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Improving your Mix

This article originally appeared on the DIY Musician blog.

So your band is finally in the studio. You’ve been working hard in rehearsals to create great songs, and you know that your lyrics and melodies are strong. You finish your last rehearsal and feel like your band has a huge sound. You show up, set everything up, record your first song, listen back to it, and discover that the mix is falling flat. What do you do?

Well, there are always things a mixing engineer can do to help, but usually, the core of the problem goes back to the song and its arrangement, and if you want to improve your mix, you need to start at the root of the problem. Here are three critical points to always consider if you want a mix with a big, powerful sound.

1. Harmonic context

One of the first problems that comes up in many band contexts is that one or more of the guys in the band doesn’t actually know what the chords are. Instead, they just use their ear and try things until they feel like what they are doing works.

Working out parts by ear is a great skill and is very important to develop, but if you don’t understand the harmonic context (which the chords in the song define), the right part will often elude you for a very long time. This can often lead to certain band members just turning their amps up and listening to themselves instead of hearing what the rest of the band is playing and creating a complementary part.

If this sounds like you or someone in your band, take some time to learn how chords are built and the harmonic context they define. It may be frustrating at first, but it will pay huge musical dividends in the long run – including helping make all of the parts in the mix complement each other.

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2. Register

Register is the pitch range in which each musical part in your arrangement sits. Next to the right chords to play, this is the first thing many musicians totally overlook. Are the guitarists playing in the same register? Are the chords in the keyboard part stepping on the vocalist’s melody? Is the bass player noodling around in the same range as the keyboardist’s left hand?

These are some of the many common ways that register is often ignored when bands are first figuring out their arrangements. The first step to addressing these problems is to define a register for each instrument. Give the guitarist a particular position on the guitar neck from which to create his or her parts. Tell the keyboardist what octave to keep his or her left and right hands in, and tell the bass player to go back to the low register where he or she usually belongs.

Defining the register like this makes each part in the mix automatically pop out more because it keeps parts very clear and separate. It’s a fairly quick fix that will really help you improve your mix and create a really big sound without lots of production work.

3. Voice leading

Once you've figured out in which register everybody should be staying, the next step is to keep them there while the chords go by. When we first learn chords on our primary instrument, it’s common to learn one or two shapes and then just move them around to create most of our chords. This, however, often results in a very choppy part that doesn’t stay in the register you’ve defined for each instrument in the band. The result can be parts that clash and make the mix muddy.

Enter voice leading. Voice leading is the term we use for the way we move the pitches in one chord to the pitches in another. In classical theory, there are many rules for “proper” voice leading, but they all usually come back to the basic principle of moving as little as possible between chords. The key to start voice leading is to understand how chords are built so that you can create them in whatever register in which you need to stay. Using voice leading well is fundamental to keeping each part in the mix in its own register so that the mix stays open and clear.

Addressing your arrangement with these theory concepts can help improve your mix enormously. After fixing chord changes, register problems, and cleaning up voice leading, the mix will start to automatically open up. Your engineer will love you for this because it will enable him or her to focus on using tools to complement the arrangement instead of trying to fix it. A little appropriate compression, EQ, and effects to these parts and things will start making the mix really strong.

Dave Kusek is the founder of the New Artist Model, an online music business school for independent musicians, performers, recording artists, producers, managers, and songwriters. He is also the founder of Berklee Online, co-author of The Future of Music, and a member of the team who brought midi to the market.

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