When trying to make a clear mix, start with proper routing in which the outputs of your tracks are routed to busses – then use high pass filters, high-frequency saturation, compression on the lead vocal, and some air bands to add clarity. Finish the mix and export each individual stem.
Start with Proper Routing
Although it’s not the most exciting aspect of production, starting with good routing is important to achieving a clear mix. I’ll group similar instruments together, and change their outputs to busses – this way I can control an entire group’s level or effects via one of these busses.
Additionally, it lets me process tracks in multiple areas. For example, I can process the lead with specific effects for the lead, but process the bus with other effects that sound good on the vocal group.
Insert HighPass Filters, (Maybe 200Hz Dip)
The easiest way to create some clarity is to use some highness filters on instruments – and maybe dip a little of roughly 200Hz on the lows. You shouldn’t do this to every instrument, just ones that are making the mix sound muddy or ones that don’t need to occupy lower frequencies.
For example, if my synth pad is occupying 100Hz, I may want to cut this out. Same with acoustic guitars and other similar instruments.
Saturate High Frequencies
Saturation with control dynamics and add some harmonics – if you pick the right saturator you can add a lot of clarity to an instrument. For this, you can use frequency-specific saturation or use an exciter, which creates higher-order harmonics, higher up in the spectrum.
Izotope makes a good exciter, but there are definitely other options available.
Compress Lead Vocals
Although this seems obvious, having a dynamically controlled and upfront vocal is one of the best ways to create clarity in a mix. Since the vocal is the most identifiable instrument from the majority of listeners, it’s important to have it be the forefront of most mixes.
Just a quicker attack, a release of about 40ms, and achieve about 6dB of compression to create a controlled vocal. Then increase the gain to compensate for the attenuation.
Use an Air Band EQ
With controlled dynamics and a balanced eq response, I’ll use some air bands and high shelves to add a little more clarity where needed. Maybe on the vocal, I’ll boost 12kHz and up, or do something similar on the snare – I can even make this EQ mid-side to control the image.
For example, I could create an air band on the side image to both brighten an instrument or group, and to expand its stereo width.
Use Some Binaural Panning
Binaural panning lets you place instruments in a wider range than left and right panning, meaning you can take advantage of a wider array of space for your instrumentation. This shouldn’t be used on very important instruments like the lead of kick, but more on background instruments.
So say a background effect is in the middle image and taking up too much space, I can use binaural panning to give all the instruments a little more room.
Low-Side Cut on Busses
Next, on our busses let’s use a Mid-side EQ to make sure our lowest frequencies are mono. So on the Drum bus, I’ll create a high-pass filter on the side image and cut up to above 80Hz – in turn ensuring the low frequencies are only in the mid.
This creates more room in the low end, causing a clearer, and more driven, and focused mix.
High Hz. Parallel Upward Compression
Next up, let’s try something a little experimental and send one of our busses to a parallel auxiliary track. On this track, I’ll insert an EQ, cut up to about 4kHz, and change the phase to a low-latency linear phase setting to avoid phase cancellation later on.
Then, I’ll insert an upward compressor, to increase the signal’s level from the noise floor up. Using the fader, I’ll blend this parallel track in with the mix.
Finish Levels Before Exporting
Last up we get to alter the balance between our instrument groups using the bus faders, maybe pulling down the bass a little to create some clarity of increasing the level of high-frequency instruments to do the same. We can also adjust the individual instruments, making one stick out.
Whenever this balance is done, I’ll bounce out my full mix, as well as solo each bus, and export those one by one as my stems.
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