I’ve discovered that the steps I take way before I actually start mixing, can really help the finished result. Here’s how the story often goes:
You’ve updated your DAW, have all the latest plugins and have seen all the right tutorials – you’ve written a great basic track, and now feel you’re ready to mix.
With all this technology under the hood you must surely be able to make this a killer piece. You have 6 EQs on the go, multiple compressors, the latest convolution reverbs and an iPad app to control your DAW. What could go wrong?
You eq a few tracks, slap some reverb and delays on, tweak as many mores things as you can and pretty soon the track is kind of finished. Although… it doesn’t sound that great.
There’s an expression (possibly just in the UK) which says ‘you can’t polish a turd’, and whilst I’m honestly not saying your track is shit, what this expression helps highlight regarding music is that the classic studio phrase ‘fix it in the mix’ isn’t always good advice.'I have invented my own expression - ‘fix it before you mix it! ' Click To Tweet
I’m not talking about tricks with eq, compressors, transient designers or phase modulators. No it boils down to these four words : Go With Your Gut. This is always important, but I find it particularly helpful when setting mix levels and before that (and the point of this article) choosing the right sounds!
In a similar way to my thinking about finding work, when it comes to actually making music I like to strip away the distractions and deal with the fundamentals.
Doesn’t matter whether you are talking about EDM, Pop music, Orchestral or a massive hybrid of everything, the choice of the sound will have more of an effect on how easy your track is to mix than any plug-in – period.
Choose The Right Sound
“How do you chose the right sounds? There’s too much choice” I hear you say. Simple, record/ preview as many sounds as you feel comfortable with as you build up your track, when you come across a good sound (you’ll know, trust your gut) – that one’s a keeper.
For clarity, this all happens at the writing/creative stage, not when you are mixing. It’s too late then.
Now everyone has a different way of working. Some people write and mix at the same time, others chuck everything into a track and sort it out later. I kind of do a mixture of both… I get a rough listenable blend as I’m writing, but test new sounds and arrangements out along the way.
If you are one of those people who is 100% committed to a sound once it’s in your DAW, and you’ll make it fit come hell or high water, I would challenge you to loosen up a bit and try a more organic approach.
Now this doesn’t mean we sit around all day layering sounds having an ‘anything goes’ attitude – that’s not what I’m suggesting.
What I’m saying is, be open to experimentation, try things out such as new sounds, new arrangements, new musical focus etc, but once you’ve got a good thing – keep it.
In other words, I’m advocating being flexible, but then once the hairs on your arm stand up – go in for the kill!
If It Sounds Good, It’s In
Don’t worry about whether you’ve heard that a bass line for this genre of music should only have sub frequencies at such and such… blah, blah, blah. If it sounds good, it’s in. Not necessarily for the final mix, but certainly for the writing stage which is where we are at remember.
It could be that you end up with 5 potential basslines, what to do then? Oh hang on, that light weedy one which still kind of sounds cool would be good for the intro and the sub bass one that you can’t really hear could be good for bolstering up the last chorus.
Now this is an art which comes from practice… but over time you’ll learn to evaluate your own decisions better. “Is this REALLY good, or is it just one of my average decisions”.
In the end you might not use a couple of sounds – or maybe 10. But these days with unlimited space and track number pretty much, it really doesn’t matter. Record them, if you don’t use them in the arrangement either bin them or keep them as a backup in case you decide you want them later.
Don’t Be A Preset Snob
The choosing of sounds for the writing process can be a quick – go through your presets for a particular part, when you find one that’s 80% there go with it. Can you tweak the sound so it gets it closer? Yes? Then do it. If not, keep it and ditch it if needs be later. Don’t be precious about your decisions.
Yes you can program all your own sounds, and with no time pressure (ie no clients) this is an option. For most of us, getting the job done fast and tweaking later is the name of the game.
The great thing about being more flippant about your sound choices is that you’ll be married less to any one particular sound. You’ll have plenty of options, so if a sound isn’t working, you’ll be able to ditch it rather than thinking ‘I made that sound from scratch and it took me 3 days to perfect it’.'Don't reinvent the wheel - if a preset sounds good, use it' Click To Tweet
You can program sounds from scratch if that kind of thing floats your boat, but I would rather get the track done and sounding great than be proud of myself for importing my own wavetable and making a sound with that (which still might mean the track doesn’t work by the way!)
I admit this article is a departure to my usual articles, but it kind of has a similar underlying idea of don’t get bogged down in time wasting activities or decision paralysis – keep your eye on the prize and take action! I may write some more on this idea depending on how things go. If you liked it, let me know.
(Photo: Mixing Desk)