There happen to be a decent number of possible pitfalls along the way to achieving a great mix but the most critical lies in the treatment of your gain levels. Without proper control of the dB levels of your tracks, your master fader may clip causing undesirable distortion, noise, and general poor quality. In order to avoid this problem, you need to get into a unique mindset specially made for the mixing stage; you need to think like a conservative.
Now, before you start assuming that this article is about to turn into a political shitstorm, take a moment to recall what the term “conservative” really means in a music production context. It refers to a very modest approach to the utilization of your production tools and techniques. In the context of gain levels, a conservative treatment will fare your project well and leave you with plenty of headroom in your master fader.
The master fader itself should be brought down at least -5 dB to begin with. Keep your kick and snare set anywhere from -8 to -10dB so as to allow for extra headroom for your basses. Don’t worry about your track sounding “loud enough” at this stage; this is a MAJOR pitfall that will cost you a balanced mix if you worry about your overall loudness at this stage in the game. Getting your track to be a strong contestant in the “loudness war” comes during the mastering stage. Worry about it then, and only then.
It is always a good idea to A-B (compare) your work-in-progress with a professionally mastered song of a similar genre or sound. However, it is easy to get anxious and frustrated while doing so since your track is obviously a work in progress and has not been treated with the mastering components (loud amplitude, cohesive saturation, stereo metering, etc.) but don’t let this get to your head. Remember, you are in the mixing stage, not the mastering stage. Pay close attention to the professional track’s mix and do your best to see beyond the mastering aspects, i.e. volume. It is the sound of the professional mix you are after right now, not volume. One tip I have picked up over the years that will aid in making the A-B process more fruitful is to bring down the volume of the song you are trying to emulate so that it matches your project rather than boosting the volume of your project to match that of the other song.
Let’s say, for example, that you are trying to create a growl bass similar to the one from Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites” but you are finding that your drums are sounding a bit weak in the mix. You open iTunes and play back Skrillex’s song to compare and you find that not only do his drums cut through the mix but they are punchy and have a vitality all their own, and the overall volume of the track is much louder than your work-in-progress. Well, as I said before, forget about the volume issue right now. Bring down the volume of iTunes, listening by ear, until it matches the volume level of your session. This will allow your focus to go where it should: the mix.
Now, back to the drum issue. You want yours to kick and snap with the punchiness of Skrillex. Instead of simply dragging the fader of your drum bus up a few dB, simply bring everything else down -1 or -2 dB and leave your kick and snare hitting right where they are (which should be -8 to -10 dB). You should find that, with proper treatment such as sidechaining your basses and melody synths and proper EQing, your drums will definitely cut through the mix in a much clearer, punchier manner.
A conservative approach to gain control will be sure to put you on the right track for a clean mix that is powerful, crisp and huge. It is important to remember that power comes from a good mix, not from an over-limited slab of non-dynamic sound waves. Think like a conservative and bring down dB levels of opposing tracks rather than boosting one or the other so that it overpowers its opponent. Headroom is your best friend when it comes to dynamics and a clean mix, and when you leave enough dB between your peaks and 0dB, you will make the mastering process incredibly easier. That volume that you seek to emulate from professional tracks comes from the mastering process, but the power comes from a mix that was treated carefully and conservatively.