There is always so much subjectiveness when it comes to mixing music – what sounds like a great mix to one person may as well be considered garbage by another. Also what works for one genre may not qualify for another. Setting aside all those differences though, there are still some general or universal ideas and tips that apply to most of the mixing projects.
Essentially mixing in stereo means combining multiple audio channels from different sound sources like vocals and various musical instruments. In addition, stereo aims to replicate the aural perspective and localization of instruments. The goal of stereo mixing is to create an illusion which should be compliant with how the human brain perceives sound and replicate what a person’s two ears hear and what their brains decode in reality. It depends on how the brain determines the incoming sound’s location and analyzes the time and tonal differences between the sound arriving at one ear and the other. Ideally, a true stereo mix is almost indistinguishable from an organic live performance. Practically, this is rarely achieved due to several limitations. It is even more common for stereo mixing to have more to do with creating a balance between the various musical features of a recording, rather than replicating real the original sound of real-world conditions.
Common characteristics of a good mix
- Clarity – each sound should be distinct, sharp and clean. This means that there should be no blurring of the sounds and no excess noise.
- Separation – each instrument and part should be easily recognizable. This is also related to clarity as each sound should be clearly distinguishable.
- Balance – There should be a balance between left and right channels and also between the frequencies. High-pitched or too low frequencies are unwanted.
- Space is referring to places between the tunes; they allow the sound to “breathe” and dynamics to develop and progress.
- The source – There is no way you can get a good mix without a quality original recording. The cleanest and undistorted sounds make for the best stereo mixes. When you record, listen carefully to avoid mistakes, unexpected noises, and other alterations because it is more challenging to re-record a track or fix it when mixing than to do it right in the first place. Also avoid adding too many overdubs, only add what is right for the song. Listen to it and just give it only what it needs.
Some tips before you start
Mix with fresh years, not when you are tired. Working on a new mix after you’ve been tracking for hours will not do any good to your projects. Besides, try to keep low and medium volumes – too high levels will affect your hearing and perception. You should also remember to change your position and perspective when listening to the mix to test how it will behave when not in the studio sweet spot.
It is crucial that you periodically check your mix in mono to avoid phase cancellation or other issues with phase when working with stereo sources. Listening in mono gives you another perspective, as well. It flattens out the mix and gives you a sense of how much natural separation there is between the notes. Make sure to leave at least some elements of your mix in mono or give them a mono reverb, in this way you are providing them with ambiance and a sense of localization.
More often than not bass and low-frequency tones work best when placed in the exact center. Because they are not directional and they contain most of the energy in a mix, it is advisable to keep them in the middle of your mix.
If you are trying to add depth to a mix, you can do that by mixing guitars in stereo, particularly in a busy mix. Spreading apart the guitars will create space for the bass and other middle-panned parts.
For creating a stereo image of an acoustic guitar, try using a pair of directional mics either using the mid-side technique or with one pointing at the body just below the sound hole and the other at the top of the neck. Another means to create depth is doubling guitars. There are several ways you can do that:
- by manually double-tracking the guitars;
- recording the same track with a different tuning;
- panning the original part to one side and then adding a delay and setting the delay to return to the opposite side;
- running the track through two different amps with different settings.
When you are blending lead and back vocals, you should have in mind that lead vocals are usually at the center and in front, whereas you can get creative with the background vocals. The most common technique that works just fine in most cases is to put the back vocals to the left and right of the lead (who is centered) Spreading the backing vocals across the stereo field works wonders for widening your track, but be careful not to set them too wide apart. You can try putting the lead just a nudge to one side and the back vocals to the other.
Don’t be afraid to be asymmetrical with your mix by placing elements on one side or the other. And don’t be afraid to improvise, experiment and try new things. Just remember the most important tip, always let your ears be your guide, as they are your most valuable asset.