I’m feeling a little punchy today, so rather than stretching my thoughts out, I’m just gonna hit you hard and fast with a bunch of stuff.
Stop listening to sounds, and start feeling the overall groove. If you get the groove locked down in a mix, you're more than halfway there. From that point on, your job is to move the spotlight around in ways that keep the listener interested, that build up and release tension, that establish a direct connection between the listener's nervous system and what's happening now. Even better, they should always feel the energy of song changing before any big changes happen; in that way, you lock them into the now and lure them into what will happen next.
When it comes to excavating the groove, it's less about overall balances and more about how the bottom end locks together and moves forward and back, forward and back. Or side to side. Use your arms and hands to ‘conduct’ the groove, visualize the arc and the swing. Then make sure the elements are moving along that same energetic axis, breathing with the same motion.
Get the kick and bass to move like one unit. From there, snare and hats and percussion can create countermovement, they're the 'up' to the low end's 'down'. Or ‘out’ to the bottom end’s ‘in’.
If you’re the kind of mixer who likes to get a killer groove and vibe happening with just bass and drums (and lead vocal if it’s got vocals), your job is then to sandwich the other elements in and around that foundation without interfering with the primary movement. If you like to throw all the faders up and sort things out (my preference these days), then it’s more about finding the (usually 3) elements that define the groove most powerfully and getting them to hit in sync.
The key is to transfer the movement of the groove into the listener's body; that can be done with a bare 808 beat and it can be done with a wall of sound.
But if you’ve got the time, and the arrangement, I recommend shaving away the edges of the sounds and revealing the spaces in between everything, using faders, panning, compression (attacks are your best friend here), reverb/delay, and (as a court of last resort) eq.
From that point on it's about accents, highlights, splashes, moments.
Speaking of, the importance of transitions cannot be overstated. Every single transition in your mix needs to be a unique, deliberately crafted, beautifully executed slice of drama. Exiting the intro into the verse’s vocal spotlight; the mid-verse splash; the verse to pre-chorus lift; pre-chorus to chorus payoff... hopefully there’s more. Usually there are more. If there aren’t more, manufacture them, that’s what fader throws and automation exist for.
Lastly, do not play it safe, not for one second. Mixing is the craft of creating a great set of balances, then artfully *unbalancing* everything. At any moment in time, something in the mix should be skewed, even if only slightly. At least 2 or 3 times in every song, something should be skewed dramatically. Push something far enough that sideline critics on internet forums will complain about. Fuck them, they are not your tribe. Your real tribe will embrace you regardless of what you do, so have no fear. Or rather, let your fears be what they need to be, just don’t let them make the decisions.
I would rather have people be offended than bored. I would rather have them hate my work than not have any reaction to it. Because for every person who hates, there’ll be one who loves it. Call it yin and yang, call it matter and anti-matter, whatever… it’s real and it’s universal. So if you’re worried that that synth sound you love is going to annoy some people, excellent! You WANT it to annoy some people, because it will endear you to others. That’s how you get followers, fans for life.
I’m not advising you to intentionally do whatever you can to annoy people; that can work, but not for long, even your fans will eventually get bored. I'm just saying if you want to be adored, you have to be willing to be reviled.
Love and hate. You can’t have one without the other, so stop trying.
Gregory Scott - UBK