02 Feb Mixdowns and Madness
A mixdown is the second to last process in the production of a tune (last being mastering), for me anyway. A full mixdown will, if done right, fully bring out and compile all the good things about your tune and bring it a step closer to completion. Mixdowns are also part of the service I offer as Sine Sound so if you’d like me to help out with your tracks, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
As a definition; I believe that if you are mixing your own track, the term “mixing” really only applies to the process of dedicating attention solely to the VOLUMES of each track and BALANCING (or MIXING) all the (completed) tracks in the project together. However, mixing someone else’s track, especially in the context of Sine Sound and the music production industry, involves a much more involved process and has a different definition; it combines actual production and regular mixing as I will go quite in-depth with EQ, compression, processing and other effects on someone’s completed stems as well as adjusting the track faders to create the final MIX. When someone gives someone else their finished song to MIX, usually, it involves tweaking, editing and most other aspects of production but generally does NOT involve many creative or compositional changes or choices.
So, for the sake of this article, I will be looking at and talking about a mixdown done by oneself, for oneself.
I really like doing mixdowns on my own tunes as I only allow myself to do them once the design and arrangement of a track is 99 or 100% complete and I always know my track will sound at least a little bit better after a complete mixdown, no matter how closely I think I’ve paid attention to levels during the production of the track.
Although I said I only approach a mixdown once my track is just about fully completed, I do also “mix as I go” as some people may say; this means as I’m designing sounds, arranging and producing music, I’m also “mixing” as I go and getting volumes and levels ROUGHLY correct as I see fit as I go.
When the time comes to do a mixdown for a typical, bass-heavy DNB tune, I approach it like this:
- Render out almost all tracks in the tune (especially drums and basses; things that require transients to be surgical and have no different modulations each play) to audio files.
- Do a save-as of the project and rename it “*trackname* mixdown” (good habit to save-as regularly during production of a tune) in case you screw up drastically (pretty unlikely) and need to revert to and old project.
- Import my rendered bass and whatnot into the new project and delete any now redundant bass synths (for cleanliness and less clutter). My aim is to have my entire track simply in single audio tracks.
- Zero the mixer! We’re trying to get a blank, clean slate to work with. I open up the Cubase mixer and bring as many faders down to -inf as possible (I mute tracks with volume automation). Pro-tip: if you have group tracks, just zero the group track otherwise the submix of the other 1-10 tracks or whatever you have feeding into the bus will be ruined.
- Now, the fun part. Ensuring I have no processing happening on my master channel and all faders are at -inf, I’ll find a drop or the loudest part in the tune and start with the kick and snare. The reason for this is that you want the loudest part of your tune to be the ceiling of how high the signal reaches in your song; remember, in the digital world, we have a finite amount of space to contain all our sound so if the loudest part of your track can sit at least a few dB comfortably under 0dB on the master then you’ll be sweet for the rest of the track.
- I think of DNB mixes like this; you have your kick + snare, subbass and your “mids” (usually bass mids but whatever else is the main “voice” in your tune). These are the three elements I focus on initially trying to be the main parts of the mix.
- I imagine my kick and snare being the anchors of the tune, or being the “highest, loudest” point of the tune. This varies from genre to genre of course but in drum and bass, the snare really acts as a centrepiece to the mix.
- I bring the kick and snare up, usually to somewhere like -6dB or so. These two elements are what I will build just about everything else around and in relation to.
- I’ll loop the first 8 bars or so of a drop. Once my kick and snare are at good levels, I’ll bring up the subbass. It helps to use a spectrum to check roughly where your sub level should be in relation to your kick and snare, especially if your monitoring is bad (check this post here: http://www.sine-sound.com/a-few-notes-on-monitoring/).
- From here, I’ll move onto mids and other basses. Generally, you’d like to have your mids and basses sitting just “under” or at the same perceived volume as your kick and snare, although this can vary depending on the sound and style of tune. It’s an abstract thing to think about but in a lot of tunes where you might initially think the bass sounds are the loudest points in the mix, they’re actually sitting just under the snare if you pay attention to it. Don’t lose track of the anchors of your tune!
- Once I get these three things at a decent level I’ll go through the project 8 bars at a time, raising every track up to where I think it should (important: make sure you don’t forget any tracks. keep checking the mixer to make sure you haven’t left anything muted/zero’d before you finish). Just keep the rest of your track in mind as you do this and always listen to the drums and basses.
- Another important thing to consider during mixdowns is the dynamic range contrast of the mix ie. the difference in loudness between your intros/bridges etc and your drops. It depends on the tune really and how you want it to work out. It can be nice having big differences in volume between intros and drops to give maximum impact to drops but it really depends on the construction of your tune and what the tune is trying to say.
- Be sure to mix/test mixes on different sound sources (at least two!); headphones are good for getting really detailed with mixes but a lot of the time headphones will mask other things which become immediately apparent when played through monitors so check extensively on both and more sources.
- Once your initial mix is done, save and turn off. I don’t recommend doing a full-track mixdown in different parts. How my ears hear the tune differ greatly depending on how long I’ve been listening etc. so I’ll always do a mixdown in full then come back to it the next day or so and I’ll usually find something that needs to be changed slightly. From there, test the tune on more speakers (eg. in a car, a friend’s speakers, home hi-fi etc) and keep A/Bing during the entire mixdown process with pro tunes to see how your favourite producers have mixed certain elements of their tune.
As you become more experienced and confident in one style or genre of mixing, you will begin to notice how different genres are mixed and how different elements of songs are mixed and how you can subtly manipulate different elements for certain effect; for example, a vocal pop song requires an entirely different set of structures and mixing criteria than a dancefloor drum and bass tune and there are many different styles of mixing even within drum and bass; every tune is different!
Something I want to stress is this; focus only on the quality of your production and the end result of your mixdown. A mistake people commonly make is that things will “get fixed in mastering” or that their tracks will become “loud and punchy” in mastering. This is false; mastering can only enhance what is already there and remedy weak points to a degree. GREAT MIXES TRANSLATE TO GREAT FINISHED TRACKS! The better you produce and mix your track and the better it sounds before mastering, the better it will sound AFTER mastering!