There are many misconceptions and incorrect statements made about how to improve the quality of your music production. Things like "better equipment means better music", "mastering will fix it", etc. While there might be some merit to that, 99.9% of the time it's not true. What is true, however, is having a better mixdown can be the difference between a good track and a great track. For master engineer Hannes Bieger, this is something he's built a successful business around. While his name might not be too familiar, there's a pretty high chance you've seen at least one picture of his insane studio, whether from a random Instagram account or from your favorite techno artists working with him.
Not only that, but he is also a top-notch producer himself, with highly successful releases on Bedrock, Poker Flat, and Flying Circus. Either way, it's safe to say he knows a thing or two. In an effort to aid you and your music-making journey, we asked Hannes about his top 5 tips for getting your mixdowns right, helping you build better listening and working habits, demystifying the process, and thus, making better music.
Don’t fix it in the mix, fix it in the arrangement!
It may sound funny, but as a mixing engineer I don’t believe in the „fix it in the mix“ mantra – and this is because I am also a producer and musician with a more holistic view on all things sound! Of course, when hired as the mixing engineer you sometimes don’t have any other choice than rolling with the material provided and making the best of the situation. But when working on your own projects, you have more choices, and you should make use of them. I view mixing as part of the process where all artistic decisions are rounded out and presented in the best possible light. When working on my own tracks, I don’t have any problems to solve anymore comes mixdown time. Just as mastering should not be used to somehow try and salvage a bad mix, the mixdown should not be the stage where bad arrangement decisions are being fixed.
In other words: A track will only sound as good as the arrangement and the selection of source materials will allow. One example: If you need an awful lot of EQ to carve out space in the mix for a new element, space is just not there, to begin with – and cramming in this new element is probably a bad arrangement decision. When I mix my own tracks, this part of the process very often only takes an hour or so. I split the channels on my analogue desk, refine the balance, maybe add some buss compression, revisit a few reverb and EQ decisions, and then I print the final result. This is possible because I spent a lot more time on the arrangement. As a simple rule of thumb: The earlier in the whole process quality is established, the easier the subsequent steps will be, and the better the end result.
Monitors and room acoustic – you need to be able to know what you’re doing!
This is an overused analogy, but still: If the windshield of your car is dirty, you can’t see where to go. The same happens in audio when your monitoring isn’t ideal. Unfortunately, this is a tough one to get right, but there are a few workarounds that will help in less than optimal conditions. I strongly advise to look into them, because you surely don’t want to crash your mix against the next tree just because you don’t see the path forward...! As a general tendency, your mixes will sound like the opposite of the sound of your monitor setup. If your speakers don’t have enough bass, you will likely add too much bass in your mixes, and vice versa. This is why a flat monitor response is so desirable – only then your mixes will translate well to the outside world, will sound great everywhere and not just in your own studio. Unfortunately a proper acoustic build-out is expensive, and can only be done in suitable spaces, to begin with. Monitor controller, D/A-converter, clock and cabling are other issues to look at. It’s complex! If in doubt I would suggest curating your own reference track playlist, so that you can constantly compare your mixdown sound picture against tried and true examples – then it’s much easier to get the overall balance right, even in difficult acoustic conditions. Also: Get the best pair of headphones you can afford!
Contrary to an urban myth, headphones are a great tool to check the low end of your mix, because the sound of your room with all its resonances is taken out of the equation. The price of your headphones should be gauged not solely against your main monitor speakers, but against the cost of the speakers and the room acoustics, as this is what it can replace under ideal conditions. In this light, even a pair of headphones costing a four-figure price can be considered a bargain. If you look at speakers, another myth is that you don’t need good speakers when you’re „only“ producing and/or arranging and outsourcing the mix and mastering. How can you execute a good arrangement (see above) when you can’t really hear what’s going on? In that light, a nearfield speaker with 8“ woofers should be the minimum when working on club tracks. Otherwise, you won’t be able to hear the fundamental frequencies of your bass drums properly. So your speakers should offer a linear response down to 35 Hz.
Control resonances, control the space!
Everybody wants mixes with high clarity, transparency, contours, and tangible, three-dimensional sound space. One of the main obstacles on the way to reach this goal is resonances. These can occur when sounds overlap in a problematic way, or they can already be inside the source material. For instance, many hi-hat and cymbal samples have strong resonances which need to be carefully notched out. Carefully, because you don’t want to kill the character of a sound, you simply want to make it a better team player by way of employing some minimally invasive surgery. The unfortunate effect of resonances is that they, by definition, accumulate a lot of energy in a very narrow section of the frequency spectrum, and therefore they work as attention magnets, subconsciously, and just like with a terrible headache, you simply can’t pretend they are not there. The problem is that resonances are masking neighboring frequencies, so they work like an invisible grid in between the listener and the finer, quieter details of a mix. Who doesn’t know the situation where you add more and more reverb, but the mix doesn’t get wider, just more muddy? This happens mostly because resonances prevent you from hearing the fine spacial details. Learn how to effectively get rid of them, and your whole sound space will open up!
The yin and yang principle
The yin and yang principle is very simple, and already almost explained directly above. Often times, there is not a direct path to your sonic goal, but you have to go exactly the other way around. Maybe your mix sounds narrow and congested not because of a lack of reverb, but because the resonances aren’t allowing you to appreciate the finer reverb details. Another example: Almost everybody wants a huge, big low end. But very often this can’t just be achieved by cranking up the bass frequencies. The top end of the mix needs to allow the bass to become and sound huge! A sparse hi-hat pattern that leaves a lot of space can help with this. It’s not a surprise that many Hip Hop tracks have huge sounding bass. Other than a simple 808 hit and the vocals there’s nothing that gets in the way of the bass drum. Try this with your five hits and five percussion elements in a house track, and your life will get terribly complicated. So, whenever you are pondering a mix decision – ask yourself whether you need to go the direct way, or if you have to think the other way around.
Leave the master buss alone!
Finally: Leave the master alone! Some people spend more time adjusting their master chain than the channels in the mix. If they then take the master chain off to have the track mixed or mastered externally, the whole sound picture falls apart. Generally speaking, if you can achieve your goal on a lower level, it’s a simpler and better way, less prone to unwanted side effects. Adjust the channel instead of a subgroup if possible, and adjust the subgroup instead of the master if the project allows it. The best master EQ actually is the fader balance! Instead of slapping an EQ across the mix to lift the highs, try to push the channel faders of the high-frequency elements up first. This way of thinking normally allows the best results, and it leaves room for mix and mastering engineers to do their thing.
There is a reason why mix engineers were called „balance engineers“ in the early days of this industry. It’s the simplest, noblest and most unobtrusive part of this craft, and early mixing consoles didn’t even have an awful lot more features than simple channel faders, to begin with. In line with this thinking: Nobody needs multiband tools on the master during arranging and mixing. They are not even a mere band-aid, more often than not they are causing more problems than they solve, brushing over problems instead of tackling them at the source. For years I have been mixing without anything on the master buss, and only recently I added a D.W. Fearn VT-7 compressor and a Manultec Orca Bay EQ to my arsenal for this. But they rarely ever do more than 1 dB of EQ or 0.5 dB of compression. It’s merely rounding out the results, not making them. Stop cheating and start mixing!
Hannes Bieger’s ‘Poem for the Planet’ (ft. Ursula Rucker) is out April 3rd via Carl Cox’s Awesome Soundwave.