“You need to use all the bits”.
Wonderful and ridiculously outdated advice for mixing in the digital world. If you’re rocking a 24-bit mix, you don’t have to worry at all about somehow not using every single magical bit to get a good sounding mix. What you should be worried about is driving your mix too hard. When the meters on every track and aux channel are pushing up right towards 0, the mix is going to start sounding really, really bad.
This problem starts in the tracking stage (stop recording so damn hot, everybody! Keep your peaks around -12!), but on the mix end we have no control over that. What we can control is how hard we’re driving each bus and in turn, our master bus.
When you are running near the red on every track and every aux bus, your mix starts getting “smaller” and “boxier”. Picture a 3D cube in front of you. The left/right is the width of your mix (panning), the bottom/top is your bass/treble (EQ), the front/back is your depth (time based effects). The harder you push your aux tracks and the harder you push each plugin, the smaller that box starts to get. Instead of a nice, open sounding mix, you’re left with an undynamic and tiny mess. What started as a massive cube, is now a small, flimsy cardboard box.
So what to do? Easy:
Turn It Down. Keep this general rule of thumb in mind: the track faders should be lower than your aux faders which should be lower than your master fader. Of course not in every instance, but on the whole this will keep you out of trouble.
Start the mix with the faders low rather than at unity. When I import audio into my template to mix, I always pull all the faders way down. I haven’t started a mix with faders at unity for yeeeeears. Years, I say! Yes, there will be some recordings where the tracks were recorded way too quiet and you need to pull them up. But on the whole, this is the exception. Start low and work your way up.
Think of what can be turned down, not what needs to come up. Keep on eye on yourself to avoid the “fader snail race”, where a mix becomes an incremental volume war. You know what I’m talking about: “Turn the bass up. Now I can’t hear the guitars. Turn the guitars up. Now I can’t hear the vocals. Turn the vocals up. Now I can’t hear the bass…”. Instead, start focusing on what can be turned down.
This is especially important when the client is giving mix feedback. When you hear more than a few “turn so-and-so up”, start thinking to yourself what needs to come down in order for so-and-so to be heard. Stop the snail race before it even begins.
Watch how hard you’re hitting plugins. If you have more than a few plugins on a track, bypass them one by one to make sure you aren’t driving any one too hard. Maybe the 4th insert down the line is a compressor and is keeping the final level in check…but the 3 plugins before it are getting blasted.
Keep an eye on your master bus. When all the plugins on your master channel are bypassed, you should be nowhere near 0. If you even come close to clipping on your master fader throughout the song, everything needs to come down. That’s not to say that the final mix can’t be crushed to within an inch of its life by limiting/compressing the master channel (if you’re in to that sort of thing). But leave that for the end and make sure you have loads of headroom for you or the mastering guy to play with.
And finally, even though I’m hopefully only stating the obvious here…there is never, ever, ever any excuse for digital distortion in your mix. None. Ever. If you hit digital zero, you need to fix it.