How to Get Your Mixes Sounding Professional
Andy Bradfield is a Grammy Nominated Mixer & Producer, who has his own studio in west London, Studio A. He has worked on loads of amazing projects including soundtracks for The Great Gatsby, Kickass, Halo 4 and Moulin Rouge, and has mixed music for artists like the Spice Girls, Eliza Doolittle, Sugababes, Hurts and Neil Davidge (Massive Attack).
Andy shares his journey into the industry and his 10 top tips on getting a professional sounding mix.
How I got started as an audio engineer and producer
I started at age 16 as a tea boy/assistant in a recording studio
Very hard work, but incredibly rewarding – get to listen to music all day! I had become interested in sound recording when I got a Tape Recorder (cassette!) when I was about 11, and it developed from there. My parents saw this and started to see if I was interested in doing this for a job, which I was.
I did a couple of small private courses in a studio in Essex when I was still at school, and this made me want to pursue a career.
After a lot of letter writing, and persistence I found my way into a great Studio (Olympic Studios & it’s sister studio Townhouse) & got to work with great people on incredible sessions. Long hours, but being trained & involved was better than going to a college – and when I started there were very little of these anyway.
Quickly worked my way up and became an engineer – did a couple of sessions where I was dropped in because the engineer didn’t turn up, and had to record or mix something, I made the most of it (But don’t do this unless you feel confident though, as it can harm your career if you mess it up! I only did it once I had a bit of confidence)
My 10 top tips for getting a professional sounding mix
1. Check the session over before you start
Make sure you have all the parts, esp. if mixing for someone else. You would be surprised how often a part gets forgotten (Check the rough mix too!) & consolidate the files if you can – it makes it easier to “see” what’s going on in a big session, and psychologically it looks neater! It’s a small thing – but when zoomed “out” you will be able to see where everything is, rather than a mass of edits, which obscure the waveforms.
2. Get the timing right
Especially drums –very important that it’s tight if lots of parts are layered. If there is some unintended “Flaming” going on (ie transients of 2 snares that don’t start at the same place, or worse kicks! It can sound messy) In the case of kick drums it can make it sound weaker too, which is very often the opposite of why it’s layered with different sounds.
3. Print Virtual Instruments can be useful
Not everything benefits from this, BUT drums do, and it will help you to see if there is any issues with timing. It also stops you fiddling with the samples and sounds, and concentrate on the mix! As it’s a hassle to reprint. It also frees up system resources, if there is a lot of virtual instruments it can suck a lot of computing power, even with today’s systems, and you will be struggling to have enough power to do the mix. See more in this video guide.
4. Listen Quietly
It will help if you are in a less than ideal acoustic space (if the room is not acoustically treated, it will get worse with more volume!) I have worked in a few weird sounding places! It really helps when you keep the volume down – the more you crank it, the more any issues with acoustics (or lack of) will show up and you will make bad decisions.
5. Subs can be useful
But only if you have quite a large room (Need 12-15 feet in at least one dimension) and your neighbours will not thank you! (Sub’s tend to throw out in all directions, so it often sounds louder than it actually is, away from the speakers)
6. Listen in Mono
It’s hard to do, but very good for balance (check out other mixes, see if you can listen to them in mono – see where things “Sit” and try and work it into your balance). You might find this teaches you more than you think.
7. Be clear on what you – or the client wants
If you are mixing for someone else – ask what they want! It sounds simple but it’s not good making a “banging” mix with hard drums if they want it “Classic & Warm!” LOL ☺ & ask them what they don’t like, and see if you can fix it (there’s a challenge). Be aware also that they may not KNOW what they want, so it can be a tough job to find the right direction for a mix approach, and might take a couple of attempts, but don’t give up! listen to the rough mix, even if it’s bad, it can give a good overview of what the track is about, and also any problems (Can’t hear the vocals, too soft/hard EQ etc….)
8. Take Regular breaks
Ear fatigue is real, and just because you are young, you are not immune! Sometimes it’s hard – but even a 5 minute tea stop can do wonders for your perspective. And if you are the engineer – if you’re old enough to, please DON’T DRINK ALCOHOL while you work – it changes your perception (for the worse) and you will find yourself questioning things, as it dulls your high end.
9. Watch your levels
Start with the faders down if you can (like on a desk) and build a rough balance – if you have difficulty balancing things (cant get it loud enough, or the fader is at the bottom, and its too loud or disappears) you may need to adjust your levels for better gain staging on each part – remember headroom in channels is GOOD – and the more level in each channel, the harder it will be to build a good mix before everything goes red, and in a DAW that’s mostly bad!
10. Reference other material
Reference other material, and level match it – this is very useful for seeing where you are with the tone (EQ) of the mix – and don’t forget to always print an “Unlimited” master pass, that is one without the limiter if you have cranked it hard – mix compression is ok, as long as you like it.
Have fun with it – and if you are working in a DAW (digital audio workstation) you can always come back fresh and go again!