How To Clean Up a Mix
Learning How to clean up a mix is just like learning tricks to any other craft. You have certain tools such as EQ, Compression, Reverbs, FX, and Sends. In order to become a great engineer, you must learn to use all of these tools and use them correctly. I once heard it said that just because you have a hammer, nails, and a load of lumber does not make you a carpenter. The correct tools can make a world of difference in the hands of a professional and those same tools could destroy a project in the hands of an amateur.
As we have said before one of the most important tools in an engineer’s arsenal is Equalization. And one of the chief problems young engineers face is that their mix sounds much too “muddy”. Muddy is a phrase used by engineers that, in a sense, means messy and cluttered. Muddiness occurs in the lower end of the frequency spectrum, usually from 50 hz – 1Khz. This range is where lots of instruments have a presence and it can easily become a mess. In fact, the range of about 100 hz – 400 hz has been coined the “Mid-Range Misery” section because tons of instruments and sounds occupy this range. However, if you learn how to clean up a mix effectively, you will never deal with muddiness or messiness in your mixes again.
One of the tricks of the trade to cleaning up a muddy mix is using high-pass filters. A high-pass filter is an EQ band that eliminates everything under a set frequency. For example, if I were to set a high-pass (low-cut) filter at 250 hz, everything under 250 hz would be removed from that sound. This has become a very popular trick amongst many engineers. Some will recommend using a high-pass filter on everything that does not contain important bass information, for this region of frequency primarily will contain bass information. I use this method on a daily basis. If I have a piano interfering with my 808 I will throw a high-pass (low-cut) filter on my piano. Sweep it up until I hear that it has obviously affected the sound of the piano and then draw it back ever so slightly. Another great example is a brass section interfering with a kick or 808. To fix this, I would add an EQ effect to the Brass channel. Add a Low-Cut Filter. Sweep the filter until I hear that it has affected the brass signal ( it will begin to sound thin when you have gone too far) then draw the filter back maybe 20-30 hz. This trick can work wonders to fix a muddy mix. If you choose to put a Low-Cut filter on every track besides the bass instruments you can achieve a very clear mix quickly and also make tons of room for the bass, kick, and 808. But you must use this trick sparingly. Too much cutting of the low frequencies will give you a very thin mix, which can sound just as bad as a muddy mix. Below I have posted a picture of what a High-Pass(Low-Cut) filter looks like on an EQ plugin. I have also posted simple steps to add and correctly set a Low-Cut filter.
How to clean up a mix using a Low-Cut (High-Pass) filter:
1. Listen to the mix and decide if it is muddy.
2. If the mix is muddy, find the instruments that are occupying the lower frequencies.
3. Look at each and every one of these instruments and determine which ones do NOT need to occupy the lower frequencies.
4. Add an EQ plugin to each instrument channel that has unnecessary low frequency information.
5. Add a Low-Cut (High-Pass) filter to those instruments.
6. Sweep the filter’s frequency (NOT in Solo mode)* until you have removed the unnecessary frequencies but left the important ones untouched.
* The reason why it is so important to sweep the filter with all other instruments playing is because sweeping the filter in solo mode can be very deceiving. You may feel that you have removed way too much from an instrument in solo mode but then when you hear it in the context of the mix it seems unaffected. This is because other instruments are occupying that space you just removed so it feels as if there is still plenty of information in the space when played in the context of the mix.
Below you will see and image of an EQ plugin using a High-Pass (Low-Cut) filter.
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