Thursday, October 31, 2013

How To Overmix a Song

I thought I would make a funny post today, but with an underlying lesson. This is "how to overmix a song."


1. Start by mixing the song. Then mix it again, then clear your faders and go on to step 2.

2. Spend the next three hours going through each track, obsessing over tiny resonances and things that need to be fixed.

3. Fix the tuning and timing on every single track, make it all perfect. So perfect, it actually becomes wrong again. THAT is how perfect.

4. Duplicate every track and process them all differently. That makes it more interesting.

5. Make sure to use up every single pan spot between 100L and 100R. You should have about 200 tracks in your mix so that's about right.

6. If there are not 10 effects on every track, your mix will be boring.

7. EQ, Compress, and Gate every single track, even if it doesn't need it. All the pros do that.

8. Spend at least an hour messing with the master bus compressor, or add up to 15 compressors in series, each compressing 0.2dB, it sounds better that way.

9. Automate every measure of every track - get those dynamics going....

10. ...then crush all the dynamics with an L2 on the master, cutting off anywhere from 2 - 25dB of reduction.

There you have it. That's how to overmix a song. I hope you've learned something!


The lesson here is this: it is REALLY easy to overmix a song. Obsessing over details, feeling the need to do things to every track, feeling the need for tons of effects, feeling the need to add a master bus compressor, honestly feeling the need to do anything arbitrarily -- it's not a good thing. We are mixing MUSIC, we're not splitting atoms. There is usually no need to obsess over these things. Sure, some mixes need a lot of work, and there is no denying that. But really, the longer you spend with a mix, the worse it will get. It's like a bell curve -

Imagine the X axis as "time" and the Y axis as "how good is your mix." There WILL BE some time required to get your mix good. As you move up this curve, the mix improves, stuff becomes clearer, the song really starts to take shape. The problem is, the longer you tweak, almost 100% of the time, the mix just gets worse. I have done some mixes in a few hours that were more exciting and focused that mixes I spent days on. Why? A few reasons:

1. In the short mix, I wasn't worried or stressed. I was just thinking "no big deal, just a quick mix."
2. In the short mix, I wasn't worried about details. I didn't have the time to stress over them.
3. In the short mix, I didn't have time to fix everything.
4. In the short mix, I had to make quick decisions and condense things down.
5. In the short mix, I really listened.

In general, it takes me about 8-12 hours to mix a song start to finish. If you add in the extra time making corrections and fixes from the artist, on average a total of 10-14 hrs for a single mix. This stuff takes time, and I've been doing it every day for the last 7 years. I'm no expert, and I'm no legend. I'm just a guy like you trying to do the best I can with my skills and my setup.

Back in the day, mixing wasn't nearly as complicated. Now, a LOT of work is done in the mix. People back then weren't recording much in homes, they were recording in professional facilities, almost EXCLUSIVELY. In retrospect, they were some of the best musicians of all time, and they were using some of the best instruments and recording equipment ever made, and they were doing it all on tape. Decisions had to be made. Things had to be worked out before ever setting foot into the studio. It was a cutthroat world. Now it's different - people can make stuff in their untreated bedrooms and work on cheap equipment.

The point is, what you put in is what you're going to get out of it. The room matters. The instruments matter. The playing and emotion matters. When you really grasp that, when you really understand that the source -- meaning the song / instrument / performance --- is the most important thing in the chain, you will worry a lot less. The MIX is a function of making these elements have emotion. It's not about "how much 3khz does this have." It's never been about that. The specifics don't matter.

When you're EQ'ing something, try to think less about "this needs less 5k" or "this needs some compression" and instead try to look at a mix more creatively, saying things like "this needs to be warmer" or "this needs more punch." You wouldn't think this would make a difference but it does - when you think in generalities, you don't sweat the details, and you often will come up with a better mix. It's quicker, it's more focused. You're worrying less about frequencies and attack times and more about "does it sound good or not?" Because that is what matters.

And for Pete's sake, don't spend days or weeks mixing a single song! Set yourself a time limit, let's say two days, and give yourself HOURS. So if you only have a few hours each night to mix, then say "okay I'm going to mix for 3 hours tonight, 3 hours tomorrow, and it should be pretty close." Don't just mix for 30 minutes and then stop, then come back to it in a week, then reset everything...don't do that! You will lose all emotion and creativity for your mix. Mixing a song is like playing a gig. You can't just play a song and then take a break. You have to put in the hours and really PERFORM. That's what mixing is. It's a performance just as much as a song is a performance. Doing it in a single block of time often yields much better results than spending days upon end, or even doing little by little for a week...