Sorry for the terrible title everyone.
I wrote this in reply to a client wondering about all this sort of thing. Standard disclaimer: it’s not perfect but it can help a lot.
“I know everyone mixes into compression these days but I’m not much of a fan. Main reason being, everyone always overdoes it (100% of the time), and then the mix is painted into a corner. The compression holds everything in place, and fixes the balances between elements – the cake is baked. Makes things much harder in mastering unless the mix is absolutely spot on.
Example: Mix has too much bass, and the mix is compressed. Therefore the signal will duck hard and (depending on compression used) have some low level distortion/harmonics. Now when Poor Old Bob comes to master it, he has to cut the bass to the right level, which reveals all the harmonic distortion. He also has to try to restore dynamics, which will also tend to bring out more detail, ie distortion. Woo.
Similar stuff happens with mixing into limiting. People do that forgetting that now, the limiter is a part of their mix. It changes all the decisions they make. Then when they take the limiter off ‘to help’, all hell breaks loose and it is a completely different mix. I thought this might be happening with your stuff.
That’s not to say that a master buss comp and/or limiter can’t be useful for mixing. You just have to use them intelligently. The basic idea is ‘clobber the arse off things but set it for unity gain; mix for a while with it on, mix for a while with it off, mix for a while with it on, mix for a while with it off’ etc.
So I’d suggest setting a bog standard dead boring compressor (no HPF in sidechain!) something like this: Threshold -30dB, attack at minimum, release at ~400ms+, ratio to whatever it takes to get around 20dB of gain reduction. So, squashed to hell. Then turn the make up gain up in order to restore it to unity (perceived) gain. So, when you bypass/unbypass, it sounds the same level. Save that as a preset (‘mix checker’ or whatever).
Similar with limiting. Most limiters have a handle that lets you reduce the output while increasing the gain / lowering the threshold. Set up something like 10 to 12dB of gain reduction, a release of something like 50-100ms (so it doesn’t all just distort). Obviously limiters vary wildly in how they handle things, but you get the idea. Bash it 🙂 Bypass a few times and make sure it’s the ‘same’ level, save it as a preset.
Now here’s the deal: your aim is to get it so that when you switch one of these things in, you almost don’t notice it. You want the mix to hold up and sound f#cking amazing both with AND without all the squashing. So mix with one of them on for a bit, mix with it off for a bit. And so on. Use it just for quick checks every now and then – whatever.
This acts a bit like a ‘magnifying glass’ for your mix; it will show you VERY fast what’s causing you trouble. If your bass is totally out of whack then all the sound will disappear. Too much high end and it will scream at you. And crucially, your mix is not dependent on it to sound good. Your mix is now ready for anything, without being painted into a corner and tied by compression. It can take abuse if it needs it, but it isn’t completely inflexible. It’s going to be close to a good balance, even if it’s not perfect.
This ‘trick’ isn’t perfect – very rhythmic basslines can make it tricky but you learn to listen around the pumping, for example. But it can get you a long way to getting a decent balance in pretty much all cases, especially as you get more familiar with it. “