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mixing in cubase


What is "mixing"?

It's important to distinguish between "mastering" and "mixing" a track. "Mixing" is when we take all the elements of the song, and adjust things like volume, pan, EQ, and effects, so that we produce the type of overall sound that we are looking for, and then create a stereo (or possibly surround sound) recording from it. (This is different from "mastering" a track. Mastering is the process after mixing down, when the producer applies an overall EQ, compression and limiting {and possibly other effects} to the recording of the mix).

Remember that with mixing, there is no wrong or right way to do it - there is only what works and what doesn't. (This is true of most musical composition). This is because what may work for one type of mix or song, may not work for another.

The following is a series of tips and tricks I have found to be useful in creating good mixes:-


1. Backing vocals

If you are using backing vocals in your track, EQ most of the bottom end off. I will often apply quite a drastic high pass to the vocal:-

backing vocal eq

Now if we solo this, the vocal will sound a good deal thinner. This is a deliberate move. When listening back with all the instruments in, the backing vocal/s will now feel more "airy" and "floating", compared to the main vocal track. This creates space in the overall sound, especially if we now pan the backing vocals to different points in the stereo image, and give them a slightly longer reverb.


2. Turn it down! (part one)

This small word of advice comes out of several years of experience with people asking me to turn something up in a mix -whether it be a lead vocal, or a solo instrument, or percussion instrument etc.

It's very important to ask yourself when you start mixing down a track - what is too loud? This is because if we keep turning instruments up, gradually we find that we end up with too higher output and the possibility of distortion. Always try to identify what is too loud to begin with.

Also, consider other options, rather than just turning an instrument down or up in volume. Try "thinning" it out (like we did with the backing vocals), and experiment with the EQ. This may prove more effective than moving the volume around. Aim to have instruments sitting in their own "space", and be aware of what may be competing in instruments that work in a similar register. For example, the piano and the acoustic guitar are two such instruments that can create a "muddy" sound when they are combined. I usually apply a low cut to the guitar, and increase the top end on the EQ, so that it sits in its own sonic space, apart from the piano.


3. Turn it down! (part two)

It's great to listen to music nice and loud. I think pretty much all musicians enjoy this. However, if we listen to music at the same overall volume level for too long, we can experience a listening "blindness". There's many times when I come back to a mix the following day and think "how come I didn't spot that high hat (or something else) was too loud!".

Once you are reasonably happy with a mix, try turning the volume down by a large amount, so that the music is at a background level. Can you still hear everything you want to hear? Are there some instruments that are standing out too much, or not enough? (Be aware that bass instruments sound much quieter at low levels than treble instruments)

Listen to the mix in different environments and with different equipment. I like to listen through with a good pair of headphones to check for "unwanted" noises - e.g. shuffling around on a vocal take or the trumpet player cleaning his instrument out! Try listening to the track in the car. (Be aware that it's going to sound a little one-sided, unless you're sitting on the middle back seat!)

Then take notes and make the necessary changes. Then mix down again, this time back at your usual monitoring level.



4. Creating a stable mix

Cubase has lots of effects to help the dynamics of a mix, such as compression and limiting. If you're unfamilar with how compression works, check out this article in wikipedia. We can use compression to stablise instruments (and vocals) that would normally have a wide dynamic range.

For example, most vocalists have notes that they will sing well (and with more confidence) than other notes, which will generally be quieter. If we do not compress the vocal, then we will find that sometimes the vocal track is too soft in the mix, and at other times (when the singing is in their best range) too loud. Compression will "push down" the moments which are too loud, and "lift up" the notes which are too quiet.

Cubase comes with some good compression and limiting effects. However, I take this element of the production very seriously, so I tend to use TC Powercore for most of the vocal and main instrument processing.



5. Reverb and Delay

Adding reverb to an instrument when mixing in Cubase can really help to create a feeling of space and distance between instruments. However, avoid overuse! Try to have different settings for different instruments. Generally, bass instruments need little or no reverb. Acoustic guitars work well with small amounts of reverb (this can make them feel "closer"), whereas backing vocals can have longer reverbs to make them feel more distant.

It's more common these days to have just a small amount of reverb on the lead vocal, and to define it's space by using delay (the stereo delay in Cubase is useful here). I sometimes add more delay to the vocal or lead instrument in the "spaces" in the mix (the moments when there are gaps in the lyrics or solo breaks.) Remember that these "effect" moments can be automated in Cubase.

For further reading:-

Paul White of "Sound on Sound" has gathered together a great check list for mixing music, which is worth reading and referring back to from time to time:-

20 tips on mixing

Also, some more good tips can be found at the WhippinPost, including an interesting one about recording instruments in mono rather than stereo.



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