We all know that feeling. You lay down a bunch of tracks and you start mixing and you just can't seem to find the right place for each track to sit in the mix. You roll off the bass on your kick drum, you taper off the high end from your snares, you boost and cut certain frequencies of your vocal tracks, but it seems that no matter how much you tweak, you just can't get everything to fit properly...
Here's the problem: There's not enough room in your mix.
Here' s the solution: You need to remove tracks entirely from your mix.
It's called the 100% rule because once you hit the threshold of your mix you hit a wall and there's no way to get around it unless you remove something from your mix.
The truth is, you don't need to have 100 tracks in order to have a professional mix. Usually, once you start hitting the "20 track" mark, your mix will start to become overwhelming, no matter how much you tweak your tracks. Then, your computer eventually slows down, your ears become fatigued from listening to so much noise and then inevitably you end up frustrated because you put so much effort into recording that track and mixing it that you may even want to quit the whole project altogether. However, I urge you, don't give up!
So what do I remove?
Again, the easiest thing to do is to start removing something, and that something is your tracks. You'd be surprised how much room you have to work with when you start removing stuff. Another option is to focus on lowering the levels/volume of your tracks and emphasize the volume of certain tracks over others. Not every track needs to be the same volume as the next. Lead Vocals or lead instruments tend to be the loudest part of each song, although you can technically do whatever you want (which is one of the best parts of producing your own music!). I also recommend cutting frequencies instead of always boosting. For example, try cutting off the low end of instruments that aren't necessarily "bass" like instruments, like the vocals, and the acoustic/electric guitar because there is no need for those instruments to have low end if your bass guitar or bass drum or bass synthesizer is already taking up that space. You can also try lowering harsh frequencies in the mid (500Hz-2K) to high (4K-6K) frequency spectrum ranges. For example, you know that really obnoxiously loud hip-hop clap and snare/cymbal hit that is so much louder than everything else in the mix and it makes you feel like your ears are going to bleed when listening to the song on headphones? Yah, turn those unbearable frequencies down, or take an "eq" and move the emphasis somewhere else in the mix. Sometimes you can't tell if your mix is harsh when listening to speakers and I prefer mixing with headphones because headphones aren't limited by the room you are producing in, like how studio monitors are (That will be a topic for another day! :]).
What else can I do to find space in my mix?
One other quick technique is "panning" your mixes. This is probably a little bit more obvious, but make sure you are panning your instruments to a place where it makes sense. Don't have all the bass on one side, such as 100% to the left, and then not have any bass on the other side, which would be all the way to 100% of the right. When I first started producing and was working on my first ever album "Fragile Beginnings", I don't recall using panning at all for the first few songs. Not because I didn't want to, but because I didn't know what I was doing out of ignorance and being a sheer beginner. Ever since I started experimenting with it, I have been trying to find ways to balance the tracks as equally as possible. One way is to duplicate the low bass guitar/synthesizer track and then pan one track hard left and then pan the other hard right and leave the 50% left and 50% right sections for rhythm tracks and then leave the 25% left and 25% right sections for lead instruments and finally pan the lead vocal or most important instrument straight up the middle (or essentially at 0%).
The point is to find the best space for each instrument so you can take advantage of all the room in the mix that you have at your disposal. If you find that even after equalizing, panning, lowering the volume of your tracks, and compressing (I'll cover that in a different post) still doesn't make enough room for your mix, then its time to remove a track from your mix in order to make that room.
So what is the whole point of this 100% rule?
I'll finish by saying that it's better to have less going on in your song that makes instruments and vocals easy to understand and pleasant to listen to, then to have a song which sounds like too much is going on and makes it difficult to hear everything clearly and is causing your master fader to distort because it's clipping (or in other words, going into the red zone, which I'll also make a topic on that) and is making your song too harsh or too boomy and puts off your listeners because those things are very distracting.