Are you following any “best of” playlists on Apple Music, Spotify, or any other music-streaming platform? If not, you’re missing out on one the greatest ways to keep up-to-date on what’s working for other engineers in the music industry right this second.
Mainstream not your thing? Not an excuse; there are hundreds of readily available playlists for every genre imaginable out there. Find the one that fits your niche and subscribe to it like it’s your guide to the ultimate mix. In a way, it is.
Every single song on these “best of” playlists shares something in common – each one has got a killer mix that was crafted to specifically appeal to the playlist they’ve landed themselves on. While you’re sure to find the biggest names in mixing among these playlists, you’re also going to find some smaller engineers and producers mixed in there. Producers and engineers just like you – working to make the best sounding song possible. These are the engineers that have found their mark and hit the nail on the head right when it counted most.
So what can you take away from their approach that’s gotten them on the chart you deserve to be on? What are they doing differently?
From Good To Great
When you record a song, your goal is to get the perfect sound in the session. When you mix a song, you should be polishing those tracks to make them shine as bright as possible. A great mix will literally jump from the speakers to your listener’s ear, and firmly plant itself at the center of your listener’s attention.
This is where you need to use all of the tools at your disposal to make the perfect mix happen. Use as many plugins as necessary to achieve a sound worthy of a spot on that playlist. EQs, compressors, limiters… Reverbs, delays, wideners… They’ve all got a spot in a mix, but it’s up to you to decide how they’re utilized.
Dynamics (and Dynamic Control)
They dynamics of your mix are going to be the biggest dictator of the energy and impact your song will have. Too much dynamism can be disorienting and sound unfinished, which is why having control over your dynamics is just as important as not smothering them.
Start with the basics – volume and panning. These two elements are the most basic level of control we have over our mix. For decades, volume and pan were all we had as engineers. Engineers had to move musicians around the room, from left to right and closer to and further from the microphone to “mix” a song during a recording session. These early aspects of mixing laid the groundwork for analog mixing, and in turn became the first elements in digital audio workstations.
Today, we can push the boundaries even further, using tools like Sidewidener to change the width of particular sources, both mono and stereo. Tracks in our mixes can be pushed out to the sides to make room for more. Wimpy sounding mono sources can be “fattened up” with mono-compatible spatial widening.
Moving beyond volume and panning, EQ and compression have taken the spotlight for many plugin connoisseurs as the best way to add color to a modern mix. They can provide extra dynamics when needed, or wrangle stray transients when your source audio is a bit too dynamic.
Many compressors now offer their own signature sound through harmonic saturation that enhances the sound. Plugins like Gain Reduction have effectively replaced entire vocal chains by adding their own professional-grade saturation to whatever track they’re added to.
By using all of these dynamic controls in conjunction with each other, every single instrument in your mix should be able to find its own place and balance, no matter how many other instruments are added.
Reverb and delay both naturally occur in recorded music, but using them in a mix can take your raw tracks to new heights. Time-based effects serve two main purposes for mixers: to enhance the space your instruments are in and to create new spaces you didn’t have access to in recording.
The first group consists of the small rooms and halls. They’re the plate reverbs and slapback delays used to naturally build a cohesive, full sound. These types of delays and reverbs can often sound natural. You’ve probably heard them on countless songs, but they’ve been added and mixed in so subtly that it sounds completely natural.
These smaller rooms and shorter delays can be utilized as noticeable, unnatural effects as well; it just depends on the sound you’re searching for.
The new spaces are where your creativity needs to be firing on all cylinders though. Whether you’re using a cathedral setting on a reverb or the multi-head setting on a tape delay, these sounds are just as much part of your sound as any compression on your master bus. Your creativity will decide how ambient or ethereal your time-based effects will get, but to not use them in a mix is leaving a whole part of your mix options unexplored.
Use Reference Tracks
If you’re really looking to fit in with the songs on those playlists, don’t be afraid to use a few reference tracks for comparison. I’m not saying you need to match their sound to a science, but if there’s something that stands out to you, don’t be afraid to go after it. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Maybe you like the guitars in one mix, but the drums in another song really stand out with a punchy tone you’re after. Be the Dr. Frankenstein of mixing hits! Grab your favorite sounds and reverse-engineer them to fit your song. You won’t be the first to take this approach and you certainly won’t be the last.
Perhaps best of all – this approach can get you out of your comfort zone to try some new processing. Even if you don’t perfectly nail the sound, you can easily find a new way to do something in the process that you’ll carry with you into future mix sessions.
Ready to Submit?
Once you’ve got your perfect mix in line with the rest of the playlist, it’s time to make the moves to get on the list!
Apple’s “Best of the Week” might not be the place to start if you don’t have a serious following behind you and a marketing budget to go with it, but you don’t need to wait for those things to come before submitting to others. Find your niche, find the playlists for that niche, and get your music submitted for inclusion!
Is your band on any playlists right now? Come share the playlist with us over in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum on Facebook and let us know how you got there!