Although being skilled in applying the five elements of a mix (balance, frequency range, dimension, panorama, and dynamics) may be sufficient for many types of audio mixes, most hits require a mix that’s taken to another level. Although it’s always easier to achieve with great tracks, a solid arrangement, and spectacular playing, a great mix can take simply okay tracks and transform them into something so compelling that people can’t get enough of it because it’s so interesting. It’s been done on some of your all-time favorite songs.
So how can we get a mix to that point?
More than being just technically correct, a mix must be as interesting as a good movie. It must build to a climax while having points of tension and release to keep the listener subconsciously involved. Just as a film looks bigger than life, a great mix must sound bigger than real life. The passion and the emotion must be on a level where the listener is sucked in and forced to listen.
Finding The Element
Finding the element that’s the most important to the song is critical to finding the main interest point. In some cases (such as EDM, dance, and hip-hop), the most important element is the groove, yet in other genres it may be the vocal (such as in country or pop).
Even though the most important element is often the lead vocal, it doesn’t necessarily have to be. It could be a riff, such as the intros to the Stones’ “Satisfaction” and “Start Me Up,” the piano line from Coldplay’s “Clocks,” or the guitar line from the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” It’s always a part so compelling that it forces you to listen and re-listen to the song.
Whatever part is most important, the mixer must identify and emphasize it in the mix in order for the mix to be elevated beyond the ordinary. Like most other creative work, that requires inspiration, but you can’t underestimate the value of talent and experience in the process.
Emphasize That Interest
To emphasize the most interesting element:
- After the element is determined, raise its level a dB and then increase in 1dB steps. Does the part jump out of the mix?
- If the part isn’t compressed, insert a compressor and begin by adding 2dB of compression. If the part is already compressed, add an additional dB and increase in 1dB steps. Be sure to compensate for the decrease in level by adjusting the Output control. Does the part jump out of the mix?
- If the part is already EQ’d, add an additional dB at the EQ points previously selected. If the part isn’t EQ’d, insert an equalizer and add 1dB at 5kHz. Does the part jump out of the mix now? What if you add a dB at 1kHz?
- If the part is dry, try adding some effects, starting with any reverb or delay that’s already set up and in use in the mix. If that doesn’t work, add a dedicated reverb beginning with the parameters set from short to long. Move on to delay, modulation, distortion and any other effects at hand. Does the part jump out of the mix now?
“I try to find what’s important in the mix. I try to find out if the lead vocal is incredibly passionate and then make sure that the spotlight shines on that. If, for instance, the mix needs 8th notes, but they’re going [makes sound effect] and it’s not really pushing the mix, sometimes playing with compression on the acoustics [guitars] or auditioning different kinds of compression to make it sound like, ‘Boy, this guy was into it.’ It’s just basically playing with it and trying to put into it that undefinable thing that makes it exciting. Sometimes hearing the guy breathe like the old Steve Miller records did. With a little of that, you might say, ‘Man, he’s working. I believe it.’ It’s a little subconscious thing, but sometimes that can help.” —legendary Nashville mixer Ed Seay
Making your mix interesting is the one area where mixing goes beyond skill and becomes art. It’s what makes good mixers great, and keeps them turning out gold.
You can read more from The Mixing Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.