Don't Rely Too Heavily On Synth PresetsOne problem we see often is producers relying too heavily on presets. Presets on most software synthesizers are great, don’t get me wrong. Not only do they provide the user with a broad spectrum of possibilities and creative inspiration, they can teach us a lot about synthesis, if enough attention is paid to the different settings used to create a given sound. When producers rely too heavily on presets, however, it causes some problems which tend to make mixes sound amateur.
First, most presets are not designed to sit well in a mix as they are usually huge sounds, showing off the range of a synthesizers capabilities but also taking up way too much space in the frequency spectrum and on the sound stage. Most presets employ effects such as compression, eq, delay, reverb and chorus right out of the box. If you would like to use a preset in your mix, it would be wise to at the very least strip down these sounds a bit, by turning of all of the integrated effects. Doing that will help keep your mix from becoming too crowded.
Another problem I have with presets is that they cause many novice producers to waste time “preset surfing” instead of learning the basics of sound design and synthesis. If a producer has a particular sound in mind, it would be much more time efficient to merely construct that sound from scratch (assuming you know how) than to spend hours “surfing” for the “perfect” preset which might not even exist.
Take A Holistic Approach To Your MixAside from not relying heavily on presets, a competent artist will spend much of their time on the fine details that make a mix interesting. For example, subtle pitch modulation and evolving grooves of individual instruments over the course of an entire mix are often the key to maintaining the listener’s interest. Unfortunately many producers overlook these fine details in favor of bigger more obvious aspects of production, and are left unsatisfied with their tracks.
The key is to not get too caught up in one particular aspect of a mix. Give every element equal attention, and don't waste all your time on parts just because they are "fun" to work with, i.e., kick/bass, fx, etc. I'm sure most novice producers don't even realize how much time they waste focusing on their basslines. It might take some discipline, but leave the "fun" parts for the very end of the production stage. That way you can devote enough time to the less exciting yet equally important aspects of a mix to achieve a well-balanced sound.
Learn To Trust Your EarsIt is important to understand that mixing is subjective and there is no single way to go about doing it. “Trusting your ears” is something we have all heard time and again, yet the reason this advice is so oft-repeated is that it is good if not great advice. Making great music does not have to be a complicated process, nor does it require mastery of music theory or engineering techniques (of course these things help). As long as care has been taken throughout the production process, producers should always trust their ears and keep in mind that if it sounds good, that is all that matters. There is no need to overthink what is going on within the mix or what could be going wrong if the overall sound is pleasing to your ear.
Use Reference TracksWhen mastering tracks for our clients we always ask for a reference track, i.e., something that sounds good to the client and that they consider to constitute an ideal sounding mix. We then take the reference track and load it up alongside whatever we are working on for that particular client, and periodically perform a/b tests between the master in progress and the reference track in order to assure we are taking into account the clients sonic preferences. This is another good example of the subjective nature of audio, as two experts may often disagree on the finer points of what a mix should sound like. This technique can also be applied during the production phase, however, and I recommend it to anybody who is just getting started in music production.
Not only will a reference track help you to understand what a properly mixed and mastered track sounds like, but it will help you with your arrangement and planning as well. Most DAWs allow you to set markers and make notes along waveforms. We suggest you take some time to go through a reference track in your DAW and mark all the major transitions, builds, drops etc. in order to create a guide for when you begin laying your own production down. This map can then be saved as part of a default template in your DAW, so that all your future productions can benefit from that same information. This will also save you a tremendous amount of time by removing much uncertainty from future productions you have yet to tackle.