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Mixing tips debunked? Or maybe not.

YouTube is full of advice on audio and recording. Some of it good, some of it bad, some of it adding more confusion than enlightenment.

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I was recently watching a YouTube video where a college tutor debunks a number of mixing tips that are commonly seen on YouTube.

I don't intend to debunk a debunker because I think that all, or at least most, shades of opinion are worth considering. Music and audio are most definitely not 'my way or the highway' and there are many routes to success (and many routes to failure).

YouTube tip number 1: Add mix buss processing early

Well personally I wouldn't do this. My feeling is that a good mix is crafted in the channels, or tracks if you prefer to call them that. A mix should be brought to as near-perfection in the channels, and only after that should catch-all mix buss processing be applied.

But not everyone works that way. It is common for instance to mix into compression, so that if mix buss compression is part of your technique then you are hearing what it's going to do right from the start. Naturally you have to keep a close eye on how much gain reduction is being applied, or you could end up with a ridiculous amount by the time you have added in all of the tracks. But if that's the way you like to work, then go for it.

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YouTube tip number 2: Use reference tracks often during the mix

If you want your track to be commercially successful, then unless it is a work of amazingly original and high artistic value, then it absolutely needs to be in the same 'sound zone' as other successful works in a similar genre.

But how often do you need to use reference tracks? I would say that you need to get the sound of success into your ears and into your head. It wouldn't hurt to play a couple of successful songs at the start of each session. But during a mixing session? Well I'm going to say that this could create more confusion than it solves. Having said that, if you feel that you need frequent references, and it helps prevent you going astray while you work, then there is no law that says you shouldn't do it. Do what works for you - try it both ways on different days and see for yourself.

YouTube tip number 3: Mix in mono early in the session

There's a good reason for doing this... It helps gain clarity among the important instruments and vocals that you will be working with first. Getting clarity in a stereo mix is easy. In mono it's hard.

But of course, as pointed out in the debunk, there are occasions when you know from the start that something is going to be stereo. Twin or doubled rhythm guitars for instance, or a stereo keyboard pad. There doesn't seem to be any point in mixing these in mono if you know you're going to pan them out later, but it's still a good idea to check mono compatibility from time to time.

My view, and I accept that others will differ, is that stereo is the norm and mixing should be in stereo from the start. But mono compatibility isn't dead yet and it's good to check every now and then.

YouTube tip number 4: Plug-ins are as good as hardware these days

Yes, plug-ins are absolutely as good as hardware. You can make a complete mix of any kind of music solely 'in the box'. You don't need hardware.

That's a bit controversial I know, but notice that I said that plug-ins are "as good" as hardware. I didn't say that they are the same as hardware. I love using hardware, and in many cases it does sound different, and often better, than plug-ins. But a good engineer can achieve fantastic results with a limited range of equipment or software. And if they choose to use plug-ins only, there is no reason that a first-class result cannot be achieved.

YouTube tip number 5: Check your mix on multiple monitors while you mix

Once again this is a preference. It is absolutely essential to check your mix on multiple systems - car audio, ear buds, smart speaker etc. - when you are close to finishing it. But doing this multiple times during the mix seems to me likely to cause more confusion than anything else. But it would be possible to make a case for mixing the foundation instruments and vocals then checking, so that you are sure that the basics of your mix are solid before working on the more decorative elements.

YouTube tip number 6: High-pass filter all tracks that don't need low frequencies

I've heard enough student mixes to know that this is, in general, good advice. The point in the frequency range where bass merges into low-midrange can very often become very cluttered and unclear. Removing the low-frequency energy from tracks that don't need it can clear things up remarkably.

But it has to be done while listening carefully. Take the example of a bass guitar and a rhythm guitar. The bass guitar is obviously the bass, yet the rhythm guitar will have frequencies that stray well into the bass zone. The low E has a frequency of 82 Hz which is definitely bass. But simply cutting at 100 Hz, 200 Hz or whatever isn't the answer. The answer is to chip away at the low frequency end of the rhythm guitar using both the frequency and slope control of your filter, and aim to reach the point where the instruments just connect to each other. So the rhythm guitar doesn't intrude too much into the bass zone, nor is there a gap between the bass frequencies and the rhythm guitar.

YouTube tip number 7: EQ of more than plus or minus 3 dB is wrong

Absolutely not! Whatever sounds good IS good and while I might say from time to time that there are no hard and fast rules, this is the exception. How crazy would it be to have added an EQ boost of 3 dB and not going further if more boost was required?

YouTube tip number 8: Only use EQ cut

Whoever said that? Your equaliser can both cut and boost. If boost was wrong, then why is it there in the first place? The way I like to think of things is that if there's anything wrong with the frequency balance of a track, then cut is the tool to use. If something is OK but could be improved, then boost is in order. Of course these are just personal guidelines, but I think that the general idea has merit.

YouTube tip number 9: Avoid the solo button

No, don't avoid it. Just know when to use it and when not. In general, instruments that are strongly featured in the mix should sound good in themselves. So solo them as much as you need to and make whatever adjustments that you feel are required in isolation.

Other instruments however need to balance with the featured instruments, so it is more likely that you will make adjustments in the context of the whole mix. The exception is that if you hear something that you think is a fault, then the solo button will help you focus in on the problem.

YouTube tip number 10: Room acoustics are not that important if you know your monitors

Room acoustics are always important. Suppose you choose a small room with hard surfaces to mix in. It won't matter how well you know your monitors, the terrible room acoustics will get in the way of your good judgment.

At the other end of the scale, you could have a larger room, maybe about the size of a small school classroom, with professionally-designed acoustics. That is bound to help, and your judgments will be based on your knowledge of both your monitors and acoustics and stand every chance of being good.

In between, we have to accept that home recording studio acoustics are compromised by the room that is available, often a small box room, and the lack of money to afford professionally-designed acoustics.

But anything you can do to improve the acoustics will help. Ideally there should be a balance of absorption and diffusion, although in small rooms my preference is to tilt the balance toward absorption. It would be nice to have tuned standing wave absorbers that match the dimensions of the room, but this isn't done as often as ideally it would be.

Summary

In conclusion, bearing in mind that these are just ten issues out of potentially a million, there is rarely an issue that has right and wrong solutions. Any one issue will have a range of ramifications that need to be considered, and ultimately the best solution is likely to be a compromise.

I'll go back to something I said earlier - "If it sounds good, then it IS good".

By David Mellor Wednesday September 18, 2019
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