Engineer Rob Mayzes joined our January Twitter Chat to discuss how you can overcome some of the challenges of mixing in a home studio environment.
Rob Mayzes is an audio professional, musician, and educator. He has helped thousands of home studio owners produce better music and mixes through his Home Studio Center website. He also published a post on the Disc Makers Blog, “Five mistakes that can lead to a muddy mix,” leading up to his appearance in our January Twitter chat.
Below is a formatted version of our discussion about audio mixing and the challenges faced by home studio owners. To be notified about our upcoming chats, subscribe to our Facebook events!
What’s the biggest challenge home studio owners face when it comes to producing a high-quality mix?
It’s hard to narrow it down to one specific problem, but I think many people underestimate the importance of the music. A good mix doesn’t exist without a good track and good arrangement. Check out For Emma, Forever Ago as an example.
What are some ways to get around less-than-ideal rooms at home?
One way is to minimize the amount of acoustic instruments and microphone recordings. For example, use an Amp Simulator instead of recording an amp with a microphone. Use EZDrummer or drum programming software instead of attempting to record a drum kit. Then, for the parts that must be recorded with a microphone, you can use affordable acoustic treatment. You can build your own acoustic panels, or use mattresses and duvets as makeshift treatment. As for mixing, reference in headphones and properly set up the room with treatment and good monitor placement.
How important is your gear? What small upgrades in equipment can make the biggest difference at home?
Gear isn’t important at an entry level. It’s more about developing your skills and practicing recording/mixing. For best results with less equipment, you just need a USB interface, a large diaphragm condenser mic, and a dynamic mic. That gives you a good range of sounds. Any DAW will do, and if you work with drums, EZDrummer might be a good purchase.
How much experimentation in terms of mic placement, angles, and distance do you suggest to musicians?
There are no rules, so experimentation is absolutely essential. Think of microphone placement as EQ before mixing. Get the tone you want while recording by moving the mic around. Your aim is to use as little EQ as possible, if any.
For vocal sounds specifically, are there any mic tips you recommend frequently to artists?
Just make sure you know the type of microphone you are using, and position yourself accordingly. In most cases, this will be a large diaphragm condenser. Very important here to back off the mic, stay six-plus inches away. If it’s a dynamic mic, like the SM58, it will probably sound better if you get up close, around one inch.
Does the mix quality all come down to the recording, or can the song arrangement play a factor too?
Song arrangement, in my opinion, is far more important than the recording quality. Think of it as a funnel, with arrangement at the top, then recording in the middle with slightly less impact, and mixing at the bottom with the least impact. Of course, it’s not just about arrangement, but also about performance and emotion.
What frequency range should artists watch out for, particularly for instrument muddiness?
Muddiness is in the lower mids, more specifically somewhere around 200-500Hz. The exact problematic range can vary. In most cases, these frequencies will need some reduction on individual channels, group busses or even the mix bus.
What is a reference track, and how can someone improve his/her listening skills?
A reference track is a professional release from a CD, iTunes, etc. that you use as a basis for comparison when mixing. Using a reference track is an incredibly powerful technique for beginners/intermediates. Compare your mix with the reference track, and take note of the amount of bass and treble, how loud the vocal is, etc. It’s best to have a reference track that is in a similar genre, but I also have go-to tracks I use every time.
If working the arrangement isn’t enough, how can subtractive EQ fully address the problem?
For reducing muddiness, it is actually quite hard to fix the problem with arrangement alone. So yes, EQ is important. Try applying a subtle, wide cut (e.g. -2 dB from 300-500 Hz) to guitars, vocals, snares, and other mid-range instruments. You can even try applying a REALLY subtle cut (around 1 dB) on your mix buss to address muddiness quickly.
If all else fails, what’s the quickest and easiest way to treat muddiness in your mix?
Subtle (1 dB or less) wide cut around 200-500Hz on the mix buss, for sure!
Guest: When mixing, do you EQ each track separately or buss groups and then work on the group as a whole?
Bit of both, depends what you want to achieve. But I personally apply a lot of processing on group busses.
Guest: Say I win the lottery tomorrow (it’s 70M here in Cali!), where do I start in building my home studio?
In your home! A bigger room is better. If you win the lottery, and have the space, you could build a new room.
Guest: Any tips on eliminating AC/Heater background noise, e.g. filter out offending frequencies while recording?
Remove it at the source. Noise removal software sucks. Turn it off when recording!
Guest: When using digital instruments, how do you get a vocal and instrument tracks recorded with a mic to sit naturally in the mix?
Good question. There are many ways to create cohesion in a mix. I’d start by carving around the most important parts. In most cases this will be the vocal, so you create space for the vocal to sit in the mix through arrangement and EQ. Check out my video on range allocation for more info.
Guest: I’m a bass player, so I’d be interested to know if you like to compress bass to the track or afterwards in context with the mix?
I’m also a bass player! I like to track with a bit of compression if possible, but it’s not vital. Mostly applied during the mix phase. I like the BBE Opto Stomp for compression when playing live or tracking.
Guest: Yeah, I use the ZOOM pedal I use for gigs through my Scarlett I/F, my DAW will set up the pedal, but I had latency issues.
Guest: Do you like to use one track per song or do you do have one of those mix and match tracks for referencing?
Mix and match. I quickly compare two or three at the end of the mix. But for others, I recommend constant comparison.
Guest: Aside from a reference track, how can I develop hearing skills and knowledge of what frequencies I hear? Golden Ears? or other?
Practice is key. I also have an article on ear training exercises.
Guest: There’s a website, SoundGym, that helps train your ear to frequencies and the like.
Guest: How important do you think it is for a mixer to develop their own style or mix personality?
Over time, this will naturally develop into a “style” that varies according to the track. I actually think it’s more important for mixers to focus on the music at hand than focus on developing their own style.
Guest: Do digital instruments typically require the same kind of EQ cuts to reduce muddiness or are they already EQ’d to sound clean?
Another good question. Generally EQ is not as much a problem with digital instruments, but it depends on what octave – e.g. playing a synth in the same register as the vox or using a snare sample that’s still heavy around 200-500Hz.
Disc Makers’ marketing manager Lucy Briggs conducted this interview with Rob Mayzes. Check out Rob’s Home Studio Center website for more recording advice.
Five mistakes that can lead to a muddy mix
Mix with your song structure in mind
The recording equipment you really need for your home studio setup
How to get a great vocal sound in your home studio
Don’t boost – reduce! Subtractive equalization and your home studio mix
Tips from a veteran mixing engineer