Despite the bewildering array of plug-ins now available, mixing still requires you to exercise good judgement with the basics of EQ and compression.
At its heart, mixing is a series of decisions. Some are big, but most are small and they're made in quick succession, and it's oh so important to retain a razor-sharp focus on what you're actually trying to achieve if you're to keep making good decisions. It's not as easy as it sounds. Recently, I was struck by how, during the 5-10 seconds it takes me to decide which plug-in I'll use to do something, I can become distracted, even if for only a few seconds. Faced with so many choices, my mind wanders — and I lose sight of what I'm trying to achieve.
With that in mind, and in an attempt to speed up my mixing, I've conscioiusly tried to reduce the number and complexity of my mixing decisions by using fewer plug-ins. It encourages me to trust my skills and experience to solve problems, rather than to hope for quick fixes (which rarely seem to materialise). I don't know if my mixes actually sound any better for this, but I'm definitely mixing faster, and seem to be on a nice run of work where clients are signing off mixes with very little fuss!
This month's mix is of the track 'Martine' by Cambridge-based band the New Fools, and it provides a good illustration of many of the changes I've made to my approach lately. As well as mixing 'Martine' I also recorded it, and that's important to note because in the recording sessions we got a lot of material down very quickly, and the band were excited about how things were sounding. It's easy to lose sight of this energy and enthusiasm when it comes to mixing, and feel that you have to reinvent something that actually doesn't need reinventing at all. For this song, there were certainly a few issues to deal with, as I'll explain, but things had been recorded with care and I'd even printed most of the analogue effects I'd played with at the recording stage on the vocals and guitars (see 'Printing Effects When Recording' box). For a project like this, the recording sessions are where the big decisions should be made; mixing really shouldn't require three days in a dark room and hundreds of plug-ins!
The track 'Martine' is by Cambridge‑based band the New Fools, which comprises songwriter/singer Tony Jenkins, guitarist Drew Keen, bass player Dave Seabright and Pete Carter on drums. They're currently putting the final touches to their latest album, which will include 'Martine'.
One obvious way of getting a mix up and running quickly is to use a well thought-out mix template, which I've written about before. This can make it easier to make creative effects choices because you spend less time on other things. If you're not sure what to put in your template, you can even download various star mixers' templates to use yourself — these can be a fantastic learning resource — but I think it's important to question whether some techniques that templates might steer you towards are actually right for the specific production you're working on.
Many include things like parallel or multiband compression and saturation or distortion effects, and while I use such processes a lot, it's important that you apply them correctly and in the right context. Otherwise they can do the opposite of what you want, like make things sound smaller when you're trying to go big! And even if they do deliver what you want, you can still be left unsure about how to get things right next time; it's important to me that I feel in control of what I'm doing, so I can develop my skills for future mixes and not rely on good fortune every time. So while I do use a template of sorts to save time, I adapt it for each project, and I try to look first and foremost to the basic bread-and-butter tools of mixing — basic EQ, compression and fader moves — before turning to more sophisticated options.
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