Using Mute and Volume while mixing

Today I’d like to share some interesting techniques that I have come to use more and more often during mixing. They are quite simple, but have improved my workflow a lot and have made finding problematic areas of mixes easier. 

I was mixing a rock song the other day and I noticed that no matter what I did, I couldn’t get the vocal to sit right. Either the drums or the guitars were over powering them, or they were just too loud and dominating the whole song. Rock can be quite tricky, as the vocal has to stand out, but also blend in to the music so that the rhythm and groove of the guitars, drums and bass can drive the song. I usually achieve this by making wide mixes, so the instruments on the side seem to ‘hug’ the vocal.

After about an hour of frustration I took a break and went back later with a clear head to continue the mix. The first thing I did was to mute everything but the drums and vocals. I have shared this advice with some people who I help with their mixes already: the rule of thumb is that the vocals should sit just above the snare (RMS level, not peak!!). So I decided to listen to my own advice and listened to the vocals and the drums in isolation. It sounded great! So the issue was somewhere else. I put back the bass. A bit too loud, but ok. Not competing with he vocal. Next came the guitars. Boom!! There is the problem… I was surprised, because the guitars were panned hard L and R, and the vocals were centred, so why was this such a problem?? After a bit of fidgeting I indeed realised that the guitars were a few dB too loud, but BECAUSE they were panned to the L-R extremes, I didn’t quite notice. Not just that, but I noticed some ugly muddiness around 350-400Hz and a bit of harsh high-mids around 4kHz. Once I took care of these, the mix cleared up a lot and the vocal was sitting there loud and proud, yet still part of the song. Problem solved in 3 minutes…

Setting levels can be quite tricky some times. Everything is relative to something else, so if something changes, the other thing might have to change too. EQ, compression and automation (so reducing or enhancing dynamics) can make this even more difficult. To counter this, I use the snare as a reference more and more. The guitars should be around the same level as the snare (again RMS, not peak!!) and the vocals just above it. Bass has to be set relative to the guitars. Everything else according to it’s relevance to the song. 

I also started thinking of EQs more like frequency dependant volume faders. Once the tight EQ corrections are done with a precise digital filter, I use more broad EQ settings to massage or shape the tone so it fit’s the rest of the song. I try to stay as natural as possible, but bass and guitars  are usually candidates for some generous tone shaping. 

These techniques can be applied to every genre and situation of course. Especially muting tracks is helping me a lot during my work as I can very quickly identify where the problem areas are. I firmly believe that these little things are important, because we, as mixers, have to stay in the zone of ‘first impressions’. If we get in too deep, we lose our objective viewpoint and our decisions become blurry and badly informed.

Hoe these thoughts and techniques will help, let me know in the comments!