Mixing to get the sound that you want is not easy and so putting down some simple rules to guide you through the process is important. As always, these are my rules – yours may be different. You should do what sounds good to you. Hopefully though, my experience will help. Why a rock song? Because this is what I have experience with.
Before we get into specifics, here are some simple preliminary rules in no particular order:
- Try to get the sound that you want of the individual instruments during recording. It is much easier to find that sound while recording rather than modify it later during mixing.
- Get an idea of how your song should sound by listening to professionally recorded songs that you like. Comparing your sound to the sound you want to achieve will give you good ideas of what to do. During recording and during mixing, pop a CD of that professionally recorded song in your CD player and listen to it. Even better, put that same CD in your computer and play it through your good soundcard and monitor speakers. Then put your song in the same place and listen to it. Make notes on how the two differ. Note the differences in volumes, panning, equalization, amount of reverb, and so on.
- Use proper monitoring equipment. Mix through your better soundcard and better speakers or headphones. This is especially true for headphones as it is so difficult to find headphones that actually sound "true". Listen to professionally recorded CDs that you are familiar with and note how your headphones or speakers sound with those CDs. Note that finding headphones that sound good is cheaper than finding speakers that produce the same sound, but I have always preferred speakers as they allow the sound to develop better. For the same reason, if I use headphones, I would generally stick with open-air ones.
- Set up your monitoring equipment properly. Make sure that your monitoring volumes are even in both left and right speakers. Try to mix at higher volumes rather than quieter ones, but do not go overboard. It would be easier to hear things at higher volumes. If you are using monitor speakers make sure that they are properly placed. A couple of months ago I mixed a song without paying attention to the fact that one of my speakers was right next an empty wall which artificially amplified the sound. When I moved to a CD player the song sounded heavily panned to one side and unbalanced.
- Bear in mind that what sounds good on your monitors may not sound good everywhere else. Take your mix to a boom box, then to a car stereo, then mix to mp3 and listen through your mp3 player. Figure out what your most likely target audience and distribution platform is and try to mix for those. Do you expect, for example, to distribute most of your music digitally through mp3s? If so, then definitely check out how an mp3 will sound. There is absolutely nothing wrong with creating different mixes for different target platforms. You could have one mix for your CD and a different mix for your mp3 distribution.
- Do not overproduce. I often listen to live performances by new bands and later look to buy their music only to discover that the sound in their recorded songs has nothing to do with the sound I heard on stage. The bass has disappeared, the guitar has become thin, the hihats sound artificial, the kick is hollow, and the vocals are overwhelming. The whole concept of a rock sound is basically gone. Nothing can replace the raw sound of a stage performance, but one can surely get very close and still have a professionally sounding song. The biggest mistake in mixing rock sound is overproducing: too much reverb and compression, unrealistic equalizing, and improper understanding of what instruments carry the song (the answer is "all", by the way).
- Do not mix alone. People tend to have preferences for one thing or another that can go out of control. Get at least one other person to listen while you work so you can balance the result. And get as many people as you can to listen and comment on your finished work. You may get some good ideas.
- Mixing is not mastering, but you should still pay attention to how this song sounds in the overall album. A large amount of reverb may sound good in one particular song, but ruin the chances of that song fitting in the album. It is easier to take care of the album sound while mixing individual songs rather than do it later during mastering, when all songs have already been mixed. This means that if you have other songs that you expect will end up on the same album you might as well listen to them while mixing.
All of my general mixing rules concentrate on one point: Prepare well. Decide what you want before you start mixing. Set up your equipment properly. Figure out your target audience and distribution platform beforehand. Decide on your overall sound. Then you can start mixing. Do not forget that the specific sound I like may not be the sound you want. In fact, what I like changes with time, and the album that I am preparing now sounds significantly different than my previous album. This said, I still go by the same rules.