I am a salad lover — ask anyone who knows me! So many combinations of flavors and textures can be combined to make a deliciously unique and satisfying creation for my tastebuds. As I was traveling down the salad bar line of my favorite restaurant recently, I realized how much creating an amazing salad and creating a successful mix in the studio are alike. Producing and mixing music can sometimes lack interesting elements. Too much crunch, swimming in dressing, not enough flavors to perk up my leafy green creation can make it boring and unsatisfying. The same thing can happen to a mix. These choices can be made by the producer and not the mix engineer, but in our home studios, we often wear the same hats. So, to help bring tastiness to your audio fare, here are some things to remember.
3 Main Ingredients Rule
Rules are made to be broken in mixing. But this rule is one to remember. When your are mixing a song, keep no more than 3 elements of your mix as the main focus, not including percussion. If there is a vocal, this will be one of the three elements. That leaves two more elements to have a large part of focus throughout your mix. If you have multiple tracks, including piano, synths, and assortment of guitars, horns — even background vocals — decide which tracks are best at delivering the emotional objective of the song. Volume automation is a useful tool to make certain your primary ingredients are not lost in the competition for attention. Do not try to have to have all elements be the star of the mix. That does not mean you should not give each part its chance to shine at a specific time. It means have focus, and give listeners a chance to feel grounded in the song. My salads always are best when there is a foundation created (Romaine, cherry tomatoes, and sweet Vidalia onion slices…yum!) with subsequent ingredients added to enhance the flavor of the main ones.
Crunch is Essential!
Yes, I do like croutons on my salad! But the crunch in your mix does not need to be as extreme and obvious as those toasty salad staples. You need texture in your mix to make it interesting, and even small amounts will work. The availability of saturation, clip-distortion, bitcrusher, and overdrive plugins make this rough and edgy sound easy to apply to your tracks. Don’t overdo it, though. Think about adding a brittle element to that mello brass synth by applying a warm clip distortion that also applies a low pass filter (around 2500Hz) to keep it subtle. Or try thinking outside the box and take that English court harp sample and apply a rough crunch and then apply a 1/4 note LEFT and 1/8 note RIGHT sample delay to add a sprinkle of texture. Completely reinvent your clap track with some extreme overdrive. You can also add that crispy crunch to one of your 3 main ingredients. Try adding some parallel processing to your lead vocal that includes some chunky amp distortion to give it sizzle. Whoever said that guitars should have all the crunchy amp fun? The point here is to not have a soggy, mushy mix. Just enough “graininess” to cut through and add excitement.
Your mix needs to have an element of surprise — what I like to refer to as “predictable unpredictability” — and this can be a make it or break it ingredient in your production. Nobody wants to listen to the same, inevitable chorus three of four times in a mix without being given something new to “taste” with each repetition. Each time the chorus repeats, add a new delay on the background vocal track. Or add some octave vocal doubling on a new track, and spice it up with a shimmery plate reverb. Or take your lead guitar riff and create a harmony for its consecutive chorus appearances. Add a cowbell hit, add foot stomps, add a new bass line. Just build upon what you have, sparingly but with intent. I like to think of this when I get to the middle of my salad where I cleverly hid those dried cranberries that give a new, sweet flavor that I was expecting — but still delighted to discover under that initial layer of lettuce.
Creamy Dressing or Vinaigrette— The Final Touch
So we know that as we are getting to the final stages of our mix, every element must blend together tastefully. To me, the dressing is like the glue of our mix, and it brings the whole creation together, enhancing all the flavors and turning those separate ingredients into a combined experience. If we use mix-bus processing (applying plugins on our master fader) we can get a mix that will sound cohesive and balanced. For instance, a ballad may need subtle stereo width with some mid-side EQ. Or maybe the whole mix needs a slight dip in the low-mids (maybe 2dB around 400-500Hz) to relieve muddiness, and then a little high-shelf filter boost (1 to 2dB) above 8-10K to add some air. And let’s not forget about adding compression to the mix bus. There once was a common thought that this should be left for the mastering stage, but not so much anymore. The mild compression you use at this point to dress up your mix can contribute the sonic flavor you need to give your mix punch and clarity. Use compression here gently, with slow attack and fast release and minimal gain reduction at the loudest points — 1 to 2db is plenty. (Also, when you first begin to work on your mix, you may try using these compression settings on your mix bus from the start of your project). Another way to dress your music is to use reverb on your mix bus. This technique is frowned upon by some engineers, and promoted highly by others. You can thicken a dry mix with this approach, or blend in a small room or large hall with varying degrees of dry and wet. Whatever you may choose, let the song dictate what is needed. When I have carefully built my mouth-watering salad on my plate, the last thing I want to do is to ruin it with the wrong dressing.
So whether you are mixing a salad or mixing music, keep the senses happy! Think about using textures to achieve the sound you want. Don’t drown your mix with too much creamy and smooth — bring it alive with crunch and spice! And think of your mix as a whole, not separate pieces. Bring all the ingredients together in a way that they sound like they were made for each other. Just like the recipe for a delicious salad!
Do you have any favorite mixing recipe ideas you would like to share? Leave a comment below, and keep on mixing!