Feature Article: “How to Mix Your Independent Record” by MondoTunes
How to Mix Your Independent Record
Modern technology has made DIY music a reality for artists around the world. A home music studio or digital audio workstation has never been more affordable or easy to use. But how does an independent musician know when his or her record is properly mixed, ready for digital music distribution? Step-by-step instructions abound, but most of them are none-too-friendly to the hobbyist or newcomer. Here are some very basic steps to get the indie musician going.
OK, you’ve got your tracks recorded and there are a gadillion of them. They look like a field of train tracks running across your screen. Start by setting the volume of your drums/percussion to a level around where you’d like your whole record to be. Make absolutely sure every piece of the drum kit can be heard. If the snare is way too loud and the ride symbol is inaudible, try singling out the quiet bits and raising their volume using the software. Re-recording is hardly ever necessary anymore.
Your bass line (bass guitar, synth bass, tuba, whatever) is tied to the drums with an invisible sonic umbilical cord. The bass feeds off the drums. There’s no set rule as to how soft or loud your bass should sound compared to the drums, but it should never drown out any part of the drum kit. The kick drum (bass drum) makes a good level to check the bass against first, followed by the snare. Be careful when checking the bass against the snare, as the snare will always sound louder when you’re paying attention to it than it really is.
3. Rhythm guitar / background vocals / general accompaniment
If you’ve got a rhythm guitar going on, bring this in over the drum and bass. If you have horns or other instruments acting as a consistent background, this is a good time to bring them in, too. This portion can often be a little softer than one might expect because the rhythm guitar and horns usually play repetitive parts. They are suggested by the structure of the song more than, say, the bass line or hi-hat cymbals are. Once they’ve made their point in the first few bars, the listener will hear them so long as they’re there. Background vocals, especially, are intended as a suggestion more than anything. Bands who set their harmonies loud in the mix, such as Bad Religion, are uncommon.
4. Lead instrumentation
Lead guitars, trumpets, violins – basically anything that gets to solo goes last in the instrumental mix. This is often a hair louder than the accompanying instruments in order to give the sound a live feel, as if the musician were standing forward of the rest of the band. Lead instrumentation should not always be louder throughout, and it should never drown out anything else. Traditionally, volume levels for solos are raised just a bit whenever a solo begins, regardless of the instrument. The one exception for this is vocals, which are almost always kept at a static level.
Vocals are arguably the hardest to mix. Singers don’t often control their volume while singing, paying most of their attention to hitting notes the way they want to. Software tools like compressors and gates will help control peaking volume and boost low vocal levels, but too much fiddling will result in a flat, auto-tuned sound. This digital, flat tone is the sound engineer’s worst enemy. That said, once you have your vocals dialed-in so you can hear every part of the take without the volume needle jumping around too much, you’re almost out of the woods.
The capstone rookie mistake of mixing vocals is to set them too loud. Vocals draw an awful lot of attention, as anyone knows. If they’re loud, the band vanishes – poof – even if you can still hear them. If they’re too quiet, listeners will strain their ears hard to hear them. It’s better to err on the side of too-quiet with vocals than too-loud. If it seems you just can’t get it right, you probably need to go back and look at some of the other tracks.
6. Whole package
Now that you’ve got everything sorted, go do something that takes your mind off it. The more time you can afford to spend away from the mix, the better. Listen to albums you’re not too familiar with. When you come back to your DAW, everything will sound different. Tweak everything until you get it right where you want it.
7. The car-stereo test
The car-stereo test is a time-honored tradition and the engineer’s best friend. Put your mostly finished mix on your car stereo and drive around with some friends. Listen to what you can and can’t hear with the windows down and the volume up and vice-versa. If you’re always testing your mix on amazing headphones and speakers, you may be sorely disappointed the first time you hear the material on average equipment.
Last but not least, you still need to get your record mastered. Mastering requires a great deal of education and many years of experience. There isn’t any substitute for an expert sound engineer when you’re getting the album mastered. Part of this is simply biological. Some people have “the ear,” and some people don’t. It’s also a matter of having exquisite taste.
Mike McHugh of Costa Mesa’s famous Distillery music studio once said, “Of course everyone has their own opinion about everything, but – my opinion’s right.”
Unless people pay you to master your record, you can’t do it yourself. Hardly anyone can. It’s a magical, mystical thing that happens in basements somewhere with wizards and turntables, and it’s not expensive. Get your record mastered, period.
When the above is complete, you’re ready to distribute your music to the world! Get yourself a dependable, widespread and inexpensive digital music distributor, and let the listeners of planet Earth enjoy your hard work. With effort and art in equal measures, every musician can sell music online.