Will this get me a girlfriend?
That’s what I thought the first time I heard my voice played back. Me and my friends had got this recording program called Cool Edit Pro and since all we did friday nights was smoke up, we thought it was a good idea to record a track.
I was blown away when I first heard myself. I thought I sounded amazing (I obviously don’t have self-esteem issues). I was certainly sounded much better than my friends. I was hooked. That night I got Cool Edit Pro and started recording my own songs.
As a teenager, recording your own songs and pulling back the curtain on how songs are made is insanely thrilling. One thing you notice quickly is that your home made songs sound nothing like the CDs from your favorite artists.
I would spend hours on forums and googling trying to figure out how to get “that sound”. Fast-forward 15 years and I’ve figured out how to get the sound I’ve always dreamed of. And it doesn’t require any expensive plug-ins, or presets.
What it does require is hardware. But not the kind you get in any music store. In fact, you already own this hardware and they were formed early in your human development. I’m of course speaking about your ears. That’s it.
You don’t need super intelligence because as my wife will tell you I’m slow.
You don’t need super expensive equipment because according to folklore Drake’s engineer 40 mixed “So Far Gone” on alarm clock speakers. I did confirm this with 40.
What you do need is to train your ears. Now how long does that take? I’m not the smartest or most hardworking person so it has taken me about 15 years to train my ears. After saying that I feel like a failure.
My “first mixing” was in my mom’s car adjusting her radio’s EQ settings trying to make the song “sound better”. When I go into any of my friends or families houses and listen to their stereo my first instinct is to listen to where the room reverb is coming from. I also to their annoyance like to fiddle with their EQ settings, speaker placement as well as recommend to them high priced acoustic panels. I know I’m the worst, but I have a real annoyance when something doesn’t sound good to me and my first instinct is to tweak it.
This is how I approach mixing. All the things about a song that make me cringe I try to take out or lessen. I use what I call the “cringe test”. Basically, anything that makes you feel negative about what you’re creating take out. Don’t think it can be fixed later in the mix. Dr. Dre’s sound is held in such high esteem because he chooses sounds that are going to sound even better when mixed and mastered.
So I know you’re probably saying, “Andre I don’t have that luxury. I don’t produce. I don’t mix. I just sing or rap or both I’m the next Drake!”. Well that’s perfectly fine. Hire me to mix and master your songs (shameless plug). But I think your song making will benefit if you learn how to mix. Not to mention it will cut down your costs.
“Okay okay so how do I train my ears to mix like Dr. Dre?”
Unless you have Dr. Dre’s ears hooked up to Dr. Dre’s brain, you can’t.
You see it is your listening experiences which determines how you hear a piece of music. An old white guy whose only listened to classical is going to turn his nose up the first time he hears rap and say, “This isn’t music”. Just as a young black kid will probably fall asleep the first time he goes to the opera. It’s not that one music is objectively better than the other, its that the listener has different listening experiences that form their opinion.
“So how can I create the listening experiences necessary to mix my own songs?”
The first thing you need to do is get the best monitor speakers you can afford. The Yamaha NS50m are a great budget speaker which are based on the Yamaha NS10 – speakers which are found in every major studio.
The nice thing about the NS50’s is that your song’s will sound like shit on them. You will hear every flaw from the mid-range to the top end. You will need the sub-woofer to get an accurate picture of the low end. Also if you’re looking for speakers to enjoy music on, these are not it. These speakers are meant for audio surgery. When you listen to your songs on these speakers, you will not only see how much you suck as a musician but will also see how bad your mixes are.
But stick with it. You will get better. How?
After you’ve got the best monitor speakers you can afford, the second step to mixing songs like Dr. Dre is to make sure you have the right speaker placement. You will want your speakers to be evenly spaces on your desk, slightly tilted inward and at a height so that your ears are in the middle of the speaker.
Thirdly, the wall facing directly in front of your speakers should have a couch as well as acoustic panels across the wall. You want to create a mixing room with little reverb, not too much reverb and not no reverb – otherwise the room will sound dead. You will also want to put bass traps in the corners of your room to minimize bass build up. This is the minimum you can do and there’s a whole bunch of other things you could do, which I may get into in a future post.
So now that you’ve got your mixing room set up, it’s time to get down to mixing right? Wrong. You haven’t even trained your ears for your new listening environment.
Drake’s engineer 40, told me something I’ll never forget about mixing. He said if you want to learn how to mix sit in front of your speakers as if you were mixing a track with the correct posture and listen to the greatest music ever made for a week straight. You want to be actively listening to all the great songs and great albums from all genres and from year’s past to get an idea of how those songs were mixed. So you don’t want to be passively listening, you want to be actively listening and making mental or real notes on what you are hearing.
Listen to the way certain genres during certain time periods panned instruments, the volume of the vocals, how bright the song is, how much bass there is. Listen to every part of the mix.
Do this for a week straight. Then mix your song and see what happens. Now that’s how you mix like a boss!