In our August Twitter chat (#DMchat), mixing engineer Graham Cochrane fielded questions from musicians to give his professional insights into audio mixing fundamentals for music of all genres.
Graham Cochrane, a Tampa, FL-based freelance mixing engineer, is the founder of The Recording Revolution, a popular audio recording and mixing blog with over 200,000 readers each month. To view the entire chat transcript, visit this link. Below is a reformatted version of our discussion.
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What’s the biggest challenge musicians face when it comes to mixing their music?
Having patience with the process. No plugin, gear, or magic technique will fix a mix. Mixing at its core is not hard, there are fundamentals, but you must learn and must practice. We just don’t like to hear that. We’d rather be told we can “buy” our way out of a bad recording or mix, meaning that we’d rather buy a plugin, new microphone, or new piece of software to help our music.
Guest: In your videos you often recommend not to go alone in the process. Would you recommend a good place to find someone to help you?
Start with any musician friends you have. Get at least one person who can listen to your work and provide feedback.
How do you avoid ear fatigue when listening to your mixes?
Mix at low volumes. Quiet enough to talk to someone next to you a normal volume. Also take frequent breaks. After a certain point you can’t trust your ears anymore. They need to readjust, reset, and become fresh again.
Guest: I’m curious if there are certain things that you might do to every recorded track right off the bat?
Turn the tracks down to a more conservative volume. Many times artists record everything too loud to begin with.
Guest: How does one determine what an instrument needs to be a it’s full potential in the mix?
It just depends on what YOU want it to sound like. Reference a professional mix to give you a roadmap of awesome.
Guest: Understanding that every mix is different, still do you have a certain protocol you like to follow in terms of what to do when?
Yes, I always adjust volume balance first. For 30 minutes to an hour. Before any plugins. Then I start with any processing on the master fader, then work down the tracks with basic EQ and compression as needed.
What are some ways to change up your sound source during the listening process?
I try to mix on two sets of speakers + headphones. Each one sounds different. This helps to wake up my ears and keep me honest. Also like I mentioned, flip over to a professional mix of a song you like now and then. This reveals what awesome should sound like and helps to keep you honest. I always check on earbuds at some point too.
Guest: When you pan something to say, the right, do you mix first then pan, or pan then mix that track?
Panning is part of mixing, so it’s all happening. There’s no “correct” order. I like to pan and adjust volume all at the beginning. Then tweak later on as needed. It’s good to pretend like you don’t have any EQ or compression. Just get a good balance with volume and pan. This produces a good setup for later.
Guest: Is there a panning “good rule of thumb?”
I’m a fan of LCR panning which stands for Left Center Right. The three main places to pan things.
Do you recommend listening to your mixes on headphones? What are some of the benefits?
I like mixing on headphones because it eliminates your room. And it sounds the same wherever you go. Also I can hear more detail in headphones, so it’s a critical step for me in every mix.
Guest: How do you adjust “spaces” in headphones?
I typically set my panning on my monitors and then trust it when I put headphones on.
Guest: Do you prefer open or closed back headphones? I’m using some semi-open right now, which I LOVE. Will there be that much bleed-through?
I’ve only ever mixed on closed back. But I have friends who swear by open back.
What’s the most important thing you should know when listening to your mixes?
Don’t overthink things. If your head is bobbing to the song, you probably are almost there. The goal is to make sure the song shines through – not to get a killer snare sound or vocal delay. Think like a listener. All they care about is the song. If something distracts from that, fix it. Otherwise keep it simple.
Guest: At what point should one try mixing in mono? I’ve tried it AFTER having done the stereo panning…
I flip my mix to mono when I’m ready to begin adding EQ and compression.
What’s the most common problem artists face when mixing their music at home?
Their listening environment is not as good as a pro studio. So you can’t trust what you hear. My solutions: turn down your speakers when you mix, mix on headphones as well, and reference pro mixes.
Guest: Do you have tips for “getting the mud out?”
Use your hi-pass filter, look for “muddy” frequencies around 400hz.
What are some ways to improve the listening experience in your home studio?
Make sure your speakers are in the right place. Not too close to the wall, yet equidistant from the side walls. Ear height is key too. From there, buy absorptive materials in the room (carpet, bookshelf with books, furniture etc.) Finally, acoustic treatment around your mixing position can help eliminate reflections.
Guest: How can we work around that (without moving to a better listening environment?)
The key is not a perfect listening environment, but learning your room and your speakers. Reference tracks are key here for that reason.
Guest: Do you think a decent quality vocals can be recorded with a dynamic mic?
Absolutely – just ask Michael Jackson, Chris Cornell (of Soundgarden) and plenty of others. Dynamic mics aren’t any better or worse – they just sound different and are used all the time on vocals in studio.
How should artists evaluate their mixes before approving them? What things should they listen for?
Bring in a pro mix and compare it to yours: compare bass, top end, vocal level, kick drum, snare drum, and FX. If your mix feels in the ball park of the pro mix, you’re there. Also I try to listen at low levels, loud levels, outside the room, and on crappy speakers to make sure it still holds up.
Guest: Pop shields help with softening “p’s” and “b’s”, but it also blurs some sounds. What should we do in such cases?
You can get rid of the filter entirely and try to angle the mic above you so you don’t sing directly into it.
What are the final steps involved in preparing your mixes for mastering?
I make sure that the mix isn’t too loud if going off to mastering (leave 3-6db of headroom) and that it sounds awesome. The only issue should be that it’s not quite as loud as it could be. Other than that it should sound the way I want it to sound. I don’t like to “leave anything for mastering.” If releasing your music on your own without mastering, then use a good limiter to gently get the level up to commercial standards. Again, reference a pro mix that you like to compare volume.
Guest: Is there a limit to the number of plugins that you use in a mix to avoid competing effects?
There’s no set limit. I just try to use only what is necessary and no more. But as long as it sounds good, then no one cares how many you used.
Guest: What’s the max number of tracks you like to work with in during mixing. Do you try to set a limit?
I prefer to keep track counts to below 50. Closer to 24 is the magic number for me.
What resources do you recommend for further tips and information?
If you’re looking for how to get great sounding recordings and mixes in your home studio, then you’re going to love my blog and videos. The way to get all of of my best information is to sign up for my mailing list over at The Recording Revolution.
Disc Makers’ marketing manager Lucy Briggs conducted this interview with Graham Cochrane, Tampa, FL-based freelance mixing engineer and founder of one the web’s most loved audio recording and mixing blogs, The Recording Revolution, with over 200,000 readers each month. Follow him on Twitter @recordingrev. Get your free copy of Graham’s guide, The #1 Rule of Home Recording.
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Use complementary EQ to widen your home studio audio mix
Stereo width and audio mastering