If you are following the Faderhead Facebook page then you probably saw me give status updates on how many songs are done and heard me mention that I hate mixing my own songs. This is because I’m generally lazy and once I am done with the general demo of the song ideas, I don’t want to turn it into a finished song. The reason being that I can hear the finished song in my head when it’s playing, so personally for me there’s no need to finish it! I’ve been asked very often about how I produce/mix my songs so in this post I want to quickly outline what I do to mix a track.
DISCLAIMER #1: mixing a song in the studio is not the same as mixing two songs like a DJ. I am going to be talking about how I turn 50-80 tracks of audio into one song. Not how I mix the end of one song into the beginning of another.
DISCLAIMER #2: my demos generally sound pretty good. Not great – but easily good enough to be played in a club without anyone noticing a difference to most other songs. That is achieved by choosing good sounds from the beginning as opposed to trying to bend them into shape come mixing time. Seriously: if your tracks sound like crap, the problem is most likely the source material aka crappy synth sounds, kickdrums with no low end, washy cymbals or vocals that are whispered into a mic instead of screamed. Fixing that goes a long way!
STEP 1: THE LEGWORK
I usually work with production templates that have my regular synths, busses, compressors, reverbs, delays etc. set up already. This is just a timesaving mechanism. I don’t have any synths set to regular presets or drumsamples loaded. If you have an idea when you come home drunk from the club at 5am and you need to route 8 Battery outputs, load 6 synths and set up all your inserts just to get started then you’ll forget the idea. For the sake of this blog entry we’ll assume that none of my usual stuff is there and it’s just VSTis and vocals. So I’ll begin with the menial work which is boring and needs no creativity at all. The reason for this is so that I can get it out of the way before starting the creative process. I like to mix quickly and aggressively, so nothing bothers me more than having to stop mixing to do something I could have done in the beginning. Typically this means:
a) set up busses/groups for certain instruments and route the instrument channels correctly. In my case these are usually called Battery/Stylus/Drums/Bass/Synths/Verse Vocals/Chorus Vocals
b) set up FX sends. These are usually: 1/8note delay, 1/4note delay, Small Room, Medium Hall, Large Hall, Chorus for Vocals, Chorus for Synths, NYC compression bus
c) go through every single vocal track in solo mode and clean up background noise, clicks, pops and out-of-tune syllables
d) automate the main vocal tracks to lower the volume on harsh esses or loud t’s – because my voice produces a lot of sibilance.
e) pull down all the faders from the positions that they were in the demo.
f) save the project file under a new versionname, for example “faderhead_songname_v10_mixprep” … if you do not save your files in progressive versions, start doing it now. It saves you a lot of grief when you lose your mixfile because it gets corrupted or when you accidentally remove a synth without remembering what sound it was on etc.
g) load Sonimus Satson on the first insert of every channel and tweak the gain so that the signal comes in at around 0dBVU. If you don’t have Satson, get it. It’s worth 20x the $39 it costs!
h) load my go-to compressors into the busses/groups that I set up in step a
Done. This takes an assload of time, which is why I like working with templates where I only have to do the vocal cleanup and the gain staging for step g.
STEP 2: FIGURING OUT WHAT IS WHAT
I pulled down all the channel faders a little earlier so I’ll now start listening to each channel on its own, just to see what’s there and decide on what the focal points of the song are. If it’s a dance tune it’ll definitely be the kickdrum, if it’s a ballad it might be be the vocal line and the strings.
STEP 3: START WORK ON THE FOCAL POINT
A lot of mixers start with the drums first and then add bass, guitars, synths, etc. simply out of habit. I prefer to start with the focal points and then build the rest of the track around it. That might be the vocal. I’ll play the focal point in a loop and use EQ and compression to get it to sound like I want it to sound. Then I add the 2nd focal point to the first one and work on that in interaction with the first focal point. For club tracks I very often start with the kick, then the vocal and then the bass. Then the rest. But it really depends on what is important in your song.
STEP 4: EQ/COMPRESSORS/DELAY/REVERBS
There are a million articles/books/etc. about these things. Google is your friend. I don’t use anything special here. I use the built-in Cubase EQ 99% of the time, I use the old Waves RComp compressor on vocals and the old/discontinued Steinberg Double-Delay for Delays. I like to use different reverbs to create different spaces because as you saw above, I have at least 3 different reverbs set up. And I like to use different manufacturers too so I can make them as distinguishable as possible. That’s really it. I am not afraid to boost or cut the shit out of my signals, so anyone that tells you to use mainly EQ-cuts can keep doing that. I use both and I just added a 9,5db boost at 25hz on a kickdrum because it sounded good. So: fuck what you heard.
STEP 5: MONO MIXING
I have a single small speaker in the middle above my screens and I recently started mixing in mono on one speaker which improved my sound considerably. I basically turn off my main (stereo)speakers, convert the signal to mono and send it to my little speaker. Half the time most of my synths disappear because they are stereopatches that don’t fold down well in mono (back to “choose your source wisely”). The advantage of mono mixing is really in finding out how to EQ sounds so they are all audible on that very restricted spectrum in my little speaker. The same goes for panning. It’s quite easy to find a good pan position in mono because the sound is either there or it isnt.
STEP 6: MASTER BUS
I always mix with these plugins on the 2bus: Sonalksis Free G Stereo (to reduce the incoming level), Sonimus Satson Bus, Voxengo TapeBus (I know it’s just impulses but I like the sound of it), Duende Native SSL-G Compressor, Fabfilter PRO Q, Fabfilter PRO L (only to check how the track sounds when severely limited), Voxengo SPAN and Brainworx TTL-Meter. There’s nothing special going on here. I hit the Satson at 0dbVU and the SSL is on from the start so that it compresses 2-4db. I use an output level that peaks below 0dbFS so I get no limiting while mixing. The SPAN is just to see my frequency curve and the Brainworx meter is only for mono-switching.
STEP 7: AUTOMATION
Automation is where songs really become interesting because automation allows me to make changes to everything throughout the song and that way I can create excitement. I don’t believe in having everything in balance at all times. I think that makes for a boring mix. That’s why I’ll automate a lot of things. Turn delays on and off on different syllables of words or bring whole sections of the song down in volume so that the next section kicks in louder. If you are not automating, start doing it. It makes a big difference!
STEP 8: MIX REVISION
I always plan on spending 30 minutes the next day on mix revision. After a few hours the mind gets so clogged up with details that I lose focus on the big picture of the song. So when I am done on one day, I render the mix to a stereo WAV file (24 bit 44khz) and don’t expect it to be good the next day. Every now and then it actually sounds good the next day but most of the time something is off and I can quickly fix it with fresh ears. When I started mixing I got very frustrated because I thought I was doing something wrong when my mix had problems the next day. Now I only accept it as part of the process.
That’s it for now. I gotta go to bed. 5 songs for the new album are mixed and I’ve got 8 more to go!