Female Mixing Engineers Community is excited to bring to you the knowledge and expertise of females who are making their mark in the field of music production and audio engineering. Our premier contributing writer is the fabulous Aubrey Whitfield, who hails from the U.K. and holds an impressive list of clients and credits. You can also hear her top-notch production skills on the FME Music Podcast Show #2. Let’s take a look at the insight and guidance Aubrey has to offer, and learn from her valuable experience.
TIPS & TRICKS FOR IMPROVING YOUR MIXES
By Aubrey Whitfield / British Music Producer
Mixing is both an art form and a science. You need to have both technical knowledge and the ability to connect with a song — and follow your instincts. Mixing is not an easy skill to master and takes a lot of experience and practice.
I am a music producer first and foremost. In the modern music world, producers are often expected to mix their client’s songs as well as produce them. My advice to any artist, if budget allows, is to hire a professional mix engineer to mix their track. This is because mix engineering is a specialty skill and good mix engineers will have sound treated rooms as well as a wealth of experience and the right tools.
That said, most artists are on a budget and simply can’t afford to hire a producer AND a mix engineer. That means the producer is often expected to also mix the song they are working on. This is not an easy task. After all the initial production choices and arranging — not to mention capturing the perfect emotional recording — now you must mix the tracks to a competitive level? How can you retain creativity and objectivity? The artist’s expectations will remain high. They will expect a polished mix similar in quality to Top 40 chart mixes.
To help you develop your mixing skills, I will run through some of my mixing tips and tricks for getting a commercial sounding mix. There is no tried and tested formula, and you will need to use your judgment and experience to get the best out of a record. But the following steps will certainly improve your mixing approach:
- Get your room ‘mix ready’: So many of us under estimate the importance of the room we use for mixing. If your room is not properly treated, then you are not going to get a realistic mix because the sound waves will be bouncing off the walls and color the sound. People hire specialists to soundproof and treat their rooms, but there are things you can do yourself to whip your room into shape. Put some foam tiles up behind your speakers and make sure that your speakers are as close to the wall as possible. Then place some speaker foam tiles underneath your speakers to stop them vibrating on your desk. If you can, try and fill the room with other sound absorbing materials, such as carpets, sofas etc.
- Listen to the artist’s demo mix: The artist’s demo mix is extremely important. It might not be brilliantly mixed but what it will do is give you an idea of the direction that the artist wants the song to go in. Are the vocals noticeably prominent? Is it an obviously dry or wet mix? As well as studying the demo mix, always ask the artist for any ‘reference’ tracks (songs they like or are influenced by) as this will ensure that you produce a pop mix instead of a heavy rock mix!
- Develop a workflow that works for you: Whenever I approach a mix I have a formula that I follow every time. I will first load everything into my session, and color group all the individual tracks so I can easily navigate a session with 100+ instruments (for example, all the drums are colored orange, the guitars are blue etc.) I will listen to the song all the way through, and then remove any pops, clicks or other “little nasties”. I always work on the drums first and then add the bass. After the bass, I will then add the vocals so I get a good mix between the vocals and the beat which are generally the two most important instruments in pop music. I will then bring in all the other instruments and make them sit between the beat and vocals. Other mix engineers start with the most important instrument (vocals, guitars etc.) and then build the mix that way. But figure out what works for you and take it from there.
- Get a fresh perspective on your mix: When mixing a track, it shouldn’t be so loud that your neighbors are banging on the walls. You should be able to have a conversation with someone. Not only will this save your ears in the long run, but it brings out the instruments in the mix more clearly. Any song will sound exciting when it’s loud, no matter how good or bad it is. So, get a real perspective by listening to it at a reasonable volume. Also, try turning the volume down as low as you can go. You will be surprised at how much detail jumps out at a low volume! A particular trick of mine is to walk into the next room to listen to my mixes. Getting out of your studio environment can give you a different perspective on your mix.
- Make sure the vocals are tuned: For contemporary pop music, there is an expectation that vocals must be fine-tuned. Music listeners are so accustomed to hearing songs mixed to perfection that your mix will sound off if there is even a slightly flat note. It should be the role of the producer to auto tune the vocals, but there may be occasions when this is not possible and you will need to tune them yourself. I highly recommend Melodyne for fine tuning. Try to make the vocals sound as natural as possible when using auto-tune. Don’t overdo it as the auto tune effect is now very dated in Western pop culture.
- Be prepared for a raft of feedback: Although it has happened, it is rare for an artist to come back to you with zero comments and revision requests on the first mix. Don’t take this personally, music is very subjective so it’s only natural that artists will have feedback. Try to accommodate your artist as much as possible. *Tip: Make sure that you tell your client in advance whether you offer unlimited mix revisions or a limited number to avoid any confusion down the line.
- Take regular breaks: It is very easy for your ears to get tired when you are listening to the same song over and over, and you can quickly lose objectivity. Take regular breaks. I tend to work for an hour or so and then take a 10-minute break and start again.
- Get a list of reference tracks: If your brief is to produce a track to radio standard then you are going to need to compare your mix against songs of radio hits in a similar genre to check that it is similar in quality, volume and dynamics. Many successful mixers have what’s called a ‘reference track list’. This is where they have hand selected several hit songs and put them into a playlist. Then when they mix a track, they regularly toggle between their mix and the reference tracks to ensure they are on point. I also use this approach and it’s very effective. Plugins such as Magic AB let you quickly toggle between your DAW and your reference tracks.
- Should you mix ‘in the box’ or ‘out of the box’? This is a common question discussed among industry folk – should you mix using analog (out of the box) or using digital (in the box)? Analog is renowned for adding warmth and character to records whereas digital can be cold and clinical. Using analog or digital will depend on the project and the sound you want. I don’t have the space for tons of analog equipment so I am happy to mix in the box using all my top plugins, and to be honest, I have still achieved a great sounding mix without the need for any analog equipment. But it depends on your personal preferences (and budget!) There is no right or wrong.
- Mix using headphones or speakers? Many of you might gasp at this, but I do most of my mixing on headphones. I like to mix on headphones because I trust them. I use the same headphones to listen to music recreationally so I can instantly compare my mix against hit records. That said, I do use my speakers on every mix but generally when I have a near final mix that I want to test on different systems. My advice would be for you to mix with whatever you are comfortable with but make sure that you test your mix on different systems, such as your headphones, speakers, laptop speaker.
- My recommended plugins for mixing: I certainly don’t need to tell you that there is a vast array of plugins on the market that you can choose to mix with. You could even use the stock plugins in your DAW, which could get a great mix going. But — in my opinion — if you want a commercial mix, then you should expand your collection with 3rd party plugins. The absolute vital ones are compression, EQ, and reverb. These are the most commonly used plugin types. I am lucky enough to have a huge selection of plugins at my disposal. Here is a list of my favorite plugins and the ones I use the most on mixes:
- Waves CLA3-A compressor: Great compressor on vocals – adds volume and warmth;
- UAD Pultec EQ: One of the best EQs on any instrument – lots of clarity and depth;
- Waves CLA Vocals – great for getting that quick pop sound on vocals;
- Waves SSL Comp – My favorite plugin! It creates ‘that’ radio sound that everyone craves;
- iZotope Ozone: My mastering plugin on the master bus, does wonders for making a mix louder and clearer without squashing the sound;
- Soundtoys Echoboy: One of the best delay plugins out there;
- Logic Pro’s Platinum Reverb – a freebie reverb with Logic Pro which creates a lovely big reverb sound on vocals and acoustic guitar;
- UAD Teletronix LA-2A: The giant of compressors based on the analogue classic. The silver one is my personal favourite as it adds that analogue warmth to vocals and guitars.
- Waves Maxxbass: Great for that bass-in-your-face sound
- UAD Studer: If you want the analogue warmth or a gritty sounding instrument, then whack on this little beauty. Also works great on the master bus.
If you need more technical advice about mixing, then I recommend reading ‘Secrets of the Mix Engineers’ by Mike Senior. This book is a great resource if you are just starting out mixing.
The best advice I can give, as someone who used to be terrible at mixing, is to mix as often as you can and develop a workflow and a style that enables you to work quickly and efficiently. Most importantly, make sure you enjoy it.
About the Author
Aubrey Whitfield is a British music producer and currently one of the most prolific female music producers in the UK. Connect with Aubrey at www.aubreywhitfield.com