Let’s bust a central myth around audio production and mixing: You don’t need enormous amounts of cash to make a stellar, pro-sounding record. If you’re the type to dig in and DIY, or just generally looking to spend your cash on other aspects of your musical journey, you will find this article valuable. Here’s a track that was produced entirely at home:
Proposed bare-bones setup
- Microphones to capture sound
- Computer + DAW
- Pro-Monitoring headphones
- Studio monitors [Optional, but highly recommended]
- Soundcard/audio interface
- Your ears
You can read about all the gear I use and recommend, here. There are plenty of great articles on how to record your instruments, which is a highly important science and which I’ll leave to you to dive deeper into. What I’m more interested in, is putting things together once they’re recorded, and making it sound cohesive, and slick. For drums, I use a drum machine/sampler. There are plenty of options in the market that get you pro sounding drums with minimal drum-mixing and tweaking. If you’re interested in recording live drums, this is still possible but is definitely trickier to mix in and will require a sound understanding of the upcoming concepts. Please bear in mind that this article in particular has a bias towards rock and guitar driven music, but these are universal concepts that can be extrapolated to any genre.
Now, onto the real magic:
A good mix will have good separation between instruments and respect their individual sonic space(s), while at the same time leaving room for interplay between frequencies. Too much separation leads to a sterile, lifeless mix. Also bear in mind that the human ear is most attuned to hearing live music. Recorded audio only tries to replicate that aural sensation, and hence the mixes that really stand out are the ones that are engineered around the beautiful, ethereal physics of live sound.
Broadly, frequencies go in the following order (low to high)
Lows (0 to 150 Hz) – Bass guitars, and kick drums only please.
Low-Mids (150 to 400 Hz) – Warmth on vocals, warmth on instruments (eg: guitars).
High-Mids (400Hz to 5Khz) – Presence and attack on instruments, Can also be clarity on voices.
Treble (5 to 10Khz) – Clarity on voices and cymbals.
Presence (10 Khz+) – Shimmer, overall ‘brightness’ of a mix.
By far the most important concept if you want to mix yourself. Put simply, compression is a way of levelling ‘peaks’ in your audio. Sonically, this has the effect of making things fatter, or thinner based on how you use compression. You can write tomes on compression and still not cover it all – I wrote a primer on the basics of compression to get you started.
Space is not reverb. Reverb is not space. Repeat after me. More often than not, you don’t need reverb to save your mix. Reverb has the effect of pushing things into the distance. In frequency terms, applying reverb usually dips the treble spectrum on the track. Next time, instead of reaching for the reverb fader, try cutting treble frequencies on the sound you’re trying to push into the background and see how that feels. Result: Clarity, yet not in your face.
Finally, a good mix is made even better with great mastering. That’s worth a separate article in itself and is generally considered a more esoteric science than mixing, but I’ve found relatively good results with DIY. Think of mastering as applying the final touches and immortalizing your work of art into a shining, gold-plated frame. The skills used in mastering are exactly the same as the ones above, but good mastering engineers work in extremely precise monitoring environments and hear things that humans don’t hear (Okay, that’s not true). But you get the idea.
- Avoid the top 10 mistakes of home production.
- Record your tracks as tightly as possible, to a click track. If you want cohesion, you want tightness. No amount of post-processing will save a bad take from ending up in the trash, or worse, on your record!
- Use your ears. Do not trust internet fads.
- Learn, unlearn, relearn – I’m learning everyday. This article does not mean that mix-engineers and mastering professionals don’t have a purpose anymore – They are highly skilled individuals who have most of this + more knowledge in their repertoire. Talk to them, learn from them, adapt.
- Good gear will generally get you better results, but you don’t need to spend tens of thousands of dollars on it. But if you can, do it.
- When starting, benchmark your production with the sound of records you love. Before you know it, and with practice – you’ll be setting your own benchmarks