The home studio can be a wonderful way to capture your self-expression without breaking the wallet, but many beginner and intermediate studio engineers (and even some experts!) encounter a significant obstacle in their quest to record the perfect song.
This obstacle is audio mixing. Upon hearing that term, many think it is just a matter of adjusting the volume levels accordingly so that no instrument drowns another out. If it were that simple, there wouldn't be audio engineers who make big bucks each year.
There are many things that you must calculate all at once while engineering a song, but this is a basic introduction to audio mixing that will help you get started on the right foot.
Depending on what type of music you are recording, you will have various different instruments that you need to become comfortable with. Of course, some musicians blur the line between styles and include other, abnormal instruments to their songs but you have to try to stay familiar with many of the attributes of certain instruments.
Here are a few tips to get you started.
- You absolutely need a great pair of studio headphones. See our article on setting up your home studio on a budget for more info and recommendations on which headphones are great. If you can't hear what is going on, how will you know what to change? A good pair of headphones is vital to the mixing process, and will help you out in tough times when you have trouble finding little details.
- Don't overexert yourself. Your ears are the most important part of the puzzle when it comes to mixing, so if you keep listening to the same part over and over again or hear the music played back at loud volumes, your ears may become fatigued and no longer as sharp as they could be. Take constant breaks in between edits, and if you feel like you are not making any progress, shelve it until later in the day or maybe even another day altogether.
- Invest in decent recording software. Sonar Cakewalk or Steinberg Cubase, or if you have an especially big budget, Steinberg Nuendo.
The big picture can easily be thought of as a metaphor for a cake: you need to take many different ingredients, in this case the instruments and their respective audio recordings, combine them together, and get just the right amount of each ingredient so that the cake, or the song in this case, comes out perfect. When mixing audio, it helps to think of it in three dimensions. What you will essentially be doing is creating small surround sound mixes, and you will do this by panning tracks left and right, adjusting volume levels, equalising the music so the high parts sound bright and the low parts really touch the bass, and adding aftereffects like reverb and delay.
If you had all of the music panned dead center, and there were no effects like reverb added, and all of the volumes were even, you would end up with a recording that sounded very much like a garage band, as if you placed a microphone in the middle of the room and recorded your band playing. Taking into account the acoustic elements of each instrument and adjusting the mix for it will make the whole recording sound more organic and easier on the ears.
Hopefully this gets you in the right mindset to begin building strong mixing skills. There are still many things we haven't touched upon, but those topics will surely be covered in later articles.
There are many instances where a song will only have one guitar, or perhaps three guitars, and a few vocals, as well as other effects like orchestral instruments and sound effects. It can get very complicated, very fast, and there are countless books on every aspect of recording, but don't be discouraged.
With enough spare time and practice, you will be able to mix your own recordings successfully without dropping big bucks on professional studios.