Your ears lie to you, Think INSIDE the box

When your mixing something, do you ask " why am I putting this element here? " or do you just add on things like reverb, compression etc without thinking how it effects the mix?

If I had a dollar, for every email I got on the subject  " HELP ME TO MIX LIKE A PRO " , I'd be rich. I'd say I get asked this 10 times a day. I used to offer help, and I still love to give feedback when I can. However, like any long term producer has found out, its all about knowing " what sounds good ".

When you start producing, start making your own tunes you most likely can't tell what sounds good and what doesn't ( mix wise). You think after 3 months that your " mixdown " is almost pro level ( I did, I thought this for a year ) . I didn't even have the ability to see how bad my mixes where.  This was my major flaw . Over time, years, my ears slowly started to hear more and more stuff in the mix, stuff I couldn't even tell was there 2-3 years prior. It was like seeing the matrix, or walking into a club sober and everyone's drunk , everything sounded different.

Looking back on this now, its obvious this would happen and be the logical course of events, but I spent months, years trying to find some " secret " mix trick that would make everything sound awesome. I didn't, but I did learn a shit ton of valuable info that I feel no one really talks about, because it isn't fancy/ fun or " easy " . If you truly want to make the best productions you can, keep reading.

Let's get weird for a minute, what do you think about, no better yet what do you VISUALIZE when you mix. Do you just put stuff together that " sounds cool ", remember your ears can lie to you, or do you actually look at stuff on the EQ, see where it is hitting and then try to make all your sounds fit together like a puzzle. I try to picture my mix like a box, a  3d Box

My box looks like this,

1 . Front and Center - Kicks, The bulk of the Snare, the main bass element, the main vocal element, the main lead synth/ hook element.

Typically speaking I tend to keep the important stuff front and center. How do you keep stuff front and center?  Simple, Volume. The loud elements, will be front and center, if you mix them right. The key to this is NOT MIXING EVERYTHING LOUD, this is far to common that all elements are mixed loud, keep the important ones loud, not all.   Don't use a ton of reverb ( reverb is pushing stuff to the back of your box, which is great for some genres, but I typically hear tracks that have WAY to much reverb on everything which is just clashing and pushing everything back, if you want a clean mix, some things need little to no verb, somethings need more, don't cake it all over everything randomly.

Compression plays a huge role in this as well, people tend to seem ( and I used to ) just slap on compressors, on already over verbed tracks, which just makes the reverb more bulky and in the back of the mix, when in doubt DON'T compress, there is a volume knob, use that instead until you know 100% what the compressor is doing to the mix ( again, when your new, you most likely can't hear this damage AT ALL ) . This is also a common problem when producers master their own tracks, they may have the above problems, PLUS an over compressed master channel ( or worse , they mixed the track into a compressor on the master ) this just leads to a giant cluster fuck of fighting sounds. This is why getting your tune mastered by another set of ears, is always a solid practice.  

There are many more reasons, ( you could prolley think of hundreds honestly ) why the center of the mix gets jacked up, we will go over those in later articles.

2. Back of the Box - Supporting elements, Pad's , Key's, Pluck Sound, Vocal harmony's etc.

NOW , huge point here, I am NOT saying that all plucks, pads, keys etc go in the back, I am just saying that SOME things in the track, will be better suited in the back.

Long story short, you can't have EVERYTHING in the front, won't work, don't try. ( ok some EDM tracks are so simple, they have 3 things playing at once, so its mostly in the front, but even these will usually throw reverb in the back of the mix so it sounds big ) . More on this later.

So what are some ways to get stuff in the back? Well the opposite of the above front and center stuff, reverb, chours, sometimes phasers , delay's etc can push stuff in the back .  Volume, is also key here as one could view " low volume " as being pushed to the back/ down in the mix and this is also highly important and brings me to my next point....

DON'T MAKE ALL ELEMENTS LOUD, the magic of a great mix is having elements across different ranges of volume, coming in and out of the mix. Most mixes that are " bad " sound like a wall of compressed sound, as everything is trying to be up front/ loud and in your face, this can never work so don't.

Next time your mixing something, just ask yourself, why am I putting this element here?

3. Side elements - 

Now you may notice I am NOT listing what you could put on the side, why? because there are so many things you could or couldn't that I feel I would do more harm then good.  Typically speaking, higher elements in the freq range sound better on the side ( not ALL of them , but say you have a high element lead, and a high element pad, moving the pad to the side, could help the lead shine through etc).

 I feel, it is often best to get the center/ main stuff sounding SICK, then worry about what you " can add" to the sides, or what you want to do to make it sound bigger. Sometimes, something as simple as panning some noise or hats to the side and adding reverb cleanly, can make your track sound MUCH BIGGER 

 When adding stuff to the sides, be very aware of how " over bearing " the elements can be, they can easily over take the main elements and get washed out by highs , as always less is more.

These are the basic steps to what I call 3D Box theory, I will be doing more on this later if anyone seems to be getting value out of it . 

With Love,

_nyon 

Posted on August 2, 2014 and filed under Music Production.