Sometimes even a “perfect” mix just isn’t right. Even after you’ve used EQ to get all the frequencies of the instruments to fit together perfectly, you’ve got just the right amount of space in your mix and the levels are all set, the mix is still just... boring.
Sometimes even though your mix is technically spot-on, the song requires a little something more to “pop.” Fortunately, there’s almost always something you can do to provide the song with the extra little “kick” it needs to really be the best it can be, and we want to explore some of those here.
Keep in mind, however, that most of these tips need to be used sparingly. Subtlety is often key, as adding too much of any item on this list can often take that perfect mix you started with and leave you with an unnatural sounding mess. Used correctly, however, and you can turn your dull mix into an exciting song that will jump out at listeners.
This is less technical than most of this list, but sometimes all you need is a percussion instrument like tambourine or shaker used on the chorus (or other specific part of the song) to really make that section stand out. Both of these instruments have been used all over popular music for many decades, and are great for highlighting certain aspects of songs without overpowering what’s already there (they are typically mixed fairly low). Even better, with digital recording, it’s very easy to create a loop of one of these tracks to make sure it’s always in time.
Automation also is a great way to make certain sections of a song stand out. While you can do this to your final mix by adding a few dB to, say, the chorus of the song, this can often sound unnatural is not done carefully. Often, a better way is to add the automation to specific tracks.
For example, if you want to emphasize your chorus, raise the volume of the first drum hit of your chorus just a few dB. This can really grab the attention of the listener without sounding unnatural. Of course, this can be done to any instrument at any point in the song.
This shares the same space as adding depth to your recordings, but you can also add an interesting layer of depth with movement effects, such as a flanger, a phaser or tremolo. You can also do this through automated left-right panning.
It should be pointed out that the aforementioned subtlety is particularly key in this case, as using too much of any of these things can quickly result in a swirling, pulsating mix that not only doesn’t sound good but can be a chore to listen to. Any of these effects should only be applied to specific instruments in the mix, and only when it makes sense to have them “move.”
But when used correctly, these tips can really provide a very interesting soundscape to your song that can draw listeners in. For example, there’s a reason why the rotating Leslie speaker is so popular with the Hammond B3 organ (and other instruments) -- because it provides movement that sounds great. Any of the above effects can create similar movement in a mix.
Again, while these tips should often be used sparingly, keep them in your back pocket as an engineer, ready to pull out when needed to save a dull and boring mix.