Most people think mixing is complicated. It's really not. Most pros (myself included) like the fact that there's an air of mystery surrounding what we do. It makes us look smarter. It also allows us to charge more money. But, let's face it. It's not rocket science. It's really just the practical application of basic physics, a little bit of psychoacoustics, and a pinch of good taste.
The best way to learn anything is to copy the masters. Listen with headphones. Listen with nobody else around to bother you. Shut your eyes.
Take a blank piece of paper and diagram what you hear. Draw a head in the middle of the page (bird's eye view). Listen for the kick drum. Where is it? Dead center? Great -- then draw a little box near the center top of the page and write "kick drum," in it. Snare Drum? Same deal. Bass guitar? Also down the middle. Piano? Low notes in the left ear. High notes in the right. Isn't that remarkable? The piano's laid out just as if you were sitting at the keyboard. You're starting to get the idea.
Most mixers will mix their instruments from the perspective of the listener or the perspective of the player. I mix from the player's perspective. In other words, my drums are panned with the high tom on the left and the floor tom on the right.
When you shut your eyes, you should be able to visualize an aural "landscape." It's like standing near a mountain lake in Colorado. In the nearfield you would find the grass you're standing on. In the semi-nearfield you'd find the lake. In the distance, a stand of pine trees on the other side of the lake. To the far left, a patch of aspen trees. On the far right, a small row of mountains. And far beyond the lake's opposite shore, a majestic mountain range. Each of these items has a space within the landscape, and together they make up the whole picture. Mixing is just like that.
Let's take a look at an imaginary track for a pop/rock song. The kick drum, snare drum, and bass should all be down the middle, and should be the most predominant elements in the mix with the exception of the lead vocal. The bass and drums form the song's feel or groove. If they're mixed correctly, you're already half way home to a great mix.
Start with the kick drum. Adjust your mix monitor level to where you normally like to listen. Bring the kick fader up to a point where it kicks the mix bus meters (the console's stereo output) up to -3db VU. I like to work with VU, not peak meters. Peak meters are for wussies. Add a little 2.5 K for attack if you need to. Roll off a little 300HZ if the kick is a little tubby in the lower mids.
Bring up the bass guitar fader until the bass becomes a cohesive unit with the kick, and the two of them seem to hit you in the chest. Now add the snare to the mix. Bring it up to a level that rivals, but doesn't exceed the level of the kick and bass. Add a little plate or room reverb to the snare. Try a 1 second decay time for starters. Adjust to taste.
Bring up the toms and overhead tracks. Keep them panned so that the cymbals on the left side of the kit are panned to the same side of the mix as the high tom. The mid tom should appear don the middle, and the floor tom and cymbals from the right side of the kit all appear on the right. If your toms sound like cardboard boxes, try adding a little bottom, rolling off some 300-500HZ in the lower mids, and adding a little top end to give them some crack (not that kind! You've got a sick mind). I don't bother with a hi-hat most of the time. Someone once told me that it usually takes care of itself, and remarkably, it does!
Let's add the guitars next. First, the electric. Pan it almost full left. Take a short delay from the guitar and pan it almost full right, but a slightly lower volume. Your brain will tell you that you hear a big, wide guitar that appears mostly on the left side. Pan the acoustic guitar to the right. Add a little harmonizer to it. Detune it one cent. Pan it to the left. Result? A big, wide acoustic guitar that cuts through the mix, but doesn't require more volume to do it. That's the secret. By careful thought and panning, you can have a full mix that doesn't compete within itself.
Let's add the piano now. I usually pan it as if I were sitting at it, but if the guitar on the left is playing in a lower register, then I don't pan the low end of the piano there as well. They'd compete for space with each other. In this case, let's assume it's okay to pan the piano to nine o'clock for the low end and three o'clock for the high end. By using a stereo compressor set to a fast attack and slow release, you'll make the piano "tinkle" a little more on the top end, and "growl" a little more on the low end. Hence, you'll be adding another instrument, but once again, it won't fight for space.
Time to bring in the background vocals. Let's make the assumption that we have two tracks of group vocals -- three voices in each stack. Let's make them sound like the Eagles. Pan one group far left, and the other hard right. Suck out some lower mid-range to make them sound airy and angelic. See? Just like the Eagles. OOPS -- better add some stereo reverb. A nice plate sound with a 1.5 second decay ought to do it. there you go. Eagles.
And now for the big kahuna -- the lead vocal. Piece of cake. Slam it right down the middle. Make it loud. It's important. Treat it as such. This year, the pros seem to like their lead vocals dry -- so you can eschew the reverb if you'd like. If not, try a little plate or chamber on it. Again, keep it short for most types of tunes. You can also try a little delay on the lead vocal. It will make it more apparent without adding volume.
That's one of the real tricks to mixing. Making instruments easy to find in the mix, but without using volume to do it. Eq can be a huge help in that department, but it takes time to understand what eq does to individual instruments, and how it affects a whole mix when the instruments are all added together.
The mix I described above is rudimentary, but it will help you get started. Use the formula over ad over until you master it and you mix sounds great. When you can get it to sound great at the drop of a hat, then, and only then start experimenting. As with most disciplines, practice and experimentation are the keys to success.
During Michael Laskow's 20-year tenure as an engineer/producer, he worked with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Eric Clapton, Cheap Trick and countless others. He continues to write articles for magazines like Recording and Electronic Musician. He's also the founder of TAXI, an independent A&R company that links record labels with unsigned artists and songwriters.