When your mix is almost finished, you can start to feel the law of diminishing returns kick in. The mix adjustments you make start to feel like they have less and less of an impact. You might even start to feel tempted to push things a bit harder, risking over-processing if you’re not careful.
On one hand, the lack of meaningful mix moves can be a sign of affirmation that you’ve achieved the mix you’re after. On the other hand, it can be extremely frustrating when you’re that close to completion and it still feels like something’s missing.
If you’re like me, this often happens with my guitars. They can sound clear and consistent, but sometimes there missing that one “finishing move” to get them to fit perfectly in the mix. Here are some of the moves I find to break my frustration and allows me to put my stamp of approval on the final mix:
Clipping After Compression
Compression is great at smoothing things out, but it can also pull down some of your peaks a bit too much to keep things sounding bouncy and alive. Unfortunately, this is sometimes necessary, as that same amount of compression is needed to tighten up the low-end and stop your rhythm guitars from sounding tubby and loose.
So if your compressor is tightening everything up but sucking some of the life out of your guitars, where can you go?
Many times, engineers will go for a limiter after their compressor to treat the issue. At first it may seem counterintuitive – you want more dynamics, not less. What you end up with instead is some quasi-dynamism in your guitars. By adding a limiter, you’re also introducing some harmonic distortion that can make things seem a bit more dynamic.
As an alternative, clippers like JST Clip can provide that same saturation and crispiness as a limiter, but in a much more transparent way. Rather than act on the entire incoming signal, clippers will grab just the peaks and add some saturation/harmonic distortion to them.
Using a lot of clipping will add an aggressive, snarly tone to your guitars, but just a little bit pumps some life back into a dull signal. Keep in mind: You can always mix in clipping in parallel if you’re worried it will add too much color to your sound.
Treating Rhythm Guitars As A Group
Grouping instruments using aux busses is an integral part of many mixes, and a sign that your mix is nearing completion. By using aux tracks to group instruments like rhythm guitars, you’re building a funnel toward your mix bus and master fader. These funnels can be used to take all of the individual pieces of your mix and slowly morph them into one solid track.
Along the way, you should be treating each group to make them fit together more consistently. A great example of this is the drum bus – a place where nearly all engineers route their percussion for a quick place to raise the overall level or treat their drums as a single instrument.
Rhythm guitars are no exception to grouping, and when it comes to adding some bite to them, there’s really no better time to do it than right after some bus compression. It’s the same process as above – compress, then clip. By doing this on your mix bus, you can hit dozens of guitars at the same time, right where it counts.
Check out how Fluff uses JST Clip on his guitar bus after bus compression to add some tastiness to his guitars:
Hear how transparent the end result is versus what you might get out of a limiter? By keeping his “Mix” at 50% and barely turning up the clipper, he can get just a bit more complexity in his top-end. This is just enough to pique the listener’s interest and polish off his guitar mix.
Build Your Secret Recipe
Colonel Sanders became a millionaire using 11 herbs and spices in his secret recipe – so what’s stopping each of you from doing the same thing with your mixes? Building out a checklist is a great way to improve both quality and consistency in your work. What are the 11 things you can check at the end of each mix to make sure everything is in its right place and sounds right?
I think groups and bus processing are something that should be heavily scrutinized on this list. Accurate timing and tuning are also pretty high up, and should be happening before your mix even starts most of the time.
If you’re looking for inspiration to build out your checklist, check out some of our other mix tips on the JST Blog. Still need help? Come see what others are doing to improve their mix workflow in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum on Facebook.