5 Random Mixing Tips and Tricks

I'm going to be real honest. My original idea for this weeks post was an article about compression and how to use it to control your dynamics, and I wrote the whole thing out and ended up feeling like it didn't come close to going over everything that i needed it to... So i decided to do a little pivot (don't worry the compressor one will be coming out soon, it's just going to take a little longer than expected) and give you 5 random mixing tips and tricks to implement into your next track. We will go over things like the importance of mono playback and implementation, sample tuning, phase cancelation (polarity flip) and more.  So lets get it! Here are 5 random mixing tips and tricks.

 

1. Mixing in Mono

This is a technique that has become increasingly popular, especially in hip hop, thanks to the very talented Derek Ali who is known primarily for all of his work with TDE. While this technique has existed for a while, Ali has certainly made it known to more mixing engineers and producers due to the wild success of TDE's records. The concept here is that while mixing, you listen back in mono, instead of our traditional stereo playback. This will render some pretty powerful results for a few reasons, but before we jump into those lets first talk about the difference between mono and stereo. On a base level, mono is just one singular track (thus mono) and stereo contains two. This creates a fundamental difference of spatial dimension.  With mono files there is only closer and farther away. This means that mono's space can only really be controlled by volume, equalization, and reverb kind of... So stereo, since it has that extra channel has the added spatial dimension of left and right. So think of mono and stereo as a channel strip on a mixer. Most mixers have a volume knob to control level, pan pots to control whether the signal is coming from the center or the left and the right, and eqs.  If you are only in mono, you have access to everything on that channel strip BUT the pan pots. When you are in stereo you get access to the pan pots. So ultimately stereo gives you more space to work in since you aren't just limited to louder (closer) and quieter (farther away) spatial differences, and instead have the added benefit of moving things left and right. 

So why does this matter? Well the idea is if you can get your mix sounding dope with only one spatial dimension it will REALLY sound dope with the additional dimension, left and right. The reasoning for this is a tricky phenomenon called masking.  We only have so much space to fit sounds into our mix so if you add too much of the same thing, like bass for instance (kicks and subs) they will start fighting for the same space. If you don't correct for that overlap they will start masking one another, and this results in less power and more mud.  In some cases that may be what you want, but most scenarios it's no ideal.

One way of correcting for this masking is by panning elements left and right, and while that will work to some degree, it doesn't totally alleviate the problem. If you become too reliant on panning to get rid of masking issues, you will really be missing out on the impact you sounds could be making if you faced that masking problem head on. This is why mono is so important. If you can get all of your song elements sounding powerful and clear with just your volume and eq, when you allow yourself to then move into the stereo world you now have even more control over your masking. This results in a cleaner mix, with more clarity and impact since you faced those issues head on instead of just panning.

Something that I like to do is throw on a mono plug in on my master, in ableton it's the simple utility plug in, and set a button on my midi controller to control the on and off button. This means that while i'm mixing, I can effortless A/B the mono versus stereo so as i start dealing with my masking problems I can also start playing with panning and hearing how it translates between the stereo and mono. Since stereo is the final output I obviously want the stereo image to still sound great. On that same note, we more often than not listen to music in non true stereo, meaning we aren't directly sitting in front of two perfectly placed left and right speakers. Instead we are either listening in our car closer to the left speaker, or listening on our phones placed somewhere randomly on a table or in our hand. If we A/B consistently through out our mixing process, we will start coming away with mixes that sound great whether you are sitting in a studio in front of speakers, or are bumping something on your ride to work. I have also heard that a lot of venues usually output mono signals so that's another reason to have a solid mix in the mono world.

Something to note, is that it can be tricky to mix this way at first. I struggled with it for a while, but after a few runs through you will start reaping the benefits of a tighter mix with less masking issues.

2. Throw the Lows Into Mono

Staying on the topic of mono, lets talk about sub frequencies for a bit. This is where things can get scientific really quickly, but to keep it as simple as possible, frequencies that fall below 800 Hz (Kicks low and of snares, subs)  are harder for our ears to determine spatial differences. This has to do with wave lengths and our head size, but the higher the frequency the easier it is for our ears to tell the difference between what the left and right are receiving. So if we were getting information to our right ear before our left ear, even by a minuscule amount of time, our brain can process this and determine that the sound is coming from our right side. When frequencies drop below 800 our brain isn't as capable of hearing those differences between the two ears. It has an even harder time when the frequencies drop below 200, and once it's all the way down to 80 and below, there is virtually no spatial difference. 

And... 

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Well since we know know that our ears can't really tell the direction of sounds with lower frequencies, we can start forcing those frequencies to only reside in in the middle, or up the center, AKA, in mono... This moves energy from your left and right sides of the mix and directs all of it's power to the middle. This results in more space for our other elements to sit on the left and the right that our ears can actually hear as coming from the left and the right. Also by keeping these frequencies in mono we get more clarity in our mix, and if we appropriately mix these low frequencies elements together, we will get more punch and power. This will also help translate your mix better across listeing scenarios like in a car, live venue etc. 

So what lies in this frequency range? Kicks, basses, snares percussions sometimes pianos, and the list goes on. Now there isn't a set frequency to make into mono, but i tend to draw the line at around 130 to 300. It totally depends on the context of the song so this is something that changes according to the scenario, but my rule is anything below 130 gets set to mono all the time.  So with kicks i usually just throw my mono plug in on the channel and keep it moving. With things like basses and snares, I like to split up the sound into a few frequency bands and adjust accordingly. So 808s for instance, usually have their low and sub tones, and then upper frequencies that get saturated a bit so that we can hear them on sound systems that lack a subwoofer (our phones and laptop speakers for example). Because I split up that sound into separate bands i can then center my lower and sub tones with a mono plug in and keep my higher frequencies living in stereo. This is a great technique with snares as well.  If you have a heavy tone serving as a layer on your snare, why not put that in mono so that the lower punch has a ton of power up the middle while the upper and higher tones can exist in the stereo space. This keeps the space with the added benefit of more power since the low frequencies are now mono.

3. Phase invert (polarity flip)

This trick is commonly mislabeled as a phase inversion, but in actual fact it is a polarity flip. A polarity flip is when you take an existing wave form and flip it's polarity 180 so that the the resulting waveform is an exact negative of your original, almost like your reflection in water. When you you playback a waveform along with it's polarity shifted counterpart, you will hear nothing. This is because the waveforms are canceling each other out due to their polarity difference. Below is a visual representation of the polarity flip.  Let's say the red line was our original signal and the blue line is that same signal with it's polarity flipped (obviously music doesn't look like this but it is the same principle). 

Figure-1-Polarity.png

If we were to press play we would hear absolutley nothing because of the perfect polarity flip. This is actually how a lot of people make bootleg accapellas. If you have an instrumental of a track, and flip it's polarity and perfectly line it up with it's full track with vocals, it will cancel out the instrumental of the song and only leave the vocals... well it doesn't work out this perfectly, but gets most of the beat out leaving you with primarily isolated vocals. You will usually be left with some artifacts, but it's important to note whats happening here. Because you have a duplicate of something and that duplicate is flipped, it cancels out the original. So let's say you layered three kicks together in hopes of getting a super kick that would shake the house, but instead are getting something with no impact... Well it's very possible that due to the commonality of kick sounds, that the polarity of one kick is a negative version of one of your other kicks. While it's probably not perfectly flipped (because it's not an identical sound), it could be just enough that it is causing polarity issues and masking a lot of the power that you are trying to achieve by stacking. So whats a quick solution to this? Well you can throw on a phase inverting (once again it is definitely polarity flipping and not phase inverting to be exact) plug in on one of the kicks and A/Bing a version with the switch on and with it off. You may find that flipping your polarity on the kick brings everything to life and gives you the thump you desire. This is also a great technique with basses and snares or anything that you are layering. It's important to check these edits in mono because while things can sound good in stereo, you may be having mono masking issues, but as long as you are mindful, this simple trick can really help immensely. I would say this should probably be used as a last measure, and if you can choose sounds that mesh well from the start you will be in a better place, but it's certainly a great option if you want to stick with the sounds you have and pull as much power from them as possible. try this next time you stack up a bunch of the same elements. You don't need to be an engineer wiz or anything, just use your ears, throw it on and if it sounds better rock with it, and if it doesn't, chuck it and keep it moving.

4. Tuning your Drums

This is something that I have really only started doing recently, or at least doing it consciously.  I have found that since i started paying attention to this, it has not only made for more cohesive sounding projects, but also an easier mixing process. The idea here is very simple; you tune your drums, whether that be a kick, snare, percussion or whatever to the key of your song. I think the reason why a lot of people don't think about this is because drums are usually considered atonal instruments, meaning they have no pitch. They do however have fundamental frequencies, and if you can tune those fundamental frequencies to the key of your song, things sort of just fall into place. Now it can be tricky, and this is something your ear gets better at the more you do it, but it's as simple as just transposing your drum sounds. In ableton i can either adjust the pitch via the sampler or drum machine, as well as via the parameters on each audio clip. That's the easy part. The hard part is determining what the current pitch, or fundamental frequency of the drum is and whether or not our changes are actually getting it closer to the key of the song. There are a few tactics that you can use to try and accomplish this. My favorite one is using my ears. I will usually play around with the pitch values on my drums while playing back the chord progression until I feel like it "locks in" and sounds in key. This is a pretty abstract way of doing it, but I always think using your ear is the most natural approach. It doesn't always work, but it's what I prefer when possible. The other, slightly more labor intensive process is by pulling up a spectrum analyzer and plugging your kick through it. In ableton we have a thing called Spectrum which is just a graph that anaylzes audio.  Below is an snapshot of the spectrum analyzer placed on a kick drum. 

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If you look at the top of the graph you will see the number 100, 1k, and 10k. These are values in Hz. Now look at where the peak of this signal falls... It's JUST to the right of the 100 Hz mark. What so cool about this tool is that I can actually hover over that peak with my mouse and that square on the bottom left of the graph will not only tell me the exact Hz value but also what note that value is. The value in the picture above actually isn't correct (couldn't figure out how to screen shot my screen with my mouse hovering over that point ha), but the value on the bottom picture is

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So with our spectrum analyzer we now know that the note for this kick is F# give or take a few cents. This means that we now know how many semitones and cents we need to move our kick so that it fits with our key. I have found that tuning drums to either the root of the scale or the fifth of the scale makes for the strongest adjustment. I usually go with whatever the shortest change is, either up or down. So if our song was in C major, we could transpose this kick up one semitone and be at G, which is a fifth (7 semitones) in the C major scale. You could try and go down or up to reach C but this may make for a kick that is too deep or too high pitched. While this may be slightly time consuming, your productions will show the effort, and you will be surprised by how much easier it is to mix with in tune percussion that percussion that is all over the place.

5. Low cutting

Just because you can't hear it doesn't mean it's not there. And more often than not, what isn't there is actually taking up much needed audio bandwith in your mix as well as your speakers. This is particularly true with low frequencies, and not only with things we expect like kick drums and bass, but also with things like vocals, pianos, pads and percussion. The average, healthy human ear can hear between 20hz and 20kHz. So anything below or above this range is going to be lost on our auditory senses. This is why a low cut is so important. When it comes to things like bass and kicks, I always like to do a hard low cut at the 20Hz mark at the very least. This ensures that I have no un needed energy falling below 20Hz and that all of the frequencies in my mix will be audible and thus necessary. It could be argued that frequencies below 20Hz are still worthwhile because they bring a feeling to your track but we wont get into that now.  When it comes to things like vocal i almost always put a low cut at around 120 to 140 Hz because I know that most of the energy of the human voice lies above that Hz value. So instead of keeping it in when i don't need it and also have it compete with other key elements like my bass and drums, I cut it out which makes for a cleaner mix. I do this type of cutting for almost all of the elements in my music, and i do this depending on each elements strength. This can actually work well in the other directiontoo. 808's don't have a ton of necessary frequencies above 400Hz so I like to low pas, or high cut these frequencies out because they don't add enough substance to the base to justify having them compete with things like my vocals or cymbals. The mix is a constant balance and compromise, and a good engineer and producer knows how to bring out the strengths and burry the weaknesses of each element in order to create a great sounding mix. With a cleaned up low end, you can come away with a cleaner mix and since you don't have so much inaudible low energy going to your master bus you can in effect make your master bus even louder with limiting. Limiting is for another day, but just know that while our ears can't hear below 20Hz our limiter sure can, and it wont be able to push your song as hard because it is taking those low frequencies into account.  My favorite plug in as of recent is Fab Filters Q 2 because it has a hard low cut feature so anything below a frequency point of my choosing gets totally cut out. Pretty handy when it comes to 808s, and also very handy to throw on your master bus to keep those frequencies below 20Hz at bay.  

Conclusion

The more you do the better you get so try implementing some of these tactics into your next mix. I think you will find that they help you get a better mix, and while it may takes some times to fully integrate them into your workflow, they will be great additions to your skill set.  As always, this is music so there are no rules that can't be broken, but always better to make deliberate creative decisions and know what going on than aimless walk the mixing road. 

Let me know what you think of this, and let me know what some of your favorite free VSTs are.

Hope you enjoyed this post. If you dig it let me know! If you hated it let me know! If you have any ideas or things you want me to cover in a future blog post, let me know!  

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Thanks for tuning in !

LF