Mixing music is quite often a thing of personal taste – while some like to have crispy highs (and loud HiHats and Cymbals), others prefer a more bassy sound. But why is it still a bit muddy or muffled (or too tinny)? Here are five quick tips that can help your mix – plus one quick look at a picture showing how not to do it:
Frequencies you don’t need
The first and foremost job is to clear the frequencies on your channels. Humans don’t really hear a lot below 20 Hz, so get that stuff out of your mix – it’s there, you just don’t hear it, but despite you not hearing anything below 20Hz (depending on the listener’s ears this threshold usually is somewhat higher…), it still has information there, so the speakers need to move a lot for something you don’t even hear, and that can already make your mix worse than it needs to be. You can just do this with the EQ or a filter in your master bus.
I also usually filter most channels (apart from deep sounding instruments) with the low EQ at around 100 Hz and below. With high instruments you might sometimes want to set that threshold even higher. Just listen to the solo’ed channel to determine if it’s too much you’re filtering – because although it’s a high frequency instrument, the lower frequencies might add to its distinctive sound. So if you take away too much in that area, it might not sound right anymore.
Same goes for the other end of the spectrum: With some deep sounds you might not need high frequencies – but be careful here as well, as you might take air (see below) out of it, so that it sounds muddy or muffled. If that’s the case, keep the higher frequencies, even if your Bass plays down below.
Also, bass instruments tend to sound muffled easily, but there’s an easy cure: Cut the frequencies around 135Hz a bit (play around with the center frequency and the Q – in my experience 135 Hz works most of the time) to make it brighter without loosing its bass.
I tend to rather cut frequencies in mixing than to boost a lot. Boosting is not bad, but it often can bring up a lot more in the boosted frequencies than you’d wish for, making the overall sound worse – especially when you do this in a lot of channels. Quite often you can get the same effect by cutting the frequencies you don’t want/need in an instrument, so the desired frequencies stand out more.
And if your mix is a bit too wishy-washy, try boosting between 2 and 8 kHz a bit. Careful though, this can make it sound too cutting pretty quickly.
Kick and bass and all the panorama
Having all instruments live in their respecitve frequency spectrum so they don’t interfere too much is a good start, but don’t forget the stereo panorama (unless you have to make a mono mix, which honestly I usually don’t care about). Spread your channels wide to open up the mix. Think of a traditional rock band: These four or five people can’t all stand at the same spot on stage, so mix it like you’re seeing a band (or orchestra) on stage. There are a few center members like the vocalist or a solo instrument, plus the drums usually behind them (Kick Drum pretty much in the center, HiHat and Snare slightly to either side and Toms and Cymbals spread out a bit more – sometimes you can get bold here and spread them out more than a real drumset would be, especially with percussion elements). Then you’ll have other instruments to the left and right of these centered elements, and maybe some very far to the left and right.
Also, having the Bass move to the left or right of the Kick Drum seperates these two notorious problem kids a bit, so you might not have to cut frequencies too strongly there or side-chain the Bass with the Kick signal (something that I quite frankly don’t do that often).
Give it some Air
Something that’s still a bit of a strange concept or well kept secret for many people is what’s called “Air”: Very high frequencies, that can make the mix more open and can add a spatial sense. I usually add air in the master bus, using a shelf EQ at around 16 kHz and boosting it depending on the song. Some can use a lot of air, some tend to sound digital and hissing if you just boost it a little.
Also, if the mix is a bit muddy, boost the frequencies around 8 kHz a little. But once again: Don’t make it too hissing.
Quieter instead of louder
This is a short one, but it’s easy to forget it: If some channels don’t get through the mix, the first reaction is often to make them louder (I must admit that I still fall for that often enough 😉 ). But most of the time it’s better to make everything else a bit quieter to get the balance right.