A tip that I think will really help out a lot of up and coming producers is to be aware of and try to keep a wide dynamic range in your music. Dynamic range is the difference between the quietest and loudest part of a song at any one particular point. There are lots of technical explanations out there for you if you’re interested – a great source of information is http://turnmeup.org/ A good basic gist of it is that when you slam a bunch of different tracks in a song to be as loud as possible using limiters or compressors you decrease the song’s dynamic range and in turn make it sound “crushed” and distorted. Don’t believe me? Add a compressor to all the tracks a test song and set a gain boost of 20db and then add a hard limiter to each that won’t allow anything to get above 0db (clip). Press play and listen. Nothing’s technically clipping but it sure sounds distorted and awful! That’s an extreme version of poor dynamic range but hopefully now you grasp the concept. Obviously no one really mixes to this extreme (I hope!) but in the quest for loudness using gain, compression, and limitation we gradually shrink and degrade our dynamic range.
I used to fall victim to the loudness wars all the time until a remix I did got sent back from mastering with a polite “this sounds awful” attached. I was perplexed as I hadn’t heard of dynamic range before. After talking with the mastering engineer and listening to what he pointed out I could hear that parts of the song actually sounded distorted when I listened closely! I downloaded the free TT Dynamic Range Meter to help me monitor my mixing (put it on your master track) and threw all my faders to -inf. I then slowly brought up each track or group in order of importance while keeping an eye on the meter, softening compression, and avoiding limiters expect for those occasional peaks that you want to control. I highly recommend this exercise as it teaches you to add what you want to hear instead of taking a jumble of X tracks and trying to listen to and level them all at the same time. The goal should not be to have your master track as close to the 0db ceiling at all times but rather to dance the dance if you will. Avoid clipping/limiting, have a nice dynamic range, and keep some loudness to your mix while leaving room for mastering. To me, mastering (whether I’m doing it myself or outsourcing) is where a lot of gain and loudness is established. We don’t want to go through recording and mixing everything dynamically only to have the mastering process squash the mix so it also falls into that dance.
Try adding a dynamic range meter to your master track, easy on the compression, and careful of those limiters. You should hear more space, clarity, and dynamics in your mixes with practice! I know that my mixing has improved 10 fold since this revelation and I hope this helps your mixing as well!