Turning Average (or even poor) Recordings into Hit Records!
In my almost 20 years of being in the audio industry I’ve seen a wide range of projects across multiple genres and with a vast range of recording quality.
Oddly enough, however, most mixing articles, tutorials, and courses either feature really well recorded multitracks or even pre-processed tracks which give a false representation of what 99% of us mixers actually see on a daily basis.
To be fair, celebrity mixers in the top 1% like Chris Lord-Alge, Andrew Scheps, Tony Maserati, etc. have earned their way to the top with blood sweat and tears which has consequently given them access to not only the top artists in the world, but the best recordings tracked by the best recording engineers on the planet.
This article is no slam to them or anything you may have learned from them but rather to present a more realistic set of skills and techniques to help you turn average or even poor recordings into great mixes.
Today, I want to share what I’ve found to be must know skills for all of us mixers not named CLA, Scheps, Pensado, or any A-list/celebrity mixer for that matter.
Let’s get to it!
1. Audio Repair
Let’s face it, most recordings that come our way are not ready to be mixed. In fact, many of the recordings that come through my studio suffer from clipping, room noise, comb-filtering issues, etc.
If you’re mostly mixing your own material hopefully this won’t apply to you but for the majority of us who are mixing other people’s music, learning how to repair major issues from poor recordings is essential to getting great mixes.
Here are some of the most common issues and how to deal with them:
Solution: iZotope De-Clip
Problem: Snaps, Clicks, and Pops
Solution: iZotope RX
Problem: Too much room noise or comb-filtering from closet vocal
This won’t come overnight but the ability to carve a great arrangement out of a poorly arranged track during mixing will certainly set you apart from the other mixers.
Here are some arrangement tips when dealing with an overproduced song during mixing:
Most songs I see come through overproduced. The trend seems to be that more is better and while more can be better, most of the time it’s NOT.
If you find that the track has competing elements (such as too many synths or guitars in the same frequency range) then simply hit the mute button and see if things clean up a bit. Chances are things will be clearer and you’ll be the hero for making it happen.
Also effective and perhaps more common as you begin to work with better producers is the use of mute automation. If you have layers of instruments across the song and certain sections get a little too busy, selecting unnecessary elements and muting them when things are cluttered may be the solution.
*Mute button disclaimer…
There are many times in my career where I hit the mute button and cleaned things up to what I personally felt was “better” but the client simply didn’t agree. At the end of the day, it’s their art and our job is to serve their vision so keep that in mind if you find yourself in a dispute about the arrangement.
I ask my clients to provide their rough mix when they send me their files to mix and if I had a dollar for every time the panning was either directly down the middle or just off center I’d be a billionaire (a slight exaggeration).
A good concept to follow is called LCR panning. Basically, all of your pan positions will either be all the way to the left, all the way to the right, or directly down the middle.
I don’t ever adhere to this perfectly but it’s a good guide to help you build a mix that both creates space for individual tracks and delivers a wide sound.
See below for a before vs after example of my client’s rough with panning practically down the middle and then my mix with mostly LCR panning.
Gaps and Transitions
Something I did early in my mixing career that I believe helped attract bands and artists my way was the ability to fill in any gaps and create transitions between sections. It may seem simple (because it is) but putting an ear on these often overlooked elements of a song will usually help take the song to another level.
So how do you fill gaps or enhance transitions?
Here are some of my favorite tips for this:
- Cymbal swells
- Reverse sounds
- Delay throws
- Reverb throws
3. Drum Augmentation (blending and/or replacing)
I built a name for myself mixing poor recordings and one of the most obvious ways we can improve poor recorded songs is to enhance or replace the drums.
Quick note: My default technique is to evaluate and use the sounds I’ve been given. However, I almost always end up blending samples for one purpose or another but sometimes it’s unfortunately necessary to replace a drum completely. I try to avoid this but thankfully it’s an option for those recordings that are either destroyed or useless to the song.
Before we talk about blending or replacing with samples lets talk about phase.
The single most important factor when working with live or even sample based drums is phase coherency.
An easy way to check phase against any multi-mic’d or multi-sample sounds is to solo the sounds, match their volume, and then hit the invert polarity switch found in most DAWs and within most plug-ins. Whichever way gives you more bottom end is typically what we would consider “in-phase”.
Here’s a quick example of a kick drum blend that I printed to show you the difference between them being in and out of phase:
Did you hear the difference in the low end? This is a two kick sample blend with both a dry punchy kick and a more roomy ambient kick. It should be extremely noticeable that one has more bottom end then the other so if it wasn’t throw on a good pair of headphones or save this article and check again in front of your monitors later.
Sometimes it’s more complicated than just inverting the polarity… Often, when you invert the polarity you end up with something completely different and not necessarily better or worse. In these cases you have three options:
- Click between the two phase relationships and choose the sound that you prefer for that given track and move on.
- Move one of the audio files forward/backward 1-10 ms at a time until it sounds better to your ear.
- Use a more surgical approach with a plug-in like Sound Radix’s Auto-Align (my personal go-to when I need to get the best possible phase relationship).
The almighty kick drum. I could spend hours breaking down multiple techniques across multiple genres for you but for today we’ll stick to a few tried and true techniques I find myself using the most often.
1. Blending a kick sample for the click in the kick (top end)
2. Blending a gentle room sound to enhance a tightly gated or “choked” kick sound (Filter the bottom end to prevent an overload).
3. Full on replacement of the sound using a handful of my go-to samples
Here are some of my favorite snare augmentation techniques:
1. Replace the snare top mic but KEEP the snare bottom
2. Blend a super FAT snare underneath the live snare to add weight and punch
3. Ambient or roomy snare sounds instead of using reverb
Quick tip: Something I’ve been doing lately is to choose a snare sample with a long decay that sounds good and then using the Slate Trigger 2 advanced controls to remove the attack from the sample. This allows us to retain the transient that we already have with the original snare or the samples we’ve used and just add some awesome length or decay to the snare blend.
While I’m sure it COULD work, I’ve never messed with blending tom samples.
For toms I’m either making the recorded mics work or I’m replacing them (cringe).
Some common reasons why we choose to replace toms are because of snare and/or cymbal bleed. There’s nothing worse than getting the toms in the mix and sitting nicely only to have the snare or cymbals come crashing in and ruin your perfect tom tone. No fun.
My go-to techniques for working with the live toms and preventing bleed are:
1. Steven Slate’s Drum Gate
My first choice is to opt for Slate Digital’s VMR Drum Gate. The filtering controls in this are genius and have become a huge time saver when I can get them dialed in well. I say “when I can get them dialed in well” because if the drummer’s dynamics change a bit when playing the toms it can be difficult to set the gate for a consistent result. This is true of all gates and leads me to the more labor intensive option of…
2. Manual labor with “The Tom Trick”
What’s that? You’ve never heard of my tom trick???
Next to my low end trick the “tom trick” has gone viral and can be seen in action in thousands of mixes worldwide.
I’ll be updating this article soon with a brand-new video to share the tom trick.
If you want to be notified the second the Tom Trick video goes live then consider signing up below for my email list where you’ll also gain instant access to a ton of free mixing resources like my vocal mixing checklist, multiple sets of resume-approved multitracks, and more.
As simple as it sounds! Pick you a couple of cymbal samples that fit the genre that you’re mixing, solo the overheads and then copy/paste a left and a right side crash each time the drummer played one in the recording. This will add a sheen to the track similar to using kick or snare samples that will again help you stand out against your competition.
Quick tip: for a more high impact crash into a chorus try using both cymbal samples on the 1. #tasty
It’s rare that I get sent tracks that have awesome sounding drum rooms. Actually, even when the drum room mics sound great they’re rarely enough by themselves to enhance the overall kit.
For that reason, my mix template includes a handful of my favorite drum reverb/IR sends that I’ve saved over the years.
My process for blending the room sounds varies from genre to genre but my general approach is to start with the overheads and:
- Blend a healthy amount of the overheads into a smaller room sound until it’s too much and then pull the fader down to where it feels good for that particular mix.
- Blend a medium sized room using the exact same technique described above
- You guessed it… Blend a longer decaying/large room sound to taste.
IF and I mean IF I need more for the drum room mics I’ll send a bit of the kick, snare, and toms into them as well but it’s rare that I need more than what the overhead mics give me.
Sometimes I’ll add compression to one of the drum room mics but I usually save this effect for a dedicated smash mic that I’ll create and blend in mono to give the kit some grit. Another cool trick I use often for rock is to blend the drums into a mono guitar amp and blend for more of that trashy grit (trashy in a good way).
4. Dealing with Poor Vocal Recordings
I have to be honest, dealing with a poor vocal recording is my least favorite part of mixing. Recording vocals properly isn’t super difficult but it seems to be the instrument that comes to us recorded the worst most often.
The Dreaded Closet Vocal
Depending upon the severity of the room sound or comb-filtering in the vocal track there just aren’t too many techniques that improve upon the original sound enough to make it shine in a mix.
That being said, there is hope and here are a few solutions when re-recording isn’t an option:
- RX8 De-Reverb
- Boost a bell curve with a tight q to find the most offending frequencies that feature the room tone and then cut them. Cut them a lot.
- Distort, mangle, and/or destroy the vocal (genre-permitting). Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do and in these situations all you can do is try to mess it up further and build the mix around this new mangled sound.
This is a mild issue compared to the closet vocal but still something we see often when mixing vocals.
To address a build up in the lows (low-end and low-mids) we’re blessed to have multi-band compression (and/or dynamic EQ).
I typically use a high-pass filter as the first EQ move for my clients as 95% of them don’t use it when recording BUT after that my next move is almost always a multi-band/dynamic-band set between 100hz and 300-400hz (depending upon the singer and recording). I’ll set this range so that compression keeps any low end build up in check throughout the mix. It’s rare but sometimes I’ll even have to automate this parameter to control proximity build-up from section to section.
Here’s another audio example to showcase a vocal recorded with too much proximity effect and then the result after applying some simple dynamic EQ / Multiband compression:
No Compression During Tracking
Piece of cake! I recently released The Ultimate Mixing Checklist and I address this in-depth in that free guide.
Click here to access The Ultimate Mixing Checklist!
Too Much Compression During Tracking
Yikes… I’ve yet to find a technique that truly solves this issue but sometimes upward expansion can help a little bit.
Here’s a quick chart courtesy of our friends at iZotope to showcase what’s happening with upward expansion:
5. Guitar Re-amping (not just for rock!)
A common technique in the rock world is to record and utilize the D.I. or “direct inject” signal to either re-record the amp tones or to use amp simulators in the box. Profiling amps have become increasingly popular as well for mixing and can serve as a great tool when needing to dial in realistic sounding guitars. I mix a wide range of genres and I find myself using this technique all the time.
Depending upon the genre and the sound the artist is after I have a few go-to’s for re-amping.
I’m a Pro Tools guy so my favorite way to load amp cabinets is through an IR loader called Space (formerly TL Space). Most DAWs will come with an IR loader so all you need to do now is hit the interwebs and find you some IR’s that you dig! My favorite IR’s can be purchased here (non-affiliate link).
- Line 6 Helix (or HX Stomp)
- Eleven Rack (yes, I absolutely still use this!)
- Slate Digital / Overloud THU
- Avid Eleven (free with Pro Tools)
- Native Instruments Guitar Rig 5
If you’ve enjoyed this article and you want to see these techniques in action I want to invite you over to The Mix Academy’s Path-to-Pro where I’m going to help you:
- Take average or even poor recordings and turn them into hit records
- Establish your own signature sound that will help you stand out in the sea of online mixers
- Find and keep GREAT clients who pay on time and in full before you even do the work
- Streamline your workflow so you can mix better and faster (much faster)
If any of that interests you then I encourage you to join me inside where I’m going to come along side of you and help you make the most out of your investment by offering:
- Live coaching calls
- Custom mix critiques
- Game-changing mix strategies
- An active and incredibly helpful private mixing community
- And more
All of this and you don’t need to run out and spend thousands on expensive gear or plug-ins. In fact, I got to over 1 billion streams of my mixes using little more than my stock plug-ins. #truestory
I hope to see you on the inside today,