We’ve all been in that situation… Countless hours were spent painstakingly creating a mix. Each instrument has been molded to perfection, brought into level, and glued together nicely.
Nonetheless, there is a feeling that something is lacking; that something is incomplete. You want the mix to be lively and fun, but you can’t seem to find an issue that needs to be solved.
You’ve put together a good mix, but it’s not enough for you.
This is something I’ve had a lot of. I came up with a list of “finishing touches” I like to use when I’m at the end of a mix after trying out a lot of different ideas. These are all minor mix changes that will go unnoticed by even the most discerning listener. They may, however, add a little something special to the mix.
These techniques work for almost every commercial music genre: pop, rap, rock, electronic, country, and so on.
All of these effects are automated for various sections of the song, enhancing the impact of the transitions between chorus, verse, and bridge. As a result, I’d strongly advise finishing the rest of the mix first, then adding these as the finishing touch.
Here are nine tips to help you turn a decent mix into a perfect one:
1) At the Chorus, increase the Master Fader by +1 dB.
This is a well-known trick that many engineers use. It’s also fairly simple to comprehend, so it’s a good place to begin my list.
The idea is to use automation on the master fader’s volume at various points in the track. Simply increase the volume by +1 dB when the song’s energy needs to be built. When the section is over, put it back down. This gives the listener a little more influence.
The Master Fader volume is “pre-insert” in Pro Tools. As a result, you’re rising the total level of the mix before applying compression/saturation to the mix bus. This will add a little more tension and excitement to the song’s major sections.
2) Stereo Width of Reverb
The width of reverb effects is another thing I want to automate. Instead of keeping the reverb at +/-100 for the entire album, reduce it to +/-50 for certain parts. After that, reopen it.
This is an excellent technique for vocals. It has the power to shift the atmosphere from intimate to massive.
3) Pre-delay of Reverb
I also suggest automating the pre-delay in different parts of a track, while we’re on the subject of reverb. I usually use a time scale of 20 to 100 milliseconds for subdued parts and up to 200 milliseconds for the largest sections.
This increases the amount of space available around an instrument or vocal. If done right, the vocal appears to be in the same position as before, but the space appears to be larger.
4) Automate a High-pass Filter
Everyone likes it when a song’s low end hits them hard. This can be difficult to do in a combination.
One technique is to eliminate some of the low-end before the desired effect is achieved. I recommend playing around with a 90 Hz high-pass filter. Keep it on for the majority of the song so the listener gets used to the bass balance. Drop the HPF to 40 Hz and open up an additional octave of bass when the time is right.
When it works, you’ll know.
5) Set the Mix Bus Compression Threshold Automatically
Nothing beats providing 1-2 dB of gain reduction on the mix bus compressor to bind the mix together when done correctly.
But who says a mix has to be glued together for the duration of the song? Allowing a song to breathe for a short period of time before gluing it all together can be a very effective mix technique.
Experiment with the threshold on your mix bus compressor, if you have one. Back it off during certain parts of the song to prevent any gain reduction. Then, during another segment, bring it in for that magical force to bind everything together.
6) Music with Sidechain Vocals
The harmony between the lead vocals and the music is one of the most difficult things to get right in a mix. It’s all too easy for the vocals to get lost in the music, and it’s also all too easy for the vocals to come across as too loud.
As a starting point, I like to set my vocal level to what I think sounds good. The main thing I’m aiming for is that the music is loud enough to be heard when the voices fade out.
I’ll create a music “submix” separate from the lead voice at the end of the mix. The vocal is then sidechained to a compressor on the music submix. When the vocal is singing, I just want a 1 dB gain reduction on the music.
If the compression is audible to the listener, you’ve gone too far. This isn’t supposed to be a sound effect. Ideally, it simply aids the vocal in carving out space in the mix so that it can cut through.
I consider using mid-side compression for a more complex and sophisticated approach. You could only sidechain the mid compressor without doing something to the sides because the lead vocal is panned to the middle. This will build space in the mix’s middle without causing the music’s amplitude to be decreased as it pans away from the center.
7) Make the Delay Time Automated
Delay is a common effect used by engineers to add a sense of space. My own preference has always been to match the delay time to the song’s tempo. Typically, I use a sixteenth note, eighth note, quarter note, and half note delay in my experiments. It’s fine sometimes to play with dotted versions of these notes.
I used to set my delay and keep it on for the duration of the track and never contemplated doing anything else. Then I discovered that altering the delay time in the song is a great way to separate each segment and add emphasis at various points.
Try a longer echo during the chorus if you used a short slap pause during the verse. It has the potential to really open things up. Try a dotted 8th note in the bridge if you use a simple 8th note delay for the rest of the record. This is a subtle but powerful way to change up the groove.
8) Automate the Amplitude of Spatial Effects
Both reverb and delay can be difficult to dial in at the right volume. Instead of setting them to a single volume, I suggest automating their volume for each section of the track.
Ducking the vocal effects so that the amplitude of the spatial effects is low during a vocal phrase and then louder as soon as the phrase is done will sound amazing. This stops the effects from overpowering the vocals while also adding to the sense of space.
I often like to increase delay while decreasing reverb during some parts of the song. When the song switches to a new segment, I reduce the delay and increase the reverb. It’s yet another minor adjustment that adds up to a polished blend.
9) Mid-side EQ
This is the trick that I want to use the most. I use a mid-side EQ here, where I don’t change the mids and just change the sides.
I raise about 2 kHz, 5 kHz, and 8 kHz by +1 dB on the sides only during the chorus of a mix. This raises the level of excitement and draws the listener’s attention to the entire stereo area. During the chorus, it gives the feeling that the mix is extra big.
It’s easy to overdo this trick, so use it sparingly.
Hopefully, this has given you some inspiration for your own mixes. Nothing is more frustrating than being stuck in a rut of doing the same thing over and over.
The most important thing is to think beyond the box. You may use a variety of other little tricks at the end of a combination. What are some of your personal favorites?