Music-making is a process. Workflows and gear can vary but once you've created your multi-track recording you're going to need to have those tracks mixed and mastered before release if you want them to sit side-by-side with other songs on the radio, club speakers, streaming service, or wherever else music is heard.
What separates many songs is not the final mix, the mastering job, or even the added production value. What makes them stand out from the others is the songwriting and the captured performance of that song.
Even a mediocre recording of a good performance of a great song is going to have more of an impact than a pristine recording of a bad song played without feeling.
Imagine what can happen when you have a solid performance of a great song that was well-recorded!
Ultimately, that's the trifecta we're all going for, whether we record our songs in our home studio or hire others to help us record them in a professional space. Either way, the journey certainly doesn't end there but the tracking phase is a critical stage—it's where most of the triumphs and challenges of your project will be born.
More than anything else, your final mix is dependent on the efforts put into the songwriting, the performance, and the recording going into it.
Take measures to ensure you can capitalize on all of your hard work up to that point by avoiding some missteps that just cannot be fixed in the mix.
#1 - Clipping
When you record audio at too high a level the signal can become distorted, where the peaks and valleys of the audio wave are "clipped" off. Clipping can effect any instrument or vocal part and is different than intentionally distorting the sound as a desired effect. Clipping often results in either having to re-record those performances or having to live with a "buzzy" or dirty-sounding recording that can distract the listener from the music.
In the audio clip below, you'll hear the same chord strummed four times alternating between the clean signal and clipped signal.
In a pro studio, your tracking engineer can ensure this doesn't happen, letting you focus on performing the music at your very best. When you're recording your own tracks, record at more conservative levels and lay down a scratch track that you can play back and check before you get too far in.
#2 - Tuning issues with multi-stringed instruments
Mixing is not editing but a stray note on a vocal or lead part can often still be addressed (to some degree) if it wasn't already handled during the tracking or editing phase of your project. That said, mixing is not sorcery.
Chords played on a guitar, mandolin, ukulele, etc. involve multiple notes played on multiple strings. If just one of those strings is out of tune, at least one note will be off enough to distract everyone from just enjoying the song. There's little your mix engineer can do here since you've got two or more notes recorded together on a single track.
Check your tuning in between every take. It only takes a few seconds compared to having to re-record the same parts over and over because of tuning issues. There can be several factors at play, including the strings, intonation, playing technique, etc. but start by tuning for the specific parts you're playing in that song—tuning the open strings of your guitar won't necessarily keep you in tune when you play that D minor chord on the 10th fret.
#3 - Poorly Written Songs
This is not a slam against anyone's skills as a songwriter or their experience level, as every art involves a level of subjectivity. I'm referring here to your own assessment of your own song. If you're not happy with your song when you perform it, you're less likely to be happy with it after it's been recorded and mixed. The sound quality should certainly improve but that won't help you to improve the song itself to deliver the emotional impact you intended.
During your mix session, we can try muting certain parts during a section of the song to create contrast, or even copy and paste bars on the timeline to add interest—but we're only messing with the arrangement of the song. This is very different from improving the song's structure, lyrical flow, and musical impact by applying all of your creative efforts beforehand, during the songwriting and production stages of the music-making process.
Being intentional during the writing stage lets the finished song be performed with more intent too. If you want to eat a salad you really ought to order a salad. It doesn't make much sense to order a bacon cheeseburger just to get the lettuce and tomatoes that come with it.
#4 - Lackluster Performances
Again, not a slam against anyone's talent or experience but more about the energy felt when you play back that last take. Does it move you the way you want it to move the listener? If not, perform it again. Record it in smaller chunks if you have to, or change the part altogether if that's what it takes to get the result you want from that part.
It may also be time for a short break. The energy level going into take #2 is going to be quite different from the energy going into take #17.
Harshly criticizing someone's performance likely won't help them to relax or motivate them to feel the right vibes to deliver the results you want. Be supportive of each other and remember that, unlike anyone else in the room, the vocalist is not just the instrument but the person as well.
If you're working with others, or even if you're recording by yourself, keep a light mood going. Music-making is supposed to be fun and the tracking stage is literally the part of the process when we're actually making the music.
At the same time, keep it professional—especially when you're on the clock in a pro space. You may want to rethink your plan to show up with a case of beer unless you know you and your bandmates can still deliver the performance. Unlike a live gig, the recording could potentially reach a lot more listeners, so make sure they hear you at your very best.
#5 - Poorly Used Effects
Finally, work with the end in mind but still know how to preserve some flexibility for your mix engineer regarding the use of certain effects.
For the most part, commit to the sounds as you're tracking them to let your mix engineer hear what you were hearing when it was performed.
This means printing MIDI / virtual instruments as audio. It also means routing multiple mics placed on the guitar cabinet to a single track when possible, so that one guitar part is being captured onto one track. Commit to the sound if you like it and move on.
Now, if the wah-wah pedal or amp settings are integral to the guitar sound, by all means record it as such. If you're lucky to be performing on a Hammond B3 organ with a Leslie speaker, record it as such.
However, you may want to separate other effects onto their own track to give your mix engineer more room to get the sounds you want more effectively.
Recording guitars and bass through a D.I. box lets you record both the dry signal and effects separately. During the mix, I can blend the two together to sit better within the arrangement of the song and even adjust them during different sections to enhance the energy and vibe you were going for.
A common challenge can be time-based effects such as delays and reverb. They can sound way cool during the tracking session but may not be timed correctly to fit with the overall groove of the song from start to finish. Let your mix engineer add those during the mixing session instead to optimize their impact without becoming a distraction. If you provide a rough mix, the effects can be included as a guide but please supply the multi-tracks dry with the necessary effects printed to a separate track.
Lastly, if you're recording in a room that doesn't sound very good, consider close-mics and other techniques to capture more of the direct sound and less of the room sound. Your mix engineer can recreate good-sounding space much more easily than they can reduce bad-sounding space already baked into the recording.
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In addition to these important things to get right before you get to the mix, there are additional "nice to have" items that can make your mix engineer even happier and also help get you the results you want faster.
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