Mike's Mixing Axioms: #1--Keep It Simple

Image courtesy of One Way Stock

Image courtesy of One Way Stock

As I write this, it’s a few weeks after my SALT mixing class. And I mixed at church this weekend. That means, I’m thinking about mixing. Based on the feedback from the class and the thoughts rambling around in my head, I thought I would write up a series that I’m calling my Mixing Axioms. The dictionary on my Mac defines Axiom as “a statement or proposition that is regarded as being established or accepted.” I like that. After almost 30 years of mixing, these are things that—for me anyway—are established and accepted. This is what I do. Check back here throughout the month and you will know what I know.

Axiom 1: Keep It Simple

If you’ve ready any of my posts on parallel compression, frequency splitting reverbs or automating Reaper, you might thing my mixes are anything but simple. But the reality is, aside from a few little tricks, I try to keep the mix as simple as possible. For the most part, the music that I find myself mixing does not require tons of special effects. I don’t do hip-hop or techno, so I’m not creating effects for effect’s sake. 

Whenever I mix at a new venue, one of the first things I do is start flattening out EQ’s and removing plug-ins from the signal path. As much as possible, I like to minimize the number of things I’m doing to the signal. Someday, I’ll break out a mixer and do a video of what happens to phase as we pile on all kinds of EQ and plug-ins on a channel. As phase is time, the more phase distortion we add, the more time distortion we add. As all the inputs start to get out of time with each other, the sound field becomes blurry. I know blurry is a visual term, but it’s the best way to describe it. All of those slight time mis-alignments add up to a mushy sound field. 

Now it’s true that some consoles do a better job than others of keeping everything in time. But they can only do so much. And honestly, almost every time I go in and bypass all the plug-ins, people tell me it sounds better. The less damage I do to the signal during the mixing process, the better it sounds when it comes out of the speakers. 

This goes against the popular mixing process of putting a ton of plug-ins on everything. I’m almost always asked to put a Waves Soundgrid server on every mixing console I sell. This is not a dig on Waves; they make fine stuff. But beware putting plug-ins on just because you can. Personally, I don’t use them unless I have to, and then, I don’t use more than I need to.

I also don’t make huge changes to the channels during the song. After I demonstrated a mix during my class—a mix done with nothing except high pass filters and EQ on only the kick and lead vocal—I asked what people sitting near me noticed. One guy said, “You didn’t move the faders more than a few millimeters.” He was right. For the most part, I let the band mix themselves and only did some minor highlights. If the gain structure is set up correctly, the base mix is dialed in and you’ve done a good job with mic selection, you shouldn’t need to do too much. 

Now, this is true with most good bands. I have mixed some where I’m working really hard to keep the band from completely falling apart. And I know that’s where some of you live. Later on, we’ll talk about some things you can do that will help you with that. But assuming the band is reasonably good, we should be able to—for the most part—dial them up and let it go. 

This week, consider what you’re doing in your mix. What can you simplify? What can you take out? Trim it back until you have only what is absolutely necessary. Then see what happens. 

Next time we’ll be back with another Mixing Axiom

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