Mixing is a process that takes a great deal of practice to do well, but even a little knowledge can go a long way in getting a solid sound out of your multitrack recordings. After students have gotten some tracks down, or after downloading free multitrack sessions from web resources, it’s time to start polishing the tracks into a finished product.
There are some basic goals students should meet in order to get a good finished product created. Here are the goals I feel are important:
- Students need to know how to balance tracks
- Students need to know how to move tracks in the stereo field
- Students need to know how to split, move, edit, and delete audio track sections
- Students need to know how to modify tracks with EQUALIZATION
- Students need to know how to use COMPRESSION
- Students need to know how to create and use AUTOMATION
All of the goals above involve changing those individual audio files in order to make them fit together as a whole. Here are some options for guiding students in this process in a simple yet engaging way:
- Ten-Minute Mix Workout: The very first thing students must learn in mixing is to balance the audio tracks in terms of volume and stereo field placement. Using only the volume faders and pan knobs in the DAW or the control surface, have students start with a raw mix and balance tracks over a ten-minute period. If they do it right, this should be about 80 percent of the mixing process. It’s very difficult to get a full mix in just ten minutes, so expanding the time to 30 minutes may provide a more comfortable time frame for this initial mix experience. Students should end their assignment with a fairly balanced mix that has stereo imaging in at least some of the tracks.
- Equalization Workout: Equalization, or EQ, is an essential mixing tool. It clears up undesirable frequencies that are often part of a room’s acoustics or a musician’s natural tone (whether an instrument or a voice). Have students apply EQ to the master output to start, and then to any busses and individual tracks as needed. The goal should be a clean, crisp mix with plenty of definition. If it sounds muffled, stuffy, harsh, or heavy, EQ is often the best tool to carve out those unwanted tone colors and enhance the colors that make a mix “sparkle.”
- Compression Workout: Dynamic control is important in modern mixes, as it allows music to better match the volume levels of industry-standard practices. Compression does just that. It can keep loud hits (transients) from overpowering the signal output (clipping), and it can allow quieter decays (ambients) to pop up in the mix. Compression can add energy to a mix as well. Students should learn to use it to catch the strongest peaks to keep them under control, as well as how to use it to create a pleasant tone color that adds energy and impact to the final mix.
- Automation Workout: The initial static mix can do wonders for a song, but sometimes a vocal part or solo section needs to be bumped up or quieted down to make the mix even better. Live sound engineers do just that by changing the faders throughout a performance. For a recording, you can automate these changes by writing them into the session on a track-by-track basis. Students should learn this skill, for both practical and effectual purposes. Automation can be used for panning, volume, and even changing parameters on plugins and effects.
- Referencing Workout: To test out a mix’s viability in a radio-ready context, it’s important to compare it to other similar pieces of music, as well as checking its translatability from one output source to another. Students will need to not only pick a professional recording as a direct comparison, but also take their own mix out into several real-world applications to test out their success. Trying the song on single speakers, good stereo systems, cheap headphones, and even on car stereos will help determine how good a mix really is. Students can write down their various evaluations, make suggestions, and come back to the mix to improve anything they feel fell short of the professional standard set by similar songs.
The overall purpose of the mixing assignments is to get students thinking about what makes a professional mix sound “professional.” They need to critically think about the mix, where everything belongs, and what can make certain tracks fit more appropriately into a session. By comparing the mix to other reference tracks, and by taking it into the real world for listening, students can refine their mixes, improve their skills, and learn some excellent tricks with only minimal instructor input. I also suggest having students watch online tutorials for each component of this particular unit. There are incredible resources available, and anyone can learn from these and become great if they work at it and apply the concepts correctly.