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Intro to mixing: perfecting home studio sound

by Cristina Sanza February 17, 2015
Intro to mixing: perfecting home studio sound

Mixing is an essential to adjusting reverb, equalization, compression, and other sound levels

Nowadays it seems like anyone can record music professionally at home. While it’s true that software and basic equipment is readily available for any amateur musician to get their songs recorded, there are usually noticeable differences between a studio-recorded track and a home recording. That’s no reason to get discouraged, though, as there are several mixing tips that can make your recordings sound as good as they can, given the software you have at hand.

First things first: you need a recording with crisp, clear sound to work with. In really basic terms, this usually means a recorded vocal track and an instrument track. The worst thing a musician can do is work with bad sound to start and think it can be “fixed” by layering dozens of effects. Starting with good sound will maximize what your effects will add to the track (less is more!). Make sure you have good over-the-ear headphones, but you should switch between listening through speakers and headphones at low and medium volumes while editing.

Mixing varies for every recording, depending on genre, instruments used and sound of voice. Regardless, there are a few basic elements that I think will work well with any type of recording to help it get that ‘studio’ feel; it’s just a game of trial and error.  Most of the effects I will mention are a simple drag-and-drop into your tracks. In every program their locations will be slightly different.

When it comes to mixing, reverb on vocals immediately comes to mind. While reverb can make vocals sound echo-y and smooth (the echo can rid of minor vocal flaws), it’s important not to go overboard with it. Too much reverb can cause the sound to appear hollow and fade into the background. So unless you’re working on a ghastly horror movie track, it’s best that reverb slightly enhances but doesn’t overpower. Mess around with reverb levels and filters, but make sure to play back your changes. You can mute all other tracks except vocals to isolate them, but play it back with all the tracks once you think you’ve got it right to insure it’s at the right level, because at the end of the day, mixing is about all the tracks working together, and subtle changes can throw other elements of the recording off.

Lana Del Rey has a secret to her airy vocals: layering. This technique makes for a fuller, more perfected sound. The key is to duplicate your original vocal track, but instead of keeping it at full volume, decrease it by about half (roughly -6dB), to where it can be heard but not seem noticeably doubled. To create that extra-layered effect, instead of using a reverb filter, try a delay filter on this track.

        Equalization and compression can make a huge difference in levelling sound. Equalizers affect the level balances across the frequency spectrum of your sound. They can help solve acoustic problems in non-studio rooms (perfect for those in working in a home-studio space) and cut unwanted low frequencies that aren’t the actual instrument recorded, like ambient noises picked up during recording.

Compression, on the other hand, affects the level balances across time.  The human voice does not project in a completely even level, and a compressor will bring down the highest peaks that are above the threshold level, restoring the level throughout the recording. This makes for an even, controlled vocal. Compression is by no means auto-tuning; it’s more fine-tuning audio levels.  Many equalizer and compression effects are pre-made so you can just drop them into your tracks, but don’t be afraid to toy around with the settings to get the filter to suit your sound.

After working on a song let it be and come back to it the following day. A fresh mind will help bring unnoticed sound issues to the surface. It’s also good to compare your work to other similar pieces of music; this will help you envision your desired sound. Remember, there is no mixing formula; it’s all about being open to it all!


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