Gain Staging – Before we get started, make sure that the volume level going out of each of your plugins isn’t overloading the input of the next plugin. likewise with your sends, and track outputs going into busses. Analog gear is made to handle 0dbVU optimally, and digital gear is modeled after analog gear so ‘line level’ and gain staging brings the benefits of the modeled analog gear acting optimal.
Volume Levels need to be really on point before playing with plugins. One of my favorite tricks is to turn the whole system WAY down and listen to the barely-audible tracks. You want the first to appear to be the lead instrument. I use these as baselines for where I start to automate. Take it section by section after getting basic levels in the same way and set all the volumes with clip gain or automation to taste before diving in.
one controversial note. do panning here, basic panning. plot out where everything is specially. The reason I say controversial is because many people like to mix in mono. Well, there is a ‘mono’ switch on my console and you can just pan a mix bus to center and mix in mono all day. HOWEVER if you set your basic panning then your fx processing will be dealing with stereo material properly while you make your mixing decisions giving you a leg up. Additionally if you’re mixing in mono then use it as an ear fatigue mitigator .. hang out in mono for a while, but then bop over to stereo for a moment here or there to change the atmosphere your ears are hearing. maybe it gives you an extra 10 minutes of clarity. personally I want my mixes to stand the test of time so I mix however I damn well please mono or not
Keep the lead vocal/lead instrument up while you solo things most of the time when doing fine-tweaking. Ok, maybe you don’t need that for repair stuff like iZotope Spectral De-Noise on a track.
make sure you like what you hear while you are tracking. One thing that helps a lot is figuring out masking and undesirable frequencies while tracking. If you’re not tracking, then do it on first listens. It helps my mind, personally, dial into thinking about the mix more and I’m using the same brainpower making the adjustments to compensate for masking as I would be not doing that in that moment. But don’t over-compensate for masking whatever you do for it removes some of the complex art-y feelings from a mix. Forget about mixing things in order, and doing tasks that focus away from the energy of the mix itself. Your ears only have a small window before they start to fatigue so get the balance and vibe right first in a session, then dive into fixing problems. I often will work up a whole mix in about a half an hour to the point where I’m bobbing my head and enjoying it, then I’ll go track by track and solo and mute all the plugins and listen to the raw file, maybe there’s an annoying frequency or it needs some noise reduction. Maybe there’s a moment of clipping that needs smoothing with iZotope de-clip. Usually the tracks don’t need much if anything at this phase because you’ve already been tracking well! Then, and unless your tracking explicitly prevents this, CHECK AND FIX PHASING!! literally slide the tracks so that the transients match up as best as you can. You may have to A/B a few choices because they don’t always match. If you can do this right after tracking, as you’re about to give the artist rough reference mixes of the day’s session it is ideal. so then I unmute the plugins and check that not much has shifted. the vibe will still be there, maybe go for a walk before tweaking all this stuff again though! It’s ok to bill the client for this time, you wouldn’t be taking this walk if you weren’t trying to clear your ears of listening fatigue. get a coffee. Use the time to think about what you’re going to do next in the mix. Trust me in this: if you were to sit in your chair fiddling you won’t get as much done as getting a quick taste of fresh air.
Once you’re back in your chair with renewed energy wrangle together the story of the song. What elements need to be upfront and when. That one lead guitar part seems important, ah yes it goes really nicely with the vocals in the delay .. etc. Highlight, create a shitton of automation not just for volume but going into the aux sends. The aux sends save a ton of time because you don’t have to tweak every little thing
Maybe you need to add something? like a simple doubling of the bass with a MIDI instrument. maybe you need to mute something, or maybe replace a snare drum with a MIDI snare drum (yes I know eeevil)
At some point, toss your buss compressor on the master fader and adjust to happiness. I like to go really easy on this because if it gets mastered I’m not taking it off. And if I master it myself I build from it, not replace it. A lot of mixing decisions are now made THROUGH this buss compressor. This maybe heresy for a pro to say this but I like the result .. I often toss a bombfactory bf-76 on and call it good. maybe I’ll twist the attack down to 1 .. but over the years I’ve come to feel like hitting it nicely also means I have a really good amount of headroom for most of my projects. I don’t lean hard into it, and I’m left with some great dynamics to stack a bunch more 1176’s and then some more good stuff. Maybe I top it off with a L2007 limiter, also listening to the settings, at about -.5 to -0.75db to even -1.3db attenuation (to get rid of any inter-sample clipping)
Back in the day “line level” or 0dbVU was the sweet-spot for analog gear, and since digital plugins etc are modeled after analog electronics perhaps there is a sweet-spot for digital gear too .. and perhaps my silly bombfactory 1176 clone at stock settings (well, with the attack twisted to 1) just kinda work .. because it’s a sweet-spot for the daw (and well, most daws! since most are operating at the same spec)
Use Aux channels in your daw for effects
Instead of loading a plugin on each track. Then use sends which are much less cpu-intensive to send to the aux track with the plugin. Make sure to set the plugin 100% wet. So, for example, if you had an aux channel for your hall reverb you could send all the instruments that use that hall reverb saving space.
Use this aux channel trick for a compressor (or series of compressors like the 1176 into an LA-2A) to bring elements in the mix more up-front. In addition to sharing processing power, the compressor uses all of the combined sources going into it for its dynamics calculations so a lot of glue can be created here. Try sending some of the background instruments just slightly in, while setting the main vocals quite high, even unity. Use the 1176 for the heavy-duty compression and the LA-2A after it for adding presence and power
Use delay to thicken a vocal or other lead instrument. A Slap-back delay can be very natural-sounding (even without additional reverb). Send longer-trailed delays through the reverb to get huge vocals
For the average listener the snare sets the feeling of the room. So if you want to create the illusion of a church, then use at least some of that church reverb on the snare to create the illusion
Make early decisions
Early decisions create a sense of moving forward with a project and gets stuff done. First instincts are often the best. Learn from mistakes and move on to the next project. Over time your mixes will be much better than if you try to get the first one perfect
Use more than one reverb
One perhaps to flatter lead sources. One ambiant reverb to place a little space around a guitar or to push some instruments back to the rear of the mix while still being audible. Put one reverb through another reverb and adjust the wet’dry of the 2nd (remember this is on a separate aux channel in your DAW so the 2nd would follow the first!).
Early reflections tell the ear how close a source is. Late reflections tell the ear what the room sounds like. Pre-delay conveys the size of the room
Use eq on reverb
The Abby Road trick .. bandpass the fuck out of your reverb channel to drench a source in reverb without it sounding overpowered by the reverb
Don’t use a lot of plugins
Use fewer tools to create cleaner mixes. the cleanest mix just needs a bunch of high and low pass filters. In reality most mixes need more than that to sound complete to most people’s ears but be intentional with plugins. often times I use zero plugins on a track because it doesn’t need it.
Make mixing decisions while you’re recording
Perhaps you want to tame the cymbals of the drum kit — use a ribbon mic with some high-frequency roll-off if that fits the sound. Mic up-front sources in the mix closer, while place the mic further away for elements that will be in the background. Have the vocalist step back while tracking background vocals for example. Dial in some good analog gear to make some early decisions
Mix for an optimal source but also be friendly to as many speakers as possible
You do want the mix to be able to sound really good. But it also needs to sound good on a phone
Use a trim or gain plugin to feed your modeled plugins the desired level. Usually the DAW feeds them a bit too quiet, so they model the noise from raising the gain
If it sounds good, follow that!
Say you’ve been tweaking minute settings on some plugin for the last 20 minutes and you step back and decide it’s exactly how you want it. First of all, take a break but second .. trust your instincts. but also definitely take a break you have some ear fatigue. But once you’ve taken your break make sure to let your ears do all of the decision making because there is no right setting. more often than not the best setting is with the plugin on “bypass”
Ear fatigue is huge. Make sure to take a break after 2 hours, or you’ll be making bad decisions. After a while the ears stop being able to discern pitch, volume, and well .. sound very well. So you’ll wind up ruining a mix. Learning to move quickly in your DAW or other recording equipment will help you avoid ear fatigue. Also mix at low levels to avoid ear fatigue. This also helps with understanding how your mix will translate while quiet, in consideration with the Fletcher-Munson curve
On the software side of things
First make sure you manage all of your files names etc so that you can find them easily! Set the auto-save to once every minute or few so that you don’t lose precious time when your DAW crashes. Conversely, every day or major change you do save a milestone session file (“Save As…” in Pro Tools) so that you can go back in time to previous versions of the mix, and to right after you’ve tracked.
On first starting a digital mix once tracking is complete I find it very helpful to create an ‘all tracks’ group that’s everything that creates audio (and not a bus etc), enable it, and then pull all of these tracks down about 6db. This gives the master faders and bus/aux track processors plenty of headroom and essentially a blank slate for you to bring out lead instruments without fear of nasty unintentional digital clipping
Pay close attention to the gain level between plugins .. just as important as gain-staging in the analog world, clipping in plugins causes very un-desirable distortion. Plugins sound their best when given an ideal line-level signal. Often vintage plugins are modeled that line-level is their input’s sweet spot so feeding a strong but just-not-quite-clipping the input signal is usually ideal to bring out the characteristics of the plugin-versions of vintage gear.