This is where mixing gets really fun. In the end, mixing is all about getting something sound “right.” Everything should have a “pocket” to fit into. Everything should sound pretty good on its own when you listen critically to it. The whole thing should “gel” together and feel like a cohesive whole.
How you get there will depend largely on the kind of music you’re mixing. When you boil it all down, it comes down to a simple question and a not-so-obvious practice.

The Question: Is this song more about “color”, “texture”, or “contrast”, or more about “movement” and “energy”?

The Practice: Forget about how the way things sound, and focus on the way things feel.

First, let’s look at a singer/songwriter tune that is just vocals, guitar/piano, and minimal additional instrumentation or percussion.

This is a good example of a song that is more about “color”, “texture”, or “contrast.” Of course, the most important thing is to get the vocal to sound amazing.

After that, it’s a question the way the vocal and everything else fits together.

•    Does the vocal stick out like Karaoke? Find a way to make it sound like it fits with the music (hints: when it’s wrong the solution is often fixing reverb, levels, and eq, generally in that order.)

•    Are the music and the vocal “stepping on” eachother? Find a way to stop this. It could be the musical arrangement is too busy and is actually conflicting with the vocal. It could be that the tones of the vocal and music are too similar and you need to bring out more contrast.

•    Does the song feel like it’s the wrong “color” for the lyric? Some of this just comes down to the structure of the chords, melodies, and harmonies, which isn’t your job to fix (outside of exercising mute buttons to help clear up the arrangement.) Some of it may be fixed by looking at the “texture” elements that are being used. Anything that is being used to supplement the vocals and main instrument (guitar/piano) is about texture. This is especially true of sustained elements like strings, pads, etc. If the song doesn’t feel right and you have the option, try a different pad sound (this works better with software synthesizers than with actual recorded synths, of course.)

The concept of contrast is a very important one when thinking about fitting elements of a mix together. Sometimes “louder” means “drier”, and “quieter” means “wetter.” If I think something as being “too loud”, my reflex is to turn it down. If I think of it as having too much energy compared to the other instruments, then I can ask a followup question. Is it too loud, or too dry? Reverb can be overdone for sure, causing everything to lose definition. But it can also give instruments space. And if you’re having trouble with something popping out of the mix, being too loud, or just not sounding like it fits in, go back to asking yourself about contrast.

Stay tuned for part 2 on energy and movement.


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