what I learned...2012 has been full of learning experiences for me, both personally and professionally. Usually when someone uses the phrase “learning experience,” they actually mean “painful experience.”

It’s so true, right?

Any time I learn a powerful lesson, there’s almost always some sort of discomfort that comes along with it. Take mixing, for example. I love to mix, but there are days where I would rather swim with hungry alligators than work on a mix.

Sometimes mixing comes easy. Sometimes it’s painful.

But if you can persevere, there’s always something to learn, something that will make your future mixes better.

Here are some of the things I learned:

Give Your Mix a “Time Out”

No matter how awesome you think your mix is, resist the urge to share it with the world until you’ve given it a time out.

Time-outs work like gangbusters in the Gilder house. Our two-year-old Owen can completely lose it some days. Sticking him in a “time-out” in the corner for two minutes usually does the trick.

When it comes to mixing, one of the best things you can do for your mix is to simply step away. After a couple hours of mixing, your ears have accustomed themselves to what they’re hearing. If your mix has some blatantly huge issues, you might not even notice them.

THAT’S why you need to give your mix a time-out. It’s misbehaving, and you don’t even know it, because you’re too close to the situation.

Come back to it the next day, or maybe take a lunch break. When you come back with fresh ears, you’ll instantly hear those two or three issues in the mix that need to be addressed.

Now you can address them before you send the mix off to be heard by others.

Trust me on this one. Your ears are tricky little creatures. Make ‘em be honest with you before you do your final bounce.

Level vs EQ

This one’s so easy I regularly forget about it.

If you’re fighting with a particular track in a mix, and you just can’t seem to make it sound right, what’s your first instinct?

I can tell you what mine is. I instantly reach for an EQ knob and start twisting. If it’s too harsh or too boomy, then I obviously need to cut some frequencies in the low mids or upper mids, right?

Maybe.

But what I’ve found is that when I find myself using very aggressive EQ, chances are there’s another more obvious problem at hand.

What problem?

The track is simply at the wrong volume.

Almost every time I find myself really wrestling with a particular track, using crazy EQ cuts, sooner or later I realize that the track is simply too loud or too quiet.

I’ll remove all the EQ crazyness and move the fader up or down a few dB.

The result? It sounds instantly better.

Don’t forget how powerful a simple fader move can be.

The Great and Powerful Crap Speaker

This is one of those tips the music stores don’t want you to think about. 🙂

Yes, it’s important to have good, accurate studio monitors and/or headphones.

However, I’ve found (especially this past year) that my crappy little 3” speakers are insanely helpful mixing tools.

People always ask me, “What crappy speakers do you recommend?”

That’s a hilarious question. Just use something crappy. Something with a small speaker on it. I’ve got some old Roland speakers with a 3-inch woofer. They’re not full range, and they’re not good for making really detailed decisions.

However, they INSTANTLY show me major flaws in my mix. Like if the vocal is too loud, or if the bass it too muddy. Or maybe the guitars are too aggressive or the snare drum disappears.

As an added bonus, I only use one of these speakers, and I send a mono signal to it. So now it’s my crap speaker AND my mono speaker.

I’ve found that if I can get the mix to sound killer on this speaker, it will sound killer in my car, and it will still sound great on my nice monitors, too.

It’s not always fun to hear your mix on a crap speaker, but it can be insanely useful.

Dare to Compare

Comparisons can be painful.

You might think your mix is amazing, but then you hear it next to a professional mix, and you’re instantly sad. The pro mix sounds so much better than yours.

Yes, it hurts (and yes, I’ve been there many a time). But it’s good for you to take these long honest “looks” at your mixes. If your mix doesn’t stand up to a professional mix, then you probably have some more work to do.

It’s difficult and frustrating, but it makes you better.

Compare your mixes to professional ones, and slowly but surely your mixes will start sounding more and more professional.

The Mix is Slave to the Recording

This is probably the most important thing you could learn. (And it’s been something I’ve run into over and over again this year.)

Your mix is slave to the recording.

If the recording sounds horrible, your mix will sound horrible.

It’s so easy to have the “I’ll just fix it in the mix” mentality, but you simply CAN’T do it. You can enhance a recording. You can even make it sound better. But your mixes won’t be amazing if you’re not putting as much focus and effort on the recording side as you do the mixing side.

You must…you simply MUST…put in huge amounts of effort to capture great-sounding performances. This means rescheduling a session for another day if the performer isn’t “feeling it.” It means re-recording tracks that simply don’t sound good. It means spending lots of time working out the arrangement before you lay down a bunch of tracks. It means taking the time to audition a few mic placements before you start recording.

The better your recordings sound, the better your mixes will sound.

Period.

Your Turn!

Okay, now I want to hear from you. What have you learned in 2012? Let’s make the comments below a huge list of recording and mixing tips.

Ready? Go!

  • jay

    also, crap portable headphones work too. Amazingly well. At least to get the balance’s right. I just grabbed a pair to mix because (I use a dp008) i was too lazy to move butt :). i was quite shocked how well it transferred.

    • It’s funny how much we want really nice equipment, but sometimes it’s the cheap stuff that really helps our mixes translate.

  • Thanks Joe. Your site is well-written but simple enough for any newer engineers. I found this site today and I already feel like I’ve learned a thousand helpful things. Can’t wait to get off work and try some of these tips.

    • You’re most welcome, Tyson. Thanks for saying hi!

    • Welcome to the site, Tyson! Great to have you here.

  • Jembah

    Yup, crap speaker does help my mixing… a lot! My workflow getting simpler as i only have smaller setup studio. Using bigger and fuller range monitor studio maybe useful if u have bigger setup.. certainly not in my case.. haha..

  • I learned that by taking that extra time to getting it right at the source, the mixing part became a walk in the park. Great post by the way Joe!

    • Man, that’s one of the best lessons you could learn. Just work hard not to forget it. 🙂

  • Desharon

    I just want to thank GOD for putting you and your team in my path.May GOD bless you.I can now say I have a recording and mixing service.I’m still learning everyday,because of you thank you sir

  • Hmm I remember saying something a while back that my crappy speaker was just one so it was also my mono monitor. But yeah, crappy the crappy speaker technique rules. Mine happens to be a speaker box that I made when I was a wee kinder. Well I didn’t make the actual box, that was a cast-off from the electronics guru down the road, but I mounted two really crappy speakers in it. I have found it can be especially good for getting the vocal level right. Partly because it’s going to mono, but also ’cause this box has a rather excitable mid-range. I have also found A’Bing between this and my good monitors excellent for level balancing tracks during mastering.

    But to the point ov this year, my focus has been on getting good results *fast*, because as some ov you might know my band records (main tracks) on every Solstice & Equinox and releases 2-4 CDs every year (depending on the combi ov albums & EPs). So it does create a lot ov work in all stages ov the production chain, and being underground metal it only makes so much $$$. Time is money so therefore it has to be managed well, I also have a family and many other irons in the fire.

    My main targets towards this process have been developing my own guitar distortion that records really well, so the gat sound is just “there”, and needs very little fluffing with. I also actually made a hardware device to assist me with getting good results with mastering quickly. I call this device “The Mangler”. We can’t forget the crappy speaker technique too for lessening the number ov Test Mixes or Test Masters! And finally, something that I have always resisted in the past, in fact been pretty much ardently against is using the “glue compressor” on the master buss. In my case I use a little brick wall limiter. But I have found this speeds up the mix process by a large degree because you don’t have to wait till mastering to find out what your mix really sounds like! hehe

  • CJ

    Thanks for all your hard work this year, Joe. I feel I’ve really learned a lot. Especially with the “mix with us” course.

  • Also, a mix can sound bad simply because the composition is too cluttered – everything should have it’s own breathing space around it at a time, or you get mud. On the other hand, a thin mix could be improved by subtly layering a line with a different instrument/sound, as supposed to busting out the compression and eq.

    • Absolutely! That’s a part of what I mean by the mix being slave to the recording. The recording needs to be good quality, but the PARTS need to be quality too.

  • I’d extend the crappy speakers to crappy headphones -much of the world listens to music frequently on crappy iphone headphones – if you can get a good mix and master on those, chances are it’ll sound good on anything.

  • Smurf

    This year was a reverb year for me…out of everything in mixing, either live or in the studio, I SUCK at hearing reverb, period!

    So this year it was learning that using 2 or more verbs IN SMALLER SETTINGS & QUANTITY was the trick I was missing. A Small Room + a Hall works much better than a single Hall verb to add a huge space around something, This, and using short delay lines instead of verb at times sounds MUCH better & clearer.

    And for MY ear, if I can hear it then I need to drop the verb level 2db and it will be almost right..

    • That’s a GREAT lesson.

    • jay

      what I was told was get the reverb how you like it or whatever, then take it down a few notches.

      • It also helps to check the amount of reverb on headphones. Usually I find on speakers the reverb sounds fine, but then on headphones it’s noticeably too much, so I turn it down.

        • apeFish

          Isn’t that funny – i hear it the opposite – the right amount of reverb in the phones sounds like too much on speakers…

  • Jay

    I learned about D/A converters. 🙂 I had a korg D1600 that i have been using for 13 years…it died. So (a long story) did research, PC recording? what to do? A friend had a tascam DP008. Must be crap right? Once I started, I was

    amazed by the sound. (not pushing the DP008). Somehow the D/A converters are great — to my ears. And I use a Voiceworks as a preamp.. into a cheap dp008. Also 8 tracks make me focus on the SONG, now how much I can cram onto 16 tracks. 🙂 And since I got the dp008 i learned about the exciting world of free VST plugins. 🙂 I can off load tracks easily to the PC for processing. LESSON: a snazzy looking fancy plug-in might not be helping you, when something more basic actually will (like good micing techniques, correct use of compression, not crazy EQ. 🙂 But, I still feel like i am just starting. I think thats part of the fun though.

  • JD

    That you can learn things from anyone and everyone all the time. It doesn’t matter how long you have been doing this, there’s always someone who can show you something new..the Pro’s, the beginners, your friends, everyone.

    Thanks Joe.

    • Absolutely!!! I learn something almost every time I engage with somebody, whether they’ve only been doing this for a few months or a few decades.

  • chrisw92

    What I learnt this year (well every year, but I think its finally sunk in) is don’t try to make tracks in your session sound good, make them fit as clearly as they can with each other… Then they will, as if by magic, sound great.

    Make things more clear, the rest will all come together naturally. Such a simple idea that people will know (maybe say “well durr, of course”) but maybe like me, don’t/didn’t pay attention to it.

    • I know what you mean. I didn’t necessary learn anything “new” this year…but I just re-learned a lot of things I keep forgetting. 🙂

  • What I’ve learned in 2012, cut instead of boosting if it comes to eqing. I know, they all say it, but you have to learn to simply LISTEN!

    And what else I’ve learned, compression with a ratio of 1.4 – 2.0:1 often is more useful than compressing the hell out of it!

    And that a compressor should not be used to make something loud. use a limiter instead. even if it does kinda the same.

  • Zalman

    Hello Joe!
    I`ve learned some good EQ stuff from your video, and Compression still learning from your video! But the last month and still going, my inspiration / motivation are around 0…. 🙁 ! maybe you can give me some inspiration ?
    I have no band / artist in the past 3-4 month in the studio. And my motivation to record myself playing guitar is just not there 🙁 !

    P.S : sorry for my English (from Norway)