To develop an individual and successful mixing style, it’s important that we test the responses of both our clients and the audience. Our clients might be technically aware and able to supply us with a specific brief and feedback, but the general public won’t know if a vocal is sounding flat or the reverb is too wet – they’ll just know that it sounds “off”.
It’s really important to “think like the listener” not only during the songwriting process but also while mixing. This is a point that hit songwriter/mixer Martin Sutton often hammers home and it is something that I will never forget.
Testing and changing variables in the mix will help to keep your ideas fresh, challenge your ears and most importantly, improve your skills.
Macro A/B Mixing
There is no right and wrong way to mix – no set formula. Just don’t think that by using all the effects and plugins your DAW and computer can handle that your mix will instantly sound great. It is incredibly important to be different and original but use common sense!
Find what you love about the song and what really makes it stand out. This could be a bass guitar groove or a prominent vocal melody. If the intended purpose of the track you are mixing is mainstream success, you need to maintain the power and clarity of all the hooks. Otherwise, you’ll lose the feeling and emotion of the song, your clients will hate you and people will start throwing things at you in the street (OK.. maybe not the last one).
If you’re creative, artistic and passionate about what you’re doing, it will always shine through to the listener.
Any time you hear something you like in a commercial track, test yourself to see if you can identify what has been done to achieve that sound and then try to replicate it in one of your own sessions.
If, for example, you’re looking for the sound of a side chained club anthem and you’re in need of a reference, why not throw a David Guetta track into the session to see if you’re going about it the right way?
Constantly ask yourself whether you’re happy with the mix at each juncture (e.g. end of drum mixing, vocal FX). You might use questions such as:
- Am I happy with the high end on this track?
- Does the singer sound too distant?
- Is my kick lacking definition?
Your reference set should include songs with examples of all these things done the way you like it so that you can compare and contrast.
Try new things and don’t be afraid to make mistakes
There will always be someone who has achieved what you’re trying to do already in some shape or form. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they directly set out to achieve that sound. Trust your ears and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Fear is an extremely limiting factor, especially when there are no clear guidelines. It is amazing that people can also fear success. Test everything, try out different things and see what works. Even top performers can make mistakes. What you would never think is that they can often work out for the better.
Here’s evidence from a fellow Waves Street Team member at the very top of his game that there is no set formula and accidents can make for great mixes and inventive sounds:
Micro A/B Mixing
We’ve discussed the importance of critically listening to songs and figuring out what it is you like about a track. Now it’s time to look at things in more detail and point you in the right direction to improve your own mixes by building on some techniques that have made other tracks sound great. We’ll begin with some simple tips that you might not have tried:
- Let’s say you want to make a vocal sit better in the mix. A common approach would be to boost between 1-3kHz to add presence and intelligibility. Why not try cutting at 600Hz and 2kHz to emphasize 1kHz and add a sense of power to the mix?
- Another EQ tip is to try cutting before compression and then boost post-compression to add in the lost frequencies. This could be done to balance the low end with a fat kick drum sample dominating the 60-80Hz range.
I learned both those tricks by listening to the all-knowledgeable Dave Pensado and they have made a world of difference to my mixes, so thanks Dave!
After using those tips a couple of times, you will make your own tweaks and employ them in a variety of ways. Save settings you like as presets and the next time you load them up, try something different. Don’t just go through the motions – be creative and tailor it to the artist, singer etc.
A/B Comparison and Copying (Waves System Guide)
With Waves plugins, the Setup A/Setup B button may be clicked to compare two settings. If you load a preset in the Setup B position, this will not affect the preset loaded into the Setup A position, and vice-versa.
If you want to slightly modify the settings in Setup A, you can copy them to Setup B by clicking on the Copy to B button, then alter Setup A and compare with the original Setup B.
The name of the current setup will be shown in the title bar (on platforms that support it), and will switch as you change from Setup A to Setup B.
Note: an asterisk will be added to the preset name when a change is made to the preset.
This function is incredibly useful when micro A/B mixing and while demonstrating different settings to clients.
You might only be testing and changing one variable but it can have a fundamental difference on the overall mix and quality of the finished track.
How CLA does it..
Next we can see how multiple GRAMMY® award-winning mixing engineer Chris Lord-Alge brought his signature sound to the 2012 CLA Song Competition Winner. The A/B (macro) demonstration of the original mix in comparison to that of CLA is incredibly valuable. He then goes in to talk specifically about techniques (micro) that helped add to the mix and create the polished sound we hear.
The groove, production on the track, and high level of musicianship make it pretty easy to see why CLA picked it as the winner of the competition. While the original mix was very good, it’s impressive to see what can be achieved when it’s re-mixed by one of the greats.
3 things that stood out for me:
- The sense of space created by his use of the stereo field.
- The clarity of the vocals creates a greater emotional connection to the song.
- The power of the drums helps to enhance an already bright sound.
If you like what CLA is doing in the video, why not download a demo version of any of the plugins and try to mirror some of the techniques he has used? It’s free!
You can see that the CLA-76 Bluey from the CLA Classic Compressors is used to process the vocal sound in the mix. I’m working with the CLA-76 right now, so you can expect some updates and tutorials on that plugin in the coming weeks.
Is this helpful? What other topics would you like to see me write about?
What sort of A/B testing do you apply to your own mixes?
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