Stop, collaborate, and listen: become friends with other audio engineers
I’m naturally very competitive, so when I used to hear about another person getting a job or going to school for audio engineering, I would be jealous and negative. I’d later realize that one person getting a job doesn’t mean they took that job away from me. I could have looked at it positively and said to myself if that person could get the job, then so can I. Since graduating from school, I’ve become closer to people in the industry, and these relationships have been invaluable. It’s the same in all aspects of life — hang out with people above you and absorb everything they know. If you are always the biggest fish in the pond, you’ll never be able to take in the knowledge of someone else who is better and knows more than you. Many of the jobs I’ve gotten are directly related to other engineers either recommending me or needing help with something.
Don’t repeatedly do something just because you saw someone else do it.
Does your favorite engineer like to use a lot of compression? Record everything in stereo? Doesn’t use any outboard gear at all?
Don’t do something just because someone you admire does it. These are good places to start and experiment, but there isn’t only one way to do things. Just because something works for one person does not mean it will work for you. Try everything, but recognize what works and what doesn’t work for you.
Things won’t just fall into place
Maybe it was because I was lazy, or maybe I was just too new to understand, but for some reason, I subconsciously thought that my mixes would fall together on their own. A change of level here, a little compression there, and some reverb on the vocals… WHAT?! It still doesn’t sound like a top 40 mix?!
Over time, I learned that I need to be conscious of everything that is happening in a mix. Workflow in mixing is almost as important as the techniques that you’re implementing. I like to start with the loudest part of the song and work my way down in 30 second sections. This allows me to focus on each part of the song in pieces so it’s easier to digest and there aren’t any surprises later. Try new ways and find out which works best for you.
Low pass filters
There aren’t only high pass filters! You can also roll off the high end with a low pass. Taming the high end is greatly beneficial to keeping the space in your mix as well as letting the tracks that you want to accentuate to shine through.
Try this: low pass every track, except for the vocals, and hear how much more it pops out of the mix. The contrast allows your vocal tracks to cut through better.
Tune those drums
I didn’t hear what well tuned drums sounded like until I was 10 years into recording. Steve Holly, who used to play with Paul McCartney’s Wings, stopped by Sabella Studios to work with a country artist whose album we had been producing. Before starting, he asked to listen to the song and what key it was. A few listens later, he wrote out complete charts and went into the live room to work on tuning the drums and choosing the appropriate snare.
I think it’s normal to assume that the drum sound comes from the microphone or mic pre, but the majority of the sound is coming from the drums and the drummer. Learning how to tune drums well can take years of experience so start practicing now or find someone who can tune them for you.
Practicing your mixing will help improve your tracking
You’ll learn what you want to hear and how to get there quicker by mixing as much as possible. The lessons you learn while mixing can be adapted to help improve your tracking. Download stems to practice with, join mix clubs and Facebook groups, and mix or remix a friend’s band. All of this will help you gain experience without having to write or track new music or even leave your house.
Arrangement trumps all
A good song starts with the arrangement. In high school, I used to wonder why my songs didn’t sound radio ready… Well, the arrangements were horrible. If a song is arranged well, the quality of the recording shouldn’t matter. A good song and arrangement should always work, no matter how it is recorded.
Active listening and experimentation
Experiment with different types of compressors, try every delay you can get your hands on, and spend a whole day just playing around with effect pedals. Take time to listen to music that you know very well on your speakers. Experimenting in your free time allows you to implement these things more easily when you’re working with a client, and time is more valuable.