Mix Tips From Your Mastering Engineer #6: Getting Better Balances

Tips and Techniques | Posted On: 09.24.15

(This is part 6 of a 6-part series by staff engineer Justin Colletti. Check out part 1 on bass management, part 2 on high frequencies, part 3 on bus compression, part 4 on panning for widthpart 5 on depth, and part 6 on getting better balances.)

The last tip in our series is about balances. This is the most central and foundational part of the mix—arguably, the mixing part of mixing.

If you don’t have a good strategy on this front, there are more ways to go wrong here than anywhere else. The simple reality is that if your balances don’t work, your mix doesn’t work, period.

All of your shiny EQ, favorite effects and ballsy compression tones aren’t going to do much good when the hi-hats are louder than the guitar solo, or the vocal and snare don’t cut through in a way that’s appropriate to the genre you’re working in.

With that in mind, here are some techniques that may seem unconventional at first, but in fact, are used by some of the greatest mixers working today.

1. Sometimes, the worst place to start is at the beginning.

I have a whole video up on this concept. So many songs you’ll work on will start out with a somewhat sparse intro section, and develop from there. But this is rarely the best place to dive in and start mixing in earnest.

If, for instance, you make the lonely acoustic guitar in this intro section sound big and full, or get an exceptionally thick and luxurious keyboard sound before the whole band kicks in, chances are  that you’ll quickly find yourself running out of space as you get to the more dense sections of the song.

By the time you’re halfway through the  first verse you’ll find yourself working in vain to shoehorn in new elements. By the time you reach your most climactic chorus, forget about it! You can easily find yourself so short on space that you’ll have to rework balances that you had spent hours establishing—or settle for a song that has progressively less fullness, clarity and impact as it goes along. This is probably the exact opposite of what you’re looking for.

Instead, it’s often much better to dive in to your most dense sections first, and then work outward from there. This can help you ensure that you wind up with appropriate gain-staging throughout your mix, and that you can get the most dramatic, important—and challenging—sections to really sing while you’re still fresh. After this, everything else will be a breeze.

2. Start with your most important elements, and bring in new instruments and instrument groups in order of importance.

There are some great mixers out there who will just throw up all their faders and start working. It is possible to get good results this way, especially if you’re working on an analog console and have been mixing in this fashion for many years.

However, an even greater portion of excellent mixers seem to take a very different approach: They bring up their most important instrument first, set a healthy level for them, and then bring in new instruments around it, making sure never to overshadow this primary focal point, once it’s been established.

Almost nine times out of ten, this focal instrument will end up being either be your vocal or your drums. But ask yourself: What’s really driving the song in this section? Why are people listening to this track? Is it for the pulse? The power? Or is it for the performance, and maybe the story?

As you bring in new instruments and instrument groups, try to do so in order of importance, setting each new element at a level where it can be clearly heard, but doesn’t mask the other instruments that have already been introduced.

3. Try working with balances—and only balances—in the very beginning.

Every once in a while, you’ll bring in a new sound and just know it needs some immediate tweaking to feel right. That’s okay. If it’s clear that you need to make a bold creative choice or do some significant repair work to get a sound up to par, do it.

But as much as possible, resist this urge. Try instead to work with balances‚ and only balances, in the first phase of your mix.

That’s right: No EQ, no compression, no reverb, not delay, not even panning! If you work on balances first, you’ll have a ton of time for this very, very soon. And you’ll get much better results, much more quickly, with each.

The only exception here is your bus compressors. If you’re working with one, it can be a good idea to put it on early, perhaps even in the beginning, as it will inform your balance choices. We went into detail on this in Tip #3.

4. “Hone In” on the right balance.

Chances are you won’t get the right balance the very first time you bring each fader up. That’s okay. In fact, setting a balance is a lot like tuning a guitar.

If you’re not 100% certain of where your fader should wind up, try overshooting the right balance so that the instrument in question is clearly too loud. (Trust me, you’ll know.) Then, bring it back down to a point where it starts to feel reasonable. This is your “hot” level.

Now, take that fader and bring it down until the sound becomes clearly “too quiet”. (Again, trust your gut on this and you won’t go wrong.) Now, bring it back up to where it starts to feel like a reasonable level again. This is your “quiet” level.

If the gap between your “quiet” and “hot” level is small, great! Pick one that feel right to you. Here’s the secret: There is no one “right” level. For any instrument, there is a range of levels that will work, depending on your tastes. You’ve just found that range. As your mix continues, there’s a good chance this range will get smaller and smaller, which is reassuring.

If the gap between these levels is very large, make note of it. This is a sound that may benefit from additional compression, or perhaps EQ—whether on directly on the source or on the instruments that seem to mask it.

5. A mix is a castle made of sand: Don’t be afraid to tear it all down early on in the process.

If you’re going to question your balances, now is the time to do it, not later, when you’re a couple hours in and your mix feels like a painstaking-crafted house of cards.

When you’re still early on in the mix, don’t be afraid to tear all your instrument balances down and start from scratch, using only balances, working quickly to find relationships that feel right. A lot of great mixers do this.

It’s important that if you have any question as to whether you’ve found overall balances that work, you address those questions now, when you can still change things quickly and without having wasted hours of precious time.

So when you’re still at this initial balances stage, don’t be afraid to tear all your faders down once, twice or even more. Not only can it help get you to better balances quickly, but with the right attitude, it’s a fun and empowering thing to do that can build real confidence.

A well-crafted mix may be a delicate thing, but perhaps it’s not quite so fragile as you imagine. When you knock down a sandcastle, the sand is still there, and so are your buckets. This is time for both play and for hard work. It’s no time to be afraid.

6. Once you’ve got your mono balances established, start panning!

Once you’ve got your initial balances set, it’s time to start panning!

You’ll likely have a better time working this way than the other way around. If you can make a mix sound great in mono, it will sound amazing in stereo. It doesn’t always work the other way around.

I recommend starting with the “LCR” approach, which we discussed in detail in Tip #4.

7. Now is the time for EQ, compression and effects. Just be sure to break off your “Solo” button.

I know it can be very tempting to start soling instruments and working on them with EQs and compressors to refine and “improve” on their sound. Resist this urge.

First of all, let me be the 9,000th person to tell you this, but it doesn’t matter what any instrument sounds like in solo. What things sound like in context is all that really counts.

If you’ve heard this advice before but are not yet living it out, don’t feel bad. It probably took me 10,000 repetitions before I started doing the right thing and pretending my solo button didn’t exist.

Once you get into the habit, you will finally realize the power of this approach, and it will become more than just words.

8. A great mix is a dynamic mix.

A great mix is “dynamic” in these sense that it’s not over-compressed, sure. But it’s also dynamic in that it itself is changing and evolving as it goes along.

It’s useful to work to find stable, static fader settings that work for the whole song early on. But once you’ve done this, it’s important to realize that a mix isn’t about finding one level that works for the whole song. It’s about crafting a mix that builds, that changes, and that ebbs and flows with the music.

If your kick drum sound wants a brighter leaner EQ in the chorus than in the verse, go for it! Automate that sucker, or print an alternate tone to another track. Does the vocal need a boost here and there? Do it! Should the snare get a bit of a lift in one section or another? Make it so. Is there intro the place for the bass or the acoustic guitar to take center stage, even as it takes a back seat in other sections? Great. Do what feels right.

9. Mix quiet, mix on small speakers and know your monitors and your room.

Just like it’s easier, more satisfying and more effective to get great balances and then pan them, it’s much better to mix a bit quiet and then crank things up later. Similarly, it’s best to start on small speakers and work up to the bigs.
To great results, you’re still going to need to know your speakers and your room. Acoustic treatment is one of the best things you can spend money on in the studio. The other best place to invest is in yourself.

One way to do this is with courses, like the Mixing Breakthroughs course I’ll be putting out on SonicScoop next month. (Click here to sign up for the newsletter and hear more.)

But the other great way to invest in yourself is by putting real ear time in on your speakers, both in the mix, and with references. It’s a good idea to acclimate your ears each day with some great sounding music, and ideally, music that is somehow relevant to what you’re working on.

With each mix you complete, it can be a great idea to compare your balances to 3 other songs that are relevant to what your mixing. Once you’ve level matched them, it can be useful to take note: How hot is yoru vocal compared to these great-sounding commercial releases? How hot is your snare? Are you bassier, or lessy bassy? Brighter or darker? Are you pushing your effects enough? Too much? How does the separation compare?

The more you mix, the less frequenctly you may need to make such direct comparisons, but it never ceases to be useful now and then. Even if you have develeoped your own style, remember that a good style is one that evolves, and we’re never making music in a vacuum.

Thanks for reading, and if you ever need another set of ears on your mix, we’d be happy to have you in for a session at Joe Lambert Mastering anytime.

(This is part 6 of a 6-part series by staff engineer Justin Colletti. Check out part 1 on bass management, part 2 on high frequencies, part 3 on bus compression, part 4 on panning for widthpart 5 on depth, and part 6 on getting better balances.)

About Justin Colletti

Justin Colletti is a mastering engineer who is happy to call Joe Lambert Mastering his home away from home. To book time with Joe, Justin or Roman, call or email.

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