The Mix Bus!
Mixing is all about balance. Taking the 20, 40, 80 tracks you have, and getting cleaned up, at the right levels, and funneling all those sounds down to a stereo file coming out of speakers and headphones. Since it all comes down to that stereo track, why don’t we start with the mix buss, and mix that before we go mixing all the little details
Mix Your Mix!
Top down mixing is not a new concept, and if I’m being completely honest with you, I’m not always the best at implementing a top-down approach. But the one thing I do on every single song I work on is to mix into some plugins on my mix buss (master fader, 2-buss, whatever you’d like to call it). If I have all my tracks in and roughly balanced, and I can immediately hear that the overall sound is a little boxy, muddy, or whatever the case may be, I’m not afraid to strap an EQ on my mix buss and adjust the whole damn thing! Then I’ll put some compression in to give the sound a little more glue and cohesion. Basically, I’m mixing my mix.
In his “In The Box Mixing” tutorial on PureMix, Andrew Scheps talks about “giving his ‘console’ some nice low end.” Although he’s got two huge Neve mixing desks at his disposal, his “console” in this case is his computer. He then mixes into that “console” with the nice low end.
The Early Bird Gets The Sound
I’ve hinted at it a few times already in this article: mix into these things as early on as you can. Let the plugins on your mix buss influence the rest of your mixing decisions.
I have a chain of plugins on my mix buss in my template. I try to get a rough volume and pan balance between all my tracks, then, before I’ve added any other plugins, I’ll engage my mix buss plugins, make any adjustments, and then I’ll start mixing the rest of the tracks.
If you have a mix you’re pretty far into, with plenty of EQs, compressors, effects, and it’s sounding pretty good, leave it alone! Tossing EQ, and especially a compressor, is going to mess with the relative balance you’ve spent so long dialing in! But if you start with that compressor on from the very beginning, you’ll be making your mix decisions with the compressor in mind. The same goes for EQ: If three-quarters into your mix, you carve out 300Hz from the whole song, you’ll probably find that you need to add it back in to some individual tracks, and you’ve probably already taken it out of those same tracks in the first place.
If you’re going to put processing on your mix buss, make it one of the first things you do.
Small Moves, Big Changes
Try it yourself to really hear it, but it’s really easy to mess up a mix with really drastic EQ and compression decisions. Keep in mind that what you’re doing affects everything. Boosting 5db of 2kHz might make your electric guitars sound a little crunchier, but it could also make the snare sound incredibly weird. Nobody likes a weird snare.
Be gentle with your mix buss. Experiment with broader, more subtle moves over anything really extreme.
Try This On For Size
Here’s a little homework for you. On your next mix, start by getting a good relative balance going between all your tracks. Volume and pan, get a good rough mix. Once you’re happy with that, really listen to what’s going on. Listen to what you do and don’t like about the rough mix. What’s the overall sound? Does the whole thing sound a little boxy or muddy? And I mean the whole thing, not “well, the bass is kind of boxy, but everything else seems alright.” But is the whole thing a little wonky down there? Try putting an EQ on your mix buss and carving a little out where it’s getting weird. It won’t take much, maybe just a decibel or two, depending on the source material.
Next, try adding a little compression to your mix. Even just a stock compressor that came with your DAW. For some ballpark settings, use a slower attack (around 100ms), as fast a release as you can get, 2:1 ratio, and adjust the threshold until it’s just compressing 1-2db when your kick and snare are hitting. (This took me a while to really hear what I was doing, so tune your ears in, try turning the compressor on and off to hear the difference, playing with the settings, and see what gets a pleasant “glue” into your mix)
Once you’ve got some settings you’re happy with, you’ve already saved some time and work off your finished product! You’ve “tuned your console,” as it were. As you dive further into this, you might start experimenting with saturation, different plugin models and brands. Eventually, you’ll start to hone in on what you like and don’t like.
Stay tuned later this week for a video on my mix bus, and more on how to get started with mix buss processing – what to listen for, pitfalls to avoid, and more. Until then, happy music-making!