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10 Brief Tips for Mixing

James A. Putnam
Dennis L. Trunk

Here are 10 useful tips for improving your mix:

1. One of the most important and often overlooked preliminary steps in mixing is gain staging. Gain staging is done by setting the optimum signal levels on all your equipment, starting with the signal source and continuing through to the mixdown recorder and the monitoring system, and including all the stages in between, such as the signal processors. This will result in the best signal-to-noise ratio and the cleanest mix overall.

2. In general, it's wise to use equalization in moderation. However, if you are mixing two or more instruments that overlap in frequency range and you are getting a muddy effect, you can keep their sounds clean and separate through the use of equalization.

3. If you want to emphasize a particular sound, it's usually better to cut EQ around the frequencies you want, rather than boosting what you want to emphasize. If you do use boosting anywhere, then the gain staging may need to be adjusted for any tracks that have been equalized.

4. When equalizing an instrument, it's better to do it while the other tracks are playing, so that you can hear how it sounds within the mix. A thin sounding guitar, for example, might sound bad in solo, but perfect within the context of the mix.

5. Use compressors to bring instruments or vocals up front, or to tame vocals that have too wide a dynamic range. Compressors can also be used to increase the sustain of instruments, such as strings, that have a long decay.

6. For monitoring on mixdown, use the best matched pair of nearfield speakers you can afford. They should be uncolored and should produce excellent high- and mid-frequency detail.

7. To ensure that your mix will sound good anywhere, play it on every kind of equipment you can find - from the least expensive small speakers and portable stereos, to the best full range speakers. Also, play the mix in mono to make sure that nothing is being lost as a result of a phasing problem.

8. Use panning to give each instrument its own clear space and placement. If you want to experiment, you can use panning for creative effects, such as giving a mono synth signal a stereo spread. This can be done by using equalization to divide the signal frequencies and then panning each division into its own space.

9. Although ambience can be created in a mix by using digital reverbs and delay units, you can sometimes get a better effect by feeding the signal both direct and from a speaker. The speaker can be miked close up, which will produce delays and reverb times shorter than any reverb unit can provide, and also farther away. You can then mix the direct signal and the mic signals in whatever proportions you want. Experimentation is the key.

10. When they are fed excessive signal levels, digital signal processors are particularly unforgiving and can create a dirtying effect during the mixdown. Even though it might seem like common sense to watch for distortion from the feed signal, especially on peaks, many musicians have wasted hours trying to trace the origin of a bad sound caused by nothing more than an overloaded DSP.

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James A. Putnam
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