You've finished recording tracks on your computer-based digital audio workstation (DAW) and you're pleased with the performances. Now you must mix and master the tracks before they can reach their full sonic potential.
Professional studios have a distinct advantage due to the experience of their engineers, but attempting it yourself can be a valuable learning experience.
Listen to all of the tracks in your song with a critical ear. Be ruthless and decide which parts are essential to the effectiveness of the song and which are not. Just because you went to the trouble of recording a part doesn't mean it belongs in the mix. Focus on the parts that best serve the song and eliminate the rest and you'll get better results from your mixdown efforts.
Work on the stereo image by panning tracks. Resist the temptation to simply boost the levels of tracks that are not clear in the mix; their volume may not be the problem. It may be that their frequencies are meshing with other instruments in the same part of the stereo field. A gradual panning of the part in question is often all that is necesary to bring it out of the shadows.
Pan the drums to form a natural stereo image of the kit from the audience's perspective, with the kick and snare in the center, the hi-hat slightly to the right and the overhead mics panned hard left and right. Bring in the bass guitar and adjust the level until you have a tight-sounding rhythm section. Then you can add guitars and vocals to taste.
Equalize (EQ) your parts, picking the most essential ingredients of the song and working on those first. When it comes to EQ, less is definitely more. Rather than boosting frequencies to attain the desired clarity, cutting troublesome frequencies is usually a safer bet. Remember that the lower frequencies gobble up headroom, so cut them whenever possible. For example, low frequencies are more important to a bass guitar, so why leave them on guitar tracks where they can overlap and muddy the mix?
Add effects to your tracks, but do it sparingly. Like EQ, a little reverb, delay and compression go a long way. A good rule is to add the effect until it sounds good to you, and then roll it back a little. Overusing effects processors can take the life out of the mix very quickly. Reverbs tend to reduce the presence of a track, and compression squashes the dynamic range, so what initially sounds good may end up giving you ear fatigue in the long run.
Don't let the mixdown session run too long. When your ears tire after you've been listening for too long, it becomes counter-productive. You're better off burning a rough mix to a CD-R and taking a break. Spend a day or two listening to it on different systems, noting things that you don't like. When you go back to do a final mix, you'll have a better idea about what you want to achieve.
Onceyou're happy with the mix, it's time to master your collection of songs by taking these recordings with varying moods, styles and tonal character, and making them into a cohesive-sounding album. You'll do this by making sure that levels are consistent throughout and that the spacing between songs and the fades of songs feel natural and unhurried. You may also want to add a little compression to the overall mix to give it a little polish and sheen. There are many mastering software suites available to help you accomplish this. Two favorites of home recordists are "Izotope" and "T-Racks."
The use of headphones can be helpful when identifying troublesome parts of a mix or making edits, but when you're fine tuning a mix, you should use studio monitor speakers. Headphones can greatly color the sound of a mix and can lead to unpleasant surprises when listening to mixes on audio systems.
Take extra care when tracking. Making sure that the signal you're recording sounds great when it's being recorded can save you from headaches at the mixing and mastering stage.
Give copies of your mixes to trusted friends for critical feedback. When you're very close to a musical project, it can be difficult to be objective. Often, a fresh set of ears can really help.
If you're really considering releasing your project as a CD, consider paying a mastering house to master it for you. It's not an overly expensive option, and it may really enhance the sound of your album. Mastering is an art unto itself--a skill that takes years of experience to perfect. While attempting it yourself may work for a demo project, a release that you intend to sell will benefit from the work of someone experienced in this specialized business. Another upside is that you can sit in on the mastering session and learn about the process.
Don't try to save money by using cheap CDs to make your master recording. Use the highest quality CD-Rs you can find to make your master disc. If you will be using a replicator and duplicator to manufacture CDs, you want the master to be as error-free as possible.