You’ve written a great tune, you’re sure of it. All it needs now is a decent mixdown and you’re ready to go. But somehow, it just won’t come together – you can’t quite get the balance right to show off the tune in its best light. So what’s a producer to do? Give up? Mash everything in there, in some kind of unsatisfying compromise? Well, those are some options, it’s true. But if you can’t get your mixdown to sound right, here are a few more options on how you can address it, and end up with a track that sounds as crisp and clear as the music inside it deserves…
A good way to start would be to try and visualise where on the frequency spectrum the various elements in your track lie. For instance, hi-hats at the top, a ripping synth line in the high-mids, a chunky bassline from 100 – 400Hz perhaps. That kind of thing. Now, what parts are clashing? A common area for mixdown problems is the low mids, around 300Hz. In this area you often find the low end of the snare, the top end of the kick’s thump, the harmonics of the bassline and the weight of synths and pads, to name a few. But if you’re conscious of what is playing and where, you can start to carve out a space for each element. Perhaps the pads can be high-passed a little. Maybe that snare doesn’t need so much weight. Avoid muddying up the low end!
The next thing to do is take another look at the arrangement. Are you making things harder for yourself than they really need to be? Remember that the less complex your track, the easier it will be to mixdown – if there are only a few elements then there will be plenty of space for each of them. If you’re trying to get a hundred channels all sitting nicely together, then it’s going to be a tough job. So think about thinning out the arrangement – perhaps two synth parts can alternate, rather than playing together. Try dropping out one element every time another one comes in – this may have the added benefit of focusing the listener’s attention on the new part, as well as clearing some space for your mixdown later on.
Still no joy? Then try bouncing everything down to audio stems and working from there. A lot of people are loath to do this – what if you want to go back later and change a synth line? A filter setting? Well, half the point of doing things this way is that you can’t quickly do that. You work with what’s in front of you, and it often makes you address the problems in the mix instead of tinkering at the edges with a synth and a whole chain of plugins and a raft of automation and all the rest of it. It also stops you tricking yourself about what needs doing – so often you can think that a part needs a 1kHz boost, but then you look at the EQ plugin, and there’s already a 1kHz boost on there. So you shrug, and leave it, and figure that it must be ok – when it actually still needs a whole lot more 1kHz on there. Bouncing it to stems and working from a clean slate would put a stop to problems like this. And if you really do need to go back and change a couple of notes here and there, let’s face it – it will still only take 5 minutes to open up the old project file and re-bounce something.
If you’re really getting nowhere, then it’s time for the last-gasp option. Bounce all your audio stems, stick them on a USB memory stick and bring it round to a mate’s studio setup. Get them to mix it down for you, while you sit in the background and explain what the track is supposed to be doing. Once you’ve wrestled with a track for long enough, it’s easy to lose all perspective, spending hours tweaking details while missing the main issues. A fresh pair of ears here can help you achieve in a couple of hours what might otherwise take you days. And for anyone worried about whether it’s somehow ‘cheating’ – well, don’t. For a start, you’ve still written all the music, which is the important thing. On top of that, this is the classic role of the ‘producer’ anyway – to sit in the room and make the creative decisions while an engineer is at the controls making things happen. Get a good result here and you can take away what you’ve learned to make things easier for next time.
So, if your mixdowns are giving you a headache, try some of these different approaches. It’s often all too easy to lose sight of what needs to be done, but by taking a different tack you can bring things back into focus. It might just save your track!