Updated: Mar 5
In this series of articles I will describe step-by-step my process to achieve an amazing result with your mixes. This can be used for music, podcast, sound design or any audio you might be working on. It was designed around Logic Pro X but it is DAW agnostic so you can use it with Pro Tools, Cubase and so on.
This step is quite often misunderstood, as many think that just by using compression and EQ to make each track 'louder' it will sound better.
Well first of all compression doesn't add loudness, it's quite the opposite, although you can use makeup gain to make it louder at the output of the compressor.
Second, our hearing frequency response changes with loudness, so if you don't fix the volume and loudness of your mix, you will be tricking your ears into thinking the mix is better when in fact it isn't.
Finally, there is little value in enhancing each instrument tone to perfection in isolation if they don't work well together. The secret here is to improve the tone within the mix, so everything you do has to be done in the context of the mix. Avoid soloing tracks, polish them so they work well in conjunction with the rest of the song.
- Don't tinker with the gain fixed in gain staging
- Apply compression and EQ observing what your goals are. I use compressor first to make the volumes even, but careful enough to not destroy the dynamics of the music. Music is about space and dynamics, not about being loud all the time. Then I EQ to shape the tone, normally using a great analogue EQ emulation such as a Pultec.
- With the compression, check that you are not exceeding 3 to 5 dB in gain reduction, if you are, it's best to cascade multiple compressors
- If needed, add another EQ (in this case could be a stock plugin) just to cut off the highs and lows of that instrument that are not needed. You will be surprised by how much this reduces the rumble and fizz of a guitar sound, for example. I also use this to 'dip' 200~400 Hz to avoid 'mud' in the mix, and to resolve frequency clashes between instruments.
- Add other enhancements as needed. I for example add Tape saturation after this second EQ, just to glue the tracks a bit better
- THIS IS IMPORTANT this step is about enhancements not loudness. So you need to ensure that the loudness is around the same with the enhancements on or off. Use similar techniques to the gain staging, with a VU meter of LUFS meter. If you don't do this, the instrument will sound 'enhanced' when in fact it's just louder and it will muddy your mix.
Stereo and Space
In this step, you could work in series with each track and just add delay and reverb to enhance space. The issue is that the instruments need to sound like they are in the same room, and reverb and delay are very CPU hungry.
So the idea is to create two busses, one with an ambience reverb (early reflections) and another with room tone (late reflections, more noticeable). These will be 100% wet as they are only sending back the wet signals with reverb, to mix back with the dry signals in the mix. More busses with other reverbs and delays can be created here as well if you wish.
You then send bits of each instrument to these, to taste. For me what works is to send the instruments you want to emphasise to the room tone (ex: vocals or guitar) and the others will go more into the ambience reverb.
Double check that each bus has a high pass EQ around 200Hz before the Reverb. This will prevent rumble in your mix once the wet signal is mixed back.
Again the idea here is not to add level. It's unlikely that wet reverb will do that unless you have the faders of the busses really high. I normally mix them back 'just under' the main mix level to add that tasty space feel
Can't overstate how important this step is, and most likely you will be tweaking your mix by going to the previous steps and then listening and then listening again.
I make sure I check the mix at least on:
- My monitors, my flat response headphones, some commercial speakers
- With compensation for my room acoustics (example ARC3 or Sonarworks)
- Some control room simulators like Waves Abbey Road
- In mono, and also in a dim position (say -12dB from where the mix is)
Do any instruments disappear in mono ?
Do you hear 'mud' or harsh frequencies ? Clashes ?
What is the tonal balance shape and does it match reference songs your client picked as references ?
What about levels ? Recommended that a mix is around -23 LUFS and doesn't exceed -6 dBFS peak so the mastering engineer will have space to work.
Bounce it out with the highest resolution you can (example 48kHz or 96kHz 24-bits) with no dither as this will be added during mastering.