For a lot of people just starting out with music production, mixing is often seen as an intractable part of the production process. A creative discipline that relates more to sound design than to the scientific discipline of mastering that follows.
However, in truth, although mixing and production can be combined by those that know what they’re doing, mixing (and mastering) are much more usefully viewed as separate stages. Less as sound design, more as problem solving.
What’s the problem?
Well, that all depends on the material of course. You could see it as the problem starting right at tracking. Given the right attention it’s completely possible to achieve the sound you want at the recording stage, although this very rarely happens.
With production comes the the arrangement and sound design that is very often confused with mixing. Mixing then becomes a case of corrective measures for audio problem – e.g. resonant frequencies, overly spiky guitar parts etc. as well as the overall problem of getting everything to sit well.
There is a tendency in home studios to mix as production happens, which is a good idea, after all, how the sounds fit together will change what sounds you put in.
But it’s a worthwhile exercise to take that as the rough mix, export all the stems and start from scratch to build the final mix. The psychological shift helps to concentrate on it less as the discipline of achieving “that” sound and more a case of fitting all the pieces together into a pleasing whole.
The problem solving approach
The up-shot of this psychological shift is that you’ll very often find that you spend less time chucking plug-ins at something in an effort to attain something ephemeral and take a more logical approach to it.
Every plug-in or processor in your chain, in both mixing and mastering, should be serving a distinct purpose. You don’t have to compress everything. Nor does everything necessarily require EQ’ing. It’s a case of using your ears to determine what the problem is e.g. ‘the kick is masked by the bass’, and then taking measures to correct it.
And yes, sometimes the problem actually is ‘the guitar doesn’t sound warm enough’.
The same approach is essential for mastering. There are a lot of myths regarding what has to be used in mastering – multiband compressors, brickwall limiters etc. But there are no hard and fast rules, only trends. It always depends on the material and the tools at hand.
The trick is knowing why you’re doing something. Use your ears, determine the problem and correct it. Mixing and mastering are both creative disciplines, but they are rooted in science.