It occurred to me that the way I mix songs now is different than the way I mixed songs before. I cannot say I have gotten better. It is likely that my taste has changed a bit – tastes always evolve. The differences in my approach seem minor, but the differences in the result sounds significant.
Some time ago I placed the guitar in the middle of the frequency spectrum. I suppose I was trying to get a "dialogue" between the vocals and the guitar. That dialogue often did not happen, as my songs were busy. The bass was forced at the very bottom of the frequency spectrum. I remember purposefully cutting some of the highs in the bass.
My songs were ending up muddy. The bass was either unnoticeable, or could not carry much of the rhythm, because the initial accent of the pick was largely gone.
I like the bass, as it is one of the more unobtrusive ways to carry a separate melody in a song. Now I often go the opposite way. If there is a conflict between the guitar and the bass, I tend to push the guitar slightly up the frequency spectrum, which leaves more space for the vocals and the bass. The bass carries the rhythm and its melody unhindered, the guitar (and the vocals of course) still remains very front and center.
It took me awhile to get over this one, partly because my vocals have not always required compression, partly because getting the vocals to have the level of restricted dynamics while sounding natural is difficult.
If any of my songs needed compression, but did not get one, these songs became annoying. Excessive vocal amplitudes, as rare or as short as they were, were noticeable and took away from my enjoyment of the final song. They were random and did not fit, randomly bringing the listener out of whatever the song may have offered.
I still do not compress every vocal, but compression has become more of a rule than the exception. The same applies to acoustic guitar tracks. I am especially interested in compression when there are vocal harmonies. I find it important that supporting harmony vocals stay in their dynamic place and add quality to the main vocal rather than stand out on their own.
This should have been obvious, but how is one to know that a slightly hollow kick could sound great during recording, but disappear in the overall mix, usually hidden behind the bass. There is very little one can do if the kick drum is weak, short of replacing it with a sample (there is software that will do that for you).
A song with a weak kick drum is not that bad. You get so used to the song after listing to it hundreds of times that you tend not to think about that. But if you do notice, and replace, the result is amazing.
Yes, paying attention to the recording set up is important.
I still do not pay attention to this one, but my friends do. As we make up vocal melodies in our heads, we may occasionally end up with one that almost fits the underlying key, but only almost. We have now realized that one of our best songs has a vocal melody with a couple of off notes. This was by design, mind you – the vocals did not go flat or sharp, but sang exactly what they were supposed to. It just so happened, that what they were supposed to sing was off the right scale.
The wrong vocal melody is not always as noticeable as you think it should be, especially if we are talking about a single note here and there. You would notice that it does not fit, assume that it is the vocalist's fault, and redo – only to get the exact same result.
We have started working out our vocal melodies on a guitar – just in case. As we are better guitar players than vocalists, the resulting melodies are more complex (and, unfortunately, more pop-song-ish). And then of course, we practice. I have noticed that to loosen up and sing the song well, one must have sung the song (well) many times before. It must come natural. Practicing is not pleasant, as just when you decide that the melody is better, you need to step back and wait before you re-record.
It always surprises me just how much more reverb professionally produced music has than the mixes I produce. In the past, I tried to stay away from too much reverb. I realize styles change, but our first songs ended up with too little reverbs even by 90s standards. As with the kick drum, I used to get confused by listening to the reverberated track on its own. I thought it sounded unnatural, not making sure to see how that same unnatural track will sound in the overall mix. I would also get confused by the big difference in sound the reverb made. After all, I was used to listening to the dry mix and anything different required getting used to the song all over again.
Without some reverb, songs are just boring. With too little reverb, they are still boring. Yes, it is difficult to find a cheap natural sounding reverb, but it is not impossible.
I am now adding a good amount of reverb. It is not overdone, but it is noticeable. As long as every track managed to keep the rhythm correctly, songs are livelier without being loose.