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10 Ways To More Professional GarageBand Mixes

August 1, 2009
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Although I’m an unrepentant punk rocker who digs making any kind of less-than-high-quality studio gear work for just about any kind of project, I’ll be the first to admit that Apple’s GarageBand is not exactly a professional DAW. However, I decided to use GarageBand to record and mix all the tracks for the Ol’ Cheeky Bastards upcoming acoustic split CD (with Lewis the Swan) on Rotten Eggs Records in my home office, using just an iMac, an M-Audio FireWire 410, M-Audio monitors, a Shure SM58 dynamic mic, and an M-Audio Luna condenser. When it got to the mix sessions, here is how I tried to keep the tracks sounding as professional and outright slammin’ as possible.

Embrace Limitations

I didn’t have a great room, audiophile preamps, or expensive mics, and, quite frankly, none of that worried me. I just got to work and made sure everything I recorded—vocals, acoustic guitars, cajon, Irish whistle, bohdran, bass, bagpipes, etc.—was clean and quiet. EQ publishes tons of data on how to record great tracks in home-studio environments, so do your homework and put your shoulder to the wheel. Why am I talking about tracking in an article on mixing? Well, just make this your mantra, and you’ll understand: “Crap in, crap out.”

Everything In Its Place

Arranging your GarageBand tracks in some kind of natural flow helps keep your focus intact. I label everything explicitly (“2nd chorus gtr,” “Main lead vox,” “Vox fix verse 1,” etc.), and arrange rhythm tracks, guitars, lead vocals, background vocals, and so on all together in their “family” groups. I hate searching for tracks during a mix.

Fix Before the Mix

Plan a few “fix” sessions where all tracks are scrupulously scrubbed and edited before you sit down for the final mix. When you mix, your sole attention should be on arranging all the final tracks into a cohesive and kick-ass whole.

Mix As You Go

I like to start crafting the final mix from the first session. The more the tracks sound like a record, the more energized your overdubs will be, and the mix session will be far less angst-filled because you’re already close to done.

No Go Solo

Avoid soloing individual tracks when tweaking sounds. In the end, everything must co-exist together, so isolating tracks too much may put you on the road to ruin.

Optimize Monitoring

Ensure you’re hearing everything as accurately as possible—despite the sonic idiosyncrasies of your room—by sitting right between your two monitors at a distance of no more than a yard. Avoid putting papers, books, and whiskey glasses in front of the speakers.

Don’t Go Crazy

GarageBand has some very useable effects, but if you use them too much, or make everything too wet, your mixes will sound as amateurish as a crap ventriloquist on America’s Got Talent. Pick your spots—you don’t have to bathe every track in reverb, chorus, delay, and compression.

And Speaking of Compression . . .

If your tracks are to be mastered elsewhere you want to leave some dynamic range for the mastering engineer to process. In other words, don’t compress the crap out of every track so that the mix sounds as if it was squashed down to mulch. And listen for any pumping and breathing that betrays bad compression technique.

Watch Levels

GarageBand isn’t very tolerant of slamming the meters. If you hit the red, back down the master volume or your mixes may end up with unwanted audio artifacts.

You Are the World

As you can easily switch between iTunes and GarageBand, you have an excellent way of referencing your GarageBand mix to your favorite songs. Listen critically, and assess the sound of your mix against the pros. Is your mix muddy or too thin? Is the vocal too loud or too soft? Don’t mix in a vacuum like some know-it-all schmuck—pit your sonic spectrum against the big boys and girls, and take note of its strengths and weaknesses.

Do Test Mixes

If you mix from GarageBand to iTunes, you may discover some track relationships changing during the conversion process. Vocals may be louder than you thought, for example. A few test passes—and the resulting adjustments to the GarageBand tracks—will ensure your masters sound the way you want them to.

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