Mixing metal music is unlike working with any other genre. While there are obviously shared elements with other styles of music, metal as a genre has always had a massive draw for engineers, producers, and mixers like me.
I think a lot of it has to do with the raw aggression and power that a great metal song just permeates. We don’t shy away from imperfections – we annihilate them. Crush them with a limiter or remove them with an EQ; nothing is getting through a metal mixer’s session that they don’t want you to hear.
So, for today, I wanted to give you front row tickets to some of that process. Not just a quick tip for using one or two plugins in your session, but a look behind the curtain at a complete metal mix from start to end using some of the best plugins we have to offer.
Mixing Metal Drums
Metal drums have a special place in mixes for those looking to balance realism with impact. By default, live-recorded drums just generally don’t sound all that great – especially when they’ve been tracked with less-than-ideal equipment in a less-than-ideal room.
In modern metal mixes, getting the right drum mix is just as much about choosing the right samples as it is about microphone placement. Whether you’re going to be replacing drums outright or blending samples in under your live recordings, it’s worth getting familiar with drum replacement and programming if you’re going to be working in this space. A lot of time will be spent here, especially when you’re in the editing phase.
When it comes to the mix itself, your biggest hurdle will be with getting your drums to sound cohesive. There are tons of ways to add punch to a snare, boom to a kick drum, or to fill out your toms, but it’s all for naught if they don’t sound right together.
In these instances, bus processing is the perfect solution – giving all of us the chance to apply dynamic processing to the entire drum mix. By setting up your mix in this way, you begin painting a picture where everything is intertwined – a loud snare hit has an impact on your kick and vice versa. Keeping them in check should be your primary goal at this stage.
Mixing Metal Bass
Bass guitar is a balancing act in most mixes, but possibly no genre feels that demand as heavily as metal. You see, bass guitars in metal mixes are often fuzzy, clanky, and distorted – characteristics best left to other instruments in other genres.
What does this mean for our metal bass mix?
Well for starters, it means you’re going to be more reliant on a great amp tone than you might be with a direct signal alone. Bass cabs are a huge part of many metal bass tones and deserve to be treated with the same level of importance as a rhythm guitar track – often filling in and extending the range of stringed instruments.
Post-amp, your bass guitar also deserves a bit of a one-two punch in the dynamics arena. Looking at the bass track as a low-end instrument isn’t good enough when you’ve got a clanky or buzzy tone in the mix that you need to account for. In these cases, a two-part strategy to bass mixing is a must.
Mixing Metal Guitars
Unfortunately, if your bass is going to reach up into the frequency range of your guitars, it means you’re going to have your cut work out for you to keep them separate, or at a minimum, reinforcing each other. And if that sounds like a challenge, just wait until you hear this one: your guitars are likely encroaching on your bass territory as well!
With the prevalence of extended-range guitars in modern metal mixes, it shouldn’t be any surprise that this is happening. Many extended-range guitars and down-tuned instruments now easily reach into the bass’ traditional frequency range, but they don’t need to fight each other in your mix.
The key is to control the dynamics of both instruments. By taking control of the transients with a compressor or limiter (especially one broken out into frequency bands), we can split things up and make them manageable. This is especially useful with guitar and bass tone tools that have built-in processing, as they’re often designed to work best with the amps they’re paired with.
Metal Mixing In Action
Putting this all into practice might seem a bit intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be any more complicated than you need it to be. Just check out this example from Javi Perera as he runs through one of his mixes using JST and related plugins:
No two metal mixes are going to be identical, and no two mixers are going to hear a song the same way. What you think is the perfect balance for a song might not have enough drums for my taste, and that’s okay. The best we can do is do what sounds right to our ears and trust the feedback from fans and peers to help guide us in the future.