Mixing in a home studio can be
hazardous to your music. Over the past
few years, I’ve finished and mixed a number
of synth instrumentals, but I never took
the essential step of burning them to a CD
and listening to them on other playback
systems. Big mistake.
Recently I decided to put all that music
on a CD. I expect to sell no more than 100
copies, but even so, I want it to sound as
good as possible. By now, the original
sequence files were long gone, so remixing
isn’t an option. Even if I had the files, the
older pieces use hardware synthesizers I
no longer own. All I had were the 16-bit
When I burned a test CD (using the
nicely-designed Project page in PreSonus
Studio One) and listened to it on the stereo
in my living room, I noticed two things. First,
the bass and kick were oppressively loud
for anything other than electronic dance
music. Second, the mids had a boxed-in,
claustrophobic quality — they didn’t breathe.
EQ’ing the lows down would be easy, but
was there some way I could open up the
rest of the mix and give it some air? I loaded
the first tune into Image-Line FL Studio 9
(reviewed Apr. ’10) and tried adding a bit of
room ambience — but only to the mids and
highs, not to the lows. With careful adjustment,
I got pretty good-sounding results. Of
course, it’s easier to add reverb than to take
it away. If your mixes have too much reverb,
the techniques I used won’t help.
I also didn’t want to smother the mix in
ambience. The goal was to produce an effect
so subtle that listeners wouldn’t even notice
it, though they would notice if it were
missing. To test the settings, I listened to
the mix while muting and unmuting the
aux send channel where I’d placed the
ambience plug-in. I wanted to hear the mix
open up in a pleasant way when the
channel was unmuted, without sounding
thick or blurry.
Now that I’ve learned this technique,
I’m using it in new compositions. Putting
room ambience on an aux send helps
hand-percussion loops and lead synth lines
blend in, for instance. I’m listening to the
low end more critically, too.
In future, I plan to make stems (submixes)
of my new music while finalizing the mix.
This is extra work, but it’s good insurance if
I should need to change anything years
later, on a different computer, in a galaxy far,
far away. For now, here’s how to retrace my
steps if you too need to breathe some life
into a “legacy” stereo audio file.
Step 1. Load the mix into your DAW. In FL Studio, this takes three easy steps. In the Channels menu, create an Audio Clip (left). In the Channel Settings box, click the
folder button to open a file dialog box, and select the audio file (center). Then, use the pencil tool to add the clip to a track in the Playlist window (right). No need to
match the tempo of the song to the mix, unless you’re planning to overdub new MIDI tracks.
Step 2. In an aux send channel, use a multi-band EQ to get rid
of the low frequencies. FL Studio’s seven-band parametric does the
Step 3. Add a reverb to the send channel. Set it to 100% wet, and dial the decay time
back to less than a second. The idea is to go for room ambience, not concert hall echoes.
Experiment with adding a tiny bit of pre-delay.
Step 4. Assign the audio clip to its own mixer channel if
your DAW doesn’t do this automatically. (FL Studio assigns
new channels directly to the mixer’s master output, so this
is a separate step.) Then raise the send level for this mixer
channel until the meter in the aux channel starts to move.
Step 5. Since the snare backbeat is likely to be one of the loudest
parts of the mix, it may have too much added ambience. To tame it,
insert a limiter on the aux send channel, putting the limiter between
the multi-band EQ and the reverb. Lower the limiter’s threshold until
it’s squashing the snare. This reduces the amount of ambience added
to the snare, without affecting the rest of the sound.
Step 6. If there are sections of the song that you want to be more dry, add automation
control of the aux send channel’s output fader. You may want to pull the output down in
exposed sections while bringing it up when the whole band is blazing.