The standout quality of metal music is the loudness and energy of the performance. Therefore, when mixing metal, you must be ready to deal with stuff like big sounds, loud guitars, in-your-face drums, and aggressive vocals. We also know that in order to make metal music sound exactly how it’s supposed to, it must be very loud, and you must attain this kind of loudness without having any distortion or irritation to people’s hearing. How do you accomplish this? If you have ever mixed metal music, you would know that this is one of the most difficult things to do: achieving maximum loudness without distortion, clipping, or inducing ear fatigue.
Here are five tips to take your metal mixing to the next level:
1. Only use plugins as needed
In metal music, most of the elements and sounds come from live instruments and vocalists. This means that you would need less artificial or cooked-up sound. Most of the sound we mix is from instruments that already exist. This also means that while mixing, the goal is to have a natural-sounding song. So, you don’t want to do too much processing that would remove the natural feel to these elements.
When treating the vocals, a drum sound, a guitar sound, or bass guitar, make sure you use as little processing as possible. If it is just one plugin you need to get the sound you want, by all means, use just one plugin. By the time you stack plugins on each other, the first thing you notice is the song begins to sound unnatural. Most metal fans want their favorite artists’ music to sound like they are listening to them at a concert. If you don’t bring that feel to them with your mix, you would be backing up the wrong tree.
Speaking of plugins, when you are mixing metal guitars, the guitar players already use their effects to achieve the sound they want. It will make more sense if you use less of your processing so you don’t compromise their sound. It would be sad if, after you spend hours mixing, the artist complains that the guitar sound isn’t what they were going for.
2. Energy over volume
When you’re mixing metal music, you’re obviously going for a loud mix, and sometimes you can be tempted to just crank up the levels on individual tracks as high as possible. Most of the time, to achieve a loud mix, you don’t need to crank up the gain on all the instruments — sometimes you just need to drop some levels, and possibly do some EQ, to allow some parts come through better. As a matter of fact, what you need the most is not necessarily volume, but energy.
In metal music, the part that really pumps the music is the kick drum and bass, which are the foundation on which other elements sit. It’s possible to have a loud mix with low energy; it’s better to have a moderately loud mix with high energy. The fans can crank up their car stereos and other listening devices to get loud music, but they can’t get energy if you didn’t mix energy in the first place. Also, while going for loudness, remember to keep the dynamic range. This is essential. The dynamic range is simply the musical difference between the loudest and softest sounds. Sometimes, due to over-compression, we reduce the music’s dynamic range. For metal music, this is an important part, mainly because it is mostly live music, and even studio recordings are tracked like live performances.
3. Kick-bass relationship
For any mix to have a cohesive low frequency, you must pay serious attention to the kick-bass relationship. As you may have noticed, the kick drum and bass guitar have their most important parts around the same frequencies. To get the best out of these two instruments, you have to master making your kick drum and bass not to clash with each other.
A straightforward way to do this is to use an EQ that has a visual analyzer. Look for where the body of your kick is. When you find that, go to your bass and drop those same frequencies a notch. Since the bass uses a wider frequency range, it shouldn’t have so much effect on it. This way, the kick sound can shine through.
Another method you could use is sidechaining. Although this is more common in electronic music, sidechaining involves using the kick drum sound to trigger the bass, such that in that tiny frame of time, the bass sound comes up just after the kick drum. Of course, this difference is not noticeable by ear.
4. EQ in mono
For metal music and others, EQ is usually the first stage in creating enough space for every element in the music to shine through. As you may have noticed while mixing metal music, the guitars and vocals always seem to fight for their place in mid and high mid frequencies, while the kick drum and bass fight for space in the low frequencies.
To create space for all elements, we use EQ. While EQing, I would advise you to do so in mono because when you listen in mono all the elements are practically stacked on each other, and there’s no stereo space to hide in. Therefore, you would have to create that space for every vocal and instrument. If you do this, you will be surprised at how spacious your music will be by the time you switch back to stereo.
Of course, you would still have to do some panning, but before that, try EQing in mono first to create the space needed. Another thing you could do in mono is setting your levels. Although, you may have to do some minor tweaks after returning to stereo, setting the vocals and instrument levels in mono has a way of forcing you to make things work, especially in the mid frequencies, between the vocals and guitars.
5. Use reference
When mixing a metal song, look for another metal song with a good mix that has a similar idea to the one you’re working on, and use it as a reference track. This will guide you as to what sound you’re going for at the end of your mix. Also, in the process of mixing, you should keep checking your mix with metal headphones and other mediums that metal fans listen to their music from. Metal fans favor some headphones over others for particular reasons. Asides from headphones, you could also try out your mix on regular home stereo systems and car radios. You may not need so much of this when you have lots of experience, but before that happens, testing out your sounds helps you to prevent any unpleasant surprises.
Also, in reference, you must know exactly how your mixing gear reacts to certain frequencies and artifacts. While most manufacturers try to make equipment with flat frequency response, most don’t turn out to be perfect. Because of this, different studio gear may represent frequencies differently. You may need trained ears to hear these subtle differences though. When you keep checking your mix this way, you have an idea of what exactly the end consumers of the music are getting and not just what your studio monitors and mixing headphones give you. This does not mean you should follow your reference track’s mix without thinking or being creative, the reference track only serves as a guide, especially if you’re not very experienced yet. Every song has something unique about them, you can’t possibly follow another song’s mix to the latter and expect the best results.
Always remember that your job as the mix engineer is to put all the elements of the music in perspective so listeners can hear all the instruments and vocals. While the musicians and music producers have done their creative work, you have to put everything in its place. Also, if the song you’re mixing is not yours, and you were not present while the recording took place, you should communicate with the artists or their rep if possible. This is necessary so that both parties can have the same vision or direction for the song. Sometimes, when a client is unsatisfied, it’s less a question of quality and more about preference.