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August 4, 2016

Keep Your Mixes Sounding Fresh

by John Paterno
Credits: Soraya, Robbie Williams, The Steve Gadd Band, Steve Porcaro, Tim McGraw, Bonnie Raitt, and more


It happens to us all at some point. We find ourselves going through the same process, using the same plugins, same effects. They are familiar and easy and they get us from point A to point B, but the mixes are uneventful.

When I feel like I’ve gotten into one of these ruts, there are a few things I like to do to shake things up.

Mix in Mono

Mono Speaker MixThis is an interesting exercise that makes me think about EQ differently. I set my monitoring to mono, set the pans on the tracks where I imagine they should go as a starting point, and then start mixing. Doing this challenges me to get the elements of the mix to really speak. It encourages me to get a bit more assertive with EQ. With the spatial placement taken away, EQ becomes my main tool to create separation between the mix elements. It might even push me to EQ my effects more as well, which is something that doesn’t always come to mind when you’ve got ‘left/right real estate’. So I’ll proceed with the mix, get it to where I am happy, then switch to monitoring in stereo for the rest of the time.

You may be wondering, "Why did he mention setting the pans before he starts the mix?" This is because I want to take into account the level change induced by the pan law. [Side note: The center will be down anywhere between 2.5 - 6 dB relative to hard left or right depending on the pan law you’ve selected in your DAW, or the one designed into your console.] I’ll likely change the pan position and/or the level once I get out of mono to complete the mix, but this will at least minimize the amount of re-balancing.

Change Up The Order

Mixing ChecklistIf I find myself always doing the same order of instruments – drums first, then bass, then piano, then guitars, then vocals, etc., I’ll sometimes start with a different set of elements. If the song has a great bass line, I might start with bass and the vocal, or piano and vocal if the piano drives the song. This approach makes me really think about where the ‘heart’ of the song is. Drums may not be the true driver of a particular record. By not focusing on them first, there may be other more interesting elements in the production to build around.

Change The Panning

Panning KnobRadical panning can sometimes shake up a song in a good way. Bob Clearmountain did this on a Del Amitri song called ‘Roll to Me’ on their Twisted record (Spotify, iTunes), and it has stuck with me as something to always be aware of. Or it might be cool to just use hard left, hard right, or center with everything just to hear what that encourages me to do. If I find myself doing something like panning the main guitar to the left always, I like to change it up so I don’t do it the same way all the time.

Try A Different Plugin

Plugin OptionsSometimes a fast and easy way to shake things up is to simply try a new plugin or two . If I use the same plug in or plug in chain for a particular instrument, I sometimes try subbing my ‘go to’ choices out for other stuff. It doesn’t always lead to something better, but sometimes it does. Or it inspires another chain of thought that does actually lead to something better.

Limit Thyself

Limit YourselfIt can be an interesting experiment to purposely limit my options. What happens if I allow myself only one reverb for the entire song? Or only two plugins max per channel? Or no reverb and only delay for effects? What if I don’t use my hardware stereo bus chain? What if I don’t use a stereo bus compressor? All of these things make me look at the mix from different perspectives, forcing me to focus on what is important for the song at all times.

The hardest part is being open to the ideas and being willing to go down the path. Once I allow that to happen, I’m on my way.

John Paterno is an Grammy winning LA-based recording and mixing engineer. He has worked with a wide range of artists in his 25+ years in the music business including Soraya, Robbie Williams, The Steve Gadd Band, Steve Porcaro, Tim McGraw, Bonnie Raitt, and more.

Check out his full length mixing tutorial where he mixes the song "Don't Stop Talking" by Robbie Williams from start to finish showing you some of his signature mixing tips and tricks all along the way.