Now that you've got those great tracks laid down, getting them to sound good together is the next challenge.This is called mixing down, and the following is some help from Audio Minds on how to handle your digital tracks in this stage of production. Once again, you've got to learn to trust your ears. Nobody here can give you a foolproof method of mixing a hit. A technique that sounds great on one song might sound terrible on another. So, take your time and experiment. But here are some general guidelines that most agree are quite helpful. As always, we can show you the basics. But your success will depend on how committed you are to listening... really listening to your tracks and training those ears.
In the Recording section, we learned that moving a mic even an inch can greatly affect the quality of the recording. The same is true with EQ, compression, reverb, echo, basically every effect with which you'll come in contact. As you start to tweak your raw tracks, play with each setting and listen intently to how that change affects the track. Remember, presets are a convenience and a good way to get close to what the track needs. But the engineer who has diligently trained his ears will rely on them instead.So try different settings and learn your effects. You can always go back to a preset. Most effects allow saving your new settings as another preset, so get into the habit of saving the ones you like for recalling later as another preset starting point.
As promised, here are a few tips and tricks to get you started:
General Mixing Tips:
Start with a rough mix - Different engineers have different approaches to building a mix. Some will solo one track at a time and work on it to make it sound the best it can. They'll then move on to the next. Others prefer to monitor all tracks all the time. They say this helps them make sure their tweaks help the track sit well with the rest (AudioMinds generally recommends this approach). Whichever approach you choose, it's wise to start with the big picture in mind. Listen to the song, with all tracks playing. Listen to it until you really know the song well. Get in the habit of asking yourself some basic questions; 'What are the main sections of the song?', 'What are the main instruments in each section?', 'What is the best setting for the song? Small, intimate room or big concert hall?', etc. With the big picture in mind, start setting levels for each track (understanding that lead tracks will need to be louder than bed tracks. See Limey's Pyramid.), and for each section (understanding that different tracks will take the lead in different sections). When you've got a basic level-set for the entire song, your rough mix is done, and you're ready to start tweaking individual tracks.
Make notes - We can't emphasize this enough. When it's midnight, you've been mixing for 6 hours, and you're tired, it's easy to forget what your plans were for the song. Write them down. Did you decide that the setting should be a small, intimate room? You'll need to remember that when you're ready to add reverb. Write it down.
Work on bed tracks first - Bed tracks (usually the underlying rhythm instruments) are the foundation of the song. Set the foundation before moving on to lead tracks. In other words, once the rough mix is done and you're ready to start tweaking, work on these first. For pop/rock songs, it's very important to get kick and bass sounding good together. So kick and bass are often a great place to start.
Use monitors designed for mixing - Regular stereo speakers are designed to make everything sound good; even a bad mix. Studios pay big bucks for perfectly accurate monitors. But decent near-field monitors are available for not much money (Radio Shack mini's driven by a stereo amp work surprisingly well). Headphones, as a general rule, are not recommended due to their reduced frequency response and the way they distort a stereo image.
Mix at low volumes - This makes subtle differences in instrument volumes more apparent. It also helps prevent ear fatigue. If you've commited to working hard to train your ears, fatigue should be an important issue to you. You can't make wise mixing decisions if you can't trust your ears to give you an accurate representation of the material. If you can't talk over your playback, turn it down. Read up on and understand the Fletcher-Munson curve. Be sure to adjust the EQ on your monitors to take this anomoly into accound.
Give your ears a rest - The human ear quickly adapts to a listening environment. For the mixing engineer, this means that highs (especially) will appear to lose their brilliance rather quickly. Taking short breaks allows your ears to 'reset'.
Do frequent level sets - Keep a professionally engineered CD handy so you have something to compare your mix to. When applying effects, compare the dry signal to the effected signal often. Occasionally switch your mix to mono and listen for phasing problems. Listen to your mix at low volume, high volume, from outside the room, in the car, on the home stereo, anywhere you can. Remember that you're mixing for many different users listening on many different types and qualities of equipment.