So many times I’ve told people and been told by people: trust your ears. These three simple words are truly the easiest way to sum up what separates a great mixer from an average one. The ability to take what you’re hearing, translate that sound into a simple set of problems and then go through your process to correct them is invaluable. It’s as much about your intuition as it is about how you’re hearing what’s going on in a song.
If you’ve listened to me long enough though, there’s some other simple advice that comes up a lot: there are no rules in audio production. Nobody has to do anything one way and something that works perfectly for you might not work at all for someone else. We all develop our own personal preferences.
It’s for this reason that I can acknowledge that sometimes mixing with your eyes is a better approach than trusting your ears. I’m not saying that it should become your default approach – nobody’s ever won a GRAMMY mixing without their ears – but it can save you time and energy if you’re just trying to pull together a quick mix that can be refined using your ears once a basic balance has been reached.
Let’s take a look at some of the ways a mixer might use their eyes to help build out their mix session:
Right off the bat, I can tell you that you don’t need your ears to set up a mix session. As long as the tracks are named appropriately, you can start moving them around into an order that fits your workflow. This way, you’re not stuck scrolling through dozens of tracks looking for a kick drum – it’s right where you’d expect it to be.
The same type of preparation can go into your routing. If you’re someone who uses aux tracks for busses, create them right from the start and immediately send tracks to them. Even if you’re not using bus compression or any other type of group processing right away, you’ll have a quick and simple solution for monitoring subgroups within your mix window. That monitoring will be key when it comes to setting a static mix.
Start With A Static Mix
Once you’ve got your routing and sorting taken care of, you can move on to the actual mixing portion. Start by setting static levels in your mix, just to get the audio moving in your DAW. For starters, it can be helpful to drop all of your faders to about -6 to -10 dB. This helps prevent clipping in a particularly loud session and provides room to raise the level of tracks that might need a bit more room than starting at 0 provides.
At this point, your subgroups should start giving you some idea of where you’re going to struggle. If your group of guitars is clipping already, you might need to pull them down a bit more or add a limiter. If you see your snare jumping out from your drum bus, you’ll probably want to reach for a compressor (either for the snare itself or the drum bus).
The static mix can also be a great time to start adding hi-pass filters to tracks with too much low-end. We’ll be cheating a bit since you’ll need to use your ears when searching for the right frequency, but knowing that this can be done here can save you a bunch of guesswork later on. Over time you’ll develop your own list of instruments and mental “presets” for where you want that hi-pass filter to go.
Using Your Edit Window
Your edit window is great for tracking because it gives you a timeline to follow where you can add markers and notes. The waveforms are clearly on display and each time you record, a new block of audio is added.
By the time many engineers and producers make it to the mix, this window gets forgotten or abandoned for the mixer. It’s only natural as the mixer tends to be a much more intuitive place to make mix edits, add processing, and adjust levels/sends.
But when you’re mixing visually, going back to the edit window can actually help you look ahead as you work. Seeing that a certain block is coming up, such as a guitar solo, will let you prepare for it. If you’re making your first pass on a mix with automation, you’ll be able to see the wave coming and get yourself into a position to ride that fader. That kind of preparation isn’t readily available when working in the mixer alone.
Acclimating Your Ears
Regardless of how much mixing you do visually, you’ll eventually need to transition back to using your ears to pick out things like problem frequencies that need EQ and creative decisions like the type of reverb you use on the vocals and how much you’re applying. All of these things require an attentive listener and some intuition.
Realistically, mixing with your eyes should get you a quick and simple mix, but more importantly it’s building up your familiarity with a song. Even if you’re not actively mixing based on what you hear, the work you do visually still requires playing the song through a few times. You’re subconsciously learning the arrangement and structure without even thinking about it. By the time you do start thinking about it critically, you’ll already be intimately familiar with the song.
Becoming A Better Mixer
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