audio source you may have access to) to check the translation well before mastering, listen in mono to check your mix is balanced, when you go back to stereo it can feel like listening to the song with a renewed sense of clarity. This is only a point of reference, it is not supposed to be anything but an indication as to what your mix is sounding like, not to replace the mastering stage.
Step 4 - Use reference tracks
Reference tracks are a great way to get a well-rounded idea of how your mix sounds in comparison to other songs you like in the genre. If you're mixing hip hop, ask the artist to send over some of their favourite songs in the genre. Adjust the volume of the reference track to match your mix, listen through both tracks and make notes about how they sound relative to each other, amend your mix to include the best parts of your reference tracks. Mixing 'blind' can lead to not having a clear yardstick to try and match in terms of quality.
A great mix originates from a great song which is well recorded and presented to you without flaws to fix 'in post'. Use intuition and industry standard tracks to inform your decision making process. Listening on different sound sources can point out issues in the mix, particularly in volume and EQ.
Take breaks, share your mixes with trusted peers and try to enjoy the process.