Before we send out our tracks or beats to any artist, A&R or other music business person we should always make sure we send the highest quality possible. We want our stuff to stand out. We want it to knock, we want it to sound clean, we just want our stuff to translate so when that person who we sent it to jumps out of his seat as soon as he or she press play. And to do so there are a few things to keep in mind that will help a lot.
1. Headroom and Gain-structure
Make sure your gain-structure is right and you leave enough headroom through the entire process. Gain-structure is basically how we setup the gain/levels to optimize our sound and keep the best quality possible. If you go over 0dBFS your mix won’t translate right. In the digital world we never want our master fader to clip. In the analog world it can add a little grittyness/punch (that sounds good) to your mixes or make the beat knock a little more, but digital clipping just sounds horrible so that needs to be avoided at all times. So just treat -18dBFS on the master fader as it is 0dBFS. The peaks can go a little bit over that but never over -10dBFS. This way we keep enough headroom and avoid digital clipping on the master fader. Also when we use plugins (compressors, EQ’s or whatever) on some of the individual channels we should always make sure that the output of those plugins never clip. If we record live instruments to our beats make sure the levels are setup right too, so the inputs and outputs don’t distort but we still record loud enough to keep the amount of noise down as much as possible. Also don’t use any unnecessary mixers that generate noise or so in your recording chain. Keep your chain as direct as possible. Every element in your chain should only be there for a good reason.
2. Use the right sounds
You can create the best composition in the world but if your sounds suck nobody wants to hear it, no matter how genius your composition is. So always make sure you use high quality sounds. Nowadays you can get sounds everywhere but not all them are as great as others. There is so many garbage out there. That’s one of the reasons I started to create my own Sample Libraries (Shroomadelic Drums, Shroomalicious Instruments etc) cause it’s just hard to find good sounds. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great sounds out there but there are way more wack sounds that it’s hard to find them sometimes. On ProducedByShroom.com I made one small sample pack available for FREE for you guys. All you gotta do is fill out your email address and you get it send to you right away. Especially great royalty free Drum Breaks and Fills I feel are really hard to find so I recently started to create my own. I just recorded my drummer Wessel, made him do a lot of Breaks and Fills and now I’m editing and mixing that to make it sound like old school samples. You can do that too!
3. Mix while creating
I think it’s important and will save us a lot of work later if, while we’re creating, we craft and tweak our sounds exactly like we want them to sound right away. Instead of just importing the kick drum sound you like and set the level right, tweak it! I always immediately throw a compressor on it if I feel I need to bring it out more “in your face” and start boosting the “sweet spots” with SSL EQ’s, cutting anything that bothers me with FabFilter EQ’s, maybe throw a reverb on it if that’s what I want for it etc. And once that kick drum sounds exactly how I want it to sound I’ll move on to the next sound and do the same. So I’m basically mixing the track while I’m creating it. This will probably not be the final mix but it will make it sound nice right away and save a lot of time on the final mix.
This actually is a part of the mixing process of course but always make sure you create a lot of space and set the stereo image right by panning. Give stuff their own place in the mix and make it sound wide and open. I (almost) always keep all the low frequency instruments like Kick and Bass in the middle, the snare too and then I start building the rest of the instruments around that. There are no rules. Sometimes when I don’t want the hihat to be left or right but I don’t want it to take up space in the middle as well I double it and pan one side left and one side right and then I delay one side slightly and maybe pitch it a little bit to avoid phase problems. Now it sounds like a wide stereo hihat that comes out as loud out of one speaker as the other and it doesn’t take up any space in the middle. Also I like to use S1 imager on certain instruments to place them right in the mix, create width and let the beat “breathe”.
To help make sure that every sound gets his space in the frequency spectrum we use filters. We want the bass, kick and/or 808 to sound as big as possible so it needs it’s space in the lower frequency range. So we filter out the low end on a lot of all the other instruments so the bass, kick and/or 808 can have that space. And maybe there are certain instruments that just sit in the way of the top end of the hihats so we’ll just cut the top end off of those instruments. There are no rules so use your ears and do what sounds right. We can also divide certain instruments in different frequency bands to get more control but if you want to go a little deeper on filters check out this other article I did last week.
6. Parallel Compression and Layering
Let’s say you found the right kick drum sound and you tweaked it exactly how you want it but it still doesn’t knock hard enough there are two things you can do; you can layer the kick with other kick sounds (check out this article) or you can parallel compress it. Parallel compression means you duplicate the kick drum, compress the duplicated signal (maybe a lot) and mix it in with the original signal. You can also do other stuff to the duplicated signal; maybe EQ it, distort it, pitch it or whatever. You don´t have to limit this technique to just drums, Derek Ali recently said on Pensado´s Place that he uses parallel compression on Kendrick´s vocals sometimes. Just use your ears and be creative!
7. Make your stuff LOUD
Once our beat or track is almost finished and we kept a lot of headroom (like we’re supposed to) we want it to be as loud as possible. But we also don’t want to distort it and ruin our mix. So we’re just throwing a maximixer/limiter on the master bus. I like to use L2 for this but there are many other good ones you can use for this like iZotope etc. Don’t limit it too much tho cause it will entirely change your mix. I usually knock off around 3dB till max 6dB on L2. After we set the maximizer/limiter we probably still have to re-balance our levels a bit, cause limiters “push in” the peaks a little bit. Maybe you want to use more than one limiter on your master bus like Mike Dean (Kanye’s right hand) does. Again, there are no rules. Just use your ears and be creative!
8. A/B your Mixes
Use reference tracks. Compare your mix to your favorite mixed track or to something you kinda want it to sound like quality wise. Play your mix for a little bit, then play that reference mix for a bit and listen to how everything sits in the mix, how much top end, how much bottom, the balance, how hard the drums knock etc. And try to aim to come as close as possible to that professionally mixed track you like so much. Just go back and forth and keep tweaking.
9. Take Breaks
Sometimes when you’re tweaking and mixing for hours you just don’t really hear it that good anymore, so take breaks once in a while. Go do something totally different for a little while then come back to the track. Or maybe after an entire day of mixing you’ll just have to go to bed and go back to the track the next morning to listen to it with “fresh” ears.