If you’ve been mixing for a while and you want to learn how to do it better, some small but important tips may improve your productions. Knowing where clipping is occurring, some good free plugins to expedite workflow, and how you can utilize saturation to void high CPU.
If you’re using a more modern DAW the processing is 64-bit, meaning you have a lot more headroom than you think. Notice that when the signal hits unity on a channel’s meter, it turns yellow, not red - this is the DAWs way of saying that you’re not creating clipping distortion.
The same could be said about 64-bit plugins - although some analog emulations purposely cause saturation at higher input and output levels. In short, the only place you’ll find hard-clipping distortion is at your stereo output.
Free plugins after often great at single simple tasks, which means they can come in handy when mixing. For example, Fresh Air by Slate Digital is perfect for making an instrument or bus brighter and airy - or FET by Accenitize is a fantastic transistor emulation for distortion.
I use both of these on a regular basis when mixing, so I’d recommend these and whatever makes mixing easier.
Saturation is an incredibly powerful effect - it compresses, adds harmonics, and subtly equalizes depending on the harmonics that form. It’s my go-to effect when mixing, and works incredibly well at covering a lot of bases when your CPU can’t handle that many more processors.
Some saturators also subtly change the frequency response regardless of the harmonics used, so they can really accomplish a lot.
Kick and bass can overlap but shouldn’t do so excessively - since they’re both so powerful, too much overlap will make a mix unbalanced. I like to use an inverse EQ on the bass - I’ll match the EQ on the bass to the kick, then invert the bands.
Since the bass covers more of the frequency spectrum, it helps to shape this one around the kick instead of vice versa.
Stereo imaging is important, especially when you start adding lots of instrumentation that needs a unique space - to do this try using a crosstalk plugin that’ll create realistic stereo expansion. I also enjoy the sound of Logic Pro X’s binaural panning tool - which lets me more accurately place the instrument.
Definitely don’t use this on the kick, bass, or other instruments you can’t afford to lose when converting a stereo mix to mono playback.
Certain reverb times, sizes, and other configurations are better suited for specific instruments. For example, you can blend a vocal into a mix with medium length reverb on the mids, or make an acoustic guitar sound full and have a shimmering effect with a shorter reverb, moderate pre-delay, and modulation.
Reverbs usually include presets named after what they work well for, so this will give you a good indication of what settings can accomplish what effect.
When introducing effects, I don’t always compensate for gain changes for one reason or another - that said, I re-level the individual channels and busses after the processing has been added. Even if you do compensate for gain changes within the plugins, the frequencies of the signals have likely changed.
Subsequently, the phase relationships between the tracks will be different, the perceived loudnesses will be different, and so on, so it helps to reassess all levels via your channel faders before finishing a mix.
Intelligent EQs play a very important role when mixing - they shift the frequency response depending on what signals are present to minimize the effects of masking and create a balanced mix. Although this may just seem like cheating at first, the effect these types of plugins create can’t be replicated.
Since the bands, dips and boosts all depend on the incoming signal, in order to mimic this with traditional mixing, we’d need to automate our EQ settings for each instrument, depending on the notes being played, what other instruments are present, and so on, for our entire song - which would take so so long and probably not be as accurate as this plugin.
It’s a lot more reasonable to use an EQ like this one, utilize very subtle settings and balance the mix.