In various stages of the music production process, subtlety is key.
This is especially true in mixing. Sometimes we make mixing moves that have drastic effects, but more often than not, mixing moves tend to be pretty subtle.
Eventually, of course, these subtle moves add up to create drastic changes. This is the beauty of mixing. It’s not just one thing that’s important. Everything counts.
But similarly, it’s easy to overdo it when we think a single move should be making more of an impact.
Today, I want to share with you 5 common pitfalls when it comes to subtlety. These are places where it is all too easy to push too hard, and make your music sound bad or unnatural.
Too Much EQ
EQ is arguably the most powerful tool that you have at your disposal.
But it’s also one of the easiest places to overdo your mixing moves.
Remember that the primary goal of EQ in mixing is to make your tracks fit together, and balance the overall frequency spectrum of your mix. Some common ways to overdo EQ are as follows:
Cut too much: Although I’m a huge proponent of cutting before boosting, you can definitely take this too far. Maybe your vocal sounds muddy, so you want to get rid of as much 250Hz as you possibly can. Or your guitars are harsh, so you cut 4kHz by way too much.
Remember that EQ cuts do not get rid of frequencies, they just turn them down. You want to turn things down enough to make them fit nicely. But if you take it too far, it will sound unnatural, and will probably lose an important aspect of your track. Sure, there are times when huge EQ cuts are the way to go, but these are the exception, not the rule.
Boost too much: When you find a frequency in your track that you really like, it’s all too easy to boost it up way too high. In my opinion, it’s usually better to try cutting other frequencies before boosting the ones you like. But if you do need to boost, make it subtle. Remember that all of your subtle moves will add up to create a great mix, so don’t overdo it on one track.
Too much mix bus EQ: When EQing the mix bus, remember that this EQ is going to be applied to every single track across your mix. A little bit goes a long way here. I tend to keep my mix bus EQ moves to 1 or 2 dB at most. It’s subtle, but it makes a difference.
Too Much Compression
Compression is another great tool. It’s also a really great way to destroy your mix.
Too much compression squashes the life out of your tracks. Often when I’m listening to my mix and I can’t quite put my finger on what is bugging me, it’s usually too much compression.
There are a number of ways to solve the over-compression problem. Turning down the ratio and/or turning up the threshold is a simple and obvious way to get less gain reduction and be more subtle with your compression.
Another neat way to do it is to use parallel compression. If you like the tone you’re getting with your compressor, but it’s just squashing things too much, parallel compression can often do the trick. This is really easy if your compressor has a “mix” knob that allows you to dial it back. If not, you can do it by sending a copy of your track to a bus and compressing the copy.
Too Much Editing
Autotune and Elastic Audio are great tools. I’ve used both many times, and I think they can really help to make your songs reach the next level.
But it’s so painfully easy to overdo it. And when you do, things sound much worse instead of better.
This is another place where subtlety is key. You want to strike a balance between sounding “locked in” and sounding natural. If you can’t hit that balance with a particular part, you may want to consider re-recording it so it is more locked in at the source.
Another great way to handle editing is to apply “loose quantization”. Most DAW’s these days have some kind of elastic audio that will allow you to take an entire track (drums, for example) and lock it onto the grid. A simple hack to make this sound more natural is to play with the “quantization strength”. This tells the system how closely to bring each note to the grid. A slightly lower strength will sound more natural.
Too Much “Special Effects”
It can be a lot of fun to play with effect. Delay, reverb, saturation, distortion, and many other effects can add interest and flavour to your mix.
But here again, you can overdo it. It depends a lot on the genre of course, but here it’s a balance between sounding “interesting” and sounding natural. Sometimes, interest is more important. But sometimes it can get annoying. Use effects sparingly and tastefully.
Too Much Instrumentation
Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that more is better.
In rock music, which is the style I tend to work in, this happens a lot with guitars. We want a big “wall of sound” so we keep layering track after track on top of each other until it sounds more like a wall of mud.
Two points when it comes to instrumentation:
Not everything is needed. The mute button is your friend. Sometimes, getting rid of a track, even more a portion of the song, can help you get the impact you need later.
Not everything needs to be heard. This one can be controversial, but I really find it to be true. Some tracks are ok to bury in the mix. They can just add some texture in the background, without needing to clutter up the mix. Often for these sorts of tracks, I will turn them up only to the point where I notice when they’re muted. I still can’t pick them out in the mix, but I miss them when they’re gone.
What do you think? What are some ways that you find yourself “overdoing it” when recording and mixing? What are some times when it’s ok to overdo it? Let me know what you think! Leave a comment below.
4 thoughts on “How Being Subtle Can Make A Bigger Impact”
Thanks Tom. This was really helpful with good advise and suggestions. Mixing a song is really an art form.
Glad you liked it, man! Mixing (and production in general) really is an art form. Many small brush strokes gradually creating a masterpiece 🙂
Great article. Agree with what you said about not hearing everything. In the song I’m working on now, I was worried that I couldn’t hear the acoustic guitars in the chorus. They weren’t really noticeable, but when I muted them, I certainly noticed that something was missing from the song. Thanks!
No problem man! Glad you liked it.
I often do that with an organ track. Usually it adds just enough to give a “lift” to a final chorus or something. Not enough to really “hear” it, but definitely enough to miss it when it’s muted.