When you mix your music you can either elevate your original ideas to greatness… or destroy them. This is MusicTech’s Essential Guide to mixing. Make sure your tunes take that upward journey, every time…
This essential guide is about one of the most important aspects of music production, if not the most important. It’s the part of music-making where all of your ideas come together so that they can stand up and be counted.
Conversely, if you don’t know what you’re doing they could just as easily fall by the wayside in a crashing pile marked ‘Oh, if only…’.
We’re talking about the mix, that part of music-making where you balance levels, EQ, add effects, automate, route things to other things and even arrange your tune. So we’re dedicating an entire feature to this complicated topic and we’ll touch upon all of the processes above as we create our own mix of words… on mixing.
A standalone process?
The reality of mixing is that it’s not necessarily a singular part of music production that you can definitively say, ‘It starts here and ends there’.
The actual process very often starts when you get a bunch of ideas together over a few tracks, cycling around over a few bars in your DAW.
And it doesn’t really end until you have a complete song ready to master – a process that in itself could throw you back into mixing if you haven’t done it properly (and a process that we’ll dedicate a future feature to as well).
So in reality, mixing can start when you take your original ideas – audio (vocals, guitars etc) or MIDI parts – and then start throwing them around in an arrangement, and you’ll probably find yourself tweaking and mixing as you go and that really is no problem.
So what are the basics of mixing? Really it’s to make sure that every part of your song shines through and, if it doesn’t, to ask yourself whether it should be there in the first place.
The first part in the mix process is adjusting volume levels, making subtle changes in level, and reducing certain parts gently so that others stand out.
Using automation, you can record these movements, gradually fading up some drums, for example, or pulling back a guitar so that a vocal stands out during a verse.
You might make mistakes as you record your volume movements, but automation allows you to go back and edit or fix any mistakes – another beauty of using modern DAWs (digital audio workstations).
During the level adjusting process it’s important to keep everything pulled back to a reasonable level so that you are not fatiguing your ears, and also so that no channels are clipping and distorting. Making sure that all levels peak at -6dB with the output at 0dB is a good practice.
Muting and solo-ing tracks is a quick way of referencing how well individual tracks sound on their own or grouped. The mute button silences a track while the solo button lets you hear one on its own so you can quickly check how it sounds both in and out of a mix.
Panning is simply adjusting the stereo (or surround) position of each track so that the spread of instruments works across the left to right stereo field.
Generally your bassier parts stay central here and other parts can spread out from that. Some suggest imagining a band playing on stage and to mix and pan your instruments in a way that reflects the band’s position, to give your mix a live feel.
So you would, for example, have your lead vocal central, backing vocals slightly left or right, lead guitar the opposite and so on. A good rule of panning is to use it to separate clashing sounds but, ultimately (as is so often the case with music production), if it sounds good, then it is good.
Tutorial: 6 Quick Steps to a Better Mix
1. Check your levels. First listen out for distortion by soloing tracks and then check the levels by eye. If anything is hitting red, reduce it. Try pulling volumes down rather than boosting at this stage.
2. Create groups or submixes of certain elements. Group all of your percussion sounds into one block so you can move them or process them as one and reduce or boost levels with just one fader.
3. Now to panning. Centralise your bass and kick sounds and experiment with the positions of your other instruments – nothing too extreme just yet. Other elements like the main vocal can stay central too.
4. Automate where you can as this will help you add some vibrancy and movement to a dull mix. This differs according to the DAW you use so we have a separate step-by-step over the page.
5. EQ! So you’ve done your panning, now think of the depth of your mix and listen to it as a set of frequencies. Try and fill out the dynamic range with full lows, clear mids and shimmering highs.
6. Declutter! Now you should have you mix in its entirety, but is it too much? Be honest, does it really need three bass lines and five lead lines? Step back and ask yourself, ‘Is less more?’
Up next is EQ-ing, a hugely important process. Where panning gives your mix some left-right girth, EQ-ing can extend its impact into two further dimensions: height (along with volume) and depth. With panning you might want to make sure that your stereo spread is filled.
EQ-ing allows you to fill the frequency spectrum, to create a wide dynamic range so that your basses are deep and defined and your trebles are light and shimmering. Like panning you might also use EQ-ing to move certain parts that clash away from one another, by either boosting or cutting.
We touched on automation earlier when talking about volume, but it can also be used with EQ and panning. You could record something panning left to right, for example.
Automation is also used in the next part of the mix process: adding effects. Here you can add both audio and MIDI effects to your tracks via auxiliary sends.
This can be very creative and change your sound well beyond its original timbre. More likely, you should be a bit more subtle with effects, perhaps adding a small amount of reverb to a vocal to give it more of a live feel.
Other common mix effects include preamps to give your recording more warmth, or compressors to help even out certain song parts to give them a consistent volume. Delays add echoes to sounds and can be used on any instrument and vocals but, again, tread carefully – less can so often be more.
Reverbs offer that shimmer and the reflective quality of particular room sizes, and convolution reverbs can go as far as to modelling particular halls, classic spaces or studio live rooms to give a recording a special sound, as though it was captured in a famous place. Gates and limiters literally limit a sound so gates will be used to cut off or reduce noise, for example.
Other less subtle effects – and not ones you will always need to use – include modulation effects that can fatten or swirl up a sound; amp/pedal simulators and distortion units that can add dirty grunge attributes to a guitar sound; and finally pitch-based effects that can correct bad vocals or add extreme auto-tune (still commonly used in current music production).
Mixing basics: Anatomy of a software mixer
A) Channel faders
Determines the volume of a track or channels as in the individual parts (piano, vocals, drums) within a tune – your main mix control.
Controls the left-right position of any channel, the idea being your mix sounds beautifully wide when played back over two speakers.
C) Track types
DAWs have several mixer channel types including recorded audio, MIDI, sub mix, and input and output channels.
D) Track name/type
Of these track types, audio and MIDI (in this case blue and green) are the most common. Here, the vocals and guitars are audio.
E) Channel EQ
Where you can give your mix more depth and dynamic by adjusting the frequency (bass, mid and treble) of each part.
Both audio and MIDI effects can be subtle or highly creative in the mixing process and should generally be used with restraint.
G) Mute and solo
Here you can Mute (M) individual tracks to silence them or Solo (S) one to hear it on its own – useful as a quick reference tool.
H) Stereo out
This is the end part, where all of your tracks are mixed into a stereo pair that goes out to your speakers via an interface.
Other mix terms
Those are the main mix processes but you’re bound to hear other phrases and terms as you increase your understanding of the mix process.
The submix is, if you like, a mini mix that exists within your main mix, and one that combines several similar sources and sends them all to a single location.
With drums you might have individual recordings of the different drum parts that you want to mix together to a stereo track, for example, or you might want to send several backing vocals through the same effects.
The combined sub mix channels are often referred to as a subgroup and you can, if you wish, control all of the levels of a subgroup with one fader making adjusting the volume of a lot of backing vocals, for example, much easier.
The mix bus is really a broader term for the same thing as it refers to any way to route a signal or set of signals somewhere else so includes subgroups, aux sends and the main stereo mix.
A typical example is a bus being used to send a headphone mix to another output for the artist to monitor with when being recorded.
Having multiple mix buses (or busses) simply means greater routing flexibility because more sets of channels can be ‘bussed’ together making a variety of tasks that much easier to control with less faders.
Tutorial: How Automation Can Help Your Mix
1. With automation you can record any mix movements and edit them later, or you can draw movements in manually. In Logic, select the type of automation you’d like from the Mix drop down menu.
2. One of the most common uses of automation is to fade in or out a particular track, so here is a drum loop fading in. Simply set one automation point at zero and drag the other up to max over several bars.
3. You can easily fade in and out other parameters too. In Live go to the Arrangement view and click the track you want to automate and then hit the A key to open automation.
4. On the drop down menu you can see the parameters that you can automate. Here we’ve drawn in some panning going to the extreme left and right (we wouldn’t recommend this extreme – it’s just to demonstrate!).
5. You can even go so far as to record movements on instruments to really alter your mix. Here’s Reason where the mod wheel of a synth has been recorded (shown green) and the automation automatically appears in a lane.
6. You can double click a part in Reason and then go to the Automation menu to get a list of other parameters available to automate, and then draw in the movement yourself.
Mixing basics: The anatomy of a hardware mixer/interface
Old desks could have a preamp on every channel. Newer ones do too, but you only need one set of controls for each channel.
B) EQ section
And that’s the same for EQ. These controls work for a parametric EQ that can apply different EQ to every one of the 16 mix channels.
C) Gate and compressor
These are great for cutting out any hiss from input channels and evening out volumes of incoming source signals.
D) Main output levels
This shows all of the mixed input channels as one stereo output that goes to your studio monitors as the final mix.
E) Channel select
You’ll very often need to select a channel on new mixers using a separate button in order to edit its other parameters such as EQ and effects.
About the only thing that is the same on a modern mixer as an old one is the volume fader although digital mixers can be set up to control software mixers too.
G) Channel strips
Channels strips don’t include the EQ and preamp as found on older mixers – it’s now all done in one section as described in captions A and B.
H) Total (mix) recall
Your mix will be back! With digital mixers it’s easy to save mix settings such as EQ and volume and recall these complete settings in an instant.
Hardware or software?
Back in the heyday of recording, studios would be fitted out with massive mixing desks with multiple channels for recording musicians and then mixing the results down to stereo tape.
As computer power increased, people started enjoying the advantages of digital or ‘in-the-box’ mixing, including automation and mix recall where all of the settings (fader, pan etc) of a particular mix can be recalled in an instant.
Computers now often need interfaces with multiple inputs so that many instruments can be recorded simultaneously and then mixed afterwards.
Many of today’s mixing desks will often resemble those classic hardware desks but are very different beasts, often doubling as computer interfaces and DAW controllers (see an example of that above).
To further muddy the water, the classic mixing desks of those halcyon studio days had a certain vintage ‘sound’ that has become very much in demand.
This would be the sound that the mixer imparted on the audio being mixed and recorded by way of its channel strips.
This is just a term for the strip on the mixer that you plug an instrument or mic into that has the EQ and preamp, the components responsible for a mixing desk’s sonic character.
Today’s recording studios therefore might have a DAW sitting at the centre of the room for recording and mixing but hardware or software preamps and EQs to get a warmer or richer sound. It’s the best of both worlds, combining elements of the old and new if you like, the advantages of digital, with the sound and texture of vintage analogue gear.
In our tutorials we also reveal some mix tips and automation tricks. Hopefully now you’ll mix better and smarter!