Making Sense of Sound Mixing - dummies

By Jeff Strong

For most home recordists, the process of sound mixing is what turns their mish-mash of musical tracks into a song. Mixing involves the following steps:

  • Cleaning up your tracks by removing unwanted noise and performance glitches

  • Equalizing each track so that it blends well with all the others

  • Adding signal processing to enhance each track

  • Setting levels for each track to tell the story you want to tell with your song

The following offers an overview of these steps.

Cleaning up tracks, using editing

When you record, you want the best possible sound and performance for each instrument that you can get, but try as you might, sometimes you run into problems. These can include picking up unwanted sounds, such as chair squeaks, coughs, or other instruments, and can include (and often does) mistakes a musician makes that need to be cut out.

In the olden days of tape recording, this editing process took time and skill to physically cut out the bad parts of the tape with a razor blade. Today, you can do the necessary editing by using the editing functions in digital systems. This is nice, but it can also tempt you into editing your tracks more than is necessary and, as a result, can suck the life out of them.

Equalizing your tracks

When you start mixing a bunch of instruments, you often need to adjust the frequencies present in each instrument so that they all blend without creating mush (a highly technical term). By adjusting the frequencies of each instrument in the mix, you can make sure that each can be heard. This process is simple, but it can be time consuming.

Processing your signal

In the world of multitracking and small, acoustically untreated recording rooms (most home recordists use a spare bedroom or basement to record in and don’t have a ton of money to make the room sound great), it is almost essential to process the sound with effects or dynamics processors.

Doing so is usually intended to add the feel of a live concert to the recording, although many people also use signal processing to create interesting effects. Because the possibilities for processing your track using a digital system are almost limitless, this is an area where most beginners overdo it.

Blending your tracks

This is also a process in which most new recordists run into problems. Properly mixing your tracks means keeping levels from getting out of hand, placing things where you want them in the sound field (left to right and front to back), adjusting EQ to blend all your instruments in a pleasing way, and using signal processors, such as compression and reverb, to make the most of each track.

This process is a circular one and takes skill and patience to get right.